Sunday, April 28, 2013

Birthday Surprise Trip - Day 2

Shira promised me that for my Birthday we'd be hiking in the mountains. Not only that, but the hike would be of such epic proportions that she wanted me to bring some serious gear along, including a sleeping bag and stove in case we needed to spend the night in frigid conditions. This all sounded delightful to me, but I couldn't imagine where she was going to find snow capped mountains near Northern Virginia this time of the year.

Part of the mystery was solved last Thursday night when she informed that we weren't hiking on Friday as planned, instead we were flying somewhere Friday and hiking on Saturday. That made a winter hike seem a lot more plausible.

The first leg of our trip took us to Boston, which provided us with a delightful stop to visit my nieces and nephew. But looking around, I didn't see any mountains surrounding Boston. So I was still clueless as to what Shira had planned.

We got in the car and drove for about 3 hours. Eventually we crossed the border from Massachusetts to New Hampshire. I racked my brain, yet I couldn't for the life of me figure out what epic hike was in New Hampshire. Finally we pulled into a cute little hotel in Lincoln, New Hampshire. We did a little unpacking and then walked down the road to a pizza place where I was eagerly awaiting Shira's explanation of how she picked this place for our hike.

Once seated, and with a pizza on the way, she refused to answer my question. Instead, she handed me a trail overview for Franconia Notch State Park and told me to read it. When I finally did, the trip became absolutely clear. To understand the relevance of the trip, you have to appreciate that one of the items on my Bucket List is to hike a section of the Appalachian Trail in every state that it runs through. So far I've checked off Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. With this trip, I'd be getting to check off New Hampshire from my list. What a wonderful gift for my 37th birthday!

Shira pulled out a map of the area and we started planning the details of the next day's hike. The map represented only 6 x 8 miles, yet the trail descriptions made each trail sound more daunting than the next. Shira had also checked ahead of time, and the park said that some of the trails were probably covered with snow and mud. In a rare moment of sanity, I suggested we do a relatively short hike first, and then if we had time, we'd add on to it.

We planned to do the following: Start in Lafayette Campground, hike Lonesome Lake Trail to Cascade Brook Trail, then finish up the circuit with the Pemi Trail. On the map this trip looks to take up about 6-7 miles. A piece of cake.

We started our hike at Lafayette Campground and I made sure to snap a photo of a small patch of snow still on the ground. How cute, I thought, that there was still some snow around. The trail started climbing pretty quickly, but we were eager and fresh, so this hardly bothered us.

After a bit of hiking we found ourselves dodging patches of snow and ice. Then a bit further up, we found that we had run out of dirt to walk on, and were exclusively climbing up snow, ice and the occasional rock. Shira found herself heavily relying on her hiking poles, and I found myself grabbing on to roots and trees; anything to steady myself.

The snow had officially turned from a novelty into an icy hazard.

After about a 1000ft climb in elevation we found ourselves on flatter trail. The ice had been replaced with packed snow and the going was easier. It was then that we met a hearty New Hampshire Hiker, trudging through the snow in shorts and a t-shirt. We said our hellos and he looked at our feet. Yeah, he explained, without snow shoes, the trail up ahead may be impassible. He was also wearing a pair of trail crampons (spikes attached to his boots). I suddenly felt completely unprepared. We pushed on.

As we walked along the packed snow I wondered how many inches deep it was. And then I took a step and sunk 2 feet into the snow. Oh, that's how deep it was. Holy crap. We made our way down the Cascade Brook trail, and thankfully the trail was a relatively gentle grade. And other than the occasional misstep into knee high snow, it was actually outstanding hiking.

As we descended into lower elevations the snow thinned out, and my fears of needing crampons and an ice ax to get off this mountain passed. Well, I figured, we were through the tricky part of the hike and it would be easy going from here. Yeah, not quite.

All along the trail we'd seen signs mentioning that the Cascade Bridge was out and that crossing the brook may not be possible. We finally arrived at the brook, which looked a whole lot more like a raging river than a brook, and started figuring out how we were going to get to the other side. There were quite a number of boulders to hop on, but none of them seemed to be a straight line to the other side. Finally, after 20 minutes of planning we figured out a route. And sure enough, a few hops later, we were on the other side.

Whew. We had survived the ice which required crampons, the snow which called for snowshoes and crossed a raging river with the bridge out. I was feeling pretty good. It was time to just relax and enjoy this leisurely hike.

With about .2 miles to go to the Pemi Trail turn off we encountered Whitehouse Brook. Again, think fast moving river, not gentle brook. Surely we weren't expected to cross this sucker, were we? Then Shira spotted a tree in the middle of the brook with white water flowing around it that had a white AT trail blaze. We were going across. From a distance, crossing these brooks looks fairly easy. But as you approach the perfect place to cross you realize that the rocks are just a little too far apart, or perhaps they're wet and slippery. Finding the right path across is like chasing down mirage after mirage. And when you do decide on a place to cross the secret is to do so with absolute confidence. If you pause or over think the crossing process, you're just asking to lose your balance and take a swim.

In the end we crossed the Whitehouse Brook with relative ease. We were just a fraction of a mile from the Pemi trail, which promised a nice flat 2 mile walk back to our car. Easy, right?

And the Pemi trail did start off easy enough. It hugged the river, which made for some terrific views. The trail was muddy thanks to all the snow run off, but in the scheme of things, mud was the least of our concerns. And then we lost site of the trail. Where did it go?

As I scouted around I realized that the next blue blaze was on the opposite side of Whitehouse Brook, yes the very same brook we had just crossed. The water looked to be about 5 feet deep at the point at which the trail met the brook. That wasn't a trail crossing, that was a swimming hole. So we started our long trek up the bank of the river looking for a place where we could cross. We found various possibilities, but none of them looked like they were going to be remotely safe. Finally we found a spot where the water was relatively shallow, about 3-4 inches deep. Shira and I linked arms and stepped into the fast moving water. As we expected, the current was using all its effort to get us down stream, but we managed to make it across. Our feet soaked were with 33 degree water, but we were safely on the other side.

We continued on our way.

For the rest of the hike, the Pemi trail behaved itself. It was relatively flat, and to our shock, provided a few small bridges to traverse some tiny little streams. Someone had their priorities a little out of whack.

Further up the Pemi Trail we found "The Basin" where we stood in the same spot Henry David Thoreau had. I wonder if his boots were soaked from a stream crossing, too?

After about 10 hours of hiking, we finally made it back to our car. What an absolutely thrilling hike. I felt that I could confidently check off "New Hampshire" from my AT checklist. And Shira earned a Wife-Of-The-Year Award for enduring this trip with such skill and confidence, complaining not a single time.

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