It was nine degrees in the Lafayette Place parking lot and the car was getting blasted by wind. At a little past seven on a February morning, I had a good mind to retreat home to the warmth of my down comforter. Fortunately, common sense was in short supply.
In warmer months the Mt. Lafayette loop, an 8.8 mile round trek, is quite possibly the most popular hike in New England. In addition to 5,261-foot Mt. Lafayette, the route also encompasses 5,089-foot Mt. Lincoln and 4,761-foot Little Haystack Mountain via the Falling Waters, Franconia Ridge, Greenleaf and Old Bridle Path trails. The winter season also draws a good amount of foot traffic; however, it’s worth noting that with a significant portion of the loop above treeline and fully exposed to the elements, this isn’t a hike for the inexperienced. Or for that matter, the underdressed.
While most of New Hampshire suffered from snow anemia this winter, Franconia Notch appeared to be hoarding. Not convinced by the meaty snowbanks in the parking lot, I left my snowshoes in the car. This was a mistake. The trail was well packed for a good portion of the journey, but in the higher elevation the wind drifts were aplenty. The irony here being that I’d previously carried the snowshoes on my back hiking Mt. Adams and Mt. Washington this winter. Go figure.
Given the strong winds, I decided to ascend Mt. Lafayette via the Old Bridle Path in the hope this would put the gusts at my back on Franconia Ridge. In this regard, I chose wisely. Fortunately the air temperature rose into the mid twenties as the morning wore on; however, the winds didn’t subside. Quite the opposite, in fact. At one point the insulated tube from my Camelbak froze solid, threatening a premature end to the hike. This problem was solved by stuffing the reservoir into my shirt instead of running it from the pack.
A strong sideways wind made for a brutal trek from the Greenleaf Hut to the Lafayette summit. When I reached the top, a couple of hikers from Vermont that I’d met outside the hut were waiting for me to take the 1.6-mile jaunt across Franconia Ridge with them. With the heavy winds nearly knocking me off my feet in places, even with crampons on, I was grateful for this courtesy. When I thanked them, one of them shrugged it off and said, “If you fall up here, it’s not like we could do anything for you.” True, but at least someone would have known.
What really surprised me were the people we saw on the ridge who weren’t prepared. This isn’t exactly a spur-of-the-moment hike, and yet a couple of hikers were wearing jeans. They didn’t have any protection for their beat-red faces, either, and they were hiking into the wind. Hopefully they didn’t get frost bite, but I’d be shocked if this were the case. By comparison, they must have thought I was dressed for a moon landing.
A truly spectacular hike in all seasons, the one downfall to the Lafayette loop in the winter is the elements are often too harsh to really enjoy the landscape. It also didn’t help that my goggles kept freezing. What little I did see, though, was worth the effort. The hike down was a bonus reward. Once back under treeline the crampons came off and I had a blast boot-skiing the Falling Waters Trail.
The view of Cannon Mountain from the Old Bridle Path on Mt. Lafayette.
A cloud sweeps over the summit of Mt. Lafayette. In the foreground the Greenleaf Hut is boarded up for the winter.
Perfect timing. The cloud cover was clearing out just as I was starting the hike from the Greenleaf Hut to the Lafayette summit.
The final approach to the summit of Mt. Lafayette.
A quick photo opp on the summit of Mt. Lafayette, elevation 5,261 feet. Emphasis on quick. If I look fatter than normal, it’s the Camelbak stuffed under my shirt. Some of it, anyway. Mt. Washington is visible in the background.
There was more snow on the Franconia Ridge Trail than I expected. The view here is of Mt. Lafayette as seen from Mt. Lincoln.
Hikers on the Franconia Ridge Trail between Mt. Lincoln and Little Haystack Mountain. The trail continues on to Mt. Liberty and Mt. Flume in the background.