I just moved my family back east from Denver this past summer and have been itching to take on a good hike all fall. For one reason or another, I haven’t been able to make it up there but my wife and daughter are back in Denver (oddly enough) and that would give me the opportunity to play hooky and go climb. I was thinking that Colorado’s 14’ers would be tough to top and that this hike would be less fulfilling in many ways. Silly me.
I committed the map to memory and started up the trail at 10AM. No big deal, there’s the ridge and the trails in and out. I have daylight until 4:30 so I should be fine. Ten minutes into the hike, I made my first wrong turn. The bridge over the stream looked so enticing and Falling Waters sounded familiar so I made the right turn. The Bridle Path, which is the trail I wanted, was a little obscured at the turn. It didn’t occur to me that I was now hiking my loop in reverse as I looked in awe at the rushing water. I hadn’t seen that much water in all six years I spent in Colorado.
The snow started to cool off the air temperature after about an hour and a half. I came across a lone hiker going in the opposite direction. At this point, I was expecting to come up on the AMC hut as my first landmark and asked him how much further it was. He seemed confused by my question. Our less than productive conversation created concern. Was I the one off track here?
Knowing the relative distances of the hike from the map and setting approximate times I was well beyond my target for the hut but still not at the mandatory “turn around or run out of daylight” mark. Eventually, I reached the ridge and saw the sign with the arrow for Mt. Lafayette pointing to the left. Funny, that arrow should be pointing to the right! Map, where’s the map? I saw it clearly on the passenger seat of my car. Nice!
From memory, I now know that I’ve taken a wrong turn and I am hiking my desired loop in reverse. So that’s why my conversation seemed to strange. I begin to recalculate all of the timing from memory and checked my watch. About 1:30 now, three and a half hours in. I’m a little less than one third of the way but I’ve accomplished most of the elevation gain so the rest of the trip should be at a faster pace. I also recall that my brief discussion yielded one significant clue – the trek on the way out on the Bridle Path would have much less snow on it. Better to take the snow on the way up rather than increase the chance of post holing as gravity takes you downhill.
On the ridge trail heading north now, the wind is stiff and the visibility not more than 30 or 40 feet. I pick up the pace now that I’m on the knife edge (although I can’t see either side). Still recalculating my times as I’m hiking the wind is getting distracting and I’m seeking shelter behind the larger cairns. My pack is acting as a sail and I’m contemplating taking it off and stashing it under a rock to come back and retrieve it another time. Screw that, I’ve got a brand new pair of snowshoes lashed back there that I haven’t even used! Next thought - if the wind does blow me clean off the ridge, how far will it take me and, once I hit, will I be able to self arrest before flying off a face? In the fog, Clint Eastwood’s line from the Enforcer “CLEAN OFF” keeps echoing in my mind.
The wind is strong enough that I’m walking at a pronounced angle to the ground. At times, I’m very far over. So much so that when the wind gusts and recedes, I’m falling in all directions. When the wind is coming from the left, I’m leaning so far over to the left that my right shoulder is past my left foot. The wind lets up slightly and I stumble over to the left. On the snowpack and the talus, this is getting a little annoying. How far is that drop off over there to the right?
I know I’ve got 1.8 miles to Lafayette, which is the highest point on the hike, but my timing is all off. I’ve past the point where, if there is any question about being lost, I would turn around and hike out the way I came in. I’m continuing to press into the fog and wind.
About 2:15 I begin to get concerned. Most miraculously the clouds break for an instant and there is the hut, gleaming in a sunbeam, glorious as the Shire with seemingly a green glow. I just happened to be at a saddle, looking in that direction as the clouds parted for the first time that day. Thank you! A little further and the clouds break to give me a view of Lafayette, my final ascent of the loop, and now I know exactly what I’ve got left.
I’ve got one more turn to navigate - the left turn off of the Ridge Trail onto the Bridal Path. I know it will be a left hand turn. It should be somewhere near the hut but it may not be marked. If I miss it I will stay on the Ridge Trail and I know that leads to nowhere and I’m spending the night out there. Sure enough, there’s the trail sign but it’s so worn that you can’t read it. Left it is, down the ridge, trail following the slope properly. The trail is very clean of snow and my pace is quick. Still, I don’t know how far I have left and it’s getting cloudy. 3:30 now, it will be dark by 5. Did I remember my headlamp with an extra bulb and batteries (learned that lesson before) or is it in the car with the map? I reach that damned bridge. This is where I made the wrong turn on the way out. 10 minutes and I’m at the car by 4:15. Getting dark but not bad, about 45 minutes of daylight to spare. 20 minutes down the road on the way home and it starts raining.
A little more stressful than necessary but that’s hiking and climbing. Franconia is beautiful and every bit as difficult and rewarding as 14,000 foot peaks. The Notch is every bit as spectacular as the drive up I70 across the Continental Divide just a lot shorter. Nice to know I’ll be home in two hours.
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