Spring Hiking in the Whites

I finally had another weekend with time to get out to hike.  It’s been mostly miserable for weather since I was last out two weeks ago.  Rivers have been roaring with the rain and melt water and they’re finally starting to subside.  Trail reports still indicate multiple feet of snow above 4,000 feet, but with the rain and temps eating away at the snow cover quickly, I headed out in the morning to cover the nearly 2.5 hour drive to Franconia, NH for my planned hike, as well as my alternate hike.

As part of my new outlook on hiking, I didn’t want to race the clock per se.  My daughter is not quite five yet, so if I leave before she gets up in the morning AND don’t get home until after bedtime, life gets less pleasant.  Therefore, I was less focused on the clock today, but still mindful of the overall timeline.  I was ready to leave the house a bit before 6:00 but I waited until she was up to say goodbye.  A 10 minute delay wasn’t going to create problems with the hike and would make for a much happier girl throughout the day.

My route there took me through Crawford Notch, and with all the water flowing from the rain and melting, I stopped on the way to the top of the notch to get pictures of the two waterfalls which are about 100 yards apart:  Silver Cascade and Flume Cascade

Silver Cascade; Crawford Notch, NH
Flume Cascade; Crawford Notch, NH

My plan was to hike Mount Kinsman Trail up to Bald Knob.  Depending on how I felt and also the weather and snow conditions, I had the option to hike up to North Kinsman and along the ridge to South Kinsman.  The goal two weeks ago was distance, with a bit of climbing.  Today’s goal was all about the climb.  Climbing to Bald Knob would give me 1,391 feet of elevation gain, while going all the way to North Kinsman would yield 3,182 feet of gain.

The trailhead is just south of Franconia, on Route 116 and there’s plenty of parking for a dozen or so vehicles.  There were two others there when I arrived.  There was no sign of snow and trail reports had been indicating that snowshoes weren’t very useful anymore, so I left my snowshoes in the back of the car today.  I attached my “spring” microspikes to my pack, as well as my hiking poles, and started out in fog and light drizzle.  For my microspikes, there really isn’t any difference between my “spring” spikes and my “winter” spikes.  Spring spikes take a beating on rocks and gravel and don’t stay sharp.  Once the snow starts to melt down to the ground, I swap over to the older “spring” pair.

Overall, my gear consisted of:  baseball cap, sunglasses, wicking T-shirt, Techwick medium weight shirt, medium weight long underwear (bottom), light weight smartwool socks and my Salomon waterproof backpacking boots.  In, or on, my pack were my fleece jacket, a winter hat, mid-weight winter gloves, glove liners, my spikes, my poles, and 3 liters of water, along with food and a pack saw for any blowdowns needing to be cleared.

The early trail is fairly easy and was dry and solid, despite the rain overnight and the current drizzle.  The trail began to get wetter and softer about a half mile in.  Around one mile I climbed into the cloud bank, as the fog appeared and got thicker.  After a bit of a climb, I started reaching the stream crossings.  One has a waterfall next to the trail.  The last major crossing has a spur path to a flume, but I’ve been down the spur before and it’s wet and slippery in summer, so I wasn’t about to try it in today’s weather.

Trail-side Waterfall, Mount Kinsman Trail; Easton, NH

Shortly after the spur path to the flume is where the Mount Kinsman Trail takes a hard left and the Bald Knob Spur goes to the right.  Judging how I felt, I decided to try North Kinsman and I would head over to Bald Knob on my return.  Up to this point, there hadn’t been any snow on the trail.  About 200 yards after the junction were the first small chunks of unmelted ice remaining from the winter’s monorail.  Within another quarter-mile, the monorail had become fairly consistent and too difficult to avoid, so I pulled my spikes off my pack and put them on my boots.

Rotting Monorail on Mount Kinsman Trail

The packed, solid portion of the monorail ranged from a foot wide in places, down to just a few inches in others.  It was very challenging to stay on the monorail throughout the climb up North Kinsman.  My poles often broke through the snow to the sides and I had to be careful not to rely on the poles too much for balance, or else I’d end up falling off the monorail when the poles broke through.

Up wasn’t a terrible problem.  It was a bit slow and tedious, making sure to stay on the packed monorail.  I ended up getting to an elevation of about 3,600 feet when my legs decided they were done.  It was a hard decision to turn around at that point.  I was only about a half mile from the summit, but I also had about 600 feet of gain to climb in that half mile.  I had already been slowing down during the climb and if I had pushed myself to reach the summit, I probably would have been very late getting home tonight.

Reading a bunch of AT blogs and Instagram posts, there are a bunch of “words of wisdom” that can be found, but there are two that have stuck with me so far.  First, “Hike Your Own Hike”.  Do it your way, not someone else’s way, because you’ll be happier and more fulfilled doing it the way you want it done.  Second, “Listen to Your Body”.  When your body says it’s done for the day, let it rest.  If it needs a zero day, give it a zero day.  I’ve been notoriously bad at the second one as a day hiker.  I have pushed myself to hit my targets and reach my goals, whether it be time targets, distance, or reaching the planned objective of my hike.  I hate failure and I have paid the price after a hike in the past, where my feet are sore, joints ache, and I have low energy for days afterward.  This is another of the adjustments I’m making to my hiking style this year, as I prepare for the AT.

In the past, I’d have pushed on to complete the summit and paid the price.  Today, I listened and turned around.  Now, for me, down is always faster.  I have good knees and I have very little problem moving quickly down a mountain.  However, down on a rotten monorail that is three feet above the ground is far more dangerous than that same monorail when going up.

When you are climbing, you move slowly and are picking your footing carefully.  Down, you are fighting gravity and your footfalls land much heavier, leading to more postholes.  Go down too quickly and you run the risk of postholing and breaking ankles, twisting knees, or other injuries.  On the way down today, I passed two groups on their way up.  The first group, I moved off to the side of the trail so they could go by me and I promptly broke through and sunk to my waist.  Fortunately, much of the snow had melted, leaving empty space under the suspended monorail and it was easy to climb back onto the monorail after they passed.  However, that was done carefully and with the expectation that I would fall through.  The results can be completely different if I was moving ahead at a rapid speed and broke through.

For the second group, I happened to find a spot to the side of the monorail where a rock and stump stuck up through the snow and it gave me a solid purchase to stand on as they went by.  Much easier and safer this way and was easy to step back to the monorail and continue on my way.

Eventually, I reached the junction with the Bald Knob Spur and followed it for the 0.2 miles to the open ledges.  Unfortunately, they were still mostly in the clouds, but it was a good opportunity to sit and rest and enjoy the peace and quiet.  While I was there, I ate a snack, drank some more water, and realized how muddy my legs were.  There’s a reason I keep choosing waterproof boots.  Today would have been miserable with wet cold feet.  It’s also the reason for the long underwear today.  While the temperatures were starting out in the low 40’s and were in the low 60’s by the time I returned to my car, my legs stayed warm and mostly dry despite my outer hiking pants being soaked and mud covered.

Spring Hiking Fashion

As a bonus, the sun broke through the clouds when I was about a mile from the trailhead and I managed to find a few flowers starting to blossom.  The first is a red trillium that is ready to blossom, but not quite there yet.  I’m not much of a botanist, so I don’t know what the second flower is, but it was in bloom and I took its picture.

Red Trillium, Not Quite Blossoming
Unidentified Small Yellow Flowers

Overall, today was a great day!  I exceeded my expectations on my climb, making it far closer to the North Kinsman summit than I expected.  I got to drive around and see a bunch of waterfalls and it was a wonderfully relaxing day on the trail.

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