Checking Boxes: The Importance of Your Gear List

When you’re training to run a 100-mile race, you have to prepare for everything. You run on cold days, just in case it’s cold during the race. You run on rainy days in case it rains. You eat things that end up wrecking your stomach, so that you don’t wreck your stomach during the race. You wear things that end up chafing, so that you know what won’t chafe during the race.

In July, near the peak of my training for the Yeti 100-Mile Endurance Run, I decided to run a Pemi Loop. This 32-mile loop of the Pemigewasset Wilderness summits eight 4,000-footers, and boasts over 8,000 feet of elevation gain. The loop itself is no joke, but in the context of training for a run more than three times that distance, it seemed like an achievable endeavor.

It could rain during my race, too, after all.

I started my drive from Boston long before the summer sun had cracked the sky. But, once it finally got bright enough, I noticed the clouds lingering on the horizon. The weather forecast had predicted a 25-percent chance of rain, but I needed to be prepared for everything. It could rain during my race, too, after all.

I had previously hiked most of the peaks I’d be running that day. In my mind, that made it achievable: I just had to string them all together. But, by the time I had reached Lincoln and turned onto the Kancamagus Highway, the dawn’s distant clouds had consumed the area and covered my windshield in a light, hazy rain. I rushed to get on the trail, forgoing gloves for lighter-weight hand warmers and ditching my poles. I have a list of items that I take on runs and a separate one for hikes, but decided to travel lighter to save time and weight.

Credit: Kelsey Conner
Credit: Kelsey Conner

The first mile of the lollipop course, starting at Lincoln Woods, is old railroad. The flat, soft ground made for easy running and a quick warm-up. I took my rain shell off and tied it around my waist before even making it to the Osseo Trailhead, and I considered taking my rain pants back to the car. The tree canopy along the East Branch of the Pemigewasset River, and almost all four miles up Mount Flume, appeared dense enough to give me the illusion of dryness. Occasional raindrops penetrated still-green leaves, but for the most part, I was warm and happy. The mountain’s steep walls reminded me of the bear I’d seen descending a similar slope a week before on Mount Cardigan, but I tried not to think about it.

When I did emerge from the woods for Flume’s summit approach, with trees on one side of the narrow trail, and steep, rocky drops on the other, it felt like I’d been dropped into another world.

I was moving slower than I anticipated, but was still in good spirits. Clouds capped the nearby mountains and deep mud pointed toward wet conditions at higher altitudes. But, when I did emerge from the woods for Flume’s summit approach, with trees on one side of the narrow trail, and steep, rocky drops on the other, it felt like I’d been dropped into another world. Wind gusted and rain bit at my bare arms and legs. The previously humid, almost tropical air felt at least 10 degrees cooler.

I ducked behind a boulder to adjust my clothing. Sleeves came down, I put my rain jacket and pants back on, and I secured my hat. However, I immediately lost the blazes that peppered the rocks around me and had to retrace my steps. A pang of doubt threatened my independent courage, but I told myself to slow down and be careful. It took an active effort to push panic away and keep moving.

Credit: Kelsey Conner
Credit: Kelsey Conner

The summit of Liberty brought more wind and rain. I tugged my Buff over my nose and mouth, stopping for a single selfie with the summit’s rocky face. I then dropped onto the Appalachian Trail, whose kind white blazes conjured memories of warm summer days in my home state of Georgia—memories that drew a sharp contrast to the current conditions.

I was starting to question my sanity, and wonder if I should keep going.

At that point, I was drenched. My rain jacket soaked through to my long sleeves, and my pants proved their worthlessness. Their elastic waistband was losing the battle to wet lower legs, and my pants started sagging down. I pulled them up as I ran, wondering if they were worth even the idea of warmth.

Little Haystack came and went, and I was on Franconia Ridge. Here, I should have been able to see the entire loop from my exposed vantage point. Instead, my view was limited to about 25 feet in front of me. The rocks were slippery, and it took everything in my power to stand up straight. I joked to myself that wind resistance counted as strength training.

A tiny patch of trees between Mount Lincoln and Mount Lafayette offered some brief shelter, and there, I sat down on the ground, trying to catch my breath. Lafayette’s summit loomed ahead of me, looking especially steep and foreboding. The trees surrounding me shuddered under the wind, and their leaves whistled. I jammed one half of my peanut butter sandwich into my mouth, despite my intentions to eat it at the loop’s halfway point, the AMC Galehead Hut. I was starting to question my sanity, and wonder if I should keep going. The only other mountain run I’d ever bailed on was a miserable, hungover attempt at the Futures Trail on Mount Ascutney. There, I called it quits after a family witnessed me vomit behind a tree. Giving up wasn’t a consideration, until I looked up at Lafayette and started calculating the remaining daylight.

Lightweight doesn’t mean much when you’re freezing.

I was nearly six hours in and less than halfway through the loop. I’d estimated that the run would take nine hours total. Thus, climbing Lafayette and continuing through the exposure along Garfield Ridge was looking less and less fun.

Not everything seems fun in the moment, though, I told myself. Thus, I decided to make a last-ditch effort towards Lafayette. But, as I dashed up the slick rocks towards the summit, I was knocked to my knees. “You win!” I screamed into the wind. After a summer full of sunshine and smooth hikes, I’d taken good weather for granted. I had picked peaks I’d bagged before and assumed that I knew what I was doing, while failing to pack the just-in-case items. Lightweight doesn’t mean much when you’re freezing. My beloved gear list, several years and hundreds of adventures in the making, had proved its worth.

Credit: Kelsey Conner
Credit: Kelsey Conner

I regretted my decision to turn back for a short moment, but when I slipped back under Flume’s dense canopy and started to warm up, I knew I had made the right call. As a result, when September rolled around and I started packing for my race, I built a list more comprehensive than ever before.

I’d like to say that it rained during my race, and I was able to utilize all of my gear, but that would be a lie. Though I ran under blue skies and warm sun, I had everything I needed, just in case.


Alpha Guide: Franconia Ridge in Winter

alpha Guides | Better than beta.

Take on one of the Northeast’s most stunning ridgelines while tagging two of New Hampshire’s 10 tallest mountains.

A true classic, this winter hike crosses one of the White Mountains’ most prominent features, Franconia Ridge; delivers moderate climbing that doesn’t require the use of an ice axe; and features a roughly 1.5-mile above-treeline ridge run between Little Haystack and Mount Lafayette. With 360-degree views of the Whites from the ridge, it is one of the Northeast’s most beautiful hikes. And, with a large section of above-treeline hiking, it’s also one of the region’s most exposed hikes, making it a fantastic winter test piece.

 

Quick Facts

Distance: 9 miles round-trip
Time to Complete: 1 day
Difficulty: ★★★★
Scenery: ★★★★★


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Turn-By-Turn

Most hike Franconia Ridge as a loop, beginning and ending at the Falling Waters and Old Bridle Path trailhead and parking lot on Interstate 93N (44.142048, -71.681206) in Franconia Notch State Park.

Hikers driving north on I-93 will find the parking lot just after the exit for The Basin trailhead. Hikers coming from the other direction should park in the Lafayette Place Campground parking lot and use the tunnel that goes under I-93 to access the lot and trailhead. The trailhead is opposite the entrance to the parking lot, where it climbs a short, paved incline to an outhouse and then becomes dirt as it heads into the woods.

Hikers, take notice: This ultra-classic hike is super-popular on weekends and holidays. So, get there early to find a parking spot.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Time to split

Just 0.2 miles in, hikers will come to the junction (44.139702, -71.679512) of the Falling Waters Trail and the Old Bridle Path. The loop is best done counterclockwise, first up the Falling Waters Trail and then descending the Old Bridle Path. The Falling Waters Trail, which veers right at the junction, gets extremely icy in winter and is much easier to go up than down. Plus, the various waterfalls are more scenic on the approach, as well as more easily overcome with fresh legs early in the day.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Following Falling Waters

From the junction, the Falling Waters Trail heads southeast on a moderate track, until it reaches Dry Brook. From there, the trail intermittently steepens and poses some small technical challenges, as it crisscrosses the icy stream climbing under, around, and over a series of semi-frozen waterfalls. Between the water and ice, the footing along here is often slick, and you’ll probably want your MICROspikes and a pair of trekking poles to negotiate the potentially treacherous terrain. Take care not to slip or plunge a foot into the brook.

Eventually, the trail leaves the brook and begins a series of long, gradual switchbacks up toward Shining Rock. As the trail moves away from the brook, the short, steep, and technical sections dissipate, and the terrain and grade become more consistent—especially once the snow on the ground is packed and covering the ordinarily rocky and rooty terrain.

Shining Rock

After 2.5 miles, the Falling Waters Trail reaches a junction with a short spur trail (44.140186, -71.650940) that heads downhill to Shining Rock, a large granite slab flanking Little Haystack Mountain and visible from Interstate 93. If you have time (remember, darkness comes early in the winter), consider the brief detour.

The Shining Rock junction is also a great place to refuel, add an extra layer and traction devices (if you haven’t already), and get your above-treeline gear ready (such as a balaclava, warmer gloves, goggles, etc.). From the junction, continue upward on the Falling Waters Trail, which steepens and gradually becomes more exposed to the weather for the final 0.5-mile push to the 4,760-foot summit of Little Haystack.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Little Haystack

Shortly after departing the junction for Shining Rock, hikers will push past the treeline to the rocky and icy landscape of Little Haystack Mountain’s summit (44.140362, -71.646080). Although Little Haystack isn’t one of the 48 New Hampshire 4,000-footers (it’s technically a subpeak of Mount Lincoln, the next stop on your journey), it is an awesome summit with fantastic views. Find the hard-to-miss summit cairn, and then, head north on the Franconia Ridge Trail toward Mount Lincoln.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Mount Lincoln

From Little Haystack, it’s 0.7 miles to Mount Lincoln’s summit. The path is easy to follow and, at first, quite moderate. Then, it begins to climb on rockier terrain and crests an ego-deflating false summit, all the while offering fantastic views in every direction and fully exposing you to the wind and weather.

Once you get to the summit of 5,089-foot Mount Lincoln (44.148682, -71.644707), the first of two New Hampshire 4,000-footers on the traverse, take a moment—or more, if the weather allows—to soak in the dramatic landscape and fantastic views. From here, you get views in all directions, with the Kinsmans, Lonesome Lake, and Cannon Cliff to the west and the Pemigewasset Wilderness to the east. To the south, the pyramid-like tops of Mount Liberty and Mount Flume dominate the view, while to the north lies your next objective, the summit of Mount Lafayette.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Mount Lafayette

Standing one mile away on the Franconia Ridge is the day’s high point, the 5,260-foot summit of Mount Lafayette. To get there, you’ll give up much of the elevation you’ve gained since Little Haystack by descending rocky, slabby terrain similar to what you just ascended. The saddle has a scrubby pine grove, which provides a brief respite from the weather on less-optimal days. Beware that snow can build up in the trees, making this section more difficult and take longer than you may have expected.

From the trees, the Franconia Ridge Trail makes a sharp ascent—the steepest section since the climb from Shining Rock to Little Haystack—to Mount Lafayette’s summit. Relatively straightforward, the climb does contain a few slabby sections and rock outcroppings that warrant your full attention before you get to the summit.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The High Point

Lafayette’s summit (44.160717, -71.644470) is well marked with both a large cairn and sign, and is quickly recognizable, as it’s the region’s highest point. If the weather is good, grab a seat in one of the summit’s windbreaks—rock walls built to shield hikers from the elements—and soak up the views. The 4,500-foot Mount Garfield looms in the north, and on clear days, the Presidential Range is visible behind it. To the south, you can admire the distance you’ve traveled, as the peaks of Mount Lincoln and Little Haystack are both visible from this vantage point.

The windbreaks are also a great place to have a quick snack. And, don’t de-layer just yet, as there is still some exposed trail left on the descent.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The Descent

From Lafayette’s summit, take the 1.1-mile Greenleaf Trail toward the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Greenleaf Hut. This section is well defined, but the vast majority of it is above-treeline and is very exposed to the weather—in particular, winds blowing from the northwest.

With the hut visible most of the way, progress can feel sluggish. The slow-going is often exaggerated by the trail’s rugged nature, made even more difficult by patches of snow and ice.

As you near the Greenleaf Hut, the trail dips into tree cover, the first real break in exposure you’ve had for nearly three miles. You’re not out of the woods yet, though, as the area around the hut is often very icy.

Unlike during the summer, there is no hot chocolate, soup, or delicious baked goods in your future—unless you brought your own—as Greenleaf Hut (44.160206, -71.660316) is closed in the winter. However, the building itself provides a good windbreak and is a logical place to stop for a snack and to de-layer.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The Old Bridle Path

From the hut, take the Old Bridle Path for 2.7 miles to the Falling Waters trail junction, and then, enjoy the short walk back to the car. Below treeline, hikers may feel that the crux of the day is behind them, but the Old Bridle Path’s upper third is challenging and, in places, exposed. Use care negotiating these ledges, slabs, and steep sections.

As you descend the ledges, take a moment to peer back up at the ridge. It’s nice to enjoy the relative warmth of the sun found on these protected ledges while you peer up at the ridge and remember the bone-chilling cold experienced only a short time ago.

After the ledges, the Old Bridle Path begins to mellow, getting more forested with progressively easier switchbacks. From here, it’s a straightforward, albeit longish, walk back to the junction and then to the car.


Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The Kit

  • Trekking poles and traction devices, like Kahtoola MICROspikes, are essential for negotiating the icy terrain on the ascent and descent. And, although the wind often blows the snow off the ridge proper, it, too, can be quite icy.
  • Bring a vast array of winter accessories to contend with unpredictable, above-treeline winter conditions. A winter hat, balaclava, multiclava, and gloves of varying warmth are a good place to start. And, if there’s wind in the forecast, goggles should also be included.
  • A warm down or synthetic parka, like the Outdoor Research Incandescent Hoody, is great for staying warm during rest breaks, cold traverses and descents, and emergencies.
  • Because it gets dark quickly in the winter and the Old Bridle Path descent is treacherous, add a headlamp, like the Black Diamond Spot, to your pack.
  • Snickers bars and gels are great in the summer but can freeze in the frigid temperatures. Nature Valley bars, trail mix, and leftover pizza—just to name a few—are all excellent winter food choices that won’t freeze in your pack.

Have more questions about what gear to bring? Check out “What’s in Our Winter Peak-Bagging Packs.” Don’t be that guy in jeans and a hoodie hiking across the ridge.


Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Keys to the Trip

  • Need a good reason for an alpine start? The parking lots fill up fast! In the summer, excess traffic even goes along the highway, but depending on the amount of snow the mountains have received, that might not be an option in winter.
  • Start cold, so you won’t have to stop after 10 minutes to lose a layer. More importantly, if you’re not over-layered, you’re less likely to sweat through your garments and will stay warmer in the long run.
  • Bring a thermos of something hot to drink. It’s great for warming up your core temperature and a nice morale booster when the going gets cold.
  • Know when to say when. If you get above treeline and decide that it’s too windy or too cold, or you just have a bad feeling, don’t hesitate to turn around before committing to the traverse.
  • Have a backup plan. If you live a few hours from the mountains, like many people do, it can be hard to know exactly what the weather will be doing until you get there. If the weather isn’t cooperating for a traverse, Mount Liberty and Cannon Mountain are close by and are less committing than Franconia Ridge.
  • After a cold day in the mountains, warm up at One Love Brewery in Lincoln, New Hampshire. Their Meat Lover’s Burger features grilled pork belly, BBQ pulled pork, jalapeño slaw, and Swiss cheese, and is a great way to replace some of the calories you burned!

Current Conditions

Have you hiked Franconia Ridge recently? Post your experience and the trail conditions (with the date of your hike) in the comments for others!

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck