Liberty Slope to Galehead Hut
Gloomy Hummus Camp to Food Mover Camp
AT miles: 11.8
Total miles: 1842.4
Elevation change: 6138ft gain, 4347ft loss
Even with my alarm set to chime an hour earlier than normal, I was awake and alert by the time it called me into action. I guess that I was juiced for the day, both excited and anxious to get underway. What would the weather be like? Did I need to worry about thunderstorms? Would my gamble pay off? Just how slow would I move out here? How would my right foot feel today? Fortunately, there was one thing that I could do that would gather the answers to all of these questions, and it was the same thing that I had already planned to do. Everything would be revealed if I just hiked. Hiking held the answers.
The forecast had was calling for light to moderate rain all day, so I was thrilled to notice an absence of drops on my tent. I was in the cloud, but packing up in that persistent dampness was nothing compared with doing it in the rain. I felt dry and toasty in my quilt after my restful night, and my comfort both made it easier and more challenging to get started with the day. My dry feet begged me to stay in bed all day, and my curious mind left me no choice but to leave. I was fed, watered, and hiking by 7:30am, ready for the famed Franconia Ridge, or so I hoped.
The trail was all uphill, continuing the massive ascent that I had just barely begun in the gloom of yesterday evening. And although the damp conditions hadn’t changed much in the night, my mood was significantly improved. I noticed this and attributed it to A) it wasn’t raining, and B) my foot felt a lot better, almost 100%. The latter was my biggest concern. Rain and foul weather is fickle and easy to deal with, but a persistent foot injury, no matter how small, would risk not just the rest of the AT, but also a month of hiking in Canada with SpiceRack. It had been sobering to realize how much I had riding on my good health when it suddenly came into question last night. However, for now all seemed well.
Despite the early hour, it was already in the mid-50’s, so I sweated profusely with effort in the 200000% humidity of the cloud. My face dripped and my shirt darkened with fruitless sweat. But the rocky trail was a good one, and I climbed past the Liberty Spring Campsite, and all of its neon residents, into the mist and snow.
Before reaching the top of the ridge, I needed to throw on my microspikes when the ice overtook the rocks. The uniform surface actually made each step easier, so I was not disappointed to find a narrow snow monorail turning into the trees when I finally joined Franconia Ridge. I was disappointed, however, when the cloud began to rain. Under the cover of a tall pine, I pulled out my rain jacket and umbrella, holding nothing back in The Whites.
The rain did not last, but left a dripping forest that wetted me like a carwash, so when the trees disappeared around the summit of Little Haystack, I was not sad. The ridge was socked it, and cloud blew from the bottomless slope on the right across the narrow round of rock and dirt. My world was just a strip of ground, disappearing into the mist fifty yards ahead, and I loved it. Sure, I was missing out on what were surely epic views in all directions, but I was warm and comfortable. And besides, these conditions felt pretty epic too.
I followed the well-marked trail up, around, and over some rocky spurs, past cairns and the tiny shrubs of the alpine. The rocky slabs were starting to dry already, so my footing felt solid and I made good time over the simple terrain. One of the bigger humps turned out to be Mount Lincoln, but without the context of my surroundings, I had no concept of prominence. I just hiked and scrambled along, partially aware that I was trending uphill.
All too soon, I was on top of Mount Lafayette, the tallest and final alpine peak of Franconia. There were still no views to speak of, but it was an awesome, wild place. A crew of extremely personable day hikers were also there, having come up a different trail, and I was happy to share the summit with them and their friendly conversation. The encounter also reminded me of how busy this place likely would have been if the weather were clear. I’ll never begrudge a summit in nice weather, but all this cloud had its perks too.
The drop from the heights of Lafayette was steep and arduous. Steps fit for giants and damp slabs required patience and care to descend responsibly, and I was grateful for my new trekking pole tips. They held purchase on the tiniest irregularities of the seemingly smooth stone, and kept my balance more than once. When I reached the short pine once again, the ice hiding therein required the spike treatment, but first I was treated to an airy view as the clouds lifted just enough to let me see thousands of feet down to the valley below. It was just a taste of the Franconia glory, and it put my position into perspective with a sudden shock of context.
The ridge connecting to Mount Garfield was snowy and damp, in a tight forest of those short pine. Most of my attention was on my feet as the trail persisted in a state of constant change. Snow, ice, rock, root, mud, and puddle were all mixed together in some combination, and I took no step for granted. Then, after a few slabby climbs, I was on the summit boulders amid swirling cloud. It was time for a break, so I found a sheltered spot out of the wind to hunker down and eat some grub. I was also optimistic that the clouds might lift again. A few minutes before, I may have caught a glimpse of my shadow, which got me excited for more. Sure enough, with my hand deep in my BBQ Lays, the veil was drawn away. Slowly at first, the valleys and ridgelines came into focus, before a big gust finally swept out the last of the Garfield cloud. The result was pretty spectacular, and I sent my eyes wandering, trying to absorb it all before the mist regrouped. There were mountains for days, many still capped in cloud, and they vanished and reappeared as the gray haze of passing showers swept across them. I even caught a glimpse of blue sky, which gave me the confidence to make it a real, shoes-off break. It felt like my first in a while.
Immediately after leaving the summit, the rain blew back in, but I paid it no mind. I was recharged, feeling fine, and confident that it wouldn’t last long. Soon enough, it didn’t matter anyway, when the trail turned into a cascading waterfall for a few hundred feet. It wasn’t bad once I accepted the cold soaking, and I even pretended to enjoy it.
The final few miles followed a solid monorail of snow and ice through the trees without much variety to mark my progress. They went quickly though, and I found myself at the large AMC Galehead Hut sooner than I expected. I stopped in to fill up my bottles, but ended up grabbing a bunk after arranging with the caretaker to move some boxes of food in exchange for lodging. It was only 4:30pm, but this was an experience that I wasn’t going to pass up.
I filled a lofty room with all of my damp clothes and gear. As the only guest for the evening in a refuge that sleeps up to 50, I had plenty of space to distribute my stinky things widely. Once I was warm and dry, I moved a couple dozen loads of food from the dining room up into the storage loft. Before each trip, I stuffed an Oreo into my mouth to sustain me through this period of hard labor.
I finally called it quits, legs and biceps burning, and plunked my butt on a long bench, facing the wide windows to watch the clouds blow and rain fall. My stomach ached with a sickly sweetness of too many cookies. As the heaviest rains of the day pummeled down, I felt fortunate. The day had worked out better than I could have hoped. Somehow I was under a massive roof in a fancy lodge all by myself with a private rain show. I even had warm water for my couscous. Pure luxury.
I stayed up chatting with the caretaker about all kinds of things, before a gargantuan wave of fatigue washed over me. The day had been short in miles, but not in effort, and I staggered to my bunk on creaky legs and found sleep easily. Was it Mount Garfield or moving the food upstairs that did this to me?