I think it was about 17 below zero when I waked out my kitchen door this morning! The sun was shinning and the winds were calm, ahhhhh, another great day for a walk in the woods.
I had been looking forward to hiking Liberty for some time; it seemed to be a relatively easy climb for a more than spectacular finish on the eastern ridge of the Franconia notch. Liberty is the last of several over 4000 foot peaks on the southern end of a long ridge starting with one of the whites highest, Lafayette. Having done all the other peaks on the ridge, I was very much looking forward to the days climb.
We had a good group today, Gordon, Gary, and Andrew, my stepdaughters boyfriend, and of coarse myself and Noah. For three of us, this was another walk in the woods, albeit, sure to be a spectacular one, but Andrew was a different story. You see, Andrew had never been on a winter hike before, let alone ascend a 4000-foot mountain in the middle of January. And I might ad, it was the same 17 degrees below zero when Andrew walked out the door this morning as well, and to his credit without hesitation!
Andrew arrived the night before the hike with a good pair of boots (bought only that morning in preparation for the hike) and a polortec vest. He and I spent the better part of that evening sorting through all my old hiking gear trying to find enough gear to get him to the top safely. He might not have looked pretty in all my old gear, but hey, wait till you see the rest of us. Most importantly, that old gear would get him to the top.
We got to the parking lot at the base of the mountain at around 9:00 am. The temperature had climbed to a balmy 10 below by this time, so we were feeling encouraged. The important thing was, the sun was out and the wind was still calm. This, we know would not last long, these were the whites and things can change fast. Not to mention the mornings forecast was calling for a rather large nor’easter to blow in sometime in the late afternoon or evening.
It took us a half hour to gear up and hit the trail. The trail was hard packed and icy in places, and called for crampons. Not having four sets, Andrew wore my MSR snowshoes, which were the next best thing under these conditions. We were off.
The hike up Liberty starts on the Whitehouse Trail for .8 mile then continues on the Liberty Springs Trail to the Franconia Ridge Trail at 2.9 miles, then .3 miles to the Liberty summit. The total mileage is 4.1 from the parking lot and an elevation gain of 3150,’ so not just a walk in the park after all. Especially considering you only gain about 100 feet of elevation in the first mile leaving the remaining 3050 feet to be covered in just 3 miles. A thousand feet per mile!
The first mile was only slightly rolling and included a segment of a well-traveled snowmobile trail that bisects the notch. Thankfully there were no snowmobiles out; nothing like the sound and smell of a screaming snowmobile to spoil the tranquility of a winter hike.
As usual, as soon as we started to gain elevation the clothes started coming off. Before long, even in 10 below zero we were all hiking in just one or two layers of clothes. It never ceases to amaze me how much heat the body generates under these conditions.
It wasn’t long before we were all feeling the pain. With Andrew, the novice in the group, setting the pace most of the way. Andrew learned quickly one of the most important lessons in winter hiking, maintaining a pace that keeps the sweating to a minimum while keeping your body temperature high enough to keep you warm.
At about halfway we needed to take a short break to attend to a blister that Gordon was developing. Yet another lesson for Andrew on how cold 10 degrees below zero can feel when you are all sweaty and you stop moving for a few minutes. A lesson we all learn all to well every time we do it. Keeping warm is a delicate and fragile balance that every winter hiker must learn to manage very carefully in these extreme conditions. The consequences to those who don’t learn to maintain that balance are far to grave.
As we neared the top we came to the Liberty Spring campground perched on the high slops of the mountain at 3.4 miles and 2400 feet, a very nice place to stop for lunch. We found a nice sunny spot with a nice view to the west and bundled up for lunch, thanks to Noah for once again for hauling the hot soup up for us (along with his own food of course). We had hot tomato soup, cheese and crackers, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, jerky and much more. Lunch is always a feast. When else can you consume as many action packed calories this guilt free? The combination of the extreme cold and exertion your body must endure requires an unbelievable amount of calories to keep you moving. This is paradise for a guy who likes to eat as much as I do.
After filling our bellies and grabbing a few pictures of the great spot we picked for lunch and its accompanying views, we were off to the summit. It was only a short while after lunch that we reached the ridge and the junction to the Franconia Ridge Trail. The trail juncture here is well marked; it includes a sign with the mileage to all the different peaks and trail junctions along the Franconia ridge. We had only .3 miles to our destination, the summit of Mount Liberty.
This section of the ridge trail runs along at a low enough altitude to keep the better part of the trail amongst the cover of the trees. Unlike the northern section which runs between Haystack and Lafayette, which is entirely above tree line and very exposed. However, as we neared the rocky summit of Liberty, we very quickly rose above the cover of the trees to be treated with our first truly spectacular view of the Franconia Notch and beyond.
The last remaining tenth of a mile or so took us along a sharp rocky ridgeline up the rather dramatic cone shaped summit of Liberty. With the mountain falling off quickly on both sides of us as we approached the summit, we were treated to spectacular vistas in every direction. Thankfully the sun still remained a significant presence in the sky, only having to put up minor fight to fend of the thickening clouds vying to dominate the sky. It was clear, however, that it would not be long before the sun was defeated as the clouds established their dominance over the day. The storm that was forecast earlier was well on its way.
The summit was truly spectacular with its 360-degree views. You could see many of the highest peaks of the White Mountains all around us, most of which Gordon and I have had the pleasure of summiting in our quest for the 4000 footers of the Whites Mountains. In fact, we had climbed all the summits within our view except two, Owls Head and West Bond, which were in clear site to the northwest.
No matter how many times we have been to the many peaks of the White Mountains, it never ceases to amaze me how unique and different each experience is from one another. A whole new perspective awaits us with every assent. Amazingly enough, even those summits that have been completed shrouded in clouds still remain just as fantastic an experience as when you can see for 100 miles.
The weather was beginning to change rapidly. The winds were starting to pick up, making our stay on the summit growing more uncomfortable by the minute. We estimated the temperature to still be somewhere below zero and with the wind chill, well below zero. After a few mountain-conquering poses for all of our cameras it was quickly decided to get back to the cover of the trees and start our descent back down. It always seems like such a precious few minutes to take in such an aw inspiring experience, I guess that’s why we keep coming back.
The descent went quickly, once again with Andrew setting the pace. Before long we found ourselves back in the cover of the trees and shortly after that, back to the trail junctions where the ridge trail continues north and the Liberty Springs Trail takes us home. We debated for a few moments the possibility of continuing north on the ridge trail and heading out over Haystack and down Falling Waters Trail. The idea of adding on to our trip was generating little interest especially when it was suggested that an alternative would be to get back early and head straight to the Black Bear Pub for a beer. That ended that discussion rather quickly!
The hike out was rather uneventful. We moved very quickly down the mountain with relatively few stops along the way. What took us over 4 hours to go up would be accomplished in well under 2 hours heading down. Andrew had taken off his snowshoes and was practically skiing down the mountain on his boots, maintaining the lead all the way to the bottom.
As always seems to be the case, the last relatively flat mile or so seems to take forever to complete, the experience made even less pleasurable by the screaming snowmobiles buzzing by us. Never-the-less, we were back to the car before we knew it, and early enough to ensure plenty of time to celebrate our accomplishments at the Black Bear.
As we were driving out of the Notch we looked back over the mountain we had just come down only to find it and the entire Franconia Ridge fully engulfed in clouds. The snow had begun to fall and the nor’easter that was predicted was now rapidly descending up on us. Once again, we are reminded how quickly things can change when your hiking the White Mountains in the winter.
Gordon and I were now only just a few peaks away from completing all 48 over 4000 foot summits, with just four more for me and three more for Gordon. Andrew completed quite competently his first winter hike and his first over 4000 ft peak in the winter, just 47 more to go, Andrew.
As a humorous conclusion to our already wonderful day, when we pulled into the parking lot of the Back Bear pub, on the front of the building was a big silhouette of a Black Bear. As soon as the sleepy and warn out Noah caught a glimpse of the bear he just about dove threw the front window of the truck, barking at the top of his lungs and scarring the daylight out of Andrew and I. This from a dog who I have hiked many miles with and come across lots of wildlife, including bear, and never heard a peep from him in the woods. That’s my Noah, ever the protector.
The nor’easter was now fully upon us as we sat in the warm and cozy pub enjoying a nice cold glass of beer reminiscing about our days adventure. Sure glad we didn’t take the long way out!