Trip Report: Up fast on Liberty, Cross fast on Flume

Mt Liberty and Mt Flume, Lincoln, NH. 2022-02-20. (Sunday)

Via Whitehouse Trail, Liberty Springs Trail, Franconia Ridge Trail. Approx 8.7 miles.

15 dF +/- at the trailhead, 10 at the summit. Sunny to start, with rapidly closing high level clouds. Wind at Liberty and Flume summit was a light breeze to start. Back at Liberty on the return, the winds were brisk and bitter. 

Trailhead: 1030; Liberty Summit: 1300; Flume Summit: 1345; Liberty Summit redux: 1430;  back at car: 1615. (Approx 5.75 hours.) 

A hard hike up the fall line. 

Owing to the fact that I have to work in the morning, photos will be posted under separate cover, so please check back over the coming day or three. 

Today was short, but it wasn’t easy. I kept thinking “wow, this little hill sure does exact its pound of flesh” throughout the day, little realizing I wasn’t exactly letting the snow melt under my feet. Given I had enough daylight left to get well on my way home afterward, I’m still wondering what was the rush. Then again, it wasn’t a curve of the earth day, and I was on a pretty crowded trail. It wasn’t quite booking mileage, but at the same time, I never really felt a lot of reason to linger anywhere. However, I did spend the day in the mountains, lest anyone forget. (Least of all me!) 

Just in case anyone’s paying attention, I’m nearly done with my winter 48, which will also mean I’ll have done the 48 in all four seasons. On that other list, I’m at 212 four thousand footers (or maybe something less, because of COVID) if anyone out there is picking up what I’m laying down. 

I was hoping today would be a “bon-bon” of a hike. Short, sweet, something to be savored, sans suffering. (Brought to you by the letter “S”.) Mostly, it was. Not the least, but the trailhead is one of the most accessible, and so I got a little more sleep before heading out. The detail I neglected to remember was how much the steep part goes up the fall-line, and for that matter, how damn steep that trail really is. It’s not like I’ve not driven past dozens of times and should have seen it coming, either. Mea magna culpa. 

One other detail that did indeed work in my favor is the freeze-thaw cycles of the last week. Similar to Zealand, the trail was almost a concrete sidewalk, very nearly smooth top to bottom. So on that score, it would have been hard *not* to make time. I don’t usually like to glissade, if for no other reason than it tends to glaze the trail, which makes it crummy for others. Today, it was unquestionably below freezing all day, and several sections were icy enough to almost require it anyway. So zooooom I went on the downhill. Sometimes a bit scary, sometimes a bit fun. 

There were quite a few parties on the trail. I got to meet quite a few very nice people, and there were two huskies having their best day out with mom and dad. (And some blogger at the summit handing out scritches, which one in particular seemed to like a bunch, giving sloppy wet doggy kisses in return. Joy!) 

Some notes on safety on the trail. Because I’m all about safety.

And then… there was this one party, which warrants discussion. Coming in from out of town, with at least one round of the ADK 46 under their belts, they thought hiking down Flume Slide trail was a good idea. Three other parties on as many separate (and isolated) occasions begged to differ, making it abundantly clear that such an idea was very potentially deadly, and in general, a pretty stupid idea. 

Despite all this, they appeared undeterred, and I lost track of them after summiting Flume. I can only hope they decided to do the smart thing and go out-and-back via Liberty Springs trail. I hope tomorrow doesn’t feature a news story about two hikers whose bodies had to be recovered from somewhere on Flume Slide. 

In case people don’t get it, it’s a steep hike. In any conditions, it’s widely recommended to hike up Flume Slide and take some other trail down. I did it in the warmer months (sans snow) and it required a level of commitment for sure. One of the things I think about is that even if an injured hiker is lucky and only requires a rescue (as opposed to a recovery) the search and rescue team will have to negotiate brutally steep terrain, which is bad enough itself, except now it’s brutally steep terrain with a patient in a litter. I see nothing good about that. 

Speaking to the volume of traffic on the trail, overall, things appeared unremarkable, except for one other party. I “blame” the ease of access to the mountains in Franconia in particular, because I can think of no other reason why almost completely unequipped people venture up there. Suffice it to say that heading up a mountain in the Whites, without carrying a flashlight or headlamp, with two backpacks that themselves appeared underutilized, serving the needs of four hikers, is a bad idea. 

Not knowing that at three in the afternoon, without even getting all that close to the summit, it’s time to call it quits just underscores the degree to which those people were ill prepared for their endeavor. It’s easy to go to the store, plop down a credit card, and buy the ten essentials. The eleventh essential is the knowledge one needs to use the other ten, and that’s harder to buy. These folks would have had a very enjoyable outing on something more modest — Welch-Dickey, Cardigan, Kearsarge, or even Monadnock. (Heck, I myself have been hankering to get back to those peaks because they’re a lot of fun in a little package!) But on a 4,000 footer, they were biting off more than they could chew. Mountains that are the origin of the expression “Type II fun” aren’t the place to cut your teeth on winter hiking — that’s a surefire way to learn the meaning of “Type III fun.”

(Type I fun is great fun in the moment. Everything goes according to plan. It can be forgettable, though, because nothing was out of the ordinary or went wrong. An amazing day skiing, a lovely night with friends at the bar… that kind of thing. Type II fun might start and end well, but at some point, things went off the rails in a fairly big, but recoverable way. “So there I was” is often how those stories begin. Some say hiking the Appalachian Trail is a fine example of this. Despite the bugs, the rain, the mud, daily aches and pains in every bone of your body, you’re actually having the time of your life and can’t imagine leaving the trail. Type III fun isn’t fun. Things might start out innocently enough but at a certain point, lives may be outright endangered, or at the very least, things went far enough off the rails in an unrecoverable fashion that the stories typically end with “and that’s why I’ll never try that again.” Assuming you’re still alive to tell the tale.)

It was heartening to hear people telling the Flume Slide couple, unbidden, that they were out of their minds. I can only hope that the chorus of voices changed their minds, and saved their lives. Similarly, people were encouraging the other group to call it a day, and I did hear word that they were indeed doing so (albeit slowly.) I think it shows the best of humanity when people toss the usual social convention of not getting involved, and delivering unhappy news, in cases like this. Plans might be dashed, but the mountains will wait for better weather and more experience. 

OK. ‘Nuff said on that. 

I wish I had more time and warmer weather today to savor the view. It was clear enough to see the upper peaks of Franconia Ridge, and I got views of Owl’s Head and Carrigain as well. The other way, I could easily see Moosilauke and Kinsman Ridge, out to Cannon. Heck, Washington was out there, too, even if not one of the finer views. On that score, it was a bummer, starting out under azure skies, and then things closing down like it did. Anything in the Whites was actually visible, for the most part, but the skies were so damn sullen. Eh. I’ll be back. The weather will be nicer. The mountains will still be there. 

As always, stay safe out there.

Nuts and Bolts: Take I-93 up to Franconia Notch. You can, as I did today, hop off at Exit 33, which offers the option of stopping in at the Irving gas station for snacks or whatever last minute things you need. (Note there are no public bathrooms. The frigid outhouses are still open at the trailhead.) Alternately, take the Route 3 exit, just after Exit 33, and go one past the Flume Visitor Center. Don’t worry if you miss it, because as long as you catch it quickly, you can turn around and backtrack. 

Trailhead will be on the south side of the parking lot, to the left of the sign marking where the loo is located. Blazes are blue on Whitehouse and Flume Slide, and white AT blazes pretty much everywhere else. The trails aren’t at all hard to follow, but with the snow, the blazes aren’t as visible as you’d want. As of this writing, the trails themselves are hard packed snow, and it’s blindingly obvious which way is up. Watch which way you go at the trail junctions, and you’ll be fine. 

Note on footwear: Right now, the trail is packed so hard that almost nothing can penetrate. It’s inevitable that in the coming weeks, there will be more snow, changing all that up. I strongly encourage all to wear snowshoes in order to minimize damage to the trail from post-holing. Yes, it’s nice wearing lightweight micro spikes, but hike as much for the pleasure of the people coming behind you as for your own. Not the least, if you create divots everywhere on the way out, you’ll be cursing yourself endlessly on the way back. And hey, if you have fancy snowshoes with heel elevators, you’ll be smiling in the steep bits. 

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