Franconia Ridge, July 21, 2021: The First Time I Genuinely Felt Fear While Hiking on the Appalachian Trail
If you don’t know me, welcome! This is my first post of 2022, although I’ve been hiking the Appalachian Trail in both large and small sections since 2019. I’ve completed a little over 1,700 miles of the trail so far and was fairly close to that point during the day of hiking I’m about to recount.
Last year, I started my hike in Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania in hopes of completing the portion of the Appalachian Trail north of that point. I was just over 700 miles into this section hike around late July, in the middle of the portion of trail that goes through the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire. For those unfamiliar with the AT, this is generally known as one of the hardest sections of the entire trail due to steep climbs and descents, rocky trail that sometimes requires using all fours, and exposed portions of trail above treeline where the weather has a mind of its own.
That being said, this portion of the trail is also incredibly beautiful and rewarding (and because of that, a little crowded too). I was headed up to one of the known most beautiful areas of them all – Franconia Ridge.
Lincoln, New Hampshire
I arrived at Chet’s place in Lincoln, New Hampshire, my favorite hostel stay of the hike. Chet isn’t in any of the guides by choice. He’s been hosting hikers for years in his garage turned hiker hostel, and has an incredible life story and kind heart. I managed to be the only hiker staying there that night – such a rarity. I soaked in the advantages of being able to get some real rest and one on one conversation with the hostel owner.
It stormed that night, and more spotty weather was predicted for the next day. Since I knew that my hiking day would include a section of trail that is completely exposed to the elements, I pondered with Chet’s help whether hiking that day would even be a good idea. He let me know he’d keep an eye on the weather with me, and to our delight, the forecast the next morning showed that the chance of storms had mostly gone away, although some rain was still predicted.
It was still a difficult decision to make – to stay or go. I was eager to go, as I had just come off of a few zero days when my boyfriend at the time came to visit. Reading this from the comfort of home, it might not seem like a big dilemma. But when talking about walking on exposed mountain ridges, a little blip in the weather goes a long way in drawing the line between a safe and unsafe hike.
I decided to go for a walk to a gas station to get a breakfast sandwich and make my decision clear-headed on the way. On my way back, right there in the middle of the sidewalk, was a dollar bill looking at me like it was placed there waiting for me to pick it up.
So I did what anyone needing to make a smart and informed decision would do – I based it on the fact that I found a lucky dollar.
I took it as a good sign and placed it in the pocket of my rain jacket, said my thanks and farewell to the owner back at the hostel, and hopped in a shuttle to the trailhead.
Heading Up to the Ridge
As the trail started climbing, it was like any other day of hiking. I stopped for water at a small creek flowing across the trail near a campsite and listened to the chatter of voices from that direction while I filled up. I noticed that it felt a little cloudier through the gaps in the trees while a chill swiftly set into the air. As I secured my water bottle back onto my pack, sprinkles of rain started discreetly pattering on the leaves above me, the occasional drop making it through to my head or pack. I had my rain jacket on, but the heat generated from climbing up the trail still made for a comfortable temperature to be wearing just shorts and tall socks.
I eventually emerged out of treeline and onto the ridge – an exciting moment to have reached one of the iconic areas of the Appalachian Trail. The rain had steadily increased from a few sprinkles to a light drizzle, but it was nothing to be worried about as it wasn’t supposed to storm anymore. I knew I wouldn’t see any views from Franconia Ridge that day as the sky both above and below me was painted grey. I was ok with it and actually a bit relieved, as I knew it would mean less crowding on the trail.
Weather Has a Mind of Its Own
Then things started to change, and quickly. As I walked the gradual incline of the trail, I passed a few hikers heading swiftly in the other direction. The rain went from drizzling to near-pouring . The wind went from being present to being angry. I hiked faster and faster, tired, but knowing that if I just kept pushing, I’d get up and over this thing.
That’s where some mistakes started. In hindsight, I should have stopped and put my rain pants on, and maybe other layers of clothing, right then and there. But hindsight doesn’t exist in the moment. Maybe I wasn’t really comprehending how far I still had to go to get back under treeline, or how much harder it would continue to rain. I just kept on hiking as fast as I could, thinking that it would keep me warm enough and get me down fast.
I passed another group of hikers coming in the other direction – all three of them in full-on rain gear, hoods up, gloves on, looking like they were on an immediate mission to get out of the weather as we barely made eye contact.
Then again, just as quickly, the rain went from pouring to a horizontal deluge, the wind from angry to harsh strong gusts that were passing through my body like I was a ghost that it couldn’t see.
When most of us are walking in other places and this happens, we go inside or take some cover. The reason that this moment is so significant to me is that it’s the first time I really felt like I suddenly had a different and humbled perspective of these mountains. It all came rushing to me – what it actually means to be caught in the elements, completely exposed with no protection. What it actually means when people talk about hikers that run into trouble because they aren’t prepared for a difference in weather between the top and bottom of a mountain. What it actually means when we say that the tops of these mountains have weather of their own.
I pressed on, but started to feel that nervous energy forming inside my chest. This wind and rain were getting really intense compared to anything I had experienced before. The trail was becoming less visible. I started feeling those twinges in my hands and feet that signal they’re heading toward numbness. My rain jacket was useless at this point and had I even been carrying a hiking umbrella at that time, it would have rendered hopeless in the wind.
The Voice of Britney Spears Emerges
Then I heard it. Is that… Britney Spears?
Then I found myself humming along “You’re toxic, I’m slippin under…”
With what would usually be a sigh of annoyance on a hiking trail, I sighed with relief that I still had my sanity. I realized there were two hikers up ahead. I couldn’t see them, but they had to be right in front of me. I could hear their music blasting around gusts of wind, and their occasional hollers with that tone that they knew this was completely insane but they were somehow having the time of their lives. I was guided and comforted by the voice of Britney Spears for a few more minutes until I finally caught up and passed them. They looked like they were just out for the day, and the distraction faded as the seriousness of the situation amplified again.
The trail continued climbing and I kept moving, finally reaching the highest point of the ridge, Mt. Lafayette. My hands and feet were going numb at an alarming rate. I could barely see through my glasses and didn’t have a dry surface anywhere that I could wipe them on. Visibility was reduced to mere feet in front of me at times. Completely drenched and freezing every time the wind blew, I felt panic start to rise. It’s really hard to admit that.
In all of my hiking thus far, I felt a flash of fear. It was that split second twinge of a feeling that did the work for me of summarizing my adrenaline-laden thoughts: “I can’t feel my hands, I can’t feel my feet, I can’t see more than a few feet in front of me, I have a long way to go, Do I remember how to hit that emergency button on my inReach if I had to? Do I know where my inReach is in my pack since the clip broke? Can I even feel my hands enough to hit the emergency button on my inReach if I had to?”…you get the picture.
I countered that twinge of fear with a shouting thought in my head.
I actually stopped moving (maybe not smart in this scenario) and took two big slow breaths.
Then I kept walking. I knew that panic in this situation would make everything worse and I had to stop it.
Two other hikers passed me coming the other way, looking as miserable as I felt. We barely exchanged glances before they swiftly turned off down a side trail. I continued to follow the Appalachian Trail as it started descending. Rather than bringing me hope that I was now beginning the descent toward treeline where I would be more shielded from the elements, the other side of the peak met me with harder intense blasts of wind and rain. I don’t know what exactly was going through my head, but I think I realized that “keep going as fast as possible” was no longer a viable option.
I crouched down beside the next boulder I passed, dropped my pack and started to pull more layers out as quickly as possible. I couldn’t feel my fingers to the point that opening my pack and getting my jacket unzipped was a frightening challenge, but I kept telling myself to breathe and found myself thankful that I was experiencing the payoff of always keeping certain clothing items easily accessible.
In between bouts of vigorously rubbing my hands together I put my puffy jacket on under my rain jacket, got my rain pants on, and threw an extra pair of socks over my hands. The boulder was hardly a relief from the wind or rain, and not long after I set off from it, I fell. It was one of those glorious, swift but slow, no hope of stopping it type of falls. The weight of my pack brought me right down. I didn’t even know how it happened, but I blamed a trail covered in wet rocks coupled with numb feet, poor visibility, and wet glasses.
It’s crazy what the human psyche can do, because the first thing I did was glance around to see if anyone saw it happen. Rest assured, the image of that fall is only shared by myself and Mt. Lafayette.
I got up and kept going, trying to keep panic at bay and wondering how not very many minutes prior I was wearing a rain jacket and shorts, hiking in light drizzle in comfortable temperatures and didn’t recall anything of this caliber forecasted for this timeframe. I found myself starting to lose the trail in short bursts as the clouds would move around me leaving me only able to see a few feet in front of me. I followed the rock cairns that seem so blatantly obvious when in good weather on a clearly defined trail that it’s an incredibly humbling moment to grasp their full use.
I came to a point where I stopped in my tracks. The trail sort of seemed to drop off into an abyss of white. There was no real ledge and I knew that somewhere it kept descending over the little hump that I couldn’t see beyond. It was a strange moment though. I felt that pang of fear again: “Wow, I’m really truly losing the trail and having to look for it”. I didn’t have time to keep stopping to figure it out. I didn’t know how far treeline was in that moment and I didn’t have time to play guesswork with my numb extremities. These logical thoughts in the moment were sort of morphed into a bubble of a split-second decision that I just knew was the right one. I had to turn back.
As I stood at that dead-end trail illusion, I remembered that I saw those two hikers turn off at the top of Mt. Lafayette, and remembered that there was a side trail that lead a mile down to one of the white mountain huts. I had to get out of this pounding rain and relentless wind as fast as possible, and I had to go with the known rather than the unknown. I didn’t know exactly how far treeline was at this point if I proceeded on the Appalachian Trail, but I knew that a half-mile up, a right turn and a mile down would lead me to shelter, other people, and relief.
Anyone reading this who has long-distance hiked will understand this – turning around is really not something we think about often. There is always forward motion. Heck, we hikers get frustrated when we turn down the wrong side trail and have to backtrack an extra ten feet. “Extra” walking on a long hike can somehow just feel like a huge deal, so for me to turn around and go back up an ascending trail for a half-mile in terrible weather means that I felt it really, really had to happen.
That half-mile back up to the peak of Mt. Lafayette felt a lot more treacherous than it was, but I was also running on adrenaline to get me through. Once I reached it and started down the side trail, I still walked (stumbled) down the trail with purpose but knew that I would be ok. If I could just get there, the feeling would start to come back to my hands and feet. Upon approaching the hut, the weather already seemed to fade into a different world. The howling winds were light gusts and the rain a gentle patter again. I had to ask myself if I just imagined the whole thing.
This is the point where I would normally be socially anxious and stand outside the hut debating whether or not I really needed to stop in among a crowd of people inside, but there was no hesitation that day. I walked in to the group of tables full of hikers, most who likely were guests at the hut that night and not venturing out into the rain that day. I went up to the counter and asked one of the croo (the name for the people who staff the huts) what my thru-hiker pass could get me. I happily accepted a bowl of soup and sat down at a table among people who were much dryer than me.
Forgetting all that had just happened, self consciousness started to sink in again. But then:
“Hey, we saw you up there!”
The Britney hikers. This woman was getting started on her afternoon celebration beverages, pulling some liquor minis out. Looking dry and warm and ready to drink, I suddenly understood why they were hooting and hollering in the intense weather – they were about to head down to this hut at the time, where they were staying for the night, while in the same moment I knew I had a long way to go in the weather.
Another woman at the table side-eyed the conversation as she played cards with her young son, and I knew I was feeling a little better because my full self-conscious people-avoiding mode switched on in that moment. I drank the rest of my soup in one swift motion, asked the kind croo member behind the counter if she knew of any camp spots close by, and she directed me to a side trail that had promise of a stealth spot or two if I walked down it for about five minutes.
Stealth Camped for the Night
Walking back out into that rainy chill was amplified after stopping in the hut. The huts are not heated but are certainly warmer than outside, and I was ready to get out of that “just ate soup but still soaked and am now even colder” moment. I started down the side trail and came up to a small dirt tent clearing – one of those where I had to stop and ponder in a few different directions whether or not my one-person tent could actually fit there in this little oasis between the dense trees and moss of the whites.
The challenge didn’t end there – not until I got set up, stripped off all of my soaking wet clothes, and was inside my sleeping bag. The rain had stopped – thanks mother earth! – but the air of the woods hung damp, the mist littered with the occasional trickle of clinging rain from branch onto moss. No will to eat dinner for me, just a light snack. I was in for the rest of the evening, done as a doornail, the ache of the bruise from my fall finally starting to become noticeable. I eventually nodded off to sleep while I debated whether I misread that lucky dollar bill, or that the luck of the dollar bill helped get me through the day.
Now for those who read this far, I know there are going to be two approaches to this. Either: “What was this girl thinking, she was unprepared, she is making a big deal out of nothing.” Or “She knew what she was doing and made a lot of right decisions.” I’d really prefer not to have this debate, but the fact of the matter is that it’s a little bit of both.
Things I should have done:
- Put warmer layers on sooner.
- Not decided to send my gloves home because the weather had been warm for so long.
- Kept my inReach (a satellite device) on the outside of my pack, should I ever actually had to use it.
- Waited out the day of hiking because there was still a chance of bad weather.
- Turned back on the ridge sooner.
- Been more aware of what open exposure to strong wind and rain on a peak can feel like.
Had I done these things, the weather wouldn’t have been any different but the memory of this day might not be so intense.
Things I did right:
- Discussed my options that morning with someone familiar with the area.
- Actively calmed myself.
- Recognized when I absolutely had to put more layers on.
- Sought what shelter I could behind a boulder to put said layers on.
- Had an inReach (a satellite device) as a last resort, and had the FarOut app (a trail guide) to help determine where I was.
- Knew to follow cairns when the trail wasn’t easily visible.
- Was aware of side trails and bail-out options.
- Made the decision to go with the known rather than the unknown and stayed humble enough to backtrack.
- Kept my sleeping bag and sleep clothes completely dry.
I’m sharing this because it was so memorable and humbling to me and I just never got around to writing it. This was in July, after a lot of summer hiking in warmer weather. I’m hoping to remind hikers that even when we’ve been out on the trail a while, we can’t always just power through. Exposed areas and weather need to be taken seriously – the people who grew up hiking in The Whites know the caliber of this. Sometimes it’s also better not to plan each day between resupply points with maximum miles in case you lose a lot of miles like I did on that day.
I’ve realized that the more experienced I become in hiking, I’m finding it a trait of experienced hikers to wait out bad weather rather than to always feel the need to push through it because they’re tough, or “prove something”.
I’m hoping to remind everyone how being prepared is important, even on a day hike when heading to exposed sections of trail because the weather really can change that fast.
I never felt that I was in true life-threatening danger and had decision-making preparedness and layers with me on a well-trafficked trail (Dad, really, I was fine). But I was slapped in the face with the understanding of how we hikers could so easily be in danger if not properly prepared.
It’s something we all hear, but a truly humbling experience to finally brush up against that lesson firsthand.
I’m writing this ten months later. Through more rainy days and washing machines, the lucky dollar has never left the pocket of my rain jacket.
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