Making the decision to turn back on a hike is harder than making the decision to hike a certain trail.
Today was a bluebird day in the Whites. Absolutely perfect for summitting. Albeit a bit chilly (10 degrees at the trailhead even in the late morning). You could see for miles today. What a perfect day to finally tackle Franconia Ridge, which I kid you not I’ve had my eye on for years.
I did my research. Planned my route – Falling Waters Trail up to Franconia Ridge trail down Greenleaf to old Bridle Path and end. Falling Waters Trail is, of course, tricky particularly in high water. Which I knew. But that was fine, it’s known to be a better ascent than descent. I wasn’t going to sunrise so that would eliminate part of some stress. And if conditions weren’t great on the ridge, we could always bag Little Haystack and head back down.
I was prepared. I had micro spikes, two beanies varying in warmth, liner gloves, gortex gloves, a face mask, ski goggles, extra socks, sweatshirt, double leggings, extra food, fire starters, hot hands (and feet), extra water, mushers secret (for Mav), gps, compass, the works. You can’t be too prepared in the Whites, especially in winter.
And I definitely wasn’t too prepared.
We took a late start for us, around 8am, and headed up Falling Waters Trail. I guess I hadn’t thought too much about if water would be high or not, just because it’s winter, but I suppose it is high. The first river crossing came soon, and we trekked up off the trail to a section of the river that was more iced over and seemed like a sturdier area to cross. Crossing any rushing mountain river though, isn’t exactly smart. You can never trust ice on a moving river too much, especially one like this. But we made it unscathed (despite Maverick screaming like a banshee…he has a tendency to whine as if it’s the end of the world at any minor inconvenience). The second river crossing didn’t go as smoothly. Despite thinking this section seemed a bit calmer, and therefore the ice seemed thicker, my foot went straight through at one point. I was up past my ankle in icy water.
One thing I will fully admit to being stupid about is my footwear in winter. My favorite, trusty hiking shoes I love so much I walked across Spain in (though I have a new pair of the same kind now) are not waterproof. I know I need to invest in a good waterproof boot for winter hiking, but I haven’t suffered from my oversight yet. Til today. While I was, of course, soaked, I knew if I kept moving it was okay. As long as I kept going, my foot stayed warm. Was I worried about the temperature being below zero with wind on the ridge? Yes. I knew this wasn’t ideal. But we pushed on, me grumbling to Maverick that if this trail tried to tell us to cross the river one more time I was out.
We passed by some gorgeous falls, though I think I was a little grumpy with them to fully embrace their beauty at the time, and climbed steeply beside them. The whole trail was ice under the crunchy snow, especially on these steep sections. We had almost reached the top of one falls section when I lost traction. My foot slipped, and then my other, and suddenly I was falling. Far. My hands scrambled in front of me for something, anything, to grab on to to keep myself from falling further down this ravine. But my arms just swung over sheer ice and I continued to slide down. I think I kind of just accepted the fact that I was falling then, and I wasn’t sure when I would stop. Would the bottom hurt? Would it be freezing cold? Would I crash into the base of the falls? Straight into water? Luckily, my boot caught on rock and I was able to cling to a tree beside the rock edge. Maverick came skittering to the edge of where my fall had started and I suddenly panicked, already picturing him sliding down this same slope.
Luckily, he listened when I begged him to stay and told him to move off to the other side. And then I had to somehow pull myself up out of this gulley without falling further down to the base of the falls below. Now clear of the snow that had been covering it, the ravine I had just slid down was glare ice. My little baby microspikes hadn’t been able to cut it. I hauled myself back onto the trail beside Maverick and stood again, this time with more care, before pushing forward once more. Only this time, my hands were grabbing for trees along the trail as I went.
Not even 100 yards from my slip, we reached the top of the falls and sure enough, those blue blazes of Falling Waters Trail continued on the other side of the bank. I looked down at Maverick. He whined for me to throw a baby stick he had just dropped by my feet. I backed up into the trees and debated our next move.
There were two ways that it looked like people had chosen to cross this section of rapids. Both would require a jump, or at least a very large step. I was cold. Snow coated my legs from my recent fall. My boot that had broken through the ice was frozen solid. Maverick whined, not knowing why we were stopped. I called him back from the edge of the ice where the rushing water refused to freeze in this section. Even if I could make the jump, what about Mav? He had a tendency to panic and then charge forward at tricky parts. If he did that here, what if he slipped? What if I jumped and slipped? See the thing is here, at the head of the falls, if you slipped and made a mistake at a winter crossing here it wasn’t “aw shucks I got wet” it was “well shit. I’m dead” or at best, you’re lying at the base of a frozen waterfall 2 miles up a trail in winter, probably severely broken. And that was the reality of it. There wasn’t room for mistakes here with the ice and rushing water.
While I stood there debating, a man (probably in his late 50s) walked on by, with his trekking poles and crampons, and calmly placed his poles in the river, dug in one boot with crampons on one side, and stretched out a leg to step over and cling into the ice on the other side. And off he went. Easy as pie. I cocked my head as I watched him disappear up the trail like that crossing was nothing. Okay. So he made it look easy. But I didn’t have poles. And clearly, my microspikes weren’t cutting it this winter hike. And even if I somehow managed to make it, what about Maverick?
Because Maverick always matters more than me. And if anything happened to him, anything at all, I wouldn’t ever be able to forgive myself. And that was all it took to turn us around. We hadn’t even gone 2 hours up. We hadn’t summitted a single peak, let alone the 3 I had hoped for that day. We would miss out on the bluebird day I was so looking forward to.
I could be mad. I could kick myself for being unprepared-not owning crampons or waterproof boots. I could be upset I had chosen to try Falling Waters Trail up when I could have just done Old Bridal Path and summitted Lafayette today. I could feel like a failure. Making the decision to bail sucks. It’s hard. You question it for the rest of the day, wishing things were different. But in the end, I know I made the right decision. Some risks are great, they push you, they show you what you’re capable of. But some are just stupid. I could be upset at myself for making the decision to bail, but I would be so much more upset had I made the decision to push on and something bad happened.
Ultimately, I got to spend a morning in the White Mountains with my dog. I got to hike up snowy trails and listen to water cascading down icy rivers. I got to watch the sun light up the trees and reflect off the iced over falls. I got to meet some nice people and laugh with my dog and simply be alive. So really, I may not have reached a summit, but I still did what I set out to today.