Sunday, February 7, 2010

2-6-10 Mt. Lafayette in winter

Saturday morning I was aiming to climb Mt. Washington via the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail wanting to visit Lakes of the Clouds but I got a late start from home and as I topped Sugar Hill in Franconia and looked across to the Presidential Range it didn't look very inviting. Morning clouds hovered low on Mt. Washington and the sky was the color of aluminum flashing. It looked cold and grim. Lafayette looked the same but was 40 minutes closer. At Lafayette Place parking lot the wind was tearing through Franconia Notch and roaring through the trees making the whole idea of climbing unappealing. At this point one says, "well, I'll get on the trail and if I don't like it I'll turn around." Once on the trail, though, it wasn't so bad even with a 30 mph hour wind and a temperature a few degrees below zero. This photo was taken 300 yards up the trail with a pale sun beginning to emerge through the morning clouds. The lower portion of the Bridle Path switchbacks through old hardwoods; birch, beech and sugar maples, and is enchanting. The name Bridle Path goes back to the 19th century when the trail, like the Crawford Path, was used by guides who brought their clients to the summit on horseback. There was even a hotel on top.

This is a famous boulder that's had various names over the years due to its distinctive shape. It's interesting because of the sheer face that is typical of granite, an igneous rock, which cleaves along fairly straight lines.

This boulder, a neighbor of the one above, is in the process of cleaving in several places on its four faces including along the straight crack in the photo below. The boulders are probably not glacial erratics although I'm not positive about that. They could easily have mass wasted from the ridge above.

This crack has not changed in any measurable way for as long as I've been around the mountains. In the next couple of months I will introduce two papers on the geology of the Franconia-Kinsman quadrangle that are really interesting.

This hieroglyphic is a story about a small mouse, peromyscus leucopus, taking a perilous journey somewhere. I saw ample evidence of animal activity lower down on the mountain in the form of fresh tracks like these in the fresh snow. I saw moose tracks and a lot of snowshoe hare tracks.

The view of Mt. Lafayette from the corner at half way on the Bridle Path. The view is towards the summit of Lafayette across Walker Ravine.

Mt. Lincoln from half way corner. Roughly in the center of the photo is an hour glass-shaped gully that has become a popular place for ice climbing. I talked to several French Canadian climbers in the parking lot who were setting out to ice climb in this gully and referred to it as "The Throat", it's popular name, which presumably means Lincoln's throat.

This is the view as the Bridle Path gains the ridge and it's looking up at the summit of Mt. Lafayette across Walker Ravine with the protective "arm" of the ridge coming down from high up on the mountain and seemingly enclosing the ravine. The geology here is complex. The ridge is mass wasting fairly quickly (in geologic time) as seen by the land slide tracks all the way up to and including the Walker Ravine headwall.

The geology here is similar in many ways to that of Mt. Washington and the Presidential Range with major differences in the bed rock including, as noted, granite instead of Littleton Schist. In the foreground is some of the granite that comprises the ridge. Locally and specifically on nearby Cannon Cliffs the granite is intersected by dikes of other intrusive igneous minerals. On the ridge in the photo, further up by the first 'bump' you can see, there's a place locally referred to as "red rock" because the bed rock there is discolored by iron oxide. It's located at what is called 'first agony' because its a relatively steep part of the trail and it's often slippery so it's agonizing if your hiking with a heavy pack. Looking further up the ridge you can count four 'agonies' along the ridge all the way up to the knoll where Greenleaf Hut is located.

Looking at the forest in Walker it's important to remember that it was completely logged off about 100 years ago. It's no longer possible to see the parallel lines of the 'dug-way' logging roads that extended up the steep slopes to a point just below the headwall of Walker Ravine. Everything you see in terms of vegetation is the new growth since 1903-1907.

A closer look at the head wall with its impressive gullies. Snow increases in these gullies towards the end of winter and into late March. In a few recent winters enough snow has blown in on prevailing winds to allow for some hair raising skiing. In the winter of 1999-2000 there was enough snow in the central and right hand gullies to make the skiing in both spectacular. The only problem is getting back out of the ravine at the end of the day.

Looking west from the top of Red Rock (or First Agony). That's Lonesome Lake across Franconia Notch in the center of the photo (the small sliver of white). You can just make out Lonesome Lake Hut in a small clearing on the far shore of the lake. Mt. Moosilaukee is in the distance to the left and South and North Kinsman are in the center.

Speaking to a small group of hut croo and guests one summer evening at Greenleaf Hut in the early 1960s, geologist Marvin Billings, was explaining the early geologic history of the White Mountains and told us that at one time the White Mountains may have been as high as the Alps of Europe and he gestured towards Mt. Moosilaukee commenting that at one time millions of years ago it may have been more than 18,000 feet in altitude, almost as high as Denali (Mt. McKinley) is today. To me, a highly impressionable high school-aged kid, Billing's observation filled me with awe and excitement and I remember wishing it were true in the present time frame.

And speaking of granite and the Cannon Cliffs this is a compressed view from First Agony. The granite here is superb for climbing and thus it's a popular, and sometimes deadly rocking climbing haven. You can see by the long talus slopes at the bottom of the cliff that the rock is mass wasting at a rapid pace. The famous "Old Man of the Mountains", a unique rock formation that's still serving as New Hampshire's state seal, once jutted out from these cliffs a little to the left of this photo. It collapsed a few years ago. The 'arches' and overhangs visible in the rock face indicate where the rocks in the talus originated. Most of this 'quarrying' is related to frost and freeze thaw cycles but slabs of rock are known to come down off the cliff throughout the year.

Because of the extreme exposure of the ridge to high winds there are numerous dead zones of balsam fir like this one, often referred to as "Fir Waves", that form a visual pattern discussed earlier in the blog. Seen from a distance they appear as a wave-like patch of gray on the upper slopes of mountains exposed to violent winds. One aspect of these die-back sites is the presence of resurgent young balsams like those on the right.

The Bridle Path near the top of the ridge. On Saturday it was a wonderland of snow draped balsams that occasionally opened up....

in a few places into enticing glades.

Greenleaf Hut (operated from May to early October by the Appalachian Mt. Club) sits at the top of the ridge with this lovely view of North Layfayette on the left and the summit of Mt. Lafayette on the right. The summit of Lafayette is 5,260 feet above sea level.

North Lafayette from the north end of Eagle Lake. It was about 11:30 am when I took this photo and the temperature was -8 degrees (F) and, although it's impossible to see, the wind was around 30 mph. It was bitterly cold due largely to the wind and my bare hand got frostbitten in about 45 seconds when I took it out of my glove to take pictures.

Looking up at the hut from Eagle Lake.

I took this photo of Eagle Lake and Greenleaf Hut 40 years ago. Linus Story, who worked at Greenleaf for several summers in the early 1960s and I used to enjoy winter camping here during our college years. The objects in the center foreground are propane gas cylinders for the hut stoves that were dropped there by helicopter.

The snow was deeper in the 1970 photo accounting for the perception that the balsam fir and red spruce were shorter. The tree heights haven't changed a lot, but that's conjecture on my part. Certainly between the two photos there is the correct impression that on the right side of the hut the trees are denser in population and taller in photo taken Saturday (2-6-10).

Looking up at the hut from Eagle Lake in 1970.

Linus, on the ice, adjusting a snowshoe strap. I included this photo so you can compare the site today in the two photos below.

This is the slope as it looks today that is to the right and behind Linus.

This is the slope to the left and behind Linus in the picture from 1970. As you can see little has changed during those 40 years (except, or course, Linus and I as we slowly age). In this photo you get some idea of the wind that was racing across the lake.

Two different grasses growing on the margins of Eagle Lake that can withstand the arctic-like winter. In 1965 I helped my friend and colleague Lawrence "Larry" Collins in a limnological study of the aquatic plants growing on the bottom of Eagle Lake and Lakes of the Clouds by using scuba equipment to make detailed, accurate counts of plant species growing on the lake bottoms. Larry used the research in his master thesis at Dartmouth but it has never been published.

The wind makes these patterns in the snow referred to as "sastrugi" (zastruga, sastruga) which can be long ridges or shorter horseshoe shapes like these.

This summer (2010) I hope to repeat the research Larry completed in 1965 to see if the aquatic plant population, at least the dominant species, has changed or shifted during the last 4 decades.

A hiker well dressed for the cold just below the 1st knoll on the last mile up to the summit of Mt. Lafayette. I was surprised by the number of hikers on the mountain inspite of the intense cold. This hiker was from a town at the foot of the mountain but most that I talked to were French Canadians from Quebec.

Despite the cold it's impossible not to stop to ooogle the beauty and here it's the snow against the dark greens illuminated by the lovely, soft February sunlight.

The balsams here are located on the slope just above the lake. They're tall, in the range of 14-18 feet, and it's likely due to their location in a wind protected area that's part of a depression at this elevation on the mountain formed by the higher ridge where the hut sits and the slope extending upwards towards a knoll that's level with the hut.

This is the view from that knoll. The horizon extends into Vermont, New York and Quebec. The balsam fir and black spruce, are low to the ground here, almost like krummholz, because they're exposed to the extreme winds that come down that expanse from Quebec unhindered. Other factors are present, such as poor soils on the knoll, but it is mainly the wind that limits their growthhere. The altitude where this photo was taken is roughly 4500 which is a little low for the beginning of a timberline effect.

Looking due West at about the same elevation as Cannon and the Kinsmans. In fact, it looks like there's a continuous ridge all the way over to the Kinsmans. North Kinsman is 4,293 feet, South Kinsman (on left) is 4,358 feet, and Cannon is 4,100 feet in elevation. Cannon is the home of the Cannon Mt. Tramway and Cannon Mt. Ski Area, a state park and home of Olympic skier Bode Miller.

Behind the first knoll there's a second depression and another wind protected area where the trees are, again, roughly 14-18 feet tall. So this is not really related to timberline at this point but a transition zone that, due to the high winds, correlates to the typical climate-type associated with timberline.

This is black spruce which we associate with the timberline areas of the White Mountains and that, like the balsam fir, can withstand the extreme climate. This tolerance for the arctic weather is an adaptation that takes place at the molecular level in these trees and is fascinating .

Adaptations to arctic temperatures in humans doesn't take place at the molecular level. Trees do not experience windchill. In humans the adaptation involves things like polyprop, wool, and state of the art windproof fabrics used in climbing pants and parkas. This hiker was part of a small group from Quebec who were on Lafayette for the first time.

This is a member of the group who was a bit less stylish but certainly comfortable.

This is the top of knoll #2 just below the long traverse across the base of the summit cone on Lafayette. This guy looked like a Ninja. Mercifully my camera battery died at this point. It seemed premature and was probably due to the cold as much as anything. It was a blessing because my hand was getting minor frostbite from holding the camera barehanded.

After the camera battery rested for an hour or so while I summited and descended back down to the ridge a little after noon when it had warmed up a bit I was able to take a few more pictures including this one of Franconia Ridge with the warm afternoon light on it. The ridge integrates with the Bridle Path/Greenleaf Trail up Lafayette, the Franconia Ridge Trail from Lafayette across the ridge to Lincoln and a bit further to the top of Mt. Haystack and then down the Falling Waters Trail to the parking lot. It's roughly a 9 mile-long loop with spectacular views.

The sunlight in February, as the sun climbs a little higher in the northern sky, is lovely (I think) and makes the afternoon descents from the cold, high summits (where its definitely winter), feel a little warmer, at least enough to pause occasionally to enjoy the woods.

I wish I could paint! I'd particularly like to be good with watercolors and skilled enough to get these patterns of shadows on the snow in the afternoon light. There's a strong relationship between my wanting to paint this light and my love of the mountains. Or, maybe my love of art in general connects me with the mountains. I include music as well as painting as they all seem inseparable. At any rate the mountain light like the sunlight and shadows on the snow in these photos touches me deeply. It makes me want to spend hours in museums looking at paintings like I used to do in college. Recently I've been balancing weekends in the mountains with long winter Saturdays in New York City feeding my appetite for art as well as good Indian food. It's a satisfying way to spend a day.


Ari said...

Flea is open through October (or was, at least, last year). [from your trusty copyeditor :)]

Alex MacPhail said...

Hey Ari, you're absolutely right, as always. Thanks. Try to get back for some winter climbing. Andrew must have a vacation coming up soon and we could do Hellgate Brook in winter! All best, Alex