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Mt Garfield Dream


Mt Garfield Dream

a cold May storm comes to the mountains     

It was May in the mid 1980’s and Bob Herman and I were once again in the parking lot at the entrance to the Wilderness Trail, preparing for another adventure. We had four days at our disposal and no hard and fast itinerary, just the way we liked it. Our destination today was the 13 Falls Campsite, some eight miles by trail to the north. We readied our packs as we stood at the tailgate of my truck in a steady, if light, rain. We had enough gear to get through a variety of weather situations, and as usual, we were well prepared on the provisions front. We carried a couple of frozen steaks for the first two nights, fresh potatoes and vegetables as well. We had two plastic containers of wine and fine dark rum similarly encased. We had dehydrated backpacking meals, good coffee, bagels, peanut butter, and plenty of instant lemonade. We had a backpacking tent to share, and a lightweight stove with plenty of fuel.
We started up the Wilderness Trail in mid-morning. I wore an unlined mountain parka with the zipper openings in the underarm pulled wide open. Though the parka had an attached hood, I wore a wide-brim hat; it was better at keeping the rain off my glasses and much cooler as well. Even though the air was cool and it was raining, I always work up a killer sweat carrying a full load at the start of a trip. I wore a light polypro top under the parka, nylon shorts, and a pair of gaiters over my socks and boots. Bob dressed in a similar manner.
We covered the flat three miles to Franconia Brook Camp in less than two hours, and stopped there for lunch. We stood on the narrow suspension bridge over Franconia Brook and ate a bagel and peanut butter sandwich. The water was high and rough beneath the bridge, and we watched as the torrent roiled and rolled towards the Pemigewasset River.
We hoisted our packs and continued on our way. Shortly after the bridge, the Wilderness Trail made a hard right turn to the east and we continued north on the Franconia Brook Trail towards the 13 Falls Campsite some five miles ahead. The trail followed an old railroad grade up to the campsite, which consisted of six tent platforms and one outhouse.
We passed the old Camp 9 railroad site and then passed the trail junction where the Lincoln Brook Trail diverged left (west). The Lincoln Brook Trail eventually turns to the north and crosses a height of land at about 3200’ before descending to the east and ending at the Franconia Brook Trail and 13 Falls Campsite. That route also led to a junction where a trail ascended to the wooded summit of the innocuous Owls Head. The Owls Head is a nondescript peak climbed mainly because the summit is one of the official 4000 footers; this reason alone puts the mountain on every peak-bagger’s list. The Lincoln Brook Trail and the Franconia Brook Trail together form a large oval within the great basin of the northern Pemigewasset Wilderness; a basin bordered by the Franconia Ridge on the west, the Garfield Ridge to the north, and the range of mountains that included the Twins and the Bonds on the east.
Farther up the Franconia Brook Trail we came to Hellgate Brook, a hard-running stream that came down from the watershed of the Bonds, high above us in the clouds to our right. It was May and the snow cover was still deep on the ground in the high forest, so rain and snowmelt made stream crossings challenging. We found our way across and continued north. We crossed Redrock Brook and the trail soon turned to the west and arrived at the 13 Falls Campsite at the head of the basin, some 2200’ above sea level.
At one time a shelter was located here, but the Forest Service removed it. Shelters were becoming destinations for large numbers of hikers and this traffic was having a negative impact on the vegetation in some areas. Because of this, the Forest Service was slowly dismantling selected shelters within the White Mountains. Tent platforms were flat wooden structures about a foot off the ground; they consisted of wooden slats nailed to a frame about an inch apart. This space between the slats gave good drainage in the rain, and the platforms prevented the ground damage some people inflicted when pitching their tents in wet weather. However, these platforms were also causing problems as more hikers than available platforms also had an impact on an area.
I set up the tent on the platform in the rain, and quickly attached the rain-fly to the aluminum poles of the tent. Then I tied the tent to the platform with nylon rope. I put the waterproof ground cloth inside the tent. I laughed when I thought about the many times I saw hikers put the ground cloth under the tent. Once water got between the tent and the ground cloth it had nowhere to go but up through the floor of the tent to soak whatever was within. New tents even came with setup instruction directing the hiker to put the ground cloth down first, but the tent manufacturers cared more about not ripping the tent than they did in keeping you dry. Even the ground provides some drainage; a tent platform provides excellent drainage. No matter how wet the bottom of your tent may become, if you have a good waterproof ground cloth inside, you can sleep warm and dry.
I put our sleeping pads and bags inside the tent, and some bags of clothes as well. The packs would remain outside under their rain covers. We put on dry leggings and tops, and I pulled out my stove and boiled water for glasses of hot lemonade with rum: warmth soon came from the liquid within and from dry clothes against our skin.
Bob took the folding saw and went for firewood. I used my knife to make some dry pieces of wood look like pinecones, cutting into the dry core and pulling one end up. I had fire starters in my pack, and we found some chunks of pine pitch as well. We never have a problem with making a fire, even in the rain; all it takes is patience and preparation. I propped up a piece of wood as protection for the fire, an old half of a bark-less log whose core had been eaten away, its shape of a half-circle forming a hood over the fire pit. I pressed some flat stones into the wet ash of the pit and built up a mound of dry wood, pitch, and fire starters. In a few minutes, we were feeding bigger sticks into the flame, then bigger still. Soon we had a comfortable fire going, and while I stoked the flames higher, Bob continued foraging until we had a large supply of dry wood stacked and ready to go.
After enjoying the fire and a drink, we wrapped potatoes in tinfoil and baked them in the coals of the fire, and I fried up some peppers and onion in a small frying pan. We cooked steaks and, as the day grew dark, we enjoyed a fine cabernet with our dinner. We were the only group at the campsite. We let the fire burn down and, when it was time to sleep, I sat the log we used to protect the fire on some rocks over the coals to keep the area dry. We fell asleep far from any road, listening to the wind and the rain buffet the tent.
In the morning, the rain came down harder than the previous day. We made the required trip to the outhouse and I made coffee at the open door of the tent. Breakfast was two large bowls of instant oatmeal and more hot coffee. After breakfast, we lay on our bags within the tent looking at the rain coming down in the forest.
We discussed our options. Conditions certainly did not look good up high, the clouds were down low on the slopes of the ridges and the wind and rain was more intense than the day before. We decided to stick it out here for one more day. Come tomorrow, whatever the weather, we would continue up the Franconia Brook Trail to its terminus at the Garfield Ridge Trail, about 3500’ in elevation. Then we would ascend the cone of Mt Garfield until we reached the side trail to Garfield Shelter, about a half mile below the summit. The shelter slept 12, and it would be a pleasure to sleep in a spacious shelter instead of a wet and confining tent. If the shelter was full, tent platforms sat nearby. In the mountains, you never knew what the weather would bring, and you had to be flexible.
We spent the day exploring the area around the falls and we went up the Lincoln Brook Trail to the height of land. We built a large fire in mid-afternoon and we were content to be warm and dry at the camp. We enjoyed a few drinks and another fine dinner. We retired to the tent and let the rain put the fire out. We fell asleep wondering what tomorrow would bring.
The morning was wet and windy, but the intensity of the rain had definitely subsided. We had coffee and oatmeal and then started to pack up our gear in preparation for leaving. We were in no rush, we were not traveling far, and perhaps the weather would improve. Like the first day, I wore my parka and light top, shorts, and gaiters. We put reserve clothes in waterproof bags in our packs. We relaxed with one more coffee made in the shelter of our tent. After finishing, I packed up the tent and ground cloth and secured it to the pack.
Hoisting the packs up on to our backs, we headed up the Franconia Brook Trail for Garfield Ridge, over two miles away and 1300’ in elevation above us. The Garfield Ridge Trail was one of the rough and scenic wonders of the White Mountains. Part of the Appalachian Trail for its entire length, it starts at the summit of Mt Lafayette (5249’) and descends the rugged north ridge, working its way on the crest of the ridge to eventually climb up the rocky and exposed summit cone of Mt Garfield (4488’). Departing the summit, the trail steeply descends the east side of the rocky cone. Leaving the vertical portion of Mt Garfield, the trail then works its way across the crest of the Garfield Ridge following a rough and jumbled footway that includes many minor ascents and descents. The trail ends six and a half miles from its beginning at Galehead Hut. I looked up high at the clouds obscuring the Garfield Ridge ahead; it did not look good.
We continued up the trail, working up a sweat carrying the still heavy packs uphill. The weather was turning noticeably colder, and the rain picked up again. Bob put on a plastic rain top. We came to the point where the trail crossed to the west side of the brook; the water was high and rushing and we could not cross. We bushwhacked up the brook to the north looking for a fallen tree or rocks that would provide us with a suitable place to cross, but we found nothing. We retraced our steps downstream to the trail. Bob’s plastic top was in tatters from bushwhacking through the brush. The temperature was still dropping, and the rain was coming down hard.
“Okay,” I said. ”Here’s the plan. I’m gonna take my socks off and put my boots back on. Then I’m going to carry my pack across without the waist belt fastened, so I can get my pack off if I fall into the stream. You stay here with your pack off, and be ready to come and get me if I fall and get into trouble. When I get to the other side, you do the same and I’ll wait for you to cross”
He nodded and pulled off his pack, and I removed my socks and fastened my boots back on my feet. I put the straps of my pack over my shoulders and, with the waist belt dangling, stepped into the torrent. The brook was about fifteen or twenty feet across, and the ice cold water was quickly over my knees. I couldn’t see where to step; I just slowly felt my way across. I was relieved when I stepped onto the far bank. I dropped my pack and stood guard as Bob followed me across in the same manner. We took off our boots and put our dry socks back on our feet. I put on some light nylon chaps over my exposed legs; they would give me a little protection from the rain and wind. We continued up the trail, a trail now growing steeper. Flecks of freezing rain and snow were now evident and, as we climbed higher, the precipitation turned to snow.
On top of the ridge, it was very cold and windy, and the snow was a heavy wet variety. I put on the leather outer shells of my gloves, trying to keep the wool inserts dry for now. We went west on the ridge for a short distance, and then started up the steep and rocky cone of Garfield. The trail was wet. In some places ice-cold water flowed down over the rocky chute of the trail and splashed over our hands and legs. I began to worry, my hands felt like clubs.

“What if the shelter isn’t there anymore?” I asked Bob. “I’d have a hard time with a tent right now, I can tell you that.”

“Let’s worry about that later,” came the reply. “Let’s just get there, and then we’ll see.”
I looked at Bob standing next to me in the driving wet snow, the reassuring sight of my redoubtable friend providing no small comfort there on the steep trail leading up Garfield. My long-time friend and companion on many adventures, he was a brave and steadfast companion. We continued up through the storm on the steep and rocky footway.
Finally, we saw the sign indicating we were at the side trail to the shelter. We turned right and followed it through the trees. Then, looming up out of the horizontal snow, we saw the long squat shape of the shelter. We walked up to the shelter’s opening in the middle of the structure; a clear sheet of plastic was secured across it; someone else was inside. We announced ourselves and heard a grunt from within. Ten seconds went by and we stood outside in the driving snow. “Hey come on,” I said, aggravated. “Open this up or we’ll cut it open.” A figure appeared and pulled the plastic back, and Bob and I scrambled in. It was cold, but it was dry and clean, and we could stand erect inside; we were in heaven.
Two guys were inside and had their sleeping bags spread out in the left corner. They had come over Lafayette from the Liberty Spring Campsite and, like us, were freezing cold and wet when they reached the shelter. Their stove wouldn’t work, so they put on dry clothes and crawled into their sleeping bags to get warm. Soon, they began to doze off. That explained the delay when we arrived at the plastic. Bob and I dropped our packs and put on dry leggings and tops, along with a heavy sweater and hat. Then I reached into my pack and pulled out my backpacking stove, and held it out in front of me for them to see.
“Man, you are definitely welcome here,” said one. I fired up the stove and quickly had water boiling for lemonade. “Let us contribute something,” he said, and passed me a plastic bottle. I opened the top, the smell of fine bourbon surging up my nose.
“You, sir, are a gentleman,” I replied, tipping back the flask as a warm bolt of bourbon spread through my stomach. I pulled the dark rum out of my pack and set the flask on the floor between us to share.
In a few moments, we all had hot drinks in our hands and shared chocolates, nuts, and other delicacies between us. We told them our story of hiking into 13 Falls, and of our adventure crossing the brook on our way up the trail to the shelter. They shared their story of camping at Liberty Spring. I gave them credit for coming over the summits of Lincoln and Lafayette in these conditions. They were already camped at 3800’, so it did not take a lot of effort for them to gain the ridge. They left early in the morning and planned to camp somewhere on the Garfield Ridge later in the day. By the time they hiked off the north ridge of Lafayette they were cold and thoroughly wet, so they pressed on with the thought of this shelter in mind. It stopped being fun when they arrived at the shelter and the stove decided not to work. Those problems now seemed part of a distant past as we sat together with a hot whiskey and lemonade in our hands. They were good people, and they had many similarities to Bob and me. We were quickly friends.
From outside the shelter came the sound of other voices, light voices just discernable over the wind. “Alright, women,” I said. Not quite. A group of young boy scouts from Montreal appeared at the opening and scrambled into the shelter, safe now from the wind and the storm that raged outside. There were ten of them, three adults and seven boys. The four of us pushed into our corner to make more room available for them, and we pulled our packs over to rest at our feet.
Another group of two hikers showed up, and they had a dog with them. Soon after, three more hikers appeared at the shelter opening. This was beginning to look like the ship’s cabin scene in the Marx Brother’s movie ‘A Night at the Opera’. The twelve-person shelter now held nineteen people with all their packs and wet gear, and one wet dog as well.
It was a memorable night. The scouts sang French hiking songs, and we all laughed and told stories. The dog stood up occasionally to bark at the storm raging outside of the plastic barrier. As far as being at the shelter went, everyone had pretty much the same story to tell. As the storm worsened, people’s plans changed from camping out to making their way to this shelter. We shared food and drink with the others and they in turn reached into their packs to share with us. The storm continued to blow against the outside walls of the shelter. The efforts of the day were becoming evident and people were drifting in and out of sleep. Throughout the night, the dog continued to bark at the unseen ghosts swirling in the wind. I dozed, too.
As far as sleep was concerned, it was at best a fitful night. We were jammed together, nineteen of us and a dog. Someone always had a good snore going and someone was always getting up to make the trip outside to relieve themselves; this task required the person to turn on a flashlight inside the shelter as well, because the bodies were too close together to navigate through in the dark. The wind rattled the plastic stretched across the doorway incessantly and strange noises from the wind whistling through the trees outside added to the cacophony. Repeatedly, on some unknown impulse, the dog would raise its head to snarl and bark at some unseen threat outside in the dark. This would always raise a hushed “quiet” or “shut up” from the dog’s companions, or an occasional smack on the top of its head. Then the dog would have to get up and walk around in a tight circle before collapsing back down on its side, head pointing at the door. At times, I would start laughing in my sleeping bag as the shelter seemed one large snoring, grunting, farting, wheezing, and barking organism with a life of its own, its heart beating in the dark beside me. But I also felt, like everyone else, grateful for what the shelter provided that night, and very happy to be within its walls.   
Around 4:00am someone announced the storm had broken and the views outside were pretty awesome. The four of us put on our boots and went outside. The weather was crisp and breezy, but we had dry and warm clothes on. About five inches of heavy wet snow was on the ground and in the trees. Looking across to the Twin Mountains and the Bonds, the first indication of the coming dawn was now visible above the ridge. I pulled out my stove and boiled water for coffee. Others followed suit. Soon a fire was going in the rock circle before the shelter. With hot coffee in hand, we watched the sun finally break over the great ridgeline to the east. The views of the surrounding mountains covered by a new mantle of snow were wondrous. The day warmed quickly, and the snow started to melt. The scouts made a large pot of something for a communal breakfast; all I can say about the food in the pot is that it was hot.
Soon we prepared to leave. Bob and I took the offer extended by the two hikers we met when we first arrived; we would climb to the summit of Garfield with them and later hike down to their car. Following that, they would drop us at my truck down on the Kancamaugus Highway. I saw no reason not to accept their offer, the ground was soaked and the trees were dripping wet, and we knew the water crossings we had navigated previously down below would not be any easier today, they would probably be worse. That decided, we joined them on a climb to the summit of Garfield and watched as the snow quickly melted from the bare summits around us. Then we accompanied them down the Garfield Trail to their car parked at the trailhead. We found out later we had one more wet stream crossing to deal with, a crossing of the Gale River. By then, though, we were almost at the car. Later, they shuttled us to my truck at the Wilderness Trail parking lot. We chatted for a few minutes and shook hands, and then they were gone. Bob and I started up the truck and in a few minutes, we were heading south for home.

The trip had been such a unique experience. You cannot plan a trip like ours, but you can be ready to embrace and enjoy it when such an opportunity presents itself. When I look back on those three nights in May with Bob, it seems ethereal, as if those nights all transpired in a strange and magical dream.


Laudizen King
Nov 2007