October 7-12, 1926: Franconia Range trip report

OCTOBER 11th

And this was the day we were going to do the Knife-edge! There had been thick mist during the night, although once we had waked up to see a star, Jupiter, shining sometimes brilliantly, sometimes only half-heartedly through thin wisps. But the mountains were all clear below the four thousand foot level. Above that there was no break–but the mist was pearly and beautifully picturesque on the purple-shadowed hills and the scarlet.

We made an early breakfast–we were up in time to see a radiant lilac flush of dawn spread about the sky. And now we started, always admiring the little and big trees, now we turned down the junction, dipped steeply into the Liberty-Haystack col, now up gently, and then we came to two forests growing on top of each other–both laden with snow. The upper forest was long-legged snow-shaggy spruces, and down below was a starry undergrowth of perfect baby balsams. And there the sun flinted silveringly through. Up on the slopes of Haystack, on past the frost feathered trees at the top where we had eaten lunch–on on new untracked trail which we hated to touch with our snow-banishing boots. Up a little higher we went, above the trees on a summit covered with mountain grass. We were now on the true peak of Haystack and had broken out of the woods for good–out of the woods into the frost feathers. On the last trees they formed four or five inches long–they were rippled delicately all over the steep slopes on just the ground–each small scanty shrub was laden with them, and, above all, where the juice of frozen cranberries oozed out they were appleblossom pink, and every delicate and graceful pattern showed in that sublime pink. On the windward sides they struck out bravely into the wind, but on the lee sides they hugged the rocks scalily, and were small and round, like the lining feathers of a bird.

Here and there the blood of Nature had been spilled–long stretches of snow were pink with cranberries’ juice. On over the peak, down into a shallow col. And here were vast slopes which had been forest fired, leaving the gnarled and twisted remains of skinny trees six and eight feet high. These had four-inch frost feathers all up and down their windward sides–sometimes the limbs formed strange shapes, such as witch-arms and witch-fingers, waving stiffly in the wind. We could not stop, but how we did long to examine every single one!

Now we are over the peak of Haystack, the mist is very thick, and, as we mount higher the wind grows stronger and colder. Now we have come to that strange succession of peaks each one of which may be the peak of Lincoln, there is no telling in the mist. Each one of these peaks had gorgeous drops and crags, off into ravines on each side like Jobildunk of Moosilauke, though we could only see a little way down. We could not keep the trail, but there was no danger of losing it seriously on a narrow knife-edge. We avoided going over the very tips of those sharp peaks. We would pass one of them, seeing marvellous caves and clusters of frost feathers everywhere. Sometimes we could even see them, in semi-circle shapes, hanging off those crags. They formed exquisite fairy palaces and caves among the boulders, caves fringed with some twenty inches or more in length and certainly four inches broad at the tip. Then there would be scale-like formations of smaller rounder ones inside, also pointed ones pointing every way, as the wind would go swirling about inside. We walked on them all the time, the ground was so steep that they formed on it. The longest ones were in clusters–small ones, four-inch ones, and the very longest, formed from the same root, formed and spread out their delicate tips, each one receiving support from the one beneath it.

The mist grew thicker and thicker steadily, it curled past us in strange bewitching shapes–it beckoned, it lured, it persuaded, it coiled up suddenly and flounced away. The knife-edge was at its narrowest, and for a few moments we thought of the terrific spaces beneath us–we looked through great hollows in the crag, looked through them as through a window-hole and saw white. We looked at the sky and saw beckoning dancing white, we looked at the ground and saw white, the rocks were white except the windward crags, where murky dull brown showed between the great feathers. And now we descended into a little col just beneath the peak of Lafayette. The ridge had broadened out into a saddle-back, and now we went down on a little path through knee-high and waist-high flattened balsams–if balsams they were. For every twig was covered with small frost feathers and snow. The only hint of green was on the bottom side of the very lowest branches, and often these were snow-buried. The little top twigs were so glossy with snow and small feathers that they made us think of the sleek tail of a white cat. The path was like a little rabbit-runway through those artificial trees, and sometimes, when a sharp gust sent a little puff of snow hurtling along, we thought it was a rabbit–there were tracks all through that little path. The ridge had not so broadened that we must follow the cairns, and the ground was not so beset with feathers. The grade rose suddenly, and almost without warning, we were on the peak of Lafayette.

And like a sudden squall across the sea, I felt again the strange mountain isolation, the joy of being alone with the mountains. We stood by the big cairn on top–there were perhaps the very longest feathers of all. We went into the old cellar-hole and ate our meal of frozen stiff cheese, raisins, dates, and chocolate, but we were glad to get through and stamp about to warm ourselves. Even in the cellar-hole were small scaly frost feathers.

There were two sharers of the clouds there with us in the cellar-hole–they told us that it was only twelve o’clock–and we felt relieved–we would be back in plenty of time.

After we had finished we did not wait on the peak. Except that it was the peak, in that mist all places were alike–we started down the knife-edge through heavenly paradises of frost feathers, always growing, always building up. The rock-caves were even more thickly lined with longer ones–they seemed to be three feet long hanging off the gorgeous crags of Lincoln, but there was no way of getting near to tell. It seemed to be a little clearer–we could see farther down in the great snow-lined ravines, we observed the great cliffs more clearly. And when we came to the forest of mountain ghosts of Haystack, the frost feathers on them had grown three or four inches longer–they were now six or eight inches long. Being clearer they were even more uncanny and beckoning and gnarled–all pointing one way, down the great slopes, seeming to entice us into evil by going down there. How different were the smaller but just as lovely feathers, swaying stiffly on the tops of the Haystack trees. Why must we go?

The Franconia Ridge, looking south from Mt. Lafayette

Down through that heavenly little stretch of trail just below the top, where the great shaggy balsams hurl down their feather-burdens in the wind. Down, down, towards Liberty, where there are no frost feathers except very tiny ones, but beautiful glades and paradises of snow. It must have been warmer down there, for almost every twig had a little silver icicle hanging off its tip. We caught glimpses of gorgeous billowing blueness, but we had come from the white mist into murky brown mist, and, except when it lifted or broke for a few moments, the air was heavy with it. We did not see then the dancings and curlings, we did not feel airy cold touches and pushes. And soon we were at the little shelter.

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