Sometime around midnight we reach a bridge with one side of its’ railing non-existent. I sprint ahead and heave a sigh of relief when I notice the ‘Old Bridle trail'[OBT] signboard high up on a tree. This confirms this is ‘the’ bridge that we’ve been looking out for, for the past few hours and that the trail head should be a few hundred feet away. Meena suggests Jyothsna and I shoot ahead while she and Sanjana would follow behind slowly. With just one headlamp we make our way as fast as possible to the Lafayette camping ground parking lot. As we turn round the corner, we hear a concerned and loud ‘PS, PS?’ cry. I’m relieved to hear Praveen’s voice and as soon he checks all four of us are safe he drops the bomb-shell. Having reached the trail head around 6pm and not hearing from us since then, he apparently had called in a search and rescue operation for us about 30 minutes back. My excitement on ‘finishing’ the hike is short lived as I think to myself – ‘This is not over yet…’. The last 20 hours have been draining, mentally more than physically. What should have been a decent eight hour hike has gone way beyond my initial estimation. Over the rest of Sunday, as we let everything sink in, Meena and I continue to hash out what possibly could have led up to this and what we should do to avoid this from recurring in future hikes.
The plan was to take a quick break at the AMC Greenleaf hut [4200′] that was 2.9 mi from the parking lot [1780′] and then summit Mt. Lafayette [5260′] that was 1.1mi from here. From there on we’d hit the Franconia ridge trail to reach Little Haystack[4760′] summit via Mt. Lincoln [5060′]. To close out the 9 mi loop we’d eventually take the ‘Falling waters trail'[FWT] from Little Haystack to the parking lot that’s about 3.2 mi mostly downhill. On average it should take about 7 hours to finish this 8.9 mile loop.
One of the prime reasons’ for us to leave Boston this early was to make sure we had ample time to cover the ridge and get back prior to night fall. As we trudged our way up the OBT, Praveen seemed to have significant difficulty keeping up. As we gained elevation and the vistas opened up, we stopped quite a few times on the way. Knowing we had time at our disposal, we decided to slow down the pace and finally reached the AMC Greenleaf hut around 12:45pm.
A longish break here and we hit the 1.1mi Greenleaf trail to summit Mt. Lafayette. The weather was just right and the wind and thin air seemed to lighten things a bit. Going with the flow, Meena and I had an amazing time running up the trail. Later after waiting for close to 20 minutes, I urged Meena to head up to the summit while I head back down to check on the other folks. I finally see them a few hundred feet below and ran down the trail to see if they needed any help. Praveen apparently did not want to proceed further and felt more comfortable heading back. I nudged him a bit to reconsider his choice and realised he’d already made up his mind. The question now was should I get the whole group down or just let him head back while we finished the loop.
Jyothsna was in two minds, while Sanjana seemed determined to complete the loop. I wasn’t quite concerned with Praveen getting back to the parking lot safely. He knew the trail now, had time at his disposal and could always pick up some replenishment’s from the hut. Also in the rare situation that he needed help, there were quite a few folks doing the reverse loop. The decision was made. I handed back his coat and gave him my headlamp and whistle just in case he doesn’t make it before nightfall. The three of us make our way up to the Mt. Lafayette summit and catch up with Meena who’s already been here for close to 30 minutes now.
We soon leave Mt Lafayette and hit the ridge trail to make our way down south to Little Haystack. The ridge between Mt Lafayette and Mt. Lincoln had some technical downhills. This stretch would probably be a bit tricky had the weather worsened but gives some astounding views of the White mountains and the Pemigewasset Wilderness. The elevation, views and weather conditions remind me of the western ghats back in India. It hits me real hard that this is the first significant (comparable in terms of elevation profile) hike I’ve done since leaving India four years ago and rekindles some good old memories!
Meena and I run down the ridge and wait for Jyothsna and Sanjana to catch-up. Sanjana seems to be having some issues with her toes and isn’t quite able to keep pace. We finally make it to Little Haystack around 05:30pm. Quite aware that we still had 3.2 mi to cover to make our way back to the parking lot, we quickly grab some sandwiches and hit the FWT.
We could see the parking lot from Haystack but going by the current pace looked like we’d make it there only around 10:00pm. Sanjana’s phone seemed to have some reception and we sent Praveen a quick voice and regular message mentioning our ETA. Sanjana’s toes’ weren’t getting any better and the steep downhill on the rocky trail made things worse. The likelihood of us getting to the falls before nightfall was pretty low but we really wanted to give that a good shot. With two headlamps and a decent supply of water we slowly made our way downhill. Things went down south once it got dark. Jyothsna started getting ancy about Praveen and with reduced light, our pace reduced drastically. With close to 12 hours on foot and the end never seeming near, morale was extremely low. The barely visible dark blue trail markers on the trees made things worse. At several locations, I had to go ahead to make sure we were on the right path and then head back to re-group and follow the trail.
After what seemed like eternity, we finally heard some water gurgling. Though this meant we were nearing the intersection where the OBT and the FWT merged, it added some more complexity. The FWT had quite a few switch-backs getting us to cross the river stream several times from bank to bank. Meena mentioned another hiker warned her of this while on the ridge. The rocks were slippery and the access points a bit tricky to maneuver in the dark. Had it not been for the thought that Praveen would be waiting for us (hopefully) at the parking lot, I would have voted camping at the river bed till dawn break.
At around 11:30pm we finally come across two other hikers coming from the opposite direction. They tell us the parking lot is about 45 minutes away. With some renewed energy (and no other option!) we finally make it to ‘the’ bridge and eventually to the parking lot.
Praveen gives us a low-down of his search and rescue alarm. Apparently he never received the message we sent him. As we try to call the police to try and get them to stall any initiated attempts, a NH Fish and game law enforcement vehicle drives in to the parking lot. The officer checks if everyone is safe and injury free and then radio’s in to the search party that we’re safe. After some formal procedures and protocols he mentions’ we’re good to head back home and will hear from them later if required. We head back towards Boston and finally reach home around 05:30am.
Meena and I keep discussing and reliving the last several hours over the rest of the day. We figured we had to come up with measures to avoid this from recurring in future group hikes.
Prior to the hike:
[x] Share emergency contacts and communication protocols.
[x] Apprise each team member of individual medical needs.
[x] Share hike details [Terrain, directions, landmarks, routes etc] with each team member.
[x] Check on each members prior experience with the difficulty and endurance level of the hike.
[x] Check on mandatory equipment – Headlamps, tents, Sleeping gear etc.
[x] Set time and distance checkpoints to determine turn-around points if necessary.
[x] Determine team break-out protocols.
When looking back at the hike this weekend, I could easily see the stark failure-points right from the start. I wasn’t aware of anyone’s general fitness levels. I did not collect and share emergency medical and contact information. We didn’t have a communication protocol. We should have taken a realty check at the Greenleaf hut for distance and pace. I should not have left Praveen head back alone. Most importantly, I didn’t have a plan B!
Ironically, I’ve been doing ALL of the above while organizing hikes for HydVentura. This hike would remain truly memorable not just for the splendid ridge-line views but for the gross failures at several levels in organizing it. Despite the shortcomings, I’m amazed at how each one handled the situation they were thrown in. Praveen was rational enough to turn around when he knew his body couldn’t handle the stress physically. After an initial breakdown, Jyothsna kept her calm as we maneuvered the trails and falls in the dark. Sanjana kept going despite being in deep pain and tried her best to keep up with us as we pushed ahead. Meena was impeccable in keeping the group morale high and playing lead-sweep seamlessly as and when needed. Things could have been way difficult had even one of us buckled down…
After a 5 year hiatus of organizing long distance hikes for big groups, it feels good to be back in this space. This hike would remain etched as a classic realty check. Looking forward to the Mt. Washington hike later this weekend. And now we know what not to do!