A Monster Hike: Arethusa Falls and Frankenstein Cliffs
I had to stop to breathe; this mountain was kicking my ass. The slopes at the base of the cliffs were talused, debris-filled, and more resembled sand than soil. Trees and rocks tenuously clung to the side of the mountain and every step was an effort not to tumble down the side of it. Grasping a nearby Birch for a moment and having caught my breath, I turned to see the progress Brad and Logan were making behind me, on our decidedly laborious retreat to the Falls trail. As I turned and saw Brad coming toward me, I can only describe the look on his face as determined: lips pursed, brow furrowed, eyes laser-focused. His body was tense, his hands and feet under him, his torso practically at 90° from his legs as he careened down the hill in a rapid descent. In that moment, because he looked determined, not scared or worried, it was unclear to me if he had engaged in a controlled slide or if he had slipped; so, I made a snap-judgment and continued to cling to my Birch with my right arm, while reaching for the handle on the top of his daypack with my left, arresting his fall. In retrospect this was the right decision. Later, we laughed about this as he said that in that moment he had simply “become resigned to the fact that [he] was falling and decided to aim for a tree and hope for the best”. This episode pretty much sums up the first half of the day.
The weather on Saturday, 30 June 2018, called for periods of sun with temps in the 90s. But when Logan and I left New Bedford at 5 a.m., the sun had yet to fully crest the horizon, and the temperature hovered closer to 70° F. A little less than an hour later when we scooped up Brad, some miles south of Boston, sun and clouds were mixed, but the weather was still comfortable. Logan had never been to Quincy Quarries, a popular climbing spot only minutes from Brad’s house, and knowing there would be no one there at this early hour, we decided to make a quick pit-stop to take advantage of what was sure to be a desolate quarry. After a short walk and climb, we were on the road and heading to Crawford Notch in the White Mountains to hike Arethusa Falls and Frankenstein Cliffs. We planned this trip about a month earlier, looked forward to it the whole time and were all anticipating a fun, exciting day.
Frankenstein Cliffs are visible and majestic from the parking lot. A single wall of New England granite, some 200 vertical feet sprouting from the earth, punctuated by a copse of trees nearly dead center, daring hikers and climbers alike to “try me”. Challenge accepted! The Cliffs trail begins modestly enough, with a reasonable elevation/distance incline. A gurgling brook meanders by after making its way through a constructed archway. Birds chirp and sing and a few chipmunks scurry away and angrily chirp at our approach. Once we crossed the railroad tracks everything changed. The forest went silent; an eerie calm entered the woods; and we all looked at each other with a feeling of uncertain expectation. (That last part is not actually true, but I thought it helped build the drama.)
AllTrails describes this trail as follows: “Arethusa Falls and Frankenstein Cliff Trail is a 4.2 mile moderately trafficked loop trail located near Bartlett, New Hampshire that features a waterfall and is rated as difficult.” It’s uncertain what their guidelines are for the phrase “moderately trafficked” and it’s almost certain that they’re talking about the Falls trail rather than the Cliffs trail. The Cliffs trail is not a trail at all. In fact, we mostly struggled up rain-carved gulleys, scrambled over detritus and other debris and generally tried not to die—I’m only half-kidding.
The trail virtually disappears after the train tracks so climbers need to pay very close attention to the white markers on the trees. It becomes all the more difficult due to the fact that the markers do not seem to have been painted in years; they are faded, and in many cases it’s impossible to tell the difference between a painted trail sign and the Whitewash Lichen (Phlyctis argena) ubiquitous to this area of the forest. In fact, hikers lose their way all the time. On our way to the top we encountered another group of hikers, three young women (Rhea, Turida and the third whose name is now lost to history) who had also decided to try the Cliffs trail. All six of us ended up off-trail, even though they had a map. I took a picture of the trail map back in the parking lot on my phone, but this proved useless. This could speak to the fact that we are all idiots who don’t know how to use a map and compass—which I’ll leave open to the realm of possibility—but I doubt it. Clearly, we were not alone in losing our way. On our way to the cliff base I encountered more than a few lost or abandoned water bottles, canteens, and even some gear, such as a strap, shoe laces and even a sneaker, some of which did not appear to be very old. This suggests to me that a fair number of people found themselves in the same predicament: following the Whitewash Lichen they mistook for blazes and the well-worn pathways of runoff in lieu of the actual “trail” to guide them toward the cliffs.
We reached the base of the cliffs after a little over two hours of immensely difficult and dangerous climbing. The views were interrupted by the forest as we had yet to attain sufficient elevation to overcome the canopy, but the cliffs were magnificent in all their brutal glory. We rested; we lunched; we plotted. Brad maintained there was no way around the cliffs without falling off the damn mountain. Logan didn’t say much; he hiked; he rested; he hiked some more: a real trooper. I scurried around for a bit refusing to believe we couldn’t find some way to the top that didn’t involve technical rock-climbing. First to the southeast, then the Northwest part of the cliffs. At one point I swear I saw a tail marker on a tree not seventy-five yards from where we were perched. By this point we had thrown our lot in with the girls, or they with us. I think we found comfort in numbers. I called one of the girls to confirm that what I was seeing was indeed a trail marker and not a trick of light. She agreed. In attempting to traverse the cliff, though, the ground that was underfoot suddenly wasn’t, and I nearly plummeted down a ravine, perhaps forty or fifty feet. Thankfully my ribs broke my fall. I caught myself between my left armpit and my ribs on a tree that just happened to have a decent hold on the hillside. This was pretty much it. There was no way around. It was either risk life and limb, or climb down to once again locate the trail and continue back up again. In the end, we decided to simply hike back to the tracks and finish the day by hiking the Falls trail. It was on our way down that Brad took his slide.
The rest of the day was pretty much uneventful. Aside from a few cramps on our way up to Arethusa Falls, it was easy going from here. I think I was dehydrated and I definitely didn’t stretch before climbing. The Falls were amazing; tons of people there. We got a ton of great shots and soaked sore feet and quads in the cold, refreshing water of the pools below the falls. Six hours and roughly five or six miles hiked—there was no cell service here—is a successful day. Especially considering the difficulty of the first couple miles.
When I started this journey in August of 2017, I don’t think I could say I had done a really difficult climb/hike. Perhaps the five miles I section-hiked on the AT would have been it. That was about my limit then, but hard would have been defined as long or strenuous, not dangerous, technical climbing/hiking. The southern Appalachian Trail at Clark’s Ferry does not compare to the rugged landscape of the White Mountains, whose humble altitudes bely their ruggedness. The Whites, at more modest elevations, say, below 3,000 or 4,000 feet, rarely have switchbacks: they often shoot in the straightest line to the top of the mountain. The most recent trip I made in which I bagged Mt. Tate, Black Snout and Mt. Shaw in a single push is a great example. With 8.2 miles and 3,000 feet of climbing on the day, there is no question I’m getting stronger. This still was not as hard as Frankenstein Cliffs.
Here’s to another adventure and future endeavors. And remember friends, get out there!