A Risky Bushwhack to Meet the Old Woman of the Notch
I'd like to preface this blog post with a quick disclaimer. Bushwhacking to The Watcher is, in my opinion, a very risky task. I thought that my experience hiking all of the 4,000 footers would have prepared me for something like this, but at a certain point I felt a little in over my head. I would only recommend this whack to someone who has a lot of off trail experience specifically on steep slides. For those of you who have hiked to Owl's Head, I'd say the slide up to The Watcher is similar only much steeper and more loose with a high risk of falling rock. Lastly, I'll recommend that anyone who attempts this should do it with a buddy, for if it weren't for my friend Rob I may not be here writing this blog today.
I had been hoping to pay a visit to the Old Woman of the Notch, also known as The Watcher, for a long time. I was very fond of the Old Man of the Mountain in his heyday, so I thought it would be quite a nostalgic experience. The Old Woman is a rock profile that from the right angle looks like a woman looking down on Franconia Notch. I was intrigued and determined to meet her.
I know some hikers are not going to appreciate me giving out all of the details of this hike, but I want people to be informed before attempting it. Maybe if I had better resources I would have attempted a different route because the climber's path was extremely difficult. We started at the Cannon Mountain tram parking lot and crossed under the highway before turning right on to Greenleaf trail. About a quarter mile from the trailhead we found a small cairn on the left hand side of the trail signaling our departure from the maintained path. Here we turned left onto the herd path, which was easy to follow leading us up the steep shoulder of Mt. Lafayette.
The path began wooded but proceeded to get more and more exposed as we ascended. Glancing back we had little peeks of the view over Franconia notch. The cliff where the Old Man once stood was directly in front of us, so we remarked how great the view would have been before that fateful night when he fell back in 2003. As we persevered up the steep slope my hip started to ache. I had woken up with a pain in my left hip but thought nothing of it assuming I was just sore from hiking the day before. As we climbed the pain got worse and worse slowing me down considerably.
When we started to get views of the Eaglet, a popular rock climbing spot and the only spire on the east coast, we knew we were getting close to the slide. The spire was massive and daunting, screaming to be climbed. We hoped there would be some climbers up there that we could watch ascend it, but it was a quiet day around Eagle Cliff. Interestingly enough there are not eagles but peregrine falcons that nest here, so these paths should not be hiked between March-August.
At this point it seemed as though there were two routes we could ascend, one closer to the spire with loose scree, or one to the right of a small ridgeline with larger granite boulders. After consulting many sources that emphasized staying to the right, that's what we did. We struggled up a steep slope of large, loose boulders and vegetation until we couldn't go any further. I was so confused. We had stayed to the right like everyone had said! After some reflection we realized that the advice to stay to the right side had referred to a section further up on the looser slide, so we descended back to the spire.
This time we followed the loose scree up to a point where there were two clearly demarcated paths. The picture below shows where we went right instead of staying to the left. The rocks on which we stood were constantly rolling around beneath us, so we had to keep our feet moving in order to make any progress. The right hand side of the slide was narrow, so once Rob was at the top I started my ascent.
As I made my way up focusing on my feet I heard him scream down at me, "Rock! Rock! Rock!" As I glanced up I saw a 2'x3' boulder careening down at me from 50 feet above. I dove out of way, scurried to the side just in time to see the rock fly by my head where I had just been standing less than a second before. It only missed me by a yard or so. As I heard it plummet down the slope I dashed up the rest of the slide to safety.
This was the single most terrifying experience I've had in my life so far. It made me feel incredibly small in these huge mountains. I know I say that I'm continually humbled by the Whites, but this time was different. The Whites have a way of making me respect the immense power of mother nature in a way that other places can't. At the top of the slide we took a minute to let the gravity of what had just happened sink in. I had never narrowly escaped disaster like that before. There's always some level of inherent risk that you have to accept when hiking, but this time we saw that risk rear its ugly head.
By this time we were only steps away from The Watcher. At first I couldn't see her in the face of the rock, but as I started to take in my surroundings I distinguished her profile sticking out of the cliff. Suddenly there she was before us, her mighty gaze staring down at the valley below. Her face is wise and weathered, with crazy hair formed by the bushes on top of the cliff. Although the hike up there had almost ended in disaster, she gave me a sense of comfort as if she had been protecting me from afar. My near miss felt like a final test to see if I was worthy of meeting her and luckily I had passed. After a few minutes we continued up to the top of the cliff. As we stood on top of the large rock outcrop, the views of Franconia Notch were stunning. Every tree was adorned with bright, dancing leaves of every color. We could see the highway far below us and planes flying low through the narrow pass. It was breathtaking.
I sat for a few minutes to let my adrenaline calm down and relax my hip in preparation for the hike out. After consulting the map and some GPS tracks I had found online, we decided to bushwhack down the ridge and back to Cannon's main parking lot. It seemed like it would be easy following a herd path over the ridge but it was far from it. We lost the herd path after a few hundred yards and ended up whacking through extremely thick brush for hours. We tried descending but the footing was too unstable with moss hiding large gaps between boulders. Then we tried ascending but the trees were too thick, branches slapping us in the face with every step. It was pretty miserable.
At this point my hip was really starting to bother me. I felt a sharp pain with every step, but I knew the faster I moved the quicker we would be out of the thick woods. We checked the GPS often and it showed us in the right spots, but we had a hard time believing this was the intended path. Finally we made it up to one of the large humps in the ridge and saw a man with his dog sitting at the top.
We had seen very few people all day, so a friendly face was a welcomed surprise. He said that he was working on hiking the NH 3,000 footers, and Rob and I were both pretty impressed. There are 175 peaks above 3,000 feet in New Hampshire including the NH 48 4,000 footers. Many of the peaks below 4,000 feet don't have trails, so a lot of bushwhacking is involved in finding these. It's an extremely tough goal, but much more serene than the NH48 which are becoming more and more popular every year.
After chatting with him we found the last bit of the herd path and made our descent to the road. We ended up popping out on top of a little series of cliffs that I grew up climbing in the winter with my dad. They're great for top roping and beginner ice climbing, so it was fun to see them at the end of our journey. As we walked the Franconia bike path back to the car I realized we had only hiked about four miles. It felt like the longest four miles of my life!
Although it's a short hike to the Old Woman of the Notch, it's very difficult and can be pretty dangerous as we found out. I had been tempted by pictures and stories from more seasoned bushwhackers and maybe rushed into it before I was ready. I guess what I'm trying to say is that if you do this hike go with a buddy and be on high alert while ascending the slide because there is a real possibility of falling rock. Had I been by myself or had that rock taken a bad bounce there would have been extremely unfortunate consequences. So those of you who are thinking about going to visit The Watcher, please be careful but there will be a view worthy of the challenge waiting for you at the end!
Old Woman of the Notch Bushwhack [4.64 mi, 1630 ft, 4:35].
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