Backpacking the White Mountains: Taking on the Pemi Loop – Part #2

Written by Morgan Nankivell

The 2nd installment of Morgan’s journey backpacking and taking on the Pemi Loop inside the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

(Read the 1st installment here)

I started day three limping to my pack, searching for breakfast. Ibuprofen had helped alleviate any major muscle soreness, but my feet. They were even worse than the night before, I hoped movement would mitigate the swelling and alleviate the burning sensation. The night on the line had certainly helped our clothes become “drier”, but they weren’t dry by any means. My boots were still very wet on the inside, and I had to put damp socks on. I left this task to the very last minute, squeezing my puffy and sore feet into my boots.

The first few hundred feet were nothing short of hellish, but thankfully, once we were moving, the pain subsided. We set off, I kept my head down and my game-face on, it was the only way I was getting through this day. I knew the trails would continue to be relentless, so I would have to be relentless as well.

We descended Garfield at a snail’s pace, taking extra cautious steps as we navigated the steep terrain. The Garfield Ridge trail continued to challenge us. We came to a section of the trail that took a 90 degree turn to the right, which faced us directly downwards. The concept of switchbacks had been completely abandoned it seemed. We stood at the top of what look much more like a waterfall than a trail. I was nervous after my slip, so we pressed on slowly. The boulders that made up this steep section were large with pointed edges, each one thrusting cold rain water down to the next boulder below it.

Any kind of drying of our gear that occurred the last night was immediately sacrificed. We now had to dredge though ankle deep, rushing streams, carefully shuffling to avoid slipping. I sat down on a particularly large boulder, with cold water pouring down the side of my leg. The sound of the tiny torrent was peaceful, and at this point I accepted being constantly damp. The water felt refreshing and kind of wonderful, a thought I was surprised at myself for having at moment given the circumstances. But how could I resist finding beauty in this moment? I was here because I loved it, the sounds, the feelings of the mountain waters were transformative and renewing. Even if the same water had been falling from the sky just a day earlier, condemning me to my pain.

After the major descent, the 2.7-mile grind to Galehead was more of what we had encountered the day before – small ups and downs with lots of jagged rock, mud, trees and rock slabs. Small, sparkling streams interspersed the trail, providing plenty of mud and slickness to keep us on our toes. We continued to be worn down by this slow going, but we refused to give in.

Truthfully, at this point, we didn’t have much of a choice. We could hike down to the Thirteen Falls tent site if we had to, but we were as far away from our starting point as we were going to be. With each small gain in elevation we were offered a glimpse of South Twin and the Galehead Hut perched atop the ridge. The very ridge that separated Galehead Mountain and South Twin. Getting a look at the jutting green wilderness in front of us, becoming closer with each mound we climbed over, spurred us on and upward.

We had been going along quite well when the vegetation began to change. Each tree slowly began to look slightly slimmer, and the celestial ferns, with dew drops sparkling across each frond, became abundant.  Then we saw it, the Galehead hut, a sight so incredibly beautiful to me at the time I’m not sure I could even describe it. The trail led us around the side of the hut, and a view of the valley below Guyot opened to us in a matter of seconds. Suddenly we were high up again, gazing across from where we had come and where we were about to go. The front of the hut faced this valley and the side of Galehead.  A weight lifted from me, literally & figuratively, as I dropped my pack and sat on the bench outside of this beautiful hut. The views of the steep and rocky reach up South Twin and Guyot made me feel incredibly small.

I headed inside, enchanted by the beauty of this particular hut, and I grabbed a cinnamon bun from the table.  We rested here, but knew we couldn’t wait too long. It was difficult to start again, my feet had swelled up and my muscles began to cool down. We wasted no time warming back up again and getting focused on our next task; South Twin.

The summit of South Twin, looking northeast towards the presidential range

Reaching the hut had been a mental turning point for us. We managed the incredibly steep 0.8 miles up to the summit of South Twin reasonably well.  Each step was a large effort and we took many small breaks, but the trail was straight forward, and I knew that “up” meant we were getting somewhere. As we climbed higher, so did our mood. We were all smiles and laughs as we found a bit of a false summit along the trail. The scrub cleared and a gigantic boulder provided a peaceful and wonderful view of Franconia Ridge. We knew we were almost there and the view would only get better.

This summit gave us, what I thought, were some of the best views of the entire trip. With plenty of space to sit and look around, South Twin offers spectacular views of the Presidential Range. On that day, Mt. Washington was cloud-free, and you could see the rockpile perfectly. Every direction I looked was breathtaking. I took off my pack for the second time that day, I felt like I was on the moon, hopping around the rocks with an ease and grace that shocked me. I was floating. Quiet murmurs of fellow hikers carried on the breeze as we perched ourselves on one of the rock slabs on the peak. We reveled in our accomplishment.

The exposed portion of the ridge toward Guyot. It was extremely windy!

Our last night was ahead of us. We had one more summit to reach that day: Guyot. The remainder of the day would consist of about 2.4 miles of “flat” hiking, within minimal elevation loss and gain as we made our way toward the summit of Guyot. Once we made it above tree line, the trail became interspersed with patches of large boulders that required rock hopping. The wind whipped the straps on our packs in the direction we were moving, the breeze at our backs willing us forward towards our destination. I carefully used my poles to keep myself from being blown off balance, simultaneously trying not to get them lodged in between the large rock piles we were traversing. Guyot summit came and went with us barely noticing, as the mountain seems little more than a nubbin along the trail.

The remainder of the hike was peaceful and devoid of any other people, until we reached the tent site. The small sign for the tent site pointed us down a very steep trail that we already were not looking forward to ascending the next day. We made our way further below tree line down this steep and rocky path to find the platforms.  Looking around, we noticed it was totally packed! We ended up having three tents perched on a platform with a ten foot drop off the back. It worked out though, all campers were happy to be resting and eating.

We were in much better shape physically and mentally than the night before, except of course for my feet….those had gotten worse. With boots and socks that refused to dry, I was stuck enduring the incredible pain on the bottoms of my feet. Pain aside, however, we sat atop our platform, happily stuffing ourselves full of freeze-dried meals, and drifted to sleep before the sun had set.

Our Tentsite at Guyot

Finally, the last day, the fourth of July. We set off, pain still coursing through my feet, and my leg muscles far beyond any limit I had ever pushed them before. We headed for our last two summits: Bond and Bondcliff.

The hike to Bond was an easy 0.4 miles from the tent site, and Bondcliff another 1.6 from there. We took the Bondcliff Trail leaving the tent site, and the hike up to Bond was idyllic. We decided to forego a full breakfast and just put down a couple of Cliff bars to save some time. This meant we were out before 7 a.m., enjoying the peace and quite. Reaching the summit of Bond was a serene experience; the cool morning air was being gently warmed by the sun, and we were completely alone on the summit. Reaching the top of a mountain so early in our day before fatigue set in was a new and wonderful experience. The sun shined down across the Pemigewasset Wilderness and I was filled with joy.  I didn’t want to leave, but we had a long way to get home.

Looking out toward Bondcliff from the summit of Bond

I was excited to experience Bondcliff, one of the most recognizable destinations in the White’s. The trail was completely exposed and visible all the way from Bond to Bondcliff, and it was incredibly inviting. We started our hike down Bond, carefully moving over large rocks and gaps between them. Large boulders were prolific in this area, we were balancing ourselves with our poles as the wind began to whip up over the ridge. Luckily as the wind picked up, the trail became smoother and flatter. The approach to Bondcliff was uncomplicated, but the gusting winds made it a bit of hard work. Communication was minimal and we struggled to stay well balanced. As we left the ridge and headed up to the summit, the cliffs seemed to alter the way the wind was traveling, and the howling died down to a whisper.

Finally, after winding through a few boulder fields, the iconic summit became apparent. The jutting rocks of Bondcliff were huge and even more magnificent than I had imagined. I was shocked to see how large and flat the edge of the cliff was. The illusion was wonderful; from just below, I looked as if I was on the precipice of a terrifying ledge, but from the top, I was simply standing on a large flat rock. That was if I didn’t look over the actual cliff and down the steep and harrowing ravine that bordered all of Bondcliff.

Standing on the summit of Bondcliff our last peak on the Pemi Loop

From our final summit we looked back on the mountains and reveled in this last high point. From here on out was 7.8 miles of going down. I reluctantly began this final leg of our trip, knowing at the end there wouldn’t be a summit or a view. There would be, however, the end of the loop and a big accomplishment in the books. This (and maybe also the reminder of pizza and beer), got us moving from our final summit and back on the trail.

We continued on the Bondcliff Trail down the south side of Bondcliff. There were some precarious scrambles for the first half of a mile. We came upon a huge rock at least ten feet tall right after we set off that nearly caused some problems. The rock was rectangular and had a small ledge about half way down that I lowered myself onto, only to find out that it was a very slanted ledge. I hadn’t removed my pack, and felt it slowly pushing me forward as I crouched clinging to the ledge of this rock. I slipped slowly and eventually had to make a split-second decision to jump the final four feet from the ledge to the ground. Luckily, I pulled it off but immediate turned around, advising Mike to remove his pack before descending. I was worried we would be doing this kind of descending for nearly 8 miles, but I was happily surprised to find the trail became very gentle soon after this moment of fear.

The going was easy, and I was so incredibly thankful for the smooth trail and easy grade down the mountain. After 4.4 miles of descent, we met up with the Wilderness trail, which was entirely flat. This would bring us to the equally flat Lincoln Woods Trail, the trail we began on, and back to the car again. When we finally reach the Wilderness Trail, I was relieved to know it was all flat going from here, but the Lincoln Woods trail felt endless. We were too beat up to walk quickly, and it is fair to say that this was easily the most difficult part of journey. Exhausted and barely moving, we were so close to the end.

Knowing that on day one we did the same exact trail in a fraction of the time was frustrating. The monotony and flatness of this trail was just as punishing mentally as any boulder scramble or slippery outcropping we had seen. Finally,  I saw the glorious beams rising above the trees. The bridge that marked the completion of our journey. If I could have sprinted to it I would have, but my speed-waddle would have to do.  We hobbled to the edge of the wooden planks, smiling at one another, amazed that we were finally here…finally at the end.

This moment seemed surreal; we had reached ten summits and covered nearly 30 miles. Had it really only been four days? Completing an excursion this significant had me feeling like a different person on the other side.  If I said it didn’t completely kick my butt, I would be lying. The Pemi Loop gave me something invaluable that can only be earned when you step outside your comfort zone: knowledge that you can. I was more determined than I knew I could be, and pushed myself far beyond any place I had been before. This discovery, along with every moment of pain and joy, were priceless lessons that I will be calling upon the next time I find myself venturing off into the mountains.

To see a link to the map we created with trip details, please go to https://caltopo.com/m/D6NL .

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