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Monday, October 14, 2019

Semi Pemi Loop - Backpacking in the Whites

Dear Reader, 

If you noticed, yes, I am sort of blogging in reverse.  I was wrapping up my trip to Europe before switching over to last weekend in New Hampshire for peak foliage, and now backtracking my way back to September.  While I did this hike towards the end of summer (early September) with enough gear and preparation, you can easily hike this loop in the fall.  And this loop - it is famous and challenging and pushed me in ways I was not expecting.  It's not for the faint of heart but you will be rewarded with the most amazing views, spectacular vistas, ridgeline hiking, a hut in the woods and a good amount of 4,000' summits.  

I did this loop.... 38 miles in two days climbing 7,500', with a fair amount of struggle on day 2.  I did this loop untrained and unprepared and missing the one peak Ryan needed.  Education isn't free folks.  Sometimes you pay in dollars, sometimes you pay in blood, sweat, and tears.  

But before I get into the specifics of this hike, all miles and emotions, let's chat about these famous loops in the Whites.  You see, you need a little bit of background on these crazy loops and lists of peaks that hikers go out to conquer.  These loops are often designed to bag as many peaks as you can, making notoriously long and hard hikes that often done in overnight trips.  

East Branch Pemigewasset River

Here are the most famous 

Presidential Traverse: One of the most famous and strenuous hikes in the White Mountains. 
2-3 day route, 25 miles - elevation gain of 9,000 feet. 
Eight 4000-footers including Mt Madison, Adams, Jefferson, Washington, Monroe, Eisenhower, Pierce, and Jackson, with 14 miles of above-treeline hiking.
** I did a section of this hike, just doing the Franconia Ridge Loop which included Little Haystack (4,760'), Mount Lincoln (5,089'), and Mount Lafayette (5,260')

Pemigewasset Loop: (Pemi Loop) 33-mile loop hike that follows the ridgeline encircling the Pemigewasset Wilderness. 
2-3 day route climbs gains  9000 feet of elevation gain - long stretches of above-treeline travel - Ten 4000-footers including two famous traverses, Bonds Traverse and a Franconia Ridge Traverse, **Can make it twelve 4000 footers by adding in a few short side trips to nearby summits.

Olive and I on the Carter Moriah Loop last year

The Carter Moriah Loop: A 3-4 day, 41-mile scenic loop that climbs the Baldfaces, Carter Dome, South Carter, Middle Carter, and Mount Moriah - 6 miles of exposed above-treeline travel.   ** We hiked a version of this loop doing Mount Moriah (4049'), Middle Carter (4,610'), South Carter (4,430'),  and Carter Dome (4,832') while backpacking this beautiful and challenging loop. 

Southern Presidential Loop: A 2-3 day, 22-mile scenic loop that travels up the Dry River Valley and climbs the Oakes Gulf headwall to a set of alpine lakes at the foot of Mt Washington. Hikers climb Mt Monroe, Mt Eisenhower, Mt Pierce, and Mt Jackson in sequence, before descending the Webster Cliff Trail back to Crawford Notch.  About 10 miles of above-treeline hiking and views of Mt Washington, the Dry River Wilderness, and Crawford Notch.

These famous loops require a good amount of training and all the proper gear.  They range from 20 to 40 miles and gain some elevation - vert will be had.  Advanced trail runners will leave their heavy packs behind and run these loops in - a - day.  The rest of us, well, 2-3 days for a 20 to 30-mile trip is the norm.  

Ryan and I at the start of our adventure

My friend Ryan had just hiked the famous Pemi Loop (in two days...), adding a few side trails to come close to 40 miles.  In two days!  He has been doing a lot of hiking all summer long, on a quest to complete all 48 4,000' peaks recognized by NH48 by the end of the year.  While I was so happy to have an expert trail guide and hiking partner, it also meant we were mismatched in skill and ability at this point in time. 

Ryan and I are diving friends with a shared love of hiking.  We started the tradition of an annual backpacking trip last year and vowed to keep the tradition going.  2018 we hiked the Carter Moriahs - my first ever backpacking trip covering 24.5 miles in two days.  It was a lot more than I was aware of or prepared for (especially for a first trip) and I came out of the woods happy but tired.  What I was told would be a 15-mile hike ended at the trailhead almost 25 miles later. 

Smiles - Day 1 on the Bonds 

So here we were, early-September ready for our second annual backpacking trip looking at options for loops.  I left the planning up to Ryan as he is the backpacking pro.  He ran some options by me and I just sort of waved my hand "sure fine whatever you think".  

Ryan proposed a version of the famous Pemi Loop, even though he had done this hike JUST LAST WEEK (that whole 40 miles in two days deal).  Instead, we were going to do the Semi-Pemi, hiking the eastern half of the loop, cutting through the middle to snag one out-of-the-way and not-so-popular peak Owl's Head, and then continue south back to the trailhead.  

It would be a lot of repeats for him, and one new summit, Owl's Head.  For me, it was a chance to hike new trails, all new summits, and this would be my first real hike since the early spring.  A CrossFit injury had me out of work for about 2 months, meaning my cardio was low and the risk of reinjuring my knee still high.  So what did I do?  I agreed to go on a backpacking loop, again, original numbers of mid-20s ending in the THIRTY-EIGHT mileage range.  

38 miles in two days.  
7,490' of elevation gained. 

I was "tricked" with the distance again but this time fresh off an injury and even less in shape.  The big lesson here is YOU are responsible for your route, for your mileage, for knowing how far and how long you are going and what your limits are.  Don't just let your hiking partner plan while you say "sure fine whatever you think".  I failed on this part, failed to really sit down with a map and a calculator, fully understanding the endeavor I was about to tackle and comparing these stats with my physical abilities at the time. 

There's plenty of story to be told here but let me give you a spoiler:  I got a bunch of new peaks (six!),  reached my mental and physical limits of backpacking (untrained, out of shape, in need of new hiking boots with traction) and was insanely humbled, all while Ryan missed the one peak he needed.  But like the good sport he is, he happily repeated the same peaks from the weekend before while entertaining me and talking me off the ledge for the last ten miles.  Not for a second did he make me feel guilty about the missed peak we had planned for.  

This was a struggle but it was worth it at the end of the day.  There were pretty views, a lot of fun, good company, surprise wine cheese and crackers deep into the woods, all with a hefty dose of struggling, panic attacks, laughs, a lot of good lessons, and one really missed peak.  

Let's dive in. 

Showing the differences in the Pemi Loop vs Semi Pemi Loop

Packing for a backpacking trip can be tricky.  You need to bring everything you need when you are 15 miles into the woods and away from your car (38 miles round trip really...).  But you also need to remember that you have to carry it all there on your back for those 38 miles up and down a mountain.  Little things that feel light add up quick and next thing you know, you are lugging a 25 lb pack up a mountain for a night.  

We have found some ways to reduce our pack weight and one of them is simply just having a partner.  Ryan packs the tent while I pack the kitchen so if you see the main staple of a tent missing from this photo, don't worry, we had one.  Hiking in pairs is the perfect way to get your pack weight down, sharing the burden of the weight and the needed supplies. 

What I packed: Osprey Aura Pack, hiking boots, trekking poles, Therm-a-Rest sleeping pad, REI sleeping bag, my Patagonia rain shell, my REI puffy coat, a winter beanie, gloves, clothes/layers (sports bra, leggings, tank top, mid-layer, two pairs of socks, extra tank top and mid-layer), baseball cap, sunblock, bug spray, jet boil, propane, solar-powered camp light, headlamp, sawyer squeeze water filter, personal kit (face wipes, toilet paper, mini toothbrush, meds/advil) a rain cover for my pack, rain pants, bear spray, a camp mug, water bottles and food (Twizzlers, cashews, granola bars, breakfast bar, tuna packs, wraps, chili dried meal dinner, two beers and instant coffee). 

It all fit in my pack with room to spare and I am genuinely amazed each time this big pile on the floor fits into that bag.  It seems crazy, to head into the woods with all of this on your back, to sleep under the stars so far away from roads and restaurants.  But let me tell you, there is something so calming, so amazing, so wonderful about being away from RVs and generators, sitting in your tent 15 miles into the woods looking around at everything, knowing you carried it all in on your back. 

We went back and forth on a Friday night or early Saturday morning departure.  What it finally came down to was a 3:45 alarm on Saturday morning, leaving Friday night to finish packing and better sleep in our warm beds.  I was on the road by 4am, driving north to meet Ryan in Concord, New Hampshire.   I put on a podcast, threw my bag in the car and met Ryan at the commuter lot.  From there, Ryan jumped in my car with his pack and his cooler and we headed to Kancamagus Highway to the Lincoln Woods Trailhead. 

Trailhead:  Lincoln Woods trailhead on the Kancamagus Highway (Route 112).  The trailhead is 5.3 miles from the White Mountains Visitor Center.  You will cross a bridge over the East Branch Pemigewawasset River and the parking area for Lincoln Woods will be on your left.  

Distance/Elevation:  We did the semi pemi loop, skipping Owls Head (an important part of the semi-pemi) and adding a few side detours off the main loop(Galehead, West Bond, and Zealand).  The total distance according to Ryan's tracking was 38.7 miles. The total elevation gain was 7,490 feet. 

Facilities/Parking: There is a Visitor Information Center/Building and a large paved parking lot.  There is a self-service fee station at the parking lot ($5 for a day pass, hang the tag on your window and put the envelope in the tower).  There are also bathrooms here and dumpsters. 

Trail:  We managed to bag SIX 4,000-footers on this trip (none of these including Owl's Head, the one Ryan needed).  We decided to do the loop counter clockwise which is detailed below. 

Our Route - Semi Pemi Loop Modified

Our Route/Trails we followed 
~  Lincoln Woods Trail (flat flat flat following the Pemigewasset)  
~  Bondcliff Trail (starts climbing, reaching above the treeline)  
^  Bondcliff 4,265' (famous views)
^  Mount Bond 4,698' (another great view) 
~  West Pond Spur Trail (quick 0.4 miles to get another peek) 
^  West Bond 4,540' (last of the Bonds!)
*  Guyot Tentsite 
~  Bondcliff Trail
~  Appalachian Trail
^  Mount Zealand 4,260' (no view summit)
~  Twinway Trail
^  South Twin 4,962' (great views but clouded in)
*  Gailhead Hut 3,800'
~  Frost Trail
^  Galehead Mountain 4,040' (another no view summit)
~  Twinbrook Trail
*  13 Falls 
~  Lincoln Brook Trail
*  past Owls Head Trail (oops)
~  Lincoln Brook Trail
~  Franconia Brook Trail
~  Lincoln Woods Trail

First 1/4 mile of the hike, leaving the parking lot behind 

Ryan snapped a quick "before" picture at the trail map and we started following the trail.  We started by crossing the beautiful Pemigewasset River before following the dirt trail and leaving the cars and the road behind us.  The first few miles were flat and easy terrain, walking in stride and chatting while getting used to the 20+ pound packs on our backs.  We talked about the day and the plan, adjusting straps and stopping for photos along the river.  It was the perfect way to start the trail, catching up from the summer, flat easy terrain, and balancing heavy packs. 

Lincoln Woods Trail - a long flat trail people often bike to get a head start - abandoned railroad spur 

Posing along the Pemi

First signs o fall 

It was a sweet moment crossing over into the Pemigewasset Wilderness, knowing every step from here on out for the day just took us farther away from the road, chaos, and real life.  The trails were green and the temperatures were perfect for early September.  The first signs of falls were littered all over the trail.  Reds and oranges and just turned yellows sprinkled along the trail.  Saturday was sunny and perfect but Sunday was predicted to be stormy and overcast.  So when we got to the trail junction with the decision of counterclockwise or clockwise (popular), we went with a counterclockwise loop so we could see the famous Bond traverse and sit on those summits in the sunshine. 

First peak above the tree line

After a good amount of climbing, we finally poked our head above the treelines where we were awarded with "the" view.  Famous Boncliff, a wide-open area of trail traveling over several of New Hampshire's 48ers (Bondcliff 4,265' Bond 4,698' and West Bond 4,540').  We posed for an iconic picture on the ledge of Bondcliff (carefully, slowly) and found a spot for lunch.  Lunch was buffalo chicken tuna on a wrap with a fall beer and a snickers bar.  The perfect backpacking easy to keep meal. 

These were the views and this moment at this point of the hike was all smile and sunshine, instagram worthy pictures and optimism.  It's these types of moments on these sort of mountains that stay in my memories when you have a hard day in the office or on the trail. 

Iconic photo from the Bonds

Iconic photo from the Bonds

Backpacking Lunch 

Our Osprey packs on the Bonds 

We left Bondcliff behind in the distance. following the thin trail over the ridgeline, constantly looking back to sneak peeks at this view.  I always take time to stop and follow my route back, to see where I came from because miles are hard to relate to when it comes to trails.  And then you look around with nothing but mountain peaks all around you, views unspoiled by auto roads or telephone poles.  You are on up this mountain, wrapping your brain around just how far away from the rest of the world your two legs carried you.  

The view from Bondcliff has been called one of the best of the Whites and it's not easy to do on a normal day hike.  You have to travel on Lincoln Woods 1.3 past the Oseo Trail intersection another 1.2 miles, past the Black Pond trailhead another 0.3 miles to Franconia Brook.  That's almost 3 flat miles just to start climbing.  You still owe Lincoln another 1.9 miles before you reach the Bondcliff trail (which is 3.8 miles)  It is after another 0.2 miles that you reach you first summit, Bondcliff.   While you are up here, its 1.6 miles past Mount Bond to the West Bond spur and the spur is another 0.4-miles.  That is 8.7 (one way) to Bondcliff and or 10.7 miles one way to West Bond.  That means the Bonds will be 17 to 21 miles round trip.  Not your average day hike....

Looking back at the Bonds and the trail 

Mount Bond 

Dropping our packs to hike the spur without our bags 

Posing on West Bond 

Because we were making it all the way to the Bonds, some of the best views in the Whites, we did this loop counter-clockwise, knowing we had a sunny day on Saturday and rain on Sunday.  It was the right choice, we were awarded with these insane views as we walked the ridgeline along the Bonds with a quick detour to grab West Bond (three Bonds, one hike) before heading back into the woods to make our way to the Guyot Tentsite.  

We were tired and happy and to be setting up camp for the night.  Home for the night was a right off the Bondcliff Trail 1/4 mile down the Guyot spur. 

End of Day 1:  15.5 miles, 4,201' elevation gained 

Entering the Guyot Campsite Area 

Guyot Campsite 

At the campsite, we arrived to see very packed tent platforms as hikers rushed to set up their tents in any open space before the storm rolled in.  We checked in with the person running the camp (yes, people run these camps out in the middle of the woods).  A night at Guyot wll cost $10 per person and get you access to the tent platform and group areas (kitchen area, running water to filter, and a privy) before finding an open tent platform.  All the tents were placed on platforms scattered throughout the campsite.  A new shelter was being built in early September when we were there. 

We managed to fit three tents on our platform and Ryan kindly helped these three women on their first backpacking trip set up their tent.  Rain swept in and we were in our tents by 6:30 enjoying wine, cheese, and crackers.  Yes, you read that right, Ryan hiked a bottle of wine, two glasses, cheese, crackers, and pepperoni 15 miles into the woods.  He also kept it all as a surprise.  

You see, I thought this year we were bringing less things - less weight, less stuff we didn't need, less beer.  I even rationed out the Twizzlers to a half bag for crying out loud.  Well, we brought less beer but Ryan is sneaky and he brought far more when it came to happy hour.  I just wish you could have seen my face when he pulled wine, cheese, crackers, and pepperoni out of his pack, 15 miles into the woods.  We skipped dinner, enjoying the cheese and wine before falling asleep at what I am pretty sure was 7 pm.  We got up early and were on the trail by 6:15 with a long day ahead of us.  Much much longer than either of us intended.  

Guyot Campsite tent platforms

Guyot Campsite tent platforms

Ryan's surprise treat 

In the morning, we used to Jetboil to make some instant coffee and threw on our rain gear before heading out on the trail.  We snacked on granola bars as we made our way through the mist and clouds.  Hot coffee is a luxury but also a necessity when it comes to chilly morning backpacking.

At the intersection of Bondcliff and the AT, we ditched our packs on the side of the trails and took a right onto the AT, making the 1.2 miles (each way) detour to grab Mount Zealand while we were... casually in the area.  The detours along our major loop were adding up quick, another 2.4 miles right here alone, and we quickly started to see just how long this day was going to be.  

With our heavy packs back on, we headed along the AT (now the other direction) on our way to the summit of South Twin Mountain, this time right off the trail.  Ryan offered the chance to take a 1.1-mile (each way) detour to grab North Twin, but I knew there was a lot of trail left in the day.  I said no to North Twin and we continued on our way.   

From South Twin Mountain, we continued onto the Twinway Trail for a bit before taking a left onto the Frost Trail which would take us to Galehead Hut.  At Galehead, we dropped our heavy packs again and made the quick 0.4 mile (each way) detour to grab the Galehead Summit.  Back at the hut, we heated a freeze-dried dinner, refilled our water, and happily enjoyed a pastry from the kitchen.  

Hiking in the clouds 

Zealand detour 

No view at South Twin

Following the trail signs 

Galehead Hut Welcome Sign 

These huts in the middle of the woods always amaze me.  New Hampshire did an amazing job with their hut system, placing these impressive lodging and dining "cabins" deep into the woods.  If you plan ahead, you can rent a bunk and enjoy a family-style dinner cooked right there at the cabin with fellow campers.  I am talking warm beds and running water, fresh dinner and a library of books and games.  

If you hike hut to hut, you can leave your tent and dried food behind, enjoying cooked meals and warm cabins.  If you are backpacking without the intention of spending the night (you have to book it ahead) you can stop into the hut for supplies, water, food and warmth.  There is often soup and pastry for sale, and you can always find company.   Galehead Hut is basically in the middle of the Pemigewasset wilderness, far from any road or trailhead.  It s the perfect place to rest up, warm up, fuel up, and use a bathroom before continuing on your hike.   

Galehead Hut 

View from Galehead Hut 

Again, we loaded our heavy bags on our back for the last time, stopping for a minute to look at the time and the map.  The numbers were making me nervous...... the miles ahead, the current time, and the time in which daylight would be gone.  

From the hut, we had 2.4-miles along the Twinbrook Trail to the Thirteen Falls tentsite, 3.2- miles on the Lincoln Brook Trail, up the Owls Head turn off which would be 1 mile each way,  another 3.2-miles on the Lincoln Brook Trail, 1.6-miles on the Franconia Brook Trail, ending with 1.2 miles on the Lincoln Woods Trail.  

This meant about 14 miles left to get to the car.  This was all after hiking 15 miles the day before, and 7 miles that day already and if there is one thing I've learned about trails, it is that the mileage is rarely right 

I was right, those 3.2 mile markers were not accurate and we had a lot more miles than planned.  I did the math of a 22-mile day according to the unaccurate trail distances and panic set in.  I had never hiked 22 miles in a day WITHOUT a pack.  I was about to hike 22 miles in a day with a heavy pack, after hiking 15 miles the day before.  Did I mention I was just off an injury and completely untrained?

I tried to keep my cool for the first half - head down and long strides down the trails, using trail intersections as my small goals to get me closer to the end.  Panic set in as my body was tired and my mind was just ready to be done.  This section of the trail was thick with trees and there were no views, no clearings, just thick woods and long trails.  I was starting to feel claustrophobic, hidden in these trees with no views or no other humans in sight. 

These sections along the Lincoln Brook Trail were muddy and hard to follow.  They were not well traversed and we had to pay attention to every portion of the trail.  In roughly seven miles of hiking, I think we only passed two sets of people, 3 in total.  I think I actually exclaimed "Look, Humans!" when an older couple backpacking passed us on the trail.  

It turned out that those 3.2-mile sections were not accurate, they were much longer and up and down in elevation.  By the time we had reached the Owls Head turn off (the one summit Ryan needed) we had climbed back down in elevation.  29 miles into our trip, (15 miles into the day), we would have had to hike 1 mile with over 1,000' of elevation on a steep hard to follow wet slick trail before turning around to hike 1 mile back down that trail, back to where we started.  And then we would have to continue on the 7 miles back out to where we started. 

Passing the beautiful 13- falls tent site area 

I made the call that we had to pass Owl's Head.  My untrained body was too defeated, too tired, too exhausted.  We had too much mileage left to take on the physical and mental challenge of this rocky steep and slick trails to one of the White's remote summits.  At this point, I was slugging along and I had slipped more than once as my worn-out hiking boots and slick terrain caused me to crash into the rocks as we hiked along. 

Normally I would have sucked it up and did it, or I would have at least waited at the turnoff, letting Ryan grab his peak while I waited.   But on an insanely slippery trail with no one around in a desolate not well-traveled part of the woods (with no service) I was not comfortable splitting up.  And so, I made the tough guilty call to pass the summit. 

We were within 1-mile of the only summit Ryan needed and I had to say no.  I know this sounds harsh, so harsh, indeed.  But you need to know your limits, mentally and physically.  And I had met mine.  I was at a point where it was unsafe to add on these miles, and I was very intimidated by the idea of getting back to the trailhead in the dark and driving home late at night 4.5 miles back to Connecticut absolutely exhausted on a Sunday night after hiking.

We skipped the summit and I walked the next 7 miles filled with guilt but knowing I made the right decision.  Ryan did not guilt me once, he did his job of being the perfect trail friend understanding my needs and limits.   

So happy to be almost back 

We finally made our way out of the dense woods and back onto the long wooded walk that is the Lincoln Woods Trail.  I was so happy to see a familiar trail and to see people again.  I opened my beer I had carried around those 30 plus miles, celebrating that it was just a few miles of flat easy terrain until I could rip off my muddy hiking boots and sit in the comfort of the car.  

We got back to the car at around 6:15, exactly 12 hours after we had started our hike this morning.  I couldn't believe that I had hiked for 12 hours, with one small short stop at Galehead hut.  I was mentally defeated and embarrassed about missing the peak, but I was so exhausted and humbled by this mountain. 

Day 2:  22 miles and 3,254' of elevation gained 

The river before heading home 

Just when you think you are getting the hang of it, the mountains and mother nature humble you.  She taught me about planning, about stamina and training and knowing your limits.  She also taught me to go out in the rain and see just how beautiful the deep woods of New Hampshire can be.  

I survived another backpacking trip, Katie Wanders and Ryan Saunters style.  The mileage was a lot more than I expected, and I should have opted for a shorter hike knowing I was just coming off an injury and had not been able to hike.  At the end of the day, Ryan didn't get the peak he needed, but we had an amazing weekend hiking together.  We enjoyed the view from the Bonds, a night at Guyot with cheese and wine, lunch at Galehead Hut and the beautiful views from thirteen falls.  

We were so happy to be back in the car and laughed about the voyage of the weekend.  I had a 4.5-hour drive home after being absolutely exhausted, with an ETA of about 11 pm and a need for a real meal.  The cost of adventuring on a full-time job I suppose. 

After picture - back at the same map

Thank you, Ryan, for carrying heavy wine and cheese around a mountain for a day, for being such a great trail partner and for putting my needs before your own.  Another amazing backpacking trip in the books and I can promise you next year, I will be the one picking the trail.  

2 days
1 night
38 miles 
7,490' elevation gained
1 bottle of wine
1 missed summit

I can do hard things. 
I can even do them with a smile on my face. 

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