Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Epic hikes: Pemi loop

I mentioned before that I went on a long hike in Maine along a section of the Appalachian trail and then again in Yosemite up the Half Dome.

This year my hiking friend (it is an understatement to call him a seasoned hiker) came up with a multi-day hike of epic proportions.  He modestly presented it in the week preceding the hike (to those interested) as "a couple of options" for a Pemi loop.

Pemi is the Pemigewasset Wilderness, a large area in the White Mountains bounded on the West by the Franconia Range and accessible from the Kancamagus Highway.  If you love skiing this is also the home of Loon Mountain.

I have mentioned this in passing before, but in case you missed it there is a club for people who summit all of the mountains over 4000ft in New Hampshire.  John has done this.  His options therefore also included a few side trips to bag additional 4000 foot peaks if we had the energy to do this.  Even with the naivete of foresight I knew that this was unlikely but gamely said "we'll see how we feel" when this was mentioned.

We arrived in Lincoln the night before and stopped to verify the boast of a local restaurant that we had heard opened at 5:30am.  It was across from this ice-cream shop (New Englanders love ice cream).

We had planned to meet two other hikers (another hiking friend of John's) for dinner at a local restaurant and after a great meal we went on to a generously offered shelter for the night at a ski club house.

We slept fitfully because the ski club was hot - despite the presence of fans (again a thoughtful gesture from John's friend).  Our alarms had us up at 5 for a big breakfast and then to the trail head by seven.

Day 1
We left the other two hikers who had already opted to do one of the more modest options and started up Flume Mountain and then went along Franconia Ridge.  This is probably one of the most hiked areas of the White Mountain with beautiful vistas and changeable weather.

Hiking up Flume was very strenuous.  I was fresh but the day's temperature was destined to get into the 100'sF (37C) in the valley and most likely in the upper 80s (26C) or mid 90s (32C) on the mountain that day.  I found that I could sustain a reasonable pace up the steep sections with a few rests and John sensibly had me set the pace (if he had set the pace I would have been done in 20 min or so because his natural pace is probably twice mine).

Very occasionally we felt a slight breeze, but for the most part it was hot and humid.

Of course all that changed when we got to the top.  The ridge is wonderfully exposed and there was a breeze of what seemed about 20-30 miles an hour (assuming you can measure the speed of wind by imagining how it would feel if you put your head out of the window of a car driving at that speed.

A photograph from the top of Flume shows Liberty in the distance, but more importantly the far right peak (Mt Lafayette) which was our half-way point for the day!
John surveying the scenery on Mt Flume

My pack is visible next to John.  Laden with 4 liters of water (which proved not to be enough for the day) and food for 3 days, it weighed 35-40lbs.

Walking the ridge was a highlight.  I have wanted to hike this section for ages and we had great weather for it.

By lunchtime we were on Liberty.  Being a work day, the ridge was relatively free of people but we did meet at least one Appalachian Trail through hiker on our trip and several people doing some variation of the loop that we were doing.
Mt Lincoln summit

Once we arrived at Mt Lincoln I turned and took a picture of our hike so far.  The prominent peak in the distance is Mt Flume with Mt Liberty slightly closer.

After Liberty, Little Haystack and Lincoln and then Lafayette in the far distance.

View of Mt Lafayette from Lincoln

It was quite an achievement to get up to Lafayette.  A glider was flying on the thermals above the mountain and it kept circling and returning - too small to capture well in a photograph - with the occupants little dots in the cockpit.  It seemed like a peaceful way to enjoy this range.

I stopped to look back at our route.  The sharp prominent peak of Flume barely visible in among the greenery of the mountains.

The hike down from Lafayette was pretty strenuous and we both agreed that we were grateful we were doing it this way around.  The wind had picked up so that I had to watch my step as gusts moved me from one step to another - the poles saving me from a certain fall.

From Lafayette you descend in a series of steep climbs down into a valley which leads to a small "bump" of a mountain that is about 1200ft (descending from over 5000ft)

As we started going down Lafayette I ran out of water.  We were just over half way.

I hadn't realized how sparing I needed to be and had been hydrating as often as I felt I needed it.  John had about a liter left in his pack and he gave me half of it and we had sips of water that did little other than wet our mouths briefly.  After a few steps the dry mouth and desire to drink would re surge and I would make deals with myself about when I'd take the next sip.

3 miles later John ran out of water and wouldn't take any of mine so my self-imposed contract to drink was on hold.  After about another 10min of hiking we came to a steep section and I had to stop to catch my breath.  John took a sip of my water before consulting the map.  We had heard that there was unreliable water this side of Garfield (our next peak for the day).  We were exhausted and pretty dehydrated by then.

The map showed a pond just this side of Garfield and about 1000ft away!

What a relief to see the glint of the water through the trees.  Aching limbs and joints, a slight headache and the hot flushed feeling of being too hot were all but forgotten as we made our way down to the water to pump (you have to filter all the water you drink in these mountains) and then drink and drink long drafts of the sweet water from a shallow pond.

We set up camp right there.  Me asserting boldly that I could make it over Garfield if I really had to and John agreeing with me, but neither of us with the inclination to even try to demonstrate this resolve.

John had loaned me his bivvy bag - a plastic zip-up shroud that you climb into - in case it rained (it did) and he set up his hammock (which he swears by) for the night.

We were somewhat bothered by bugs as we cooked supper with our little home made soda-can stoves and settled in for the night.

The rain woke me and forced me into the bivvy for short periods during the night but I slept very well.

Five 4000ft peaks under the belt.

Day 2 
I wondered as we were getting breakfast how my legs would hold up.

View from the summit of Garfield.
The total distance for day 1 was 13mi (20km) and my joints were sore and so were my feet.  I have started to use hiking poles (John's recommendation) and they really saved my knees - which are usually the first to ache.  Another tip was to bring ibuprophen and have it handy during the day which seemed to help as well.

I was pleasantly surprised that I was able to sustain a pace (it seemed painfully slow) over a fairly long distance up the slope of Garfield.  The ascent from the pond was only 500ft so it ended up being a fairly easy start and then on to the shelter on the other side of the mountain.  We took pictures showing the trail behind us.  You can see Flume - the first prominent peak near my elbow.

I had to take the obligatory picture of the privy at Garfield (unremarkable) and also of the shelter before we headed off again up North Twin.
Our next stop was worth looking forward to.  A stop at one of the AMC (Appalachian Mountain Club) huts where they serve lemonade, soup, bread and cookies.

For lunch I had packed mostly these protein energy bars.  Some of them were a mixture of nuts and fruit and others a dry chocolate mixed with gritty grains.  The idea of something less packaged really appealed to me and when we arrived at the hut (I had run out of water again - this time because I thought I could make do with one container only) I took a long drink of lemonade and plenty of glasses of cold water before settling down to eat a bean, noodle and pea soup.

It was hot in the hut, but I didn't care.  That soup was delicious.

At the hut we also met a family from Connecticut who have two sons - one looked about 11 and the other 8.  The 8 year old was the only one in the family of four who hadn't done all 48 of the 4000ft peaks.  He was bagging one this day and would have two left after that.  What an achievement!
Galehead Hut

The hike up South Twin was similarly surprisingly modest.  In New Hampshire the terrain is rugged and you expect lots of very steep sections with few level areas to catch your breath.  To add to that there are often rocky sections where you have to scramble, climb or balance up steep slabs that feel a little tenuous despite being made of the gritty granite that most shoes stick very well to.  For both Garfield and South Twin, the climbs were reasonable and seemed to have fewer of these more strenuous features.

I was very relieved in both cases to find myself at the top before I expected to.

South Twin summit
We had one more 4000ft peak to reach before the night, but the plan for day 2 had been modest in the original map - a 6 mile (10km) walk  that ended up being 8 (12km) because we started on the other side of Garfield.  This peak was also not as strenuous.

I read afterwards that Lafayette and Lincoln are both over 5000ft so I suppose it is no wonder that these seemed a little easier than expected.

This doesn't meant that they were easy to do.  Each uphill was costly.  My body had trouble keeping at it and I had to will my legs to continue without stopping.  None of it made me feel as exhausted as the last half hour of day 1.

We arrived at the peak of Mt Guyot at 5pm and descended the other side to the campsite.  The wind on Guyot was spectacular.  There must be some local condition that brings winds of inordinate strength up this mountain because the alpine pines are packed down on the ground, bent and stunted by the harsh conditions they have to endure during the winter.  On this day, the wind was welcome - blasting us with cool air as the sun beat down.

I really liked the shelter at Guyot as well.  A hiker at the Galehead Hut had told us that the water at Guyot is the sweetest in the White Mountains and I was anxious to try it.  It was sweet water.

We settled down to a comfortable supper and had a good conversation with one of the hikers who has just moved from Florida to New Hampshire (on purpose) - a Biologist who works on nature conservancy.

Another 3 4000 foot peaks under the belt.

Day 3 
I had saved my biggest breakfast for last: Dehydrated granola, strawberry and milk - a surprisingly pleasant tasting meal with a cup of coffee courtesy of John.  I need to make a list of these few essentials that I had forgotten and John provided (coffee, sunscreen).

We had Bond Mt and Bondcliff to do before descending and returning to the car.  The day's journey would be 10 miles with almost half of it along the flat abandoned rail trail on the Wilderness Trail.

I took the obligatory shot of the privy (again unremarkable) and we headed out at about 8am.

Both of these remaining mountains proved to be doable with the slow slogging style that I had adopted on day 2 to keep my heart right around "pounding" but slightly less than "exploding".   On day one near the end I had pushed just a little too hard and suddenly found myself feeling dizzy.  I decided after that to focus more on keeping my breathing and heart rate consistent than pushing as hard as I felt that I could.  John reminded me on at least one miss-step that he wasn't carrying me out of there and I had seen in the privy this morning that helicopter trips to bring bags of bark for the compost were $950 an hour so that wasn't going to be a comfortable option either.  I'd much rather walk out myself.

The view from Bond mountain was spectacular and I couldn't resist taking several pictures of different views.

A hiker on the summit offered to take a picture of both of us - so here we are on Bond Mountain
Bond Mountain with Mt Washington in the background

The trail from Bond to Bond Cliffs is somewhat like the Franconia Ridge trail.  You can see the summit from quite a distance and the views are very impressive.

This was our last 4000ft mountain for the weekend.  Bringing it to a total of 10 (Flume, Liberty, Little Haystack, Lincoln, Lafayette, Garfield, South Twin, Guyot, Bond, Bondcliff).

This is a short video surveying the ridge from the first day from Bondcliff.

Pemi loop from tbouwer on Vimeo.

As we exited the trail, a ranger offered to take a picture of us on the bridge that linked the trail to the Wilderness trail.  To our right is a .4mi walk to the Franconia Falls which turned out to be a worthwhile side trip (adding a mile to our hike).

The walk to the falls was painful, but the water was cold but very refreshing - not the aching cold that we had felt in the streams a little higher up.

There were plenty of people there playing in the pools.  The site is very accessible from the Kancamagus Highway because the Wilderness trail is flat and very suitable for mountain bikes.

One of the ponds has a shute that you can slide down and I took some pictures of happy people playing there before John and I had a very welcome swim in the pool below it.

Another 5 miles and we were in the parking lot, in some pain, but very happy to have done the trip.

We agreed on the way down that day that it would have been a very pleasant four day trip.  Starting late in the morning and going to Liberty Falls and then following the rest of the trip as we had done it.

The total hike was 31mi (50km).

Well worth it.

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