The dust of Katahdin settled from our boots, and our tent was long past dry. June greeted us with whispers from the Whites. We heard the calls and were summoned to hike the Pemigewasset Loop in New Hampshire.
This 31.5-mile hike summits eight peaks and gains over 9,000 feet of elevation. A.K.A. It’s not for the faint of heart. The Loop can be hiked in a single day, a popular trek among New England trail runners. However, don’t let this fool you; Backpacker Magazine deemed it the second hardest day hike in the US. So, day hiking was out for us. That meant Nicholas and I would be strapping on the ol’ packs to tackle this grueling hike in two days.
I hadn’t backpacked since 2010 when I went with a college group. This was my first experience trekking through the woods with 30 plus pounds, and I fell in love; we had spent ten days in the Adirondacks, a long trip for a first timer, but I loved every minute. It wasn’t until Nicholas had hiked a few overnight trips that I had finally found someone to strap on the pack with me. The Pemi would be our first backpacking trip as a couple.
We left on Friday, June 26, 2015, embarking for the White Mountains at noon and arriving at 3:30 p.m. We pulled into the Lincoln Woods Visitor Center and staged our packs. We headed out and crossed a wooden bridge, the threshold of the wilderness.
We were hiking the Loop clockwise, so we strolled along the Lincoln Woods Trail for 1.4 miles before reaching the Osseo Trail junction, where we continued the route up Mt. Flume. It was our goal to camp at the Liberty Springs Tentsite, a 5.3-mile stretch from the Osseo junction, but since we had a late start, night was falling. We enjoyed the soft light on Mt. Flume’s 4,328′ summit and decided to avoid night hiking by looking for a stealth spot on the 1.2 miles before Mt. Liberty. We walked another half mile and found a little clearing on the side of the trail. Score! Stealth camping means a hiker pitches a tent in a spot that’s “technically” not a campsite. Depending on where you are, you could get fined by rangers, so you have to be stealthy. I set up our tent while Nicholas prepared dinner – two Backcountry dehydrated meals, very luxurious. On our half day of hiking, we completed approximately 6.1 miles, only 25.4 to go.
The next morning we woke with the sun and continued 0.6 miles to the summit of Mt. Liberty, 4,459′, our second summit of eight. After Mt. Liberty we realized we were low on water and knew there wasn’t going to be any for a while, so we hiked down to the Liberty Springs Tentsite and filtered three liters each. Our goal was to hike a total of 14.1 miles to the Guyot shelter. A long day, but we were confident we could get there.
For the next 1.9 miles, the hiking was glorious! Soft, spongy dirt through groves of stick-like trees and then off we went to the ridge! The next stretch of trail is Nicholas’s favorite traverse in New England, the Franconia Ridge Trail. It’s a 2.4-mile span of exposure that traces over the spine of three summits: Little Haystack Mtn, 4,780′; Mt. Lincoln, 5,089′; and Mt. Lafayette, 5,260′. We had both hiked this ridge before and greatly anticipated its beauty and 360 views. The weather granted clear skies and wisps of wind, idyllic hiking conditions. By the time we summited Little Haystack, my stomach was rumbling. Man, I forgot how much quicker your body burns food while backpacking. Meanwhile, I looked over at two day hikers enjoying ham sandwiches, mustard dribbling out the sides. My stomach lurched again. “I guess I can eat a bar,” I said to myself. I had packed three for the day, and I had already had one for breakfast. So there I sat, eating my second granola bar of three with approximately 12 miles to go. Stupid move.
Lincoln’s summit was slightly windier, but just as enjoyable. I again saw the same two day hikers feasting on yet another sandwich! This time I’m pretty sure it was turkey and little bits of shredded lettuce floated in the wind. I could feel my stomach growling. We pushed on to climb Lafayette, the last summit of the ridge. The peak was crowded with other hikers and many snapped pictures of the green folds that swept beyond the horizon. Just as Nicholas and I were leaving, I saw them. The sandwich boys were face deep in fluffernutters. Damn them.
It was about twelve noon when we started the Garfield Ridge Trail. We needed to hike 2.7 miles to reach Mount Garfield, 4,500′. That’s not so bad, we thought. Oh, but that thought was quickly forgotten. Garfield Ridge Trail proved to be relentless. Nonstop PUDs, Pointless Ups & Downs, as AT hikers call them. These ascents and descents are true to New England fashion; they are knee buckling grinds. We didn’t stay at the summit of Mt. Garfield long, as the weather was stirring, dark gray clouds swirled in the distance.
Nicholas ran out of water shortly after and hiked without until we came to a stream. Nicholas gulped like a dehydrated camel. We had a mile before we reached the Galehead Hut and the clouds grew darker and the air colder. I started to pick up the pace as I didn’t want to get stuck in a downpour, but Nicholas was going abnormally slow. At points he looked like he was swaying. I paid no mind to his state and told him to hurry. Once we got to the hut we knew our goal of camping at the Guyot shelter was gone, 3.8 more miles, plus two mountain ascents. It was already seven and the sky was itching to dump buckets.
We hiked 0.2 miles past the shelter and found a stealth spot. Two other backpackers were setting up, but it was big enough for all of us. Nicholas collapsed in the dirt while I began setting up our tent. Just as I was about to yell at Nicholas for not helping, he rolled onto all fours, stumbled to his feet and projectile vomited onto baby pines. Meanwhile, one of our neighbors walked up to me and asked if we had a lighter. Each word seemed to be punctuated by Nicholas’s guttural puking. Placidly, I replied, “could you wait just a second?” The guy now realized the situation. He saw the fountains of bile extricated from my partner’s mouth. I dug through a stuff sack and sent the hiker on his way.
Nicholas said he didn’t feel well along his waterless stretch, and it turns out he drank a gallon of water in less than a mile after he filled up. Dehydration at its finest.
We managed to cook dinner and eat before it started to rain. My stomach was screaming. I had eaten my third bar hours ago. I proceeded to not only finish by own meal but eat the rest of Nicholas’s. Day two: we hiked about 10.7 miles.
We woke to the sound of rain. We needed to walk 14.7 miles and climb two peaks, all in the rain. Today is going to be interesting, I thought. We got to South Twin Mountain, 4,902′, quickly due to it being a rock Stairmaster to the top. The wind pelted rain at our faces, each drop stinging. An older woman stood frozen at the summit, unable to navigate in the whipping gale. Her poncho flapped violently. Nicholas helped her down the ledge to flatter ground. A quick rescue, but we soon zoomed into the trees, hiking at full speed. We came upon a group of strong hikers that blew by us the previous day. The five of them looked crumpled in their rain gear. They told us they weren’t going to finish the Loop because of the weather conditions. That meant they were taking the “bailout” trail near the Galehead hut. Both our egos swelled as we pushed on into the wind and rain. We were finishing the Pemi.
Mount Bond, 4,698′, was gray and striped with silver spools of rain. The Bond Cliffs followed, and I would image them to be one of the most spectacular spots on the Loop if it had been a nice day. The Cliffs are a labyrinth of exposed trails snaking along drop offs. But all we could see was mist, and at one point, I witnessed the wind rip Nicholas’s rain cover from his pack, the cover waving on one of his attached trekking poles like a wild flag. I was also pushed down by the wind. I fell sideways, off trail, into shrubs.
Our legs carried us 14.7 miles to the bridge; we crossed by 4:00 p.m. Approximately 48.5 hours since we started. Two days and I never felt happier to cross a bridge. This bridge meant the threshold to warmth, food, and dry socks. It’s the little things, you know?
We left the lot heading straight to the Woodstock Inn Station and Brewery, a restaurant I had been visiting since I was three-years-old. Nostalgic food filled our bellies, and we melted into the booth, two happy hikers.