Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Wintry Pemi Loop (Attempt) - 12/10/11

Well, Saturday sure was a long day in the mountains as I attempted another one-day Pemi Loop, yep in December, just a few days off of the shortest day of the entire year. My goal was to make a big step towards 100 NH48 summits. I believed I could do it. I knew that I would be hiking straight through until until night time, at least 20 hours, but the conditions along certain sections of the way slowed me down a little. While some might think I really risked it on this one, the conditions I experienced were no more challenging than anything I had experienced before.

It was snowing lightly as I finalized my pack and gear in the Lincoln Woods parking lot. I started down the Lincoln Woods Trail, where a fresh coat of snow was forming over the dusting already frozen to the ground. I hiked at a consistent pace reaching the Bondcliff Trail in about 1hr and 25min, which was a great start. There were no issues following the Bondcliff Trail at all. I think one of the first times I took a break for more than 5 minutes was at the spot where the trail opens up at the bottom of the valley and crosses a dry river bed before the switch-backing ascent. I turned off my headlamp, sipped some water, and stood there looking at the falling snow in front of the dark outline of the mountains above.
Easy going on Bondcliff Trail
As I approached the summit of Bondcliff, it was pitch black and still snowing really good. It was not very windy, but the visibility was not great. I walked slowly across the summit recognizing the cliff, and staying with the cairns. I didn't linger and continued to Mt. Bond and recall having it pretty easy with good footing. This summit of Mt. Bond was my 80th 4000 footer this year. I tried to take it in for a few minutes, but I was pushing to get as far as I could before sunrise.
Not the summit cairn, but another one before it on Bondcliff
Cairn next to the trail opening on Mt. Bond, pitch black
Still snowing good, I made it to the West Bond Spur. The sky was fading from black to the deep blue. A short way down the trail, I dropped my pack on the side, grabbed a water bottle and started a bee-line for the summit. About 40 seconds later, I came upon the first hiker I saw heading to the summit from Guyot Campsite. I went ahead for the summit. I made the summit and was treated to a slight clearing and partial view of the Pemi Wilderness. West Bond is truly in the middle of nowhere. It was about 7:10am, just about the exact time of actual sunrise. We shared the summit together for a couple of short minutes, but then I continued on returning to my pack and then the Bondcliff Trail.
Rocky summit of West Bond at sunrise; 7:10am
From West Bond, next was 1.3 miles to the Twinway and Mt. Guyot. It was still snowing steadily going on 7 straight hours!! As I made my way towards Zealand, the snow was much deeper. It was here, I noticed for the first time I was getting slowed down. I dropped my pack and clipped a water bottle to my waist about halfway to Zealand. I placed my pack a few feet off the trail, and I clipped my orange cable link clip to a tree so I would see it on my way back. I made a few distinct marks in the snow with my poles shortly after it so I had couple of visuals to alert me on the way back so I wouldn't miss my pack. The summit of Zealand was a beautiful winter wonderland, and it was great to be back to Zealand for the 3rd time this year, but maybe coming to Zealand this time would bite me in the rear; we would find out later, but it was pretty while I was there.
Mt. Guyot summit
Zealand Mountain summit
On the way back, I came upon my pack and continued back to Guyot and picked up the Twinway. The weather was still the same, still snowing. When I arrived at the summit of South Twin, it was 11:20am. I was on Zealand at 8:40am, so it took me 2hrs and 40 min to hike the 3.3 miles to South Twin, which was the slowest section thus far, and was a result of the deeper snow and the tougher ascent coming back over Guyot.
South Twin summit
So, at 11:20am, nearly 10 hours after I started, it was still snowing as I stood upon South Twin for the 4th time since my first ascent of it in July. I snapped a photo of the summit and got out of the wind for a moment. I actually had set my pack in between the rocks and took about 30 steps on the North Twin Spur before stopping in my tracks. I didn't see any boot prints for the first time, and the snow was definitely a few inches deeper that the Twinway to Zealand, so I made an easy decision of turning around, putting my pack back on, and heading down the steep Twinway to the hut. This was a tough descent and on the lower half of this .8 mi stretch was extremely icy under the fluffy snow. Near the bottom, I past two hikers ascending South Twin.

At the Galehead Hut, the snow finally subsided, and there was a slight clearing and slither of blue sky becoming visible out over the Pemi. It was great to take a seat on the bench for another rest and some food. Again, I set my pack down and made my way up the untouched trail to Galehead. When I arrived at the summit, it might have been the most beautiful I've ever seen it. The cairn was covered with a blanket of untouched snow. I posed for a summit picture with it. On the way down only, I stopped quickly at the lookout. Back at the hut and my pack, I was about to embark on the toughest section yet, the Garfield Ridge Trail.
Sky opening up at Galehead Hut
The beautiful untouched Galehead Mountain summit
Rays through the clouds over the Pemi
The Garfield Ridge Trail proved to be pretty tricky on the ascent to Garfield, going in this direction, it might be the toughest spot. At this point, my left microspike had busted from the rocks under the fluffy snow, and my left toe no longer had any grip. This quickly resulted in the types of slips and falls that simply make you run out of gas, and that is what happened. It was 5:20pm when I reached the summit of Garfield, my 7th peak of the day and although a long way to go, I got to enjoy the sun going down over Franconia Ridge.
Garfield Ridge Trail after Gale River Trail junction
Garfield Ridge Trail
View from Garfield shortly before sunset
As I write this now, I realize this may have been the point where I should have packed it in and headed down the Garfield Ridge Trail, but nope, I continued on, wanting to grab those peaks. I started towards Garfield following that huge animal print in the unbroken snow all of the way from Garfield to Lafayette. I was slightly more than halfway along and then the sun and light altogether seemed to disappear instantly, like someone had instantly flipped the switch. There was very little wind or weather as I got closer to Lafayette, but still in the trees. I think it started to flurry a little bit again. I had 3 pairs of gloves and 2 of them were frozen. The 3rd pair, my liners, were wet but by using them it kept them from freezing, and my hands were fine. If I stopped, they would freeze, it got really frustrating. At this point all of my water and Gatorade was frozen too. I had not kept them inside my pack from the get-go, which was a mistake. At this point I was constantly making adjustments. I was clearly starting to get dehydrated, I could feel it in my mouth, it was so dry.

I broke from the trees around 10pm and made it to the summit of Lafayette shortly after. It was not easy following the cairns up to the summit. The wind was blowing consistently, maybe 30mph, which is not very hard but it was consistent with gusts that pushed me off my step, and the snow was blowing. It was maybe about 4 times worse than what I went through on the Bonds earlier in the morning. It was more calm then. Since I could hardly see the cairns, I approached the summit at a weird angle, not following a cairn, but when I saw the signs in front of me, and I think I walked just below them several feet away from them, my focus was so much on just to keep going straight and follow the cairns over the side, and I did...but somehow I lost the cairns again, and when I found one again, I must have followed it in the wrong direction, somehow spiraling back around. I sort of expected footprints on Franconia Ridge on this Saturday, but I ended up following my own footprints all the way back to Garfield unknowingly. Here I am completely gassed, slightly dehydrated, broken microspikes, and I come upon the 1/4 mile to Garfield Ridge Campsite sign. I immediately yelled an extremely loud expletive through the trees. In about 30 more steps I reached the summit of Garfield again, and again I yelled a loud expletive through the moonlit Pemi Wilderness.

Obviously, I decided to head down the Garfield Trail to Route 3. A short way down I got some service and informed the family what had happened and what I intended to do. A taxi might work during the day, but when its last call at the bars, stranded hikers, I learned are SOL. Luckily, Matt, another hiker on his way to Randolph to start a Presi Traverse later in the morning offered a ride and brought me back to Lincoln Woods. That was pretty clutch, and I compensated him for the ride.

After I had came down off of Lafayette, not knowing I was going in the wrong direction, I had thought of stopping for the night, as I had gear to sleep. I had my sleeping pad, a 25 degree sleeping bag, and an emergency tarp/blanket. I had another pants layer and another shirt layer and an extra pair of socks. I was never cold at all on this hike. My Merrell winter boots are -40 rated, and I believe it. I thought of hunkering down in the top of Garfield. I also thought of parking in a nice enclosure of trees somewhere along the Garfield Ridge Trail (apparently that's where it would have been). I had plenty of food, and if I could warm my liquids, and worked the tarp correctly, I would have been all set. However, I'm sure glad I decided to come down, because I would have been still screwed in the morning, and probably very confused!

Looking back, I'm glad this happened, it was a pretty intense physical and mental challenge, and it's only going to make me more cautious hiking in winter conditions. It has also made me really think getting a GPS is a good idea. I'm going to make sure my bottles don't freeze, and I'm going to get better gloves. From now on, if I'm going to do this in winter months, I'll plan it as an overnighter, and keep the one-day loops to the summer months. Despite the situation I experienced, the entire hike was incredibly beautiful. It was still a great day, bagging 8 peaks in December, and checking off another Trailwright peak in Galehead.

Hike Stats
Trails: Lincoln Woods Trail, Wilderness Trail, Bondcliff Trail, West Bond Spur, Twinway, Frost Trail, Garfield Ridge Trail, Garfield Trail
Distance: 34.4 miles
Elevation Gain: 9,550 ft
Book Time: 23hrs 30min

To view the album from this hike, view or click on the slide show below:


  1. Wow, what a trip! You really should consider a GPS unit to add to your gear, especially with the kind of trips you take. Nice post, but be careful out there. Winter is dangerous.

  2. Great trip report and nice attempt! I may try this in the winter with a group, if it happens I'll send you a message if you'd like to join in!

  3. Mike - Thank you. I'm already starting to research what the best units out there are. The GPS itself and an altimeter will be necessary for bagging some of those trail less peaks next year.

    Chris - Thank you for reading. Please do send me a shout if that happens, I would love to join and try again when the trails are more packed. I can't wait for that.

  4. Wow! Glad you made it out relatively unscathed. That was definitely an epic day. I personally can't imagine being out there alone in those conditions and going through what you did. You clearly took the right experience from it and are going to use it to you advantage next time. Thanks for sharing another amazing journey!

  5. Thanks Mark, I certainly like to go big, but this was just the thing I needed to keep me in check that the mountains mean business, especially in the winter months. There were a lot of slips and falls, including one where having a backpack on probably saved me from hitting my head on some ice near the top of Garfield.