My alarm was set for 3:30 am to wake up and emerge from the back of my car to start my 34-mile day hike variation of the Pemi Loop in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Named the hardest day hike on the East Coast by Backpacker magazine, I planned to summit 10 different 4000 footers before returning back to my car in an estimated 17 hours.
I had absolutely no idea how this hike was going to go. It would be the longest hike I had ever done by far and I had done absolutely zero training leading up to it, just hoping my general fitness would carry me through the day. I had friends that had done the loop in 3 day backpacking trips and told me about how challenging the terrain was, struggling up and over rocky peaks over and over. At first my plan was to do it in three days as well, like most sane people, but after seeing multiple trip reports of the day hike version, I couldn’t get the idea out of my head.
I woke up when someone started singing (badly) outside of my car. For about 5 seconds I was filled with excitement thinking it was time to get going and these were a bunch of fellow Pemi Loop day hikers getting ready to leave as well. The excitement turned to anger when I looked at my watch and saw it was only 2:00am. I tried to fall back asleep once they left, but quickly realized it was hopeless. Slightly worried that I had only gotten 3.5 hours of sleep leading up to what was probably going to be the most challenging hike I had ever attempted, I got out of the car and started pulling out my gear for the day.
For this hike I tried to pack fairly light, knowing from experience how much of a difference a pound can make when you have to carry it on your back up and over mountains.
Pack: Grivel Ecles 38L
Water: 100oz Osprey Hydraulics Bladder
Food: 7 Clif bars, 4 Clif Shot Blocks sleeves, 2 Gu Packets, 1 packet of salmon.
Clothing (Worn): EMS Techwick T-Shirt, EMS Compass Shorts, EMS Webbing Belt, Pearl Izumi Wool Liner Sock, Smart Wool Hiking Sock
Clothing (Packed): EMS Polartec Quarter-Zip, Marmot Precip Rain Shell
Footwear: La Sportiva Hyper Mid GTX
Still half asleep, pulling my boots out of the car, the world suddenly became extremely bright. I looked up and was staring directly into a police spotlight. I wasn’t really sure what was going on, and wondered for a second if maybe you weren’t supposed to be sleeping in your car, and whether or not I was about to get screamed at. He slowly pulled up to next to me and told me they were looking for a “suspicious individual” that someone had reported. I guess aside from my muted mohawk hairdo I had going on at the time I didn’t look very suspicious, and he let me continue to get ready for my hike.
I forced down three hard boiled eggs and a handful of trail mix, drank a bunch of water from Nalgenes I was leaving in the car, threw my backpack and headlamp on and took my first of my many, many steps that would make up this crazy hike.
I crossed the bridge over the Pemi river at almost exactly 3:00am and took a right onto the Lincoln Woods Trail. I stuck to the side of the trail to avoid the old railroad ties which were easy to trip over, and I had a good pace going along this super flat section of trail. I was hyper-sensitive at this point to everything I was feeling, which wasn’t instilling a lot of confidence. My feet especially didn’t feel as good as they did a week earlier hiking in the Adirondacks with my mom, and I started to worry about getting blisters. On a 34 mile hike, blisters after the first ten was going to make for a miserable last 24. I tried not to think about it. I got to the intersection of the Osseo Trail pretty quickly, and started left into the woods, clearing out cobwebs with my face.
As I started to climb the base of mount Flume something didn’t feel right. My breathing was really heavy, and I was starting to feel nauseous. I was stumbling and leaning up against trees every 100ft, ready to fall over. Eventually I just couldn’t move forward anymore and in sort of a controlled fall ended up laying on my back staring up at the sky. Watching the beam of my headlamp going through the trees, I realized my heart rate was through the roof. This was by far the lowest part of my entire hike, both physically and mentally. I thought I was going to have to turn around and head back to the car already, and about how stupid it would be to fail after only 2.5 miles. I was trying to figure out why I felt so horrible. I had done an 11 mile day just a week earlier and felt great the whole time. I laid on the ground frustrated and upset for another minute or so until my heart rate came down, and then stood up and slowly persevered up the trail. Instead of turning around, I decided to at least summit Flume, and decide what to do once I got there. I was really hoping it had something to do with the fact that it was still only 4 in the morning, and my body just wasn’t awake yet. I ate a shot block (yum) and took a few sips of water, then dialed back my pace to something hardly faster than a crawl. Slowly but surely, I started to feel like myself again, gaining a bit of my energy back with every step. (For those reading this in preparation for their trip, this is a very common and very real phenomena I have seen happen in myself and others many times when getting early “alpine starts”. If it happens to you, dial back your pace, and get some food and water. A little sugar boost for fast energy can be really effective, but make sure to follow it up with something more significant for sustained energy or you’ll bonk again.) By the time I reached the top of the stairs on the Osseo trail I felt less like a 50 year old pack a day smoker and more like the healthy 20 year old hiker that I was. I continued up the trail feeling somewhat relieved that I probably wouldn’t need to turn around, and crawled up over the rocks on top of Flume. The view over this first set of rocks was surreal. It was still pitch black, and my headlamp was reflecting against the clouds down in the valley below me. To the left I could see the lights of a small town, and above me the stars were still a sparkling bright white. I turned around to see the sun just starting to peak over the top of the mountains, with vivid warm shades of orange and deep purples. Feeling completely transformed from just an hour earlier, I pushed on to Liberty.
The sun continued to rise as I made my way up Liberty, and the colors on the horizon were getting stronger. As I summitted I was excited to get out my camera and get some pictures, but as soon as I did a strong gust of wind encapsulated me in a cloud. I ate a Clif bar and tried to wait for it to clear, but I started getting cold and decided to head out. I began descending again and after about 5 minutes stepped over a large rock, which looked really, really familiar…ugh. I had started descending the same trail I came up. I did a quick U-turn and went back up to Liberty to find the correct trail. I was kind of worried, because visibility was very poor and I didn’t see any trail markers. I looked around for a few minutes at least, and couldn’t see anything that even resembled a trail. Barely distinguishable from within the fog I noticed some small cairns on the rocks to my right, and upon investigation noticed they were leading down to a small break in the pines. Back on track, I was making decent time on my way to Lafayette. There was only one problem, I was already feeling blisters on my heels. I was really disappointed, and worried about what this meant for the rest of my hike. I stopped and put some duct tape over the blisters, hoping that would be enough to make sure they wouldn’t get any worse. The duct tape turned out to work extremely well, and right away my feet started feeling better.
The trail up to Lafayette was above treeline and at this point it was bright enough that I no longer needed my headlamp. With every step I was wishing the clouds would clear. I knew I would be getting great views, but unfortunately they lingered, leaving me only with the view of a rocky trail extending 20ft in front of me and then disappearing into a dull grey infinity. I continued on toward Garfield on the Garfield Ridge Trail at a good pace, unsure of how much ground I was really gaining since I couldn’t really see anything among the fog. Walking along the rocky trail a strong gust of wind nearly blew me over, and all at once the cloud I had been imprisoned by all morning passed behind me and gave way to beautiful blue skies with giant white clouds hovering at the same elevation as the mountains. It looked as if I could jump on top of them one by one and bounce my way around the Pemi Loop. The wind was so strong, and the clouds were colliding with the ridgeline and accelerating over the top in a sort of smooth white torrent as they whipped over the rocks and down the other side. It was absolutely surreal, and I stood on the highest point I could find and leaned over the edge, letting the wind hold me up. It was one of those rare alone with nature moments, and one I will always remember.
Off the ridgeline but invigorated by the amazing views I had just seen I dipped back into the piney tree cover and hauled some serious ass through the rest of the Garfield Ridge Trail. My friend Jaron had told me to really “goose it” through this section because it was relatively flat and easy terrain, a good place to make up time.
I made it to Mount Garfield fairly quickly, and finally got cell phone service to send a quick text to my parents and let them know I was still alive. I started to get some muscle cramps in my toes while I was up there, but ignored it. This was a mistake.
I continued down off of Garfield with good energy and a stiff pace, working toward Galehead hut. This section of the trail seemed to drag on a bit, but wasn’t terribly difficult. I passed a few hikers along the way, most of which looked like they were backpacking sections of the AT.
About a mile from Galehead hut, I went to step up onto a big rock and almost fell over with a crippling leg cramp up my entire right thigh. I cringed in pain and awkwardly leaned to one side to straighten it out to prevent it from totally locking up on me. It seemed to calm down and I continued slowly along the trail, but every time I had to make a decent sized step onto something it would try to cramp up again and I have to quickly stop and straighten it out. I was becoming increasingly concerned it would keep getting worse, leaving me on the trail locked up in pain laying in some unnatural position for some AT hiker to trip over. As I kept hiking, the cramps got worse, and spread to my lower back, and my left thigh as well. By the time I stumbled into the hut, both legs, my back, and my toes were all locking up painfully from cramps. I definitely looked pretty weird walking like a zombie into the hut along with the cast from my broken wrist, and no one in the hut talked to me despite lots of strange looks. With an unlimited source of clean water at the hut I forced myself to drink over a liter of water, realizing that despite drinking all 100oz of my water thus far the cramps were probably stemming from dehydration or some lack of nutrients. I ate a salmon packet for lunch as stretched and massaged my legs hoping the cramps would go away, but realized there wasn’t much else I could do at this point. I was about halfway through the loop, so at this point I could only fail forward. I crossed my fingers (hoping they wouldn’t cramp up and get stuck in that position) and headed out for the quick half mile climb up to the Galehead peak. My legs felt better after the rest, but the cramps were lingering. I knew this was going to be a long hike when I started at 3am, but now with these cramps, I knew it was about to be much, much longer. There wasn’t anything I could do about it, so after refilling my water bladder and stretched some more before making the ascent of South Twin.
This climb didn’t seem nearly as bad to me as other people had made it seem. It was steep, but seemed to go by fairly quickly even with my legs cramping up with every step. At the top, I stopped for a moment to rest along with a decent sized group of other hikers. A woman asked me what hike I was doing, and I described to her the “Pemi Loop”. Everyone at the summit perked up when they heard I was on the tail end of a 34 mile day. She wished me well on my attempt as I headed out toward Guyot, and the Bonds. This section of trail was pretty easy aside from the steep, rocky, knee busting descent off of twin. I was being very cautious, with images flooding my head of falling on the rocks and re-breaking my wrist. Luckily I hiked over Guyot and down to the west bond spur trail with my healing wrist still in one piece. At the summit of west bond I met two guys who were stoked about what I was doing and offered some much appreciated encouragement as I was starting to feel pretty fatigued. I continued on over Bond and onward to Bondcliff. I was thinking that after Bondcliff the trail would be an easy downhill jaunt to the parking lot. Wrong.
The final stretch of the hike after bond cliff seemed to stretch on forever. It felt like an eternity, as I trudged along in a constant state of confusion about exactly which trail I was on or how far I’d been on it. When I finally reached the train tracks, I thought I was almost there. Again, wrong. The train tracks became my all out nemesis as I put my head down and ground away toward the parking lot as my legs were cramping up each step, and both feet on fire from the blisters that had gotten progressively worse throughout the hike. I was so ready to be off the trail that despite the discomfort I was hiking over 3 miles an hour. I looked pretty ridiculous in the process, sort of like those middle aged women that “power walk”, but I didn’t care at that point, I just wanted to cross the stupid bridge. Eventually, just before 5:30 pm, 14 hours and 30 minutes after my departure, I finally crossed the Pemigewasset River, thereby completing the Pemi Loop. I limped back to my car feeling extremely accomplished and proud having fought through a significant amount of pain and suffering to complete the hike. The Pemi Loop was a great experience and gave me something to feel good about before heading back to start the miserable and disheartening fall semester of engineering school.