“Things change. They always do, it’s one of the things of nature. Most people are afraid of change, but if you look at it as something you can count on, then it can be a comfort.”
Bridges of Madison County
Pemi Loop 2020.
Change. It can be scary, but it can also be exhilarating if you don’t fear it. Change has brought a year full of new adventures for us. The Pemi loop has been a challenge we’ve wanted to tackle for years, but there was always an excuse or reason to tuck it neatly away. Thirty rugged miles, with over eight summits and 9,000+ feet of elevation gain. Topped with stunning views of the Pemigewasset Wilderness may sound daunting, yet incredible at the same time. Book time from the AMC’s White Mountain Guide, list the Pemi Loop as a 20+ hour hike. Which is why most folks tackle this as a two or three day hike.
So, when three of our friends posted on their Strava pages that they completed the Pemi Loop, my wheels got-to-turning. It just so happened that our 22nd anniversary was on Friday, June 26th! The weather Gods were also showing clear, sunny skies for the day in Franconia, New Hampshire. Hmmm, could this be it, could we have a go at this beast of a hike and celebrate our anniversary atop eight beautiful mountains?! Why not!
We are organized to a degree, but we are extremely spontaneous. On most of our training runs, we never quite know where we’ll end up, we’ve always enjoyed the element of surprise. This was no different. We had a few days prep to learn the trek and gather supplies. Our friends alerted us that there was zero water at the huts, which meant filtering water was a must. Also, we would need to carry a hefty amount of water to make it to the nearest clean water source in the wilderness.
I have to admit, I was a bit of a weenie thinking about this. I love having plenty of water on me at all times. This meant that we would need daypacks, as our Solomon packs wouldn’t have the space to carry filters, 106 ounces of water, and all of our food. So we headed to our local LLBean store and purchased two, Osprey 18 L packs and the Katadyn Hiker Pro Water filter. YouTube proved to be a great place to learn how to use the filter properly.
We scoured the web learning more and more about the Pemi Loop, ultimately deciding on tackling the day clockwise.
Morning of the Pemi
The sound of Coldplay’s “Paradise” rang out in the wee hours of June 26th. Our adventure was starting with the sound of the alarm. I was giddy with excitement. We are finally doing this!! We madly rushed around filling our reservoirs and flasks with Tailwind and packing sandwiches, snacks, Spring Energy and beef jerky. Guy made his famous egg sandwiches to eat on the drive up. We pulled out of our driveway at 2:30am and made the trek to Lincoln, New Hampshire.
We arrived at the Lincoln Woods Visitor Center at 4:15am, leaving us plenty of time to slap on bug spray and sunscreen. Lifting my ever-so-heavy pack to my shoulders, we set off on our first Pemi Loop adventure together.
The trail meanders along the Lincoln Woods trail for 1.4 miles until you reach the Osseo Trail. It’s here, where the Pemi Loop lulls you into thinking this will be an easy hike. It winds along gradually, gaining elevation slowly. Little to no rocks in your way, the pull of the mountains ahead of you. We chatted about life together, our kids, where we’ve been, and where we dream to go. As the miles clicked by, Flume was waiting for us. A long staircase greeted us as we made a final push to the top. Smiles beamed, we made it to the first summit!
With the first peak of the day behind us, we made our way to Liberty. Once there, we texted my folks Happy 44th Anniversary! It just so happens that we share this special day with my parents. They are a strong, incredible couple, people we look up to in so many ways. After the celebratory texts, we made our first mistake of the day.
Note to self, you should always check to see which way you summited a peak before departing it. Guy yelled out “You sure that’s the way?” “Yup!” I replied as I gobbled down my yummy cheese sandwich, too enthralled by the views and my overall feeling of life. Well, as I stepped down the huge rocks and admittedly said to myself, “Gosh, that looks like the same rock I put my foot on the way up!” We kept moving, passing two fresh looking hikers along the way. Hmmmm, my wheels were turning. A feeling of Deja Vu coming over me.
I decided to check my All Trails downloaded map and to our dismay, it showed that we were close to Flume again!! What?!? The GPS must be wrong. We collected ourselves and admitted we were going the wrong way. Hard to digest this early on into a 30+ mile hike, but like being married for 22 years, you figure things out and move on.
The Journey Continues
The climb up Little Haystack was leading us to our next summit of Mt. Lincoln. This would be our first 5,000 footer, peaking at 5,089 feet. This Ridgeline is break taking, you literally feel like you are on top of the world. We starting seeing many more hikers, lots of families, most who were pretty bundled up with thick coats. The winds were strong, but the cool breeze was starting to bring our body temps back down.
We applied more sunscreen, as we’d be exposed making our climb over Mt. Lafayette (5,260 feet). We decided to grab a quick snack here and change into fresh tops. The bugs were intense on this section as well, but the breeze was a welcome gift to keep them at bay.
We dipped down, continuing on the AT, knowing Garfield was ahead in the distance. Her jagged, rocky, top peeking at us before we descended below the tree line. What goes down, will mostly certainly go back up. These moments on the trail where there is complete silence is powerful. Being in someones company that you feel so connected to, even when there are no words, makes you feel peaceful within. With everything going on, the struggles we all face daily, it’s a welcome gift to escape inward.
To feel my feet as they grazed over rocks, to hear the sounds of the birds or chipmunks, or smell the sweet scent of pine. My heart thumping in my chest as I made the climb up Garfield. It was here we shared our anniversary lunch, a cold can of Chef Boyardee Ravioli. We downed it in seconds, ate three cookies and fruit snacks. We were ravenous.
We were getting low on water as we scrambled down off of Garfield. Even joking with hikers, asking them, “Is this really the trail?” It was a river of rocks, dotting the side of the mountain. The raw, rugged beauty enveloping me from all sides. We were descending fast on the Garfield Ridge Trail. Galehead Hut was 2.2 miles ahead, we had heard rumblings that water may be available, but we knew worst case we could filter out of the pond.
It was at Galehead Hut that we decided to add another peak, Galehead Mtn. This is a 1.2 mile out and back “jaunt”. We knew this would add time to the day, but we were right here, so why not? We quickly filled up our reservoirs with fresh water and climbed up. The peak was not spectacular, only a pile of rocks in the woods, but she was still a beauty. We scrambled back down and continued on.
Here came the hardest part of the trek, so we thought. The climb up South Twin. You ascend 1200 feet in only .8 miles! Wait, What?!? Huffing and puffing the whole way up, stopping to catch my breath and calm my heart. Giggles from hikers who were descending, saying, “You’re almost there!” when WE knew, we most certainly weren’t even close.
The reward was a peaceful, quiet peak atop South Twin, just the two of us. We shared beef jerky and Untapped maple syrup (great combo by the way) and took in the views. I laid on my back, letting the day wash over me.
We hiked along through two miles of beautiful forest before we emerged out into an open space along side Mt. Guyot. It literally took my breath away. Tears filled my eyes, as the view reminded me of the countryside of Iceland. I could see forever, looking ahead to the Bonds. We felt the urge to walk to the top of Guyot and pay tribute to the beauty around her. The view soaked into my heart and soul. I wiped my eyes and Guy gave me the biggest hug.
With only two peaks left, we pushed on. The sun was getting lower, and we kept checking our watches. Our hope was to be off the hardest, steepest parts of the mountain before the sun set. We didn’t know we were in for such a treat. Mt. Bond was spectacular. As with all the peaks throughout the day, you could see where you travelled and where you would continue. Bondcliff Traverse was ahead, as we picked our way through the jagged, exposed rocky section.
We soaked it up as we stood upon the Bondcliff ridge. Alone, yet together on the peak. The pink hue of the sky beckoning for us to continue, but our hearts asking for one more minute of the beauty. I kissed my best friend on the cheek and took in one last view before we made our way off the mountain.
The Last Push
The last nine or so miles were the hardest by far. We adorned our headlamps and slowly made our way off the mountain. The drop in elevation was slow and as the sky darkened, it became harder to navigate. There were no blazes, no markers guiding the way. We periodically checked All Trails to make sure we were indeed correct. At one point, I saw eyes and swore a big bear was lurking. I asked Guy to blow his whistle, as I yelled “Get!!” Turns out it was a campsite, I’m sure those folks thought I was a raving lunatic!
The end was no picnic. My shoulders ached, an intense throb from carrying so much water. We marched on through the darkness, like the end of an ultra, where the finish feels so close, yet so far away. The final miles dragged, and now I understood why so many friends opted to go CCW to avoid the long, flat death march.
We crossed the river several times, hopping along the rocks to find our way. Large toads dotted the trail and Luna Moths floated gracefully by our headlamps. As the final miles ticked down I had a sense of overwhelming joy and relief. My emotions came over me and the tears flowed.
I let it out and enjoyed the last few steps as we climbed the final stairs back to the car. Nineteen hours later. We did it. We accomplished it together on our 22nd anniversary. It’ll be one I’ll remember forever ❤️