Pemi Loop West (Flume, Liberty, Lincoln, Lafayette, and Garfield)

“I’m not feeling too confident about this,” I said to Jason over the phone as I stood in the Portsmouth, NH EMS on Monday evening gathering last-minute essentials for our 38+ mile Pemi Loop.

“They’re talking about 70mph winds tomorrow, then record-low temps and a snow storm on Wednesday. We’ll be under tree-line most day on Wednesday, but still… maybe we should reconsider?”

The plan for the upcoming three days was to attempt an extended version of the Pemi Loop, a hike that Backpacker Magazine refers to as the second hardest day-hike in America. The loop passes 10 of New Hampshire’s 48 4000 footers, and while we wouldn’t be completing it in a single day, we would hopefully be adding on two more 4kers just for the fun of it.

On Saturday the weather report for Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday looked good. However, a check of the report on Monday morning showed that the predictions had changed. They were now anticipating very low visibility, strong winds, and a low of -1 degree in Franconia on Wednesday night, which would translate into approximately -10 degrees at 4000 feet of elevation, much lower than originally predicted.

Earlier Monday morning we had spent about an hour on Facebook messenger discussion what the appropriate plan of attack would be. The predicted Southerly winds on Tuesday would help push us along the Franconia Ridge and get us below tree-line for Wednesday’s strong snow and winds. Thursday was predicted to bring a high-pressure front and clear out the bad weather.

At the end of our discussion we had decided on getting a very early start on Tuesday morning, hiking clockwise over Mt. Flume, Liberty, Little Haystack, Lincoln, Lafayette, and Garfield. We would set up there for the night at the Garfield Shelter, then on Wednesday continue to Galehead, South Twin, then potentially out and back to North Twin, Guyot, potentially out and back to Zealand, then spend the night at the Guyot Shelter. The final day would consist of West Bond, Mt. Bond, and Bondcliff before the long nine-mile slog back to the Lincoln Woods Trailhead.

Now, standing in front of the hand warmer rack in EMS, I found myself doubting our plan. I had checked the weather again as I was headed back from Boston, and the prediction had worsened yet again.

“How likely is it that you’re going to want to do the out-and-backs for North Twin and Zealand?” I asked Jason.

“Not very likely,” he quickly responded.

I laughed, “ok, then let’s cut them out and turn this into a two-day loop on Thursday and Friday once the weather clears out.”

Jason responded, “I gotta tell you, that sounds a hell of a lot more appealing than spending a night in -10 degree temps. We are doing this for the fun of it, after all.”

I grabbed the 10-pack of hand-warmers and headed to the register. The plan had been scrapped. Neither of us felt comfortable about the weather, North Twin and Zealand would still be there later this winter, and Thursday and Friday actually looked enjoyable in comparison. There was no doubt in my mind; we had made the right decision.

At 6:15am on Thursday we pulled into the Lincoln Woods parking lot at 1000’ elevation. I checked the temperature on my dashboard: 3 degrees. It was surely much colder up at the Garfield Shelter where we would have been at this very moment if we had stuck with our original itinerary.

It took us about 20 minutes to get all our gear sorted, boots tightened, and bags packed, but we were soon locking the car and shouldering our packs. We crossed the suspension bridge over the Pemigewasset River to mark the beginning of the biggest expedition of the winter, and continued on to the Lincoln Woods Trail.

By the time we hit the Osseo trail we already found ourselves struggling with our steps. Footprints from prior hikers had frozen up under the sub-zero temps and were then hidden by Wednesday’s fresh snowfall. It only took a few minor stumbles before we decided to strap on our snowshoes to provide a more stable platform over the frozen footprints.

With our snowshoes on, we began up the Osseo trail towards Mt. Flume. The trail towards Flume starts gradually but quickly kicks up and gains a little less than 1000’ of elevation in a mile. Panting and groaning, we pushed up the Southern slope of Mt. Flume. We soon reached the ladders near the summit, and paused for a breath. Whenever I see ladders in the whites it’s a mixed reaction. Ladders are certainly easier to ascend than walking straight up the side of the hill (at least when you aren’t wearing snowshoes), but ladders generally mean a ridiculously steep incline. We slowly struggled up the steps on hands and feet and marched on towards the summit. 

photo by Jason Leach

We popped out of the trees and were greeted with a cloudy view of the rocky side of Mt. Flume. Fighting the air channeling up the ridge, we pushed again, quickly tagged the summit at 4,328’, and continued moving to head back into the trees.

Within a short period of time we had dipped down to 3900 feet and were ascending once again, this time towards Mt Liberty. Liberty and Flume are within about 1 mile of each other, so the travel between the two went quickly and within no time we were popping up above the trees. Looking around, we were met with beautiful views of Owl’s Head and the Eastern summits we would hopefully be traversing on Friday. Jason took the opportunity to put in some foot-warmers, I grabbed a Clif Bar, and we were soon moving again, heading towards the Franconia Ridge.

We kept at a pretty decent pace, not talking a whole lot but focusing on moving quickly. We knew that Thursday would be the harder day with a good chunk of the elevation gain as well as the highest summits of the loop to cross. In addition, we had stopped quite a few times to make adjustments to our gear and snowshoes, and these short stops were starting to add up.

Two miles after summiting Mt Liberty we reached Little Haystack and the edge of tree-line under partly sunny skies. Once again, we were met with an incredible view of the Pemigewasett Wilderness. As our itinerary had called for, we quickly convened for a judgment call on whether it was safe to continue. The weather made for an easy choice, and after grabbing a warm drink, some food, and switching to crampons, we left our protection for our full-fledged attack on the Franconia Ridge.

As much as I enjoy hiking through the woods, I love being above tree-line even more. As long as the wind is manageable and you have the right traction and protection, you can move much quicker across the wind-blown terrain than you can in the drifts below timberline. The weather had cooperated, and even though the wind was gusting around 40mph it proved to be completely manageable.

A little less than a half-hour after leaving Little Haystack we were atop Mt. Lincoln. We high-fived with no time to spare, then quickly kept moving towards the highest summit of the trip, Mt. Lafayette. It’s only about a mile between Lincoln and Lafayette, and the trail was clear and fast.

We were soon standing on the summit of Mt. Lafayette, the tallest mountain of the range and highest NH peak outside of the Presidential Range. We paused quickly for a summit selfie, then headed down the Garfield Ridge Trail towards Mt. Garfield and our shelter as the clouds rolled in and the wind picked up.

With icing goggles under dimming sunlight, we struggled along the rocky Garfield Ridge Trail before finally hitting tree-line. As we entered the trees the snow coverage increased again, we switched back to snowshoes, and we were greeted by a bearded hiker ascending Lafayette. Chatting quickly we discovered that he was doing a Southbound thru-hike and had hiked from Zealand Falls Hut that morning.

We later found him on Instagram under the @therealhikingviking handle. Go check him out and follow his journey; I have serious admiration for anyone who is attempting the N-S Appalachian Trail this time of year.

Back on track and moving faster thanks to The Hiking Viking’s trail-breaking, we motored down Lafayette as the sky’s glow disappeared and we turned on our head lamps. The Garfield Ridge is always warned as one of the most demoralizing sections of the Pemi Loop, as the constant ups and downs can be deceiving and energy-sucking.

Moving slowly and panting loudly, we finally crested Garfield under a dark sky and strong winds. We glanced out at the town lights more than 20 miles away and wearily headed down to the Garfield Ridge Shelter, completely satisfied with our 15-mile, 5 summit performance for the day.

After setting up our cold-weather bags and sleeping pads on the upper floor of the shelter we climbed in and cooked up our dinner, a combination of quinoa and Good To-Go’s mushroom risotto.

photo by Jason Leach

The temperatures for the evening were predicted to be around 5 degrees so for added comfort we opened some hand-warmers, threw them inside our bag, and after discussing our itinerary for the next day we settled down for what we hoped would be a night of sound sleep.