Pemi Loop East (Galehead, S Twin, W Bond, Bond, Bondcliff)

Jason’s watch started beeping at 5am, and I rolled over in my sleeping bag.

“Rise and shine,” he said wearily. I groaned in reply. I hadn’t slept well, tossing and turning the entire night during my light sleep in single digit temperatures.

We sat there for half a minute, then Jason said, “Wake up at 6? There’s something about waking up in the dark and prepping under headlamps that isn’t appealing in the least.”

“Yup, sounds good to me,” I replied, and rolled back over.

Our original plan had called for a 7am leave time from our shelter on the Garfield ridge, but the night before we had talked about possibly getting up an hour earlier in order to get a head start on the day.

That was yesterday. Today we were feeling quite sore. The best laid plans…

After a tiny bit more sleep, Jason’s watch beeped again and alerted us it was finally time to wake up and start the long day.

I crawled out of my bag, walked down to the brook to get a couple more Nalgenes full of water, Jason fired the stove up, and we started boiling our water and making breakfast while packing our gear up.

It was a very slow morning, and by the time we had eaten our breakfast, done another brook run and boiled 2L of water for the day ahead of us, it was unbelievably already 8am, and we were 1 hour behind schedule.

Day 1 had been the shorter day mileage-wise (15 miles), but it also contained a majority of the 10,000 feet of elevation gain on the Pemi loop (Flume, Liberty, Lincoln, Lafayette, and Garfield). We had reviewd our planned route the night before and seen that our descent off Garfield would be steep, followed by a steep ascent to South Twin, but from there on out the trail would be moderately quick.

Passing the brook once again on our way out, we both filled our second bottle. We dumped in a couple iodine tablets and turned back on to the Garfield Ridge Trail. We were instantly met with some of the steepest downhill sections we had encountered so far. The trail was almost entirely ice under a fresh layer of snow, and our snowshoes were not suited for going down steep sections. Rather than taking the time to change into our crampons only to switch back at the bottom of the hill, we opted to sit on our butts and glissade the steep sections.

For the most part the butt-sliding went as planned, except in a couple circumstances where one of us would find ourselves sliding towards the woods, at which point we would simply drop our feet to get a little traction and bring ourselves to a stop. At one point Jason ended up toppling over and hitting his head on a tree, but he slowed himself enough to avoid any damage.

We finally reached flat ground and started motoring. The short descent had been much slower than expected, but we knew we could make up time in the upcoming section.

Speeding along on the flats, we walked about a half mile before I reached back instinctively to make sure my crampons and ice axe were still on my pack. The crampons felt wrong.

I stopped and turned to Jason, “Are both of my crampons still on my bag?”

“Crap,” he replied. “No, you’re missing one.”

Jason had been close behind me the entire morning except for one section about halfway down the icy butt-sliding descent, where he was in front of me. Knowing that he would have seen something fall off my pack, I instantly knew where the crampon was.

I dropped my pack and started back in the opposite direction of our planned travel.

“Don’t hurt yourself running,” Jason called out as I quickly moved out of earshot.

Scanning the ground as I went, I hoped that I would come across the crampon on the ground before getting back to the icy descent. I mentally cringed, as I knew every step was doubling the distance back to Jason. I kept scolding myself for not ensuring that the crampons were strapped on securely. Half a mile later, I was at the exact point where I had envisioned the crampon bouncing off my pack. I looked down in the snow and saw the bright orange base of of my crampon glowing in the snow. I picked the crampon up, reversed direction, and headed back to Jason.

While I was panting and swearing my way back on the trail, Jason had cell phone reception and was enjoying his relaxing time posting on Instagram and Facebook. I expected to see him frustrated and cold, but as I approached I could see that he was in a fine mood. Sometimes a hiking partner makes stupid mistakes and drops expensive gear, and when that happens you just have to relax and make the best out of the situation. +1 hiking partner point for Jason.

Double and triple-checking that my crampons were strapped securely, we continued, this time in the correct direction.

After another couple miles we reached the Galehead AMC hut, closed for the winter. We took a few minutes to drop our packs, grab a bite to eat and a warm drink, then we headed up the short half-mile ascent to the summit of Galehead Mountain. As usual Jason was in the lead and moving faster than me, so when I arrived at the protected summit I found Jason standing next to the rockpile. Without even pausing for a photo op, we turned around and headed back down the spur trail. In about 10 minutes we were back at the hut.

When we reached the hut, my energy was waning, which was a bad sign for how early it still was. For breakfast I had a Mountain House freeze-dried meal of eggs, sausage, and peppers, but I had skipped out on the oatmeal I had packed since I wanted to get moving and was fairly full directly after breakfast.

I had taken a Clif shot on my way up Galehead, but the caffeine hadn’t started to kick in yet. I grabbed another granola bar, took a cheese stick that Jason offered, and hoped these small items would give me a bit more energy. I had plenty of granola bars left as well as 4 packs of oatmeal, but I didn’t want to consume all of my calories so early in the day. Standing there on the porch of Galehead, it occurred to me that I had been dehydrated earlier in the morning and was probably still dehydrated. I finished off my first bottle of water and began to feel a little better, so we shouldered our packs and began toward our next mountain.

We were warned about the difficulty of the Garfield Ridge trail. However, Garfield Ridge didn’t compare to the South Twin ascent, which begins at an elevation around 3750’ at the col and climbs 1100’ in approximately 2/3 of a mile. Every time I would come around a corner and think the trail ahead was leveling out, it continued to climb. I would catch glimpses of Jason up ahead when he would stop to catch his breath, but then he would be gone again.

My energy was completely sapped, and I didn’t want to keep going uphill. Fighting every urge to lay down and take a nap, I kept pushing upwards, grunting and struggling with every step up the steep incline. As the grade increased again, I slowed even more but continued moving.

After what felt like eons, the winds increased, the trail leveled out, and the trees thinned. I slowly stumbled my way towards the opening and found Jason bundled up checking out the trail sign. I threw my wind shell on and we walked out to the official summit of S. Twin through 4’ deep snow drifts.

“That SUCKED!” I proclaimed to Jason over the wind and blowing snow.

“Tell me about it,” he responded, exhausted. “I am SO glad that’s over.”

We scrambled back to the trail, collected our thoughts and chatted about how awful the ascent was, then started towards the Bonds. We still had West Bond, Bond, and Bondcliff ahead of us, but the hardest part of the day was now behind us.

On the backside of South Twin we ran into two other hikers who had started from Lincoln Woods that morning and were attempting a counter-clockwise Pemi Loop. We exchanged pleasantries, asked them how the weather was ahead, provided some information on the summits we had just passed, then headed on our way.

The Twinway descent from South Twin is a steady downhill, which allowed us to make great time. We leaned backwards on our snowshoes a bit to disengage the traction and slid a few feet every step, essentially using our snowshoes as skis. We had such a feeling of elation from completing South Twin that we even found ourselves running at times. We started chatting more. Our energy was quickly returning.

The temperatures on Thursday were in the single digits, but Friday had brought 20 degree temperatures.  As such, we found ourselves overheating more frequently. Crossing over a couple exposed sections between S Twin and Guyot, we welcomed the cooling breeze coming up the ridge.

We soon found ourselves at the turn-off to Zealand Falls and Mt. Guyot, and were shocked to find we had covered so much ground in so little time. Just after the turnoff for Mt. Guyot lies the Guyot shelter and tent-sites. Both running low on water, we broke off the Bondcliff Trail and headed towards the shelter since it offers an opportunity to fill bottles in a stream nearby. We topped off our bottles, tossed some more iodine tablets in, and headed back uphill to rejoin the Bondcliff Trail.

In another .2 miles we arrived at the West Bond Spur Trail. At this point the spur trail breaks off and heads West for .5 miles to the summit of West Bond. Any hiker will tell you that the opportunity to drop your packs for an out-and-back is a fantastic experience, but it becomes even better in the winter when you are traveling with a 30lb+ backpack. Traveling light after dropping our bags in the woods, we made quick work of the spur trail to the summit. By the time we were climbing out of the trees the sun was peaking out and treating us with an incredible view of the Pemigewasset Wilderness surrounding us.

Staring around in awe, we found ourselves in complete silence, except for the wind rustling the trees.

After a little while, Jason interrupted the silence. “I think this is my favorite moment of the loop so far.”

I nodded in agreement.

After standing around for a few more minutes admiring the view, we decided that it was time to head down and continue onwards. Reluctantly, we turned East and started back towards the Bondcliff Trail, moving slowly and admiring the view on the way.

photo by Jason Leach

Picking up our packs back at the trail junction, we turned right and headed towards Mt. Bond. The .6 mile segment passed quickly and we soon and summited Mt. Bond under barely any wind as the sun shone through the light cloud cover. Just as with West Bond, we took a couple minutes to stand atop the summit and gaze out ahead of us. I took a few photos of Bondcliff and admired the Franconia Ridge sitting in the distance.

I turned to Jason and said, “We just walked all of that. Can you believe it? That’s insane.” Less than 24 hours ago we had been standing on top of Mt. Lafayette, a mountain that looked hundreds of miles away at that moment.

At this point I checked my watch against our itinerary. We were only about 10 minutes behind our original schedule. Our fast descent of N Twin and hustling over Guyot and out to West Bond had served us well, and if we kept moving at a decent pace we could be back to the car by 7:30PM.

As we plodded along on the Bond descent, disappointed to leave the inspiring view, we once again thanked the weather Gods for their mercy. We were walking above tree-line at 4,000 feet of elevation with no face protection or hats on, with a beautiful view for hundreds of miles, in New Hampshire, in the middle of January. Simply put, it doesn’t get any better than that.

We reached the col between Bond and Bondcliff and started upwards. Up ahead, the cloud cover was building, and it didn’t look like the sun would be shining for much longer.

Much like Lincoln and Lafayette, the ascent of Bondcliff seemed to go quicker when we could see our final goal. We scrambled up the side of the mountain and into the clouds. When we reached the summit there were no photos to be had, so we simply kept moving. Even without a pause, we both were cheering inside; the final summit was in the books.

photo by Jason Leach

Within a few minutes of tagging the top of Bondcliff we were standing atop the Hillary Step, looking down. A mini version of Everest's Hillary Step, this section is a steep rock face maybe 10 feet tall. Nothing too challenging to ascend, but descending it on snowshoes becomes a little tricker. Jason simply sat on his butt and slid down the side of it. Envisioning a broken tailbone, I pulled out my ice axe and attempted to hook it around some handhold and lower myself backwards. After a few failed attempts, I threw my axe down the step, sat on my butt, and took Jason’s approach. I crash-landed at the bottom in one piece with a big smile on my face.

photo by Jason Leach

Everyone told us how boring the walk out the Bondcliff and Lincoln Woods trail would be long and arduous. Even with all the warnings and the mental preparation for this 9-mile segment, it was still terrible.

Much like we had encountered at the beginning of the hike, the trail underfoot was quite treacherous. Footprints had formed in the soft, warm snow, followed by freezing temps which had turned all the footprints into ice. They were then covered by another, fresher layer of snow.

We kept our snowshoes on, but by this point my feet were killing me. Walking with the snowshoe crampons underfoot on uneven ice had created a big pressure spot on the ball of my right foot. I had run into the same thing on long hikes before and had taken steps to alleviate the discomfort on this trip, but the pain was still creeping in.

Adding to that, the prior day I had left my boots a little loose to improve circulation, but it had resulted in hammering my toes into the front of my boots as I was front-pointing up some of the ascents. I was feeling the side-effects on this downhill, as multiple toes were hurting. Later, in the comfort of my home I would pull my sock off to find a very dark red and purple second toe on my right foot.

The miles went on and on. We walked, walked, and walked some more. We switched our headlamps on, and kept walking.

I kept saying to Jason “We must be getting close to the Franconia Falls.” It felt like we had been walking forever and barely gaining any ground.

We continued in silence, the trail lit only by the light of our headlamps. The sound of the river on our left and the loud crunch of snowshoes underfeet were the only noises to be heard. We eventually crossed the Franconia Falls and continued onto the Lincoln Woods Trail.

“Only 3 miles to go. “ We walked on.

I found myself thinking back to the Presidential Traverse and how the descent actually felt manageable when David and I were chatting.

“Alright, we have to find something to talk about,” I finally said.

We decided on the topic of photography, since Jason is a budding photographer who is just now getting into drones and sports photography. We talked about some photo projects as well as other sub-topics in photography, and the time began to pass more quickly. 

Eventually the conversation found its way back to our never-ending section of trail. We both could swear we were getting close to the bridge over the Pemigewasset River, but couldn’t recognize any landmarks under the light of our headlamps. We kept walking.

Suddenly I saw a light in the distance.

“That’s it! That’s the parking lot!” I yelled.

“I see the bridge!” Jason cheered.

We were whooping and hollering at the top of our lungs. We made it. We had summited 10 4,000 footers over 35 miles while ascending and descending some of the steepest trails in the state. Our feet screamed out in pain, our shoulders were in knots from our packs, but we made it.

We crossed the bridge and walked across the parking lot, smiling the whole way. I started the car up, quickly threw all my gear into the trunk, and donned my sweatshirt, sweatpants, and bean boots. Within a few minutes we were pulling out of the parking lot, desperately in search of some greasy fast-food.