By Michael Lanza
As we near the top of Mount Flume in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, the first of nine summits we hope to reach today, a light shower begins falling. It seems a less-than-ideal portent near the front end of one of the longest and hardest days of hiking any of us has ever undertaken—especially for three people somewhere between two and three decades past their hiking prime. But this only strikes us as one more in a long list of reasons to laugh at the absurdity of our self-imposed mission: to see whether we still have the stuff to knock off a dayhike that few mountain walkers would even contemplate. In that context, the arrival of the rain we knew was forecasted comes all in a day’s foolishness.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson once opined, “It is one of the blessings of old friends that you can afford to be stupid with them.”
Two hours after setting out at precisely 6 a.m., under mostly overcast skies that kept turning grayer—which seems to invite a metaphor about the hair color of my companions and me—we have come about five miles and nearly 3,000 feet. That would represent a proud halfway point for many dayhikes we’ve all taken. But it comprises just a fraction of our plans for today.
My good friends and longtime trail mates Mark Fenton, David Ports, and I have embarked on arguably the most grueling long “dayhike” in the Northeast that people actually do—that’s really a thing—and one of the hardest and most scenic in the country: the 32-mile Pemi Loop through the Pemigewasset Wilderness in the heart of New Hampshire’s White Mountains.
From the Lincoln Woods Trailhead on the Kancamagus Highway, we intend to complete a loop over the peaks of Franconia Ridge, Garfield Ridge, South Twin Mountain, and the Bonds, eventually staggering back to our car probably well after dark. We’ll cross nine named summits over 4,000 feet—eight of them “official” 4,000-footers, and two of those over 5,000 feet, while a third rises nearly that tall. While our route largely follows a few connected mountain ridges, it nonetheless makes numerous significant drops between the summits, gaining and losing a cumulative 10,000 vertical feet of elevation. For the great majority of its distance, the Pemi Loop, like many trails here, traverses terrain notoriously rocky, steep, and considerably unkind to creatures with just two legs.
Those numbers are eye-popping. But the number most relevant to our fate on this day may be our combined age in years: 162.
The rain falls steadily and fog thick enough to impress a Scotsman envelopes our little world as we stroll a trail along the brink of cliffs to the 4,328-foot summit of Mount Flume. Standing only briefly in the cold wind raking the exposed, rocky crown, I’m struck by the fact that my quads and lower back seem to be feeling the day’s rigors sooner than I anticipated; and my left knee has begun communicating, in its simple way, some displeasure with its circumstance.
The good news is that we have less than 27 miles to go.
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Ultra-Hiking the Pemi Loop
Perhaps because of their ample road access and the challenging nature of these trails, the White Mountains have spawned a sub-culture of ultra-hiking, or covering long distances in a single day. The holy grail of such hikes is the one-day “Death March” of the Presidential Range: 20 miles and 8,500 vertical feet over nine summits. Other continuous ridges with good road access invite ambitious dayhikes, like Franconia Ridge and the Carter-Moriah Range linked up with Wildcat Mountain.
Then there’s a feat unimaginable even to many hikers like Mark, David, and me, who are capable of knocking off the Pemi Loop (or think they are): a one-day traverse of the Appalachian Trail through the Whites linking up all of the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) huts, from Carter Notch to Lonesome Lake, a walk of some 49 miles and 17,000 vertical feet of elevation gain. That insanity apparently began as a challenge among the typically young AMC hut “cru” staff, who spend summers developing the leg muscles to do it by hiking constantly on these trails. Beyond those super fit cru members, only a few true extremists could even consider such an undertaking.
All three of us have dayhiked the monster Pemi Loop before, 10 years ago—David on his own, Mark and I together on an punishingly hot and humid July day when we drank at least 10 liters of water each and sweated out even more.
But that was then. Although we’ve all stayed fit and taken numerous long hikes since then, the fifties are a decade when the human body mimics a car with an odometer reading well into six digits: Parts begin to wear out, and occasionally fail catastrophically. We all know people who have replaced knees, or given up running or skiing or recreational-league basketball or soccer—who’ve adapted to the inexorable erosion of physical ability. All three of us have suffered more chronic injuries—rightly known by their other name, “overuse injuries”—than we can probably remember. And we’ve mostly healed from them, although we now understand “healing” to mean a condition better than injured and not as good as original.
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Fortunately, Mark, David, and I have all avoided the knife and major injuries so far. But at our age, the question on any given day is not whether anything hurts, but what hurts the most.
We’ll all certainly be proud if we can pull off again a hike that most people half our age never could. And we’re confident but realistic: There’s no predicting what could go wrong, either physically or even situationally in these mountains known for weather as harsh as the trails. (Mount Washington, just several miles to the northeast, held the record for the fastest wind speed ever recorded in the world for more than 60 years—231 miles per hour—and has an average year-round temperature below freezing.)
The Pemi Loop presents another logistical difficulty that ups the ante for this hike: Long stretches of it lie miles from the nearest road. And the farther along we are on the loop (hiking clockwise, as we are), the more complicated it becomes to abort the hike, because doing so could mean finding ourselves at a trailhead very far from our car, with no easy way to get back to it. So we view a bailout as an emergency scenario only—too poor an option to consider just because of sore legs and feet or blisters. Suffering is presumed. Blood is eminently possible.
In the back of our minds a little voice whispers, “Are you sure you can do this?”
And in moments of lucid self-awareness, all three of us would probably answer that question: “Not really.”
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Hiking Franconia Ridge in Fog
Fog engulfs us and rain falls on and off throughout our hike over Franconia Ridge—a little disappointing, because that long, alpine crest has views spanning most of the Whites. (Note: The photos in this story showing a sunny Franconia Ridge were taken on previous hikes.) On both sides of us, the ground plunges away into blank gumbo. During a brief lull in the rain, we stop briefly to wolf down sandwiches—a hike of this distance doesn’t happen without plenty of fuel—finishing them just moments before the rain resumes.
Glancing skyward from under the hood of his rain shell, Mark says, “I wonder if the clouds will break at all today.”
But today’s weather can’t dampen our spirits. We’re dressed for it, it’s not cold, and the rain never grows really heavy; so the conditions merely turn what’s a hard and beautiful hike on a clear day into a hard hike that feels that more adventurous.
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Beyond the 5,260-foot summit of Mount Lafayette—highest point of our day—we descend the rugged Garfield Ridge in fog.
We don’t have what you’d call fond memories of Garfield Ridge. In fact, we remember it as one of the toughest sections of the Pemi Loop, and now, unbelievably, it seems even harder than we remember. Hiking the 7.4 miles of the Appalachian Trail between Lafayette and the summit of South Twin Mountain involves treading carefully over a trail carpeted with damp, slick, moss-covered boulders, and scores of knee-punishing ledge drops of two feet or more. Garfield Ridge is one of the reasons—albeit many reasons—that the Whites bear a reputation as hosting some of that famous long-distance trail’s hardest mileage.
On the summit of Mount Garfield, one of the most remote summits in the Whites, we take a short break. Around us looms nothing but a wall of gray fog.
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At the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Galehead Hut—just over 17 miles into our day, with just over 14 miles still to go—we take our longest break, about 40 minutes, buying and eating freshly baked chocolate-chip brownies, stretching muscles that started feeling the miles several miles back.
The first time the three of us dayhiked the Pemi Loop, we did it in the other direction: counter-clockwise. We decided to go clockwise this time because we thought that might ease the difficulty of its toughest sections—and we’d take whatever easing we could get. Plus, we’d knock off the hardest stretches—Franconia Ridge and Garfield Ridge—in the first half, while we’re relatively fresh.
The three of us agree that was a good call. Even the most ridiculously steep and rocky sections, like the AT between Galehead Hut and the 4,902-foot summit of South Twin—which climbs more than 1,100 vertical feet in just 0.8 mile—proves easier going up at a moderate pace than the knee- and quad-pounding of going down it.
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Bondcliff… and Sunshine
Even in the White Mountains, on a mostly crappy day, you can get lucky.
As we’re ascending 4,265-foot Bondcliff, the final peak of our day, the clouds splinter and separate. Shafts of sunlight set the sheer rock walls of Bondcliff aglow. Tendrils of fog rise from the wet valleys, while a pleasant breeze courses over the ridge. With evening approaching, and us walking up toward a beautiful and remote summit, we get treated to the finest weather and light of the entire day.
Looking around at our 360-degree panorama from Bondcliff, a view of wilderness with no trace of civilization visible, David and I talk about how we both started hiking in these very mountains more than 30 years ago—traveling the same trails around the same time before we knew one another—and how these peaks nurtured for both of us a lifelong love affair with hiking and the outdoors. Everywhere we look, a mountain reminds us of past hikes and old friends. We’ve both always felt a strong attachment to the Whites. “And I still feel that way,” he tells me.
With 8.8 downhill and then flat miles to go, we now know we’re going to make it. Mark says, “One of the reasons I wanted to do this was to see if I still could.” Apparently, we still can.
There’s a quote attributed to the late writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez: “It is not true that people stop pursuing dreams because they grow old; they grow old because they stop pursuing dreams.”
Night falls as we’re walking the interminable miles back to our car—which we’ll reach at 9:59 p.m., finishing our 32-mile dayhike in one minute shy of 16 hours. We’re exhausted, running on fumes. I feel completely depleted—feet aching, lower back stiff. My legs keep moving, but I could drop into a bed right now and fall asleep instantly. Somehow, Mark and David maintain a strong pace. I see the bright dots of their headlamps in the black distance ahead of me on the Lincoln Woods Trail.
That’s the problem with hiking with people like them: You can walk 32 miles in a day and still suffer feelings of inadequacy.
But as Helen Keller famously said, “I would rather walk with a friend in the dark, than alone in the light.”
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THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR extremely fit, expert hikers with experience taking long dayhikes in the Northeast mountains. People aspiring to hike it in a day would be wise to build up to the distance with dayhikes of the Presidential Range and/or Carter-Moriah Range. Backpackers who are moderately fit often take three to four days to complete the Pemi Loop.
Make It Happen
Season The prime hiking season in the White Mountains is June through mid-October. Winter hiking skills and gear are generally required from November through mid-spring, and deep but soft snow can make hiking difficult in late April and May.
The Itinerary The 32-mile Pemi Loop can be hiked in either direction from the Lincoln Woods Trailhead on NH 112 (Kancamagus Highway), 5.6 miles east of the information center at I-93 exit 32 in Lincoln. I’ve dayhiked it in both directions and find clockwise is a little less punishing physically than the opposite direction. For backpackers, there are several backcountry campsites along the route.
Huts The Appalachian Mountain Club’s MC’s eight mountain huts are popular; make reservations at least a few months in advance, further in advance for summer and early-fall weekends, at outdoors.org/lodging/whitemountains/index.cfm.
Shuttle Service The Appalachian Mountain Club’s hiker shuttle bus operates daily from early June through mid-September, and on weekends and holidays from mid-September through mid-October, stopping at several trailheads throughout the White Mountains. See the schedule at outdoors.org/lodging-camping/lodging-shuttle.cfm.
Permit No permit is required for dayhiking or backpacking.
Map/Guidebook The AMC White Mountain Guide describes all trails and includes topographical maps, $24.95, (617) 523-0655, outdoors.org/amcstore.
Concerns Weather is the biggest hazard, including thunderstorms, strong winds, rain, snow, and whiteout conditions on summits and exposed ridges. Check the forecast for the summits, posted daily at all AMC mountain huts and the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, and available from the Mt. Washington Weather Observatory, mountwashington.org/experience-the-weather/mount-washington-weather.
Contact Appalachian Mountain Club, (617) 523-0655, outdoors.org. Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, White Mountains, (603) 466-2721.