I just wanted to chime in with my version of Saturday's Pemi Loop insanity. I have attempted and completed a Pemi Loop once before, in July of 2005 - it went fairly well, but I had some bad cramping and even though I bonked pretty hard on the last 8 miles or so, I still finished the loop plus West Bond, Galehead, and North Twin - 36.5 miles - in under 11 hours. Saturday turned out to be a much different experience... read on for my latest adventure.
Fast-forward to Saturday. The forecast was for temps in the 50s and 60s and 70% cloud cover with a 20% chance of rain and 10 to 20 MPH wind. That didn't sound too bad, and as I drove north under blue skies at dawn I had hopes that I could do the loop faster this time since the weather was nice and cool and I have learned so much about how to take in the proper levels of salts and electrolytes in order to avoid bonking like I did last time.
I headed out on the trail at 6:30 AM under 100% overcast skies and I figured the weather would either improve as the day warmed, or hold steady. I was equipped for a fast and light assault on this loop, and I decided if anything I wasn't comfortable with happened, I would modify my plans in any number of previously considered ways. I had my bail-outs planned, my turn-around time decided on, friends at Galehead Hut and Garfield summit... I was comfortable with the level of risk I was assuming.
As I ran along the Wilderness and Bondcliff trails, I continued to startle all of the early risers that had headed off ahead of me. I bet they didn't expect to start before 6 AM and have somebody passing them before 7:30! I paced myself well, passing the bridge at 23 minutes and starting the Bondcliff trail at 38 minutes. I was 3 minutes faster last time, but that could easily be made up by slowly running more of the uphills and conserving my energy for the long haul. When I got to the major switchback that crosses the dry streambed, I looked up the valley and saw the ominous dark clouds swirling overhead still. This wasn't looking good. I continued on up and just before I got to the exposed section on Bondcliff, I encountered UFC and Youngblood, whom I kinda expected to see out there somewhere, but given the weather I wouldn't have blamed them for bailing. We stopped to chat for a few minutes, Steve lended me an extra layer, and we all summited Bondcliff together. My watch read 1:49 in... not bad, but the weather wasn't ideal. I reluctantly left them behind so I could keep up my pace, and the wind knocked me around quite a bit - like a prizefighter, some would say.
When I'm attempting a crazy adventure like this, my mind is always working. I'm constantly monitoring the condition of my body and my surroundings. I have a mental checklist to see if I'm thinking clearly and if I'm in a situation that I'm comfortable with. It is a constant loop of evaluation and re-evaluation. Before I ran into UFC and Youngblood, I was considering turning back at Bondcliff. After I met them, I decided to see how I felt after West Bond - possibly go for the Twins, etc...
I cruised up over Bond (2 hours and 10 minutes) and over to West Bond. The wind was still swirling as I made it to that summit in 2 hours and 25 minutes. I was still cruising. My body temperature was fine, I had plenty of food and water in my pack, I had companions on the trail close behind me... everything still checked out okay, but I always kept the exposed section above treeline on Franconia Ridge in the back of my mind. I knew that would be the worst section and I knew I couldn't safely attempt it with what I was wearing in these conditions unless the conditions greatly improved.
I headed back from West Bond's summit and ran into the guys again. I had put almost a mile between us since the summit of Bondcliff, and it was good to see them in great spirits and heading over to add the additional peak themselves. I passed a number of backpackers fully dressed for the elements with garbage bags covering their packs over near Guyot Shelter's spur trail - this made me feel strangely inferior! I headed over to the Twinway past Mount Guyot and got blown around quite a bit more. I still had no views at all as the clouds hadn't lifted one bit since I first crested Bondcliff. At this point it was blowing so hard that one side of my face started to feel raw and one of my eyes was tearing up and obscuring my vision. Despite all this, I managed to stay on my feet and scamper back into the shelter of the trees on the Twinway, where it was significantly more enjoyable.
I made great time from here on. It took 51 minutes to go from West Bond to South Twin (summited at 3 hours and 17 minutes). I fought through the wind to tag the highest point, and headed down towards the hut. It was just after 9:45 AM, the day was young... oh, the possibilities!
I got to Galehead hut at 3:29 on my watch, and took 15 minutes to run up Galehead and back. After the conditions I had experienced and not seeing the expected Pemi Loop support crew anywhere, I was guessing that a number of the other hikers and runners going clockwise had bailed out on Franconia Ridge. I formed a hypothesis that since I couldn't possibly have made it to Galehead before the support team could drive to the Gale River trail and hike the 4.6 miles up, they must not be coming!
After refilling my water, eating lunch, reading the higher summits weather conditions, and using the hut library to get accurate trail distances, I made the call to officially abort the loop. Franconia Ridge was just going to be too dangerous for me today, and it didn't take much to convince me. The weather board said temps in the mid 30s, mixed precip, and 40-55 MPH winds.
At 4 hours and 8 minutes on the clock, I headed down the Twin Brook trail. It would be a 10 mile run south across the Pemi back to my car if I went straight back, but I felt incredibly strong still and I had lots of daylight left. I decided to re-evaluate again when I got to 13 Falls. It took a bit longer to run that 2.7 miles than I expected - 48 minutes - but my knees were fine and my energy was still high, so I took a right turn onto the Lincoln Brook trail. Lost the trail a bit at the height of land, but this was my 3rd time through here and I found it again with no problems. At the Owl's Head slide, I decided I felt good, so I headed up for my 6th NH4K of the day. It was 1:06 PM - the day was still young! I passed over a dozen people on the way, and I would count at least 28 people crossing OH off their list on this day, not including WSC, Greg and Jason Berard, who were taking the Lincoln Slide route there. Unbelievable how popular this summit was on Saturday. It was also amazing to look around and see blue sky everywhere except along the ridges of the outer Pemi. The clouds were getting pushed around the mountains, but down in the heart of the Pemi where I was, it was a glorious day!
From the true summit of OH (yes, there's still a sign there) I turned around and headed for home. There were two other cairns constructed on the ridge up there, and pretty much everyone I encountered didn't know that there was a new summit with a sign and a 3' cairn. I don't remember much about my trip out, other than I felt fine, I ran almost all of it (except for the slide, obviously!), I got my left foot completely wet on the final water crossing, and that section between that water crossing and the FBT was interminable. I cruised down the wilderness trail, but I got hung up in coversation with other friendly hikers a couple times. I talked to one guy for almost 10 minutes, and I chatted with a woman on her mountain bike for awhile before she and her daughter couldn't keep up with me any longer. I wanted to keep running but I was enjoying the conversations. Made it back to the parking lot in a tick under 8:51.
It was quite a fun day and I still got 32.8 miles in, but I didn't climb all the peaks I wanted to and my overall elevation gain and loss wasn't nearly the same as those hardy pemi-loopers. What do they say again? - the mountains will still be there next time? I'm up for this challenge again. Sub 9 or bust!