“So you’re one of those ‘Trail Runners’ that we’ve been hearing about!”
…boomed the voice behind me as the trails merged, going up the back-side of Lafayette. Yes, today I am one of those trail runners.. but I am also a thru-hiker who has dabbled in the art of trail maintenance a bit and always seem to find myself picking up those brightly colored candy bar wrappers that other folks before me dropped and left sticking out of the mud. On occasion, I’ve also helped a fair share of many folks find their way through the mountains!
So despite this fellow not knowing a single thing about me other than the fact that was wearing a running hydration vest, a t-shirt and shorts with Altra’s on my feet – I will take this as a compliment as today I am a trail runner.
The journey to actually wanting to take on the somewhat famed Pemi Loop goes back to my first few days living in New Hampshire when I only knew the route as something that adventurists backpacked as a multi-day trek. Heck, that seemed pretty sweet to me – one day in the wilderness could be heaven.. but give me a one or even a two night stay in the woods? Now that’s a vacation to me!
Fast forward several months, to a time prior to my first 50K running event; I felt fit, but was no where ready to take on 30+ miles of rugged terrain in the White Mountains over some of the most extreme (and beautiful!) peaks in the forest preserve!
Trail running the Pemi Loop was something that grew interesting to me – interesting in the way a hot sauce can burn your lips and sear your nostrils as you make every attempt to exhale the heat. At the time it seems like the worst idea ever, once the pain subsides and you can recount the highs of the day to your friends, it makes a person say “yeah, I’d do that again in a second!”
Knowing that this would be a long day for someone like me, I laid out my gear to get a visual on what I had, how much space it took up, and what other gear might make my day a wee bit more comfortable. After all – that’s what running 30+ miles is all about, being in the least amount of discomfort, especially when you tack on more than 10,000′ of elevation gain!
Food was simple this time – I was packing what I knew worked well in the past: Muir energy packets, 1 pound of dates (they give me crazy amounts of energy and relieve leg muscle fatigue in the finest way!). No coconut water packed this time, but I made sure to drink some on the drive up to the trail head, along with several carrots (don’t judge..I love my carrots!) and three bananas.
My little Sawyer water filter always comes along for the ride, I didn’t use it for the Pemi Loop this time but it has saved my butt on so many other adventures, it’s a must have for sure!
I brought a waterproof Gore Wear outer shell which I also did not need, probably could have gone for something a bit lighter.. but if it had rained at all – I would have been super pumped to have the extra warmth with me.
I’m still fairly new to owning Injini toe socks, admittedly I was a little indifferent to them initially – but my toes always felt smashed all to hell in regular wool socks, and at the end of the long day I can say they worked great! My toes felt incredible during the entire trip, but upon my return to the Subaru I was extremely ready to get the muddy toe huggers off.
I am not too sure that I have ever hiked this old railroad bed with no snow.. what an enveloping canopy of green leaves and warm dirt tones, man.. it made my visual senses feel uber-alive, seeing colors like it was my first day stepping out of a black and white world!
Most folks would have made the cut off at mile 1.3, turning left onto the Osseo Trail and henceforth up to Flume first for a clockwise loop. I decided that I wanted to go counter-clockwise simply to trek up the waterfall coming off the backside of Garfield. Ciara and I came down this falls several months ago when it had a decent flow to it, I figured all of that would make for a super slick decent – to my surprise, it was a mere trickle for my trek up!
Passing and saying ‘good morning’ to several folks, I jogged at a conservative pace to the cut off for the Bonds – then it was constant alternation between power-hike, to a jog, back to fast hiking once the going got steadily steep and I had the Black Brook in my rear-view mirror.
Having recent up-close encounters with both moose and black bear while running trails in New Hampshire, I half-expected to trot into some big wildlife while out in this remote forest – and I nearly did get spooked half-to-death.. but that came in the form of a ruffed grouse!
Ten miles in and I now found myself standing on the open summit of Mount Bond where a tower once stood. Ten miles and just under 2 1/2 hours for the day.. somehow that didn’t seem possible – I felt like I was cruising out there!
I met a nice couple who were all bundled up, scoping out the morning views of the Hancocks and beyond while they threw down some breakfast. Accompanied with a big wave, I yelled good morning to them. The sweethearts asked where I was headed to and where I came from – once they learned of my intentions they exclaimed “Whoa.. You’re crushing it!!”
Perhaps that was just the boost I needed every once in a while along this wicked trail!
My first omission of this excursion was West Bond, some throw this peak in to tack on that extra mile – not me.. I reminisced standing solo on the windless summit of West Bond during the prior winter – and not much could top that experience, so down I continued on this rolling trail – with Guyot on my radar!
Mount Guyot is one of those elusive mountains that you can find on the 4000-foot Peaks of New Hampshire, but is technically not included on the 48 AMC 4000-footers that so many strive to accomplish, however the hiker looks at it, it’s an absolutely stellar peak, good for some alone time – so I wanted to experience it! Now, there are two bumps which could be considered the summit; the first lies directly on the trail, here you can find a large rock cairn. But depending on what map you were to look at – you would have to go on ahead and hang a right onto the AT, ascend for 1/4 mile or so and then find the actual summit of Guyot off to the right – but watch the moss, walk on the rocks like a good hiker should!
A few sections of boardwalk and some rock hopping later and I found myself beginning to ascend.. up and up, as the Northbound thru-hikers passed by (..I know a thru-hiker when I smell one!). I realized the trail was steep, and I had a map.. but honestly I didn’t think I was as far along as to be going up South Twin already, until the trees shortened and I had the signage to continue over to North Twin in my face. Time enough to hop along to another mound of bare rock and peek around for a USGS survey marker disc, but I didn’t find one here.
The trek down the side of South Twin had me thinking that this quite possibly could be one of the steepest hiking sections that I have ever been on in the White Mountains. The descent of South Twin had me completely entranced in my footsteps, which became at this point a bit of a light-footed ballet dance, doing all I could to gain and keep what little traction I could on these wet, moss covered bowling ball-like rocks.
A quick jaunt into the Galehead Hut found me chatting it up with Lucy (made that up.. but she seemed like a Lucy in my mind!), who was firing up some cinnamon rolls for the incoming hikers while I topped off all of my water flasks. She was bummed that the lousy weather was taking a toll on her typically good mood, day after day during the month of June was spent in a foggy, rainy climate.
I had read somewhere that the Galehead Hut basically marks mid-point of a Pemi Loop, I was logging just under 4hr and my Coros watch telling me that I was about 14 1/2 miles in – somehow in this amount of time I had only gone through about half of the 80 ounces of water carried on my back. I was topped off, fueled with a Sunflower Butter packet of Muir and good to go!
The trail was typical wet rock and ankle deep mud through the next section of Garfield Ridge Trail, nothing too memorable that is.. until I ran into Jarvis (again.. a made up name!). Like usual, I tried to be polite as I usually do and gave a “hey man, how’s it going!” as our paths crossed. His response “Uh man, you know.. would have been better if I brought more cigarettes”. I apologetically let him know I could not help him with his desire for more nicotine and wished him all the best.. I really suppose we truly can run into all walks of folks seeking enlightenment out here on the Appalachian Trail!
What I remembered to be a flowing waterfall was a mere trickle as I made quick work up the backside of Mount Garfield. This is where I began running.. literally running into bus loads of White Mountain tourists, and yet.. I am but one of these tourists.. I try to remind myself.
The summit of Garfield lasted seconds as I continued down, meeting my next group of friendly travelers.
This time the leader inquired about water availability at the Galehead Hut, I told him there was in fact water and that I had even used it to fill up. However, once I told him it was nearly an hour away (I had been running on and off for 1hr 20minutes since the hut according to my watch), the rage swelled in his eyes and that was when I knew.. I would be punched in the nose during my first Pemi Loop. His buddy quickly reminded him the hut was over three miles away.. he grunted and pushed down the trail to live his own ‘Loop experience.. and this is why I bring a water filter, always.
The crowds did not end there, they only grew in numbers as I neared the open slab rock of Lafayette, the fifth highest in the Whites and a major destination for many day hikers. Luckily, I ran into some incredible friends of ours coming down from the summit (what a small world up here!), just prior to my encounter that made up the opening sentence of this post: just another self-entitled hiker who thought I was only there to cover his mountains with pee, poop and all of my candy bar wrappers! Again, I wished him a great day and I was back on my way.
Topping out at 5,240′ I stood on the summit, soaking up the gusting winds and tried to shut out the ruckus of 60 other people roaming the summit, I swear I thought I could hear music coming from one of the groups.
I had to leave, so leave is what I did.
Looking back occasionally, how could I not really? The views are so spectacular!
Concentrating on my fancy dancing footwork to get down these alpine rocks swiftly and safely – I hustled in a few steps, then tried to be courteous and let other folks by, most said “hey, have a great hike..err..run or whatever!”, while others snickered as if to say “oh, just another trail runner… he’s not even enjoying these mountains!”
I met, and talked with a super-nice volunteer as I let folks pass by on the narrow trail – she was up for the weekend to teach us visitors about how fragile the alpine mosses and plant-life is at such high altitude, and to show the way of “the rock-walk”. She assured me that once I re-entered the forest after Little Haystack Mountain, I would get some reprieve from the swells of crowds along the more popular peaks prior to my final ascents of Mounts Liberty and Flume.
Still, on the Appalachian Trail for now, I passed another young guy also trail running who yelled back to me “whoa.. you’re doing the whole loop?!” That temporarily took me out of the green tunnel that had become my day.
The Liberty junction came and went, the switch for auto-pilot mode got flipped once again – one step after the next. Concentrating on the rocks underfoot was all I could do as I greeted the on-coming hikers (mostly French-speaking on Liberty and Flume..time and time again I notice that!).
No time was wasted on this summit either – I planned on stopping for a photo-op, looking back to where I had come.. but the never-ending crowds all over made me want to just keep pushing on.
I had read somewhere that the trail between Liberty and Flume was super run-able, maybe the person who stated this could have been referencing the trail during winter? Maybe if I were fresh on my feet for the day.. but being somewhere around 9,000 feet in for the day, I certainly could not run this mud laden, rocky ankle-breaker of a trail!
I passed Flume. I remember seeing another summit dotted with brightly colored jackets having lunch, keeping my head down and not breaking pace. I wanted to take another photo.. this time from where the trail gets super-narrow and drops off, just prior to the Flume Slide Trail Junction. Well I missed that too.. with my head down I ran right past it! Still, a day later writing this, I don’t remember passing that spot I know so well – I saw the sign for the Osseo Trail and thought “4.4 miles? oh well.. let’s get it done!“
This was my first time ever stepping foot on the Osseo Trail! Knowing that I crushed the last ascent and it literally was all downhill going forward, I moved with fresh feets in the Altra’s!
Something interesting happens in my mind during (what most would consider) an ultra-marathon/hike such as this – I had totally forgotten everything that I previously read about this trail! Such as the fancy ladder-work gracing the shoulder of Flume, I turned this into a game to keep myself alert – playing with my footwork (trying to not trip over my tired footsteps primarily!) and cadence, sinking into my mind and thinking intently about how each step felt from toe to heel, often times taking steps entirely on my toes and absorbing the impact as gently as my tired leg muscles would allow.
One final push through the miles as they gently sloped downward. Following the sound of rushing water that I hoped would turn out to be the Pemigewasset River to sweep me on back to my car. The forest was absolutely stunning in this section: finally some super runnable trail along one of the tributaries leading to the main river, I had thoughts of getting off trail to dunk my salt soaked head and arms just to cool off – but my sights were set on “out” though.
The run out seemed like a death-march slog compared to the airy steps I was able to easily muster up on the way in – actually having to slow myself down during the morning trek in, hoping that would stash some energy aside for this last push out.
Passing group after group, the women reeked of old department store perfume dressed in their sunny afternoons finest, men in button up shirts all passed by. All I could really focus on was the entrance to the suspension bridge I would soon encounter, taking me back over the Pemi River.. and that half of a watermelon that I hoarded in the freezer bag back in my car.. my mouth watered for some juicy fruit!
Stopped my watch just as I hit the bridge: I had done it.
I knew I could do it all along – but what I didn’t know was if I would snap an ankle in the process or worse. It has been determined that certainly I did not! Sore soles from all the rock hopping was all I brought home this day.
What an incredible day up there in the Pemigewasset wilderness of the White Mountains, a place my heart truly feels at rest.. even when its beating up hill at 176bpm!
Overall Stats for the day:
Recorded with Coros Pace
- 30.92 miles
- 9hr 23minutes
- 10,308′ elevation gain
- Bond Cliffs, 4265′ – mile 9
- Mount Bond, 4698′ – mile 10.2
- Mount Guyot, 4560′ – mile 11.6
- South Twin, 4902′ – mile 13.5
- Mount Garfield, 4480′ – mile 18.6
- Mount Lafayette, 5240′ – mile 21.9
- Mount Lincoln, 5089′ – mile 22.8
- Little Haystack Mountain, 4760′ – mile 23.5
- Mount Liberty, 4459′ – mile 25.4
- Mount Flume, 4328′ – mile 26.4
Thanks for checking my epic journey out!
Happy Trails to ya!