Trip Report: Pemi Loop Trail Run

Two weekends ago a couple of OGE-ers set out to the White Mountains in our neighboring state of New Hampshire. Their destination: the Pemigewasset Loop or Pemi Loop for short. The loop is a 32-mile with a total of about 18,000 feet of elevation gained/lost. Doing a one-day run of this loop is not for the faint of heart.

Setting out on this adventure were Chris Sussman and David Mitchell. Chris is our in-store retail specialist of the footwear department and an avid distance runner. David works in our warehouse receiving orders and doing inventory control, he is an active Triathlete and Ironman. Basically, these two know a thing or two about trail running.

Running the Pemi Loop was David’s workings and Chris thought to himself, “This should be fun, I’ll tag along”.

Here is Chris’s account of the day:

I didn’t know exactly what I was getting into two weeks ago when I accepted an invitation from my fellow OGE-er, David, to do a trail run of the Pemi Loop, a 32-mile traverse of the Twin and Franconia Ranges in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The 32-mile part should have clued me in, but since I’ve been building up my running mileage I knew I could handle the distance. What I didn’t know was how significant the elevation and rocky terrain would amp up the difficulty factor (about 9,000 ft of gain or a total of about 18,000 ft or overall elevation change with the ups and down).

The Loop

The name of the loop comes from the Wilderness area in which some of the loop takes place, the Pemigewasset. Although this loop has a following among hikers and trail runners, it is not an officially signed loop and you have to piece together several trails to make the route possible. We took the loop in a clockwise fashion so we linked together the following trails with access via the Lincoln Woods Trail and the Lincoln Woods Visitor Center: Oseeo Trail, Franconia Ridge Trail, Garfield Ridge Trail, Twinway, Bondcliff Trail, and the Wilderness Trail. The Franconia region of the White Mountains is a gem that boasts some spectacular wooded and above tree line terrain for the adventurous backpacker, hiker, or trail runner.

The major peaks on the route, in order we summited them: Mt. Flume (4,328′); Mt. Liberty (4,459′); Mt. Lincoln (5,089′); Mt. Lafayette (5,260′); Mt. Garfield (4,500′); South Twin Mountain (4,902′); Mt. Bond (4,698′); Bondcliff (4,265′).

 

Pemi Loop ProfileWe overnighted at Hancock Campground and enjoyed a site complete with a picnic table that served as command central for a hearty pasta dinner and had ample room for our large family camping tent ($22/site/night). Our stay at the campground on Saturday night put us in striking distance a mile or so, of the Lincoln Woods Visitor Center, our starting point the following morning. We enjoyed a breakfast of egg and veggie stuff burritos before we launched into our run at approximately 6:30am. The weather for the day was overcast and this was perfect since it kept the temperature cooler and offered us misty views of the ridges around us.

Both David and myself planned to carry enough high-energy snacks for the day and we started off with between 1-2 liters of water to get us the first 7 miles to Liberty Springs. In retrospect, we should have considered carrying larger reserves of water with something like a hydration reservoir, but going fast and light was the name of the game and the couple of tenths off the trail to refuel at Liberty seemed worthwhile. Our first 1.4 miles on the Lincoln Woods Trail was nice and relaxed and our first climb started in ernest when we veered off onto the Osseo trail and set our sights on Franconia Ridge. This first climb is a bugger and gaining the ridge and our first summit of Mt. Flume was no easy task.

IMG_4942We enjoyed a few misty panorama to catch our breath and our task was a little bit easier once we got past Mt. Liberty and gained more of the ridge. The water at Liberty Springs was cold and clear and we also go to chat with a backpacker at the site who was donning vintage Umbro shorts straight from the 80s that brought back memories of soccer camp in elementary and middle school. This intersection with the Liberty Springs Trail also signified our convergence with the Appalachian Trail which we would be following for the next 13 or so miles the ridge running along Franconia was fantastic and was one of the highlights of the trip since it offered beautiful misty views and rolling terrain with varied rock hopping. Hitting the highest point of our journey at Mt. Lafayette (5,260′) was a nice milestone but with a little over 20 miles to cover, I tried to keep this accomplishment in perspective.

IMG_4948Mt. Garfield (4,500′) and the Garfield Ridge Trail were between us and our next stop at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Galehead Hut (3,800′). I didn’t really process the drop in elevation to the hut and was more mesmerized by the offer of free lemonade when we arrived. We chatted briefly with the hut staff and wolfed down some energy bars and GUs. Pink lemonade never tasted so good and both David and I appreciated how the blend was watered down. It went down smoothly and got us both ready for the climb up South Twin. I wasn’t ready for the steepness of this climb out of the hut and it reminded me of the brutality of the White Mountains; we scrambled at times and I found myself using my upper body quite a bit to try and make up for the fatigue I was beginning to feel in my legs. We met some runner doing the Pemi Loop in the other direction and this was a little bit of a mental challenge as they were flying down the steep slope that we were slowly ascending. If there was any point during the run that I doubted my ability to finish, this was it. Despite the reality check, I was fueled by the accomplishment of the summit and this buoyed my mental and physical spirit for what was coming up.

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The next major highlight of the loop was the ridge line connecting South Twin to Mt. Guyot and the Bonds (Mt. Bond and Bondcliff). This is a beautiful ridge and hopping and darting among the rocks was made easier by the fact that we could see much of the terrain in front of us. It reminded me of my trek on the Pacific Crest Trail last summer and the awesome ridge walk in the Goat Rock Wilderness of Washing State. The Visual splendor of being above treeline and having the terrain falling away precipitously on both sides of the trail is on of my favorite parts of this section of the Whites.

At this point in the run, David and I had faltered and had our share of small trips and stumbles. Mentally, I let the gentle rolls of the ridge line get the best of me and didn’t concentrate as much on my footwork. We passed a group of two backpackers, and with David just fifty to seventy-five yards ahead of me, I glanced to the side for a moment and this was enough for me to catch a toe and send me face first onto the ground. It happened so quickly that I didn’t have time to get my hands out in front and the brunt force of the fall was on my chest. I had the wind knocked out of me and was scraped up on the sternum and on my left hip. A few hikers were kind enough to make sure I was okay, and after brushing myself off and assessing my injuries, I felt pretty fortunate as I only needed to hobble for a few steps before regaining my composure and stride. In many ways, the adrenaline pumping from the fall fueled me for the rest of the ridge and helped me catch up with David who had put some distance on me during the spill. I started to watch my footwork a little more carefully and gained a better appreciation of my legs getting a little heavier and the loss of the little nimbleness when it came to navigating the scree.

The descent from Bondcliff was long and arduous and required strict attention to one’s footing. Despite being pretty tired and trying to stay alert to the hazards of descending, I was really fortunate to have David leading most of the way. He set a very good pace and also was vigilant about staying hydrated and eating at regular intervals. This kept our energy up and even though the entire day was overcast and we didn’t see much sun, we were sweating like crazy. I usually run with a shirt on, but chose to peel it off as I soaked through it so readily and it felt much cooler without it. The only ill-effect of this decision was that both David and I were walking fly-paper traps with little black flies pasted to our skin. Fortunately, we never stopped long enough to be bothered by any bugs and nothing seemed to be biting either.

We crossed a few streams on our way down towards the Wilderness Trail and finally the Lincoln Woods Trail and were able to camel up with water for our last stretch. The transition to the Lincoln Woods trail also signified our departure from the Pemigewasset Wilderness which we had entered via The Bonds. I had been dreaming of this section earlier as I knew I would be excited about the flat terrain and open and clear running surface. Even with only four or so miles to go, I was sapped from the 28 or so and it felt great to be moving around 8 to 9 minute miles. This didn’t last long as I was running out of gas and my energy level was plummeting. David had energy to spare and continued to lead us onward.

This is the point in the journey when David introduced me to his “Zombie” levels of fatigue when dealing with longer runs. I was quickly diagnosed with “Zombie Level 1” since my eyes were starting to glass over and I had my “nose to the grindstone” just staring down at the tread in front of us. Speaking of the tread, it was delightfully soft and the only impediment were evenly spaced railroad ties, remnants from railroad logging in the area in the early 1900s. We started to see quite a few day hikers and backpackers in this section and although this indicated our close proximity to the trailhead, I quickly elevated to Zombie Levels 2, 3, and possibly even 4 over the last stretch. We stopped for good at the suspension bridge spanning the Pemigewasset River that would bring us back to the parking area. David made the wise decision to cool off and soak his legs in the river. I struggle down to the water as soreness started to kick in and was able to get my feet in, but quickly realized i needed to get back to the car for additional water and good as I started to shiver from exhaustion.

We reached the bridge, our ending point, 9 hours and 6 minutes after we had started early that morning. It felt great to be done and i was feeling as drained as I would expect to be on my longest-yet trail run, or single longest for that matter. This trip certainly got me hooked on taking on more trail runs both in Vermont and in places like the Whites. I am also humbled by the fact that the current running record for the Pemi Loop is 6 hours 27 minutes and 48 seconds. Very impressive. Soreness and fatigue started to settle in on the ride home, but with David and I both having the day off the following day, we knew we’d have time to recover and not be hobbling around the shop upon our return.

Being the insane runner that he is, David will be taking on the Wakely Dam Ultra 55K trail run in the Adirondacks tomorrow and I am sure he will be ready. The Whites Guarantee it!

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Published:July 26, 2013

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