I used to be in great shape. I’ve completed several 50 mile ultra-marathons, Ironman triathalons and was constantly training for my next endurance event. For each race, I spent months rigorously adherent to a strict schedule. Races are easy if you train hard. My philosophy was on the competition day to just wake up to the alarm and respect my fitness.
After the birth of my daughter, all motivation to train disappeared. Living at the gym during the week, then spending several hours on Saturday AND Sunday going on long runs or bike rides seemed unimportant. I just wanted to be there for my daughter.
One day I wondered, what would it be like to pursue an endurance challenge when I was out of shape?
In September 2015, I set out to traverse the Pemi loop in New Hampshire. This is a 31.5 mile route linking Franconia notch, Garfield Ridge, and Bondcliff trails as it circles around the some of the highest mountains of the presidential white mountain range in New Hampshire. It involves 9000 feet in elevation climb (and 9000 feet of descent) and a 4 mile ridgeline cross Mt. Little Haystack (4760′), Mt. Lincoln (5089′) and Mt. Lafayette (5249′).
In 2005, Backpacker magazine listed the “Pemi loop” as the second hardest day hike in the United States. It takes an estimated 20+ hours to hike the rocky, unsteady trails through forest and mountain passes. I loved the challenge and set out to try it out.
With my daughter in mind, I toned down my ambition, and set out to finish it with an overnight camp, which even though is not the true spirit of the day hike, I felt a reasonable challenge for my out of shape body, which had not run more than 4 miles continuously on flat ground.
Comprehensive trip reports that detail the trail can be found here and here.
My trip started with a 3am drive from my parent’s home in Connecticut. I reached the Lincoln Woods trail head at 7am and set out with my overnight pack. I packed light (no stove, calculated food rations, etc.) and tried to move fast.
The photos of the Franconia notch speak for themselves. There are few places in the East coast that stand this awe-inspiring.
My travel was steady, but slow. I had no tangible time table for the hike, but I crossed the highest peak, Mt. Lafayette at 2:30pm and trodded along the sketchy Garfield Ridge trail and my pace slowed even more.
By 5:30pm, I was exhausted and reached the Galehead hut. This was a fully staffed cabin in the middle of the wilderness 1100 feet bellow South Twin mountain. Rest could not come at the perfect time. I peeled off my pack slipped off my trail shoes for sandals, and sauntered into the cabin hoping to pay a nominal fee to occupy a bunk. The cabin host, seemed stressed. The caretakers were working hard to prepare a large meal, delicious for all the visitors and she was not expecting an extra. She looked at the cabin leger and said, there was one more bunk in the communal barracks. The discounted rate is $175.
My jaw dropped. In hindsight, this was not the steepest cost for accommodation , but given the squalid conditions I could not justify staying there.
As I politely declined, I was then grimly informed that it was prohibited to camp within a quarter mile from the cabin and that outside of those boundaries, it was dense forest on a steep incline, which was poor camping conditions.
The guiding principal behind endurance challenges is the reinforcement that mind trumps matter. You may at one moment believe that your legs have no energy, that your muscles are too tired to go on. These thoughts must be challenged and the Will must be untethered.
I strapped on my pack, tightened my laces. I took a deep breath and convinced myself that I had no choice but to keep pushing, to fight and to step carefully. I started limping forward as set forth to summit of South Twin Mountain, the eighth 4000 foot peak of the day. Stepping over boulders, gripping the poles, I hiked for another three hours, covering five miles to reach the Guyot shelter and camping area. It was just before 9pm to find the tent platforms fully occupied. I was directed to the overflow camping area, which was also saturated, but fortunately I was able to find a micro camping location between several tents and set up my one-person tent for the night.
Sleep was hardly restful, but for some reason, I felt energized when I woke up and left before sunrise. The morning fog was thick so I was not able to appreciate the beautiful Bond Cliffs, unfortunately. I hustled down the mountain and reached my car at 11am, completing the loop in 28 hours. It is nothing to brag about, but a personal achievement of grit.