Hikers: Matthew Reagan, Paul Rozelle, and The Octopus.
We'd been talking about doing a big Pemigewasset Wilderness traverse all summer, but reality intruded on more than one occasion to push the date well into the fall. Then, the weather decided to be a problem, with six straight rainy weekends in September and October.
And then, a few insane MITOC folks decided to raise the bar by not only doing a Pemi Traverse, but to loop all of the Franconia, Garfield, and Bond ridges in a single day. Two groups pulled this off, but we really had no intention of duplicating the feat. Maybe this was "Pemi for Pussies," but we still got what we wanted out of the trip.
Anyway, October 23 and 24 was the original date, but after gearing up in the face of positive forecasts, New England got hit by an errant Nor'easter that dumped rain, freezing rain, and snow across the mountains. We bailed on the traverse, and instead braved the wet weather to bag North Twin on the 24th. Not much to see in the clouds, but a fresh coat of wet snow above 3000' reminded us what season was approaching. More interesting than the views were the water crossings--the previous day's 2" of rain had turned "difficult" crossings into "impossible" ones (right). Bushwacking was mandatory, and one soft stream bank sent me headfirst into a creek on the way down. Lesson learned: synthetic clothing does insulate when wet!
After a Halloween break (warm and sunny, of course, since no hike was planned), the first weekend in November looked promising, with no major storms in sight. Gearing up once again, Paul and I spent Friday night spotting cars and sleeping in the fly-infested confines of the MITOC Intervale Cabin (whoever left an apple core in the trash needs to be beaten severely).
We awoke at 6:30am, which should have been our trailhead start time, except that alarm watches are effectively muffled by down sleeping bags. We hit the trailhead by 8:45, and headed up the Gale River trail to start our five-peak weekend. The going was fast and easy, with cool temperatures, sunny skies, and excellent footing. We decided to leave the tent behind and go light, since Guyot shelter was likely to have space this late in the season and we had tarps as a lightweight backup.
The trail crossed the flat ground along the Gale River quickly and directly, then began to climb as views toward the ridge and to North Twin opened up along the steeper sections (left). We gained the ridge top with little difficulty, and soon heard the noise of Galehead Hut renovations. Quite a project was underway, with the effective size of the hut being doubled by an oddly angled addition. I remembered a news article about the additional work being done to make the hut handicapped-accessible in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Now, I have to wonder why a disabled person who successfully met the challenge of the 4+ mile hike up the rocky trail would even consider using a ramp to access the hut itself, but rules are rules and reason must not interfere with bureaucracy.
After a light lunch, we dropped our packs and headed for Galehead itself (right). The Frost Trail had an amazing section of blowdown that seems to have wiped out many of the excellent campsites reported to be nearby. The trail rose easily through the pines to a wonderful lookout ledge with great views down to the hut and across to the Twins. We stopped for conversation with a nice couple that fed us stories of peak-bagging, including their own conquests, plus one anecdote about some guy who bagged all 48 4000'ers exactly at midnight in the winter.
The summit of Galehead, sadly, was nothing special (left). Zealand has a better sign and no less of a view. However, this marked #39 for me and another step on The Octopus' 4000'er challenge. We hurried back to the hut, lifted the packs once again, and attacked the steepest part of the day's climbing.
From Galehead Hut, the Twinway begins with a disappointing drop followed by a daunting ascent. The views into the valley of Franconia Brook (right) were small consolation. For 0.8 miles, the trail ascends over 1000' in a steady grade to the 4902' summit. Here we saw the first ice of the trip (enough to be annoying on the steep, rocky trail), and also got the first sense of altitude as the Garfield Ridge dropped away behind us and the Franconia Range became our gauge of vertical rise. The Twinway ascended from boreal forest to low scrub, but kept us sheltered from the wind right to the bare summit of South Twin. This was #40 for me (below left), and our first serious views of the weekend. The vaulted forms of Franconia Ridge stretched out to the west, the Presidentials loomed white and angry to the east, and the vast forested wilds of the Pemigewasset watershed opened up to the south. We got our first view of the Bond Ridge, and a true appreciation for how far "away from it all" this trip would get us.
From the South Twin summit, the Twinway angled south toward the Twin-Guyot-Zealand col. The trail quickly leveled out, providing for great footing and quick travel. At some point, The Octopus decided to go off on his own, and Paul ended up doing a few miles of backtracking to recover his sorry, eight-legged ass. However, while waiting for them to return, I found numerous campsites just north of the Bondcliff trail junction, many of them level, clear, and near excellent views into the valley of Franconia Brook.
Paul and The Octopus soon returned from their detour, and the three of us headed out to the Zealand-Guyot col and found the Bondcliff trail junction. From here, the path moves out onto the rocky, bare slopes of Mt. Guyot, providing amazing views of the Western Pemi along with unrelieved exposure to the wind. Northwesterly gusts pushed us on and off the rocky trail, and temperatures dropped as the sun approached the edge of Franconia Ridge. The scrub closed in around us soon after we passed the Guyot summit cairn, and in a few hundred yards we found the spur path to the Guyot Shelter.
A short, steep drop later, we found the platforms and structures of the shelter, all perched on the rocky mountainside. Nice views opened up to the east, with Mts. Tom, Field, and Willey defining the horizon. We found the shelter occupied, but with plenty of space below the sleeping shelf. We were fortunate to share the place with a nice group of hikers, one of whom was training for an Aconcagua climb by carrying an enormous pack from Zealand to Guyot and back. Enormous pack = extra luxuries! We had light from a Coleman lantern, more snacks and food than anyone could eat, and music from a portable radio. A deftly rigged tarp closed off the shelter entrance, giving us a warm, cozy place to cook, eat, and B.S. the evening away. After dinner, the view from the shelter porch inspired us to head back to treeline to view the stars. Of course, high clouds moved in just as we reached the scrub on Guyot, but the experience of standing on a mountaintop in the darkest of nights was still a remarkable experience. The Pemi is truly dark, and the light pollution leaking over the surrounding mountains seemed incredibly bright.
After nine solid hours of sleep (undisturbed by mice and shielded from snoring by earplugs), we awoke at 6:30am to considerably colder temperatures. A peek around the tarp revealed about a quarter-inch of fresh, powdery snow and limited visibility. The Aconcagua-bound backpacker and his companions positively bounced out of their bags and sailed off into the fog, but Paul and I were not in quite so big a hurry. Several quarts of hot liquid and several ounces of sugar were needed to jump-start the packing process.
We hit the trail by 8:30, soon finding the West Bond spur and taking a one-mile detour to the rocky, sharp summit cone of this fine little peak. Magnificent scenery certainly must have surrounded us, but all we saw was shades of grey and white. Our view would have encompassed all of the western Pemi, with Owl's Head, Bond, the Bondcliffs, and Franconia Ridge featured in a 360o view. At least the wind had calmed a bit since the night before. And the snow was pretty.
Backtracking to the main Bond ridge, we began the gentle but steady climb to the Bond summit. The summit itself was bare, with only a little snow and ice remaining around the marker cairn. Descent was a bit tricky--after some confusion as to the direction of the trail, we found a rocky, icy path down the west side of the cone. A dusting of snow was enough to keep us ignorant of icy spots, and the footbed of tumbled boulders reminded us how far it would be to evacuate a broken ankle to the road. Surprisingly, we descended out of the scrub, soon approaching the exposed 4000' col between Bond and Bondcliff. The rough footing continued as we descended below the clouds to a stiff crosswind and a great view of our goal (left). The cliffs drop away to the west of the 4200' ridgecrest, forming the eastern wall of the deep Bondcliff-Bond-West Bond drainage. Through the lifting clouds, we picked up the slide-raked slope of West Bond across the gulf, and the Franconia and Lincoln brooks below in the valley.
We ascended the last peak into stronger and steadier winds. A solid 30-40mph blast sailed up the steep cliffs, and even on the calm leeward side of the ridge, we could feel the turbulence and the effect of the vortices peeling off the lip of the ravine. At several points, the trail detoured right to the edge of the slabs, giving a spectacular view into the deep valley and a cold blast to the face. The summit itself was a wide, gentle clearing at the top of the steepest face (right). Here, we found shelter from the wind and enjoyed a quick lunch. The water in our bottles begin to crystallize, and within fifteen minutes we noticed a significant drop in temperature.
Getting moving again was difficult. We avoided thinking about the nine miles or more left to go for the day, hoping to simply achieve a rhythm and make the miles pass without much thought. Right below the summit, however, the Bondcliff trail drops off a sheer, 10' ledge. No big deal, but a thin layer of ice and our heavy packs made it somewhat unpleasant to attempt. Here, we met several people heading up as part of a day hike. I wonder how the hell they got their black Lab up that cliff.
The Bondcliff trail, rumored to be a monotonous and annoying exercise, lived up to its reputation. We descended on nicely graded logging roads for a mile or two, then began heading south on a nearly flat and featureless footpath. A mile's detour away from the streambed gave us a little variety, but this was only the first part of our seven-mile walk through the woods. After nearly four miles of descent, the Bondcliff/Wilderness Trail junction was a welcome sight (left). However, the straight and flat Wilderness Trail (right), reclaimed from a 19th century railroad grade, wasn't much of a relief. The path was as wide and straight as a two-lane highway, but old railroad ties made the walking somewhat difficult. Staying to the edges, we covered the miles quickly, crossing the brooks draining the Bond peaks, then reaching the major bridge over Lincoln and Franconia Brook. Wet snow and graupel fell as we sped away along the last four miles to Lincoln Woods. We arrived at the car tired, damp, footsore, but still quite satisfied with ourselves. Retrieving the first car from the Gale River trailhead was a pain, but some beer and healthy, fresh food at Woodstock Station dulled the pain. Mountain Dew made the drive home safe and unremarkable.
OK, we didn't do it in one day, or keep going to hit the Hancocks and Osceolas in some crazy mega-bagging extravaganza. Cool trip, though.
photos by Matthew Reagan and Paul Rozelle
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