The Pemi Loop is a notorious backpacking trail found in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. As we were planning our trip to NH, I kept asking “what does Pemi stand for?” “I’m not sure,” Kyle said, “the Pemi-ge-something or other. It’s named after a river.”
I wanted the word “Pemigewasset” to have some sort of meaning or background, but alas, Pemigewasset is just a Native American word for a “swift current.” Makes sense…it’s a river. There is the Pemi Loop which is a circuit of different trails in the Pemi Wilderness–The Pemi river runs through the Pemi Wilderness. The more you know!
A majority of people report hiking the loop clock wise. Since this was our first attempt, we figured we would follow suit. Headed in this direction, you make your way up Flume first. After several miles of climbing, you peak your head out of the trees for about 20 steps before heading back down. To your left is a gnarly looking slide and for the first time ever, I walked on something that can only be described as a snow peak. There were several feet of snow blown into a “peak.” To the left, a cliff, to the right, shrubbery.
It was slow moving as we broke the trail, but we made it up and over Flume and Liberty without a hitch. The col between Liberty and Lincoln is the start of the A.T. which means that the trail markers turned to the traditional A.T. white rectangles. Unfortunately, the trees were all covered with lichen which holds onto the wind blown snow. I couldn’t tell if EVERY tree had a trail marker or if NONE of the trees had trail markers. To make things more confusing, the most recent Nor’easter had blown down dozens of trees along the route. We lost the trail multiple times. What should have taken an hour, took three hours.
We’d spent the entire day trying to get on top of the Franconia Ridge, and when we finally made it, Kyle said, “alright, here it is, now let’s get the frig off this ridge.” It was snowing, it was windy and we were losing light.
After 30 minutes of walking on the ridge, goggles on, masks up, the clouds cleared and the sun came out.
The sun lasted for less than an hour. Before we knew it, the clouds returned and the darkness settled quicker than we had anticipated. “We’ll go up and over this next peak and head to camp,” we thought. The “next peak” was supposed to be Lafayette, but it wasn’t. We cleared the “peak” and were faced with another. Maybe this next one was Lafayette? It was impossible to tell. Eventually, Kyle turned around and said, “I don’t like this.”
After a short conversation, we decided to turn around and camp in a bare spot between some bushes. We packed down the snow the best we could with our snow shoes, set up the tent, got out of our sweaty, wet clothes, made dinner from inside the tent and went right to sleep.
Our tent, a mostly free standing 4-season shelter (Brookes Range Invasion), was staked out appropriately with the exception of the vestibule (space was limited). All was well until about 4 am when the light wind vanished and we were greeted with 35 mph sustained winds. I dreaded getting out of the tent. We decided that we would skip the hot breakfast and get right to it–we needed to get off of this ridge.
We got dressed, packed up, and had a snack. I beat my frozen solid jacket with a gloved fist trying to make it fit around my body. The jacket got shoved to the bottom of my sleeping bag and didn’t get the body warmth that was afforded the rest of my clothing.
It seemed like continuing the hike was the only option, which meant a second attempt on Lafayette. Since we had never hiked this mountain and because we were doing it in a white out with limited visibility, it’s not at all surprising that we got shut out a second time.
It’s not that we couldn’t go any further–we just had no idea which direction to walk. It was likely that some of the options would be impassable. The wind, gusting up to 50 mph, threatened to blow me over if both my feet weren’t planted. There was no telling how long the foot prints behind us would last–maybe we would be able to find our way back without them, but there was no way to be sure.
Eventually Kyle turned to me and said, “this is stupid, we should turn around.”
And that’s what we did.
The plan was to hike the entire Pemi loop in 2 nights, 3 days, but to be safe, we packed enough food for 3 nights, 4 days. After one night, we found ourselves headed back down the mountain and to the car.
The thing about living in the Philadelphia area is that there is no such thing as “let’s just go.” If we want to hike the Pemi in winter, it requires time off of work, an 8 hour drive, and hotel rooms. You can follow the weather as much as you want (which we do), but it’s not always going to cooperate, and unfortunately, we can’t just put it off to the following weekend or come back in a few weeks.
When we hiked the Presidential Traverse in August (another classic NH backpack), we experienced some of the best possible hiking weather. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Sometimes mother nature cooperates, and sometimes she doesn’t.
It will be months before we get back to NH, and although it’s disappointing to fail, for us, turning back was the only choice.