By Michael Lanza
As we near the top of Mount Flume in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, the first of nine summits we hope to reach today, a light shower begins falling. It seems a less-than-ideal portent near the front end of one of the longest and hardest days of hiking any of us has ever undertaken—especially for three people somewhere between two and three decades past their hiking prime. But this only strikes us as one more in a long list of reasons to laugh at the absurdity of our self-imposed mission: to see whether we still have the stuff to knock off a dayhike that few mountain walkers would even contemplate. In that context, the arrival of the rain we knew was forecasted comes all in a day’s foolishness.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson once opined, “It is one of the blessings of old friends that you can afford to be stupid with them.”
Two hours after setting out at precisely 6 a.m., under mostly overcast skies that kept turning grayer—which seems to invite a metaphor about the hair color of my companions and me—we have come about five miles and nearly 3,000 feet. That would represent a proud halfway point for many dayhikes we’ve all taken. But it comprises just a fraction of our plans for today.
My good friends and longtime trail mates Mark Fenton, David Ports, and I have embarked on arguably the most grueling long “dayhike” in the Northeast that people actually do—that’s really a thing—and one of the hardest and most scenic in the country: the 32-mile Pemi Loop through the Pemigewasset Wilderness in the heart of New Hampshire’s White Mountains.
From the Lincoln Woods Trailhead on the Kancamagus Highway, we intend to complete a loop over the peaks of Franconia Ridge, Garfield Ridge, South Twin Mountain, and the Bonds, eventually staggering back to our car probably well after dark. We’ll cross nine named summits over 4,000 feet—eight of them “official” 4,000-footers, and two of those over 5,000 feet, while a third rises nearly that tall. While our route largely follows a few connected mountain ridges, it nonetheless makes numerous significant drops between the summits, gaining and losing a cumulative 10,000 vertical feet of elevation. For the great majority of its distance, the Pemi Loop, like many trails here, traverses terrain notoriously rocky, steep, and considerably unkind to creatures with just two legs.
Those numbers are eye-popping. But the number most relevant to our fate on this day may be our combined age in years: 162.
The rain falls steadily and fog thick enough to impress a Scotsman envelopes our little world as we stroll a trail along the brink of cliffs to the 4,328-foot summit of Mount Flume. Standing only briefly in the cold wind raking the exposed, rocky crown, I’m struck by the fact that my quads and lower back seem to be feeling the day’s rigors sooner than I anticipated; and my left knee has begun communicating, in its simple way, some displeasure with its circumstance.
The good news is that we have less than 27 miles to go.
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Ultra-Hiking the Pemi Loop
Perhaps because of their ample road access and the challenging nature of these trails, the White Mountains have spawned a sub-culture of ultra-hiking, or covering long distances in a single day. The holy grail of such hikes is the one-day “Death March” of the Presidential Range: 20 miles and 8,500 vertical feet over nine summits. Other continuous ridges with good road access invite ambitious dayhikes, like Franconia Ridge and the Carter-Moriah Range linked up with Wildcat Mountain.
Then there’s a feat unimaginable even to many hikers like Mark, David, and me, who are capable of knocking off the Pemi Loop (or think they are): a one-day traverse of the Appalachian Trail through the Whites linking up all of the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) huts, from Carter Notch to Lonesome Lake, a walk of some 49 miles and 17,000 vertical feet of elevation gain. That insanity apparently began as a challenge among the typically young AMC hut “cru” staff, who spend summers developing the leg muscles to do it by hiking constantly on these trails. Beyond those super fit cru members, only a few true extremists could even consider such an undertaking.
All three of us have dayhiked the monster Pemi Loop before, 10 years ago—David on his own, Mark and I together on an punishingly hot and humid July day when we drank at least 10 liters of water each and sweated out even more.
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But that was then. Although we’ve all stayed fit and taken numerous long hikes since then, the fifties are a decade when the human body mimics a car with an odometer reading well into six digits: Parts begin to wear out, and occasionally fail catastrophically. We all know people who have replaced knees, or given up running or skiing or recreational-league basketball or soccer—who’ve adapted to the inexorable erosion of physical ability. All three of us have suffered more chronic injuries—rightly known by their other name, “overuse injuries”—than we can probably remember. And we’ve mostly healed from them, although we now understand “healing” to mean a condition better than injured and not as good as original.
Fortunately, Mark, David, and I have all avoided the knife and major injuries so far. But at our age, the question on any given day is not whether anything hurts, but what hurts the most.
We’ll all certainly be proud if we can pull off again a hike that most people half our age never could. And we’re confident but realistic: There’s no predicting what could go wrong, either physically or even situationally in these mountains known for weather as harsh as the trails. (Mount Washington, just several miles to the northeast, held the record for the fastest wind speed ever recorded in the world for more than 60 years—231 miles per hour—and has an average year-round temperature below freezing.)
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The Pemi Loop presents another logistical difficulty that ups the ante for this hike: Long stretches of it lie miles from the nearest road. And the farther along we are on the loop (hiking clockwise, as we are), the more complicated it becomes to abort the hike, because doing so could mean finding ourselves at a trailhead very far from our car, with no easy way to get back to it. So we view a bailout as an emergency scenario only—too poor an option to consider just because of sore legs and feet or blisters. Suffering is presumed. Blood is eminently possible.
In the back of our minds a little voice whispers, “Are you sure you can do this?”
And in moments of lucid self-awareness, all three of us would probably answer that question: “Not really.”
Contact Appalachian Mountain Club, (617) 523-0655, outdoors.org. Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, White Mountains, (603) 466-2721.
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See all of my stories about the White Mountains, including “Still Crazy After All These Years: Hiking in the White Mountains,” and all of my stories about ultra-hiking at The Big Outside, including “Training for a Big Hike or Mountain Climb.”