2nd Hardest US Trail: The Pemi Loop

Our plan was ambitious. Chris would fly in from Australia, run the Boston Marathon, rest one day, then we would hike the Pemigewasset Loop.

The Pemi Loop, as it is known, has been deemed the 2nd Hardest Day Hike in the United States by Backpacker Magazine. Most online summaries suggested two days to be realistic, albeit masochistic, for the full loop. We gave ourselves three days and two nights; the first half day would be spent driving with a short hike to a comfortable camp spot. Then, from the information we gathered, we would do two full day pushes over the rugged terrain, camping halfway at Mt. Garfield and the Garfield tent-site for the second night. Our final day we would push over the summits and end up at the car after dark.

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The hike was quite easy, actually… until the ascent to South Twin about 3/4ths of the way the first day. The morning was steep, but nothing unexpected when climbing up mountains. We broke for lunch at the famous Bondcliff and asserted that we should move because we could see the incredible distance we still needed to cover. The next couple summits came and went, rolling under our feet as the sun slid across the sky.

Then, almost unexpectedly, the terrain became extremely rugged; South Twin Mountain sealed our fate. On the map, the distance from this peak to Garfield is a mere 3.5 miles. Based on the difficulty, conditions, and time we spent on the trail so far, we were confident that we could reach the tent-site just after the sun had set.

We. Were. Wrong.

The trail from here was steep drops with thick, bulbous re-frozen snow melt. At this point, the fatigue in our legs was a major factor and we struggled to plant our trekking poles for support. The sun hovered directly in front of us illuminating the ice sheet trail and mocked us as it sunk slowly towards the horizon. After over an hour we reached the Galehead Hut just to see the sun disappear behind the mountains in the distance, but still with at least two hours daylight left; it was 6pm. The rest of the trail was punishment; steep ascents and descents over frozen vertical ice-rinks, and the final half mile alone took us an hour. We don’t even know what time we arrived.

Despite the brutal trail, we were convinced we’d be up at 6am to push through even as we crawled into our sleeping bags. Unfortunately, or fortunately for our weary bodies, 6am brought rain. We were gambling because the forecast called for 20% chance of rain at noon and 80% by 6pm, but not the morning. Expecting at least part of the hike to be dry, this revelation forced us to make the call. The clouds had already descended and the combination of rain, ice, and extremely rugged terrain ahead predicted extremely dangerous conditions without the scenic payoff.

Satisfied with the first two days, we cut down the Franconia trail that followed water all the way out of the Pemigewasset Wilderness. The descent was swift and just 7 hours later, we reached the parking lot.

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Chis appears happy.

The Pemi Loop was certainly one of the most challenging hikes I have been on, but it was as beautiful as it was difficult and I look forward to finishing it on my next trip.