Abbreviated Pemi Loop Hike – Lessons Learned

So this week is vacation week across much of the US, and while my partner is off in distant corners of the world, I found myself with an open week. So I decided to go crazy, and hike The Pemi Loop, a 31 mile set of trails in the white mountains. I chalked 4 days to do it, got all my gear together, and Monday Morning, set out on my adventure.

First, lets get a couple basic things out in the open here.

  • I was slavishly refreshing the Wunderground page for Lincoln, NH, the town nearest to the loop. It showed a chance of rain (moving to certainty) for Monday afternoon into evening. Okay, that’s fine, I just need to plan for that.
  • I mapped all my camp sites out, how far to each, printed maps for reference on the trail, and continuing refining my loadout right up until the night before I left.
  • I read tons of trail reports, describing conditions, best routes, what to do if things go wrong, etc. I was ready
  • I was carrying a Delorme Inreach satellite communicator, which was reporting my position to friends and family each day. I could send and receive short messages, but most importantly, it has a big SOS button on it, in case something really dire happens.

Or so I thought.

On Monday morning, I drove up to the Lincoln Woods Trailhead and parked. Paying my parking fee, I hoisted my ~35lb pack, checked my gear one last time, and headed out. My goal was the Lincoln Springs Campsite, approximately 8 miles away, and 3000′ higher in altitude. Oh, and don’t forget 3 mountains – Osseo, Flume, and Liberty mountains I needed to transit before I could get to the top of the trail down to the campsite. I planned on getting to the site by 2:30, to be able to set up my tent before the rain started. Setting out at 9:30, I gave myself 5 hours.

It took 7.

Top of Mt Liberty

This is not an easy climb, even in good weather. It’s a very long distance, and as mentioned goes over 3 summits. The views at the top of Flume and Liberty were absolutely glorious, and were worth the price of admission. I wish I could have taken more time and rested more, but I knew I needed to make the campsite before the rain set in.

Adding to the fun was the fact that everything above 3000′ was still ice covered. This means Micro Spikes are an absolute requirement. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, these things are miraculous, allowing you to walk straight up (and down) frozen trails. On bare rock, they’re a little squirrely, so moving around on top of Mt Flume and Mt Liberty was a little disconcerting (since I was reaching complete exhaustion at that point), so I moved very carefully.

Liberty Springs Campsite is about 1/3rd of a mile off the Franconia Ridge Trail, which is about 1/10th of a mile from Liberty Mountain summit, all downhill. I reached the campsite around 4:15, with a bit of water spitting from the sky, but (thankfully) still mostly dry.

Now, understand at this point I’d been climbing rocky, icy trails for 7 hours, carrying 35lbs of pack on my back. I was absolutely exhausted, but I needed to get my camp set up. After saying hi to the group of college kids that had also set up at the site, I chose a platform a nice long distance from them, and set up my tent. I paid a visit to the privy, also located the spring and the bear box, and started dinner preparations. By this time it was getting cooler, and I still had to make dinner, when all I wanted to do was crawl into my tent and sleep.

I have a Biolite camping stove, which is pretty nifty and has the magic ability to recharge electric components when it comes up to heat. For dinner, I only needed to boil a few cups of water, so I set it up and went to find some firewood.

Which brought up the first major problem.

The area I was camped in is only just now coming out of wintertime, and therefore was still damp and only recently snow-uncovered. So finding ‘dry’ wood to burn was nigh on impossible. I gathered enough to run the stove for the night, but I had to use two of my ‘starter bricks’ to do so. I only had 4, so if I were to continue, I needed a better starting system. Because I knew we’d get rain overnight, I spent an extra 20 minutes collecting as much dry wood as I could find, and tucking it under the rainfly for use in the morning. Dinner was uninspiring (Beef Stroganoff made from dehydrated ‘kit bags’) and I used a little too much water, so it was soupy, but it still felt good to have hot filling food.

After cleanup and scoping out / chatting with some other folks that showed up (bringing the total number of people there to 7 – during the summer, I could see 50 or so occupying the site), I crawled into the tent and journaled for a while, eventually putting things down, turning off the headlamp, and nodding off around 8:30. By this time, the rain had finally started, though it was light… the pitter patter of rain on the tent was comforting, so snuggled down in my bag (with several layers of clothing on), I was relatively comfortable. My Big Agnes backpacking tent is not particularly roomie… it’s better than the microlite tent I had been using a few years ago, (I could sit up inside it, but only just barely), but the footprint ground cloth plus my nice portable insulated sleeping pad meant I stayed, at least initially, relatively warm.

snow!
WTF? Who ordered SNOW?

Around midnight I woke up to sounds that were no longer rain… but were sleet. The temperature had dropped , and the unmistakable sound of freezing rain on the tent was pretty clear. “Oh well…” – and I turned over and went back to sleep. Later I woke up again (around 3am I think) because I was FREEZING. I was wearing long underpants, plus my nylon pants, synthetic hiking socks, and 4 layers on my upper body (shirt, polyester shirt, and 2 fleeces). Even with that, wrapped in the down sleeping bag, my teeth were chattering. My watch thermometer said it was 40 degrees in the tent, but lo, the sound of sleet had stopped! It now had a nice… hissing sound, which got me suspicious… I stuck my hand outside, and.. yep, SNOW. It was snowing. By the time morning broke, 2″ of new thick heavy snow had fallen on my tent and on my campsite. I had tucked all my gear under the fly, so nothing got actual snow on it, but this was NOT what I signed up for when I decided to hike the pemi loop in late April.

Well, no crying over spilt milk, I had things to do. First was making breakfast. I had my dry wood from the night before (thank goodness!), and it was JUST enough to boil water for scrambled eggs with bacon (dehydrated) and a cup of mediocre coffee (instant). By the end of that, I was feeling relatively human, and moving around my now snowy winterland was going fine (again, microspikes).

At this point though I started having a suspicion. I looked at the wrapper for the eggs and bacon to check the calorie count. 250 calories per serving. Whaaaa… this is a problem. When I was hiking in Tuckerman Ravine, I had my Jawbone Up Move calibrated up to count calories, entering in when I was doing heavy hiking. According to those trips, I was burning 5000+ calories a day (I’m a big guy, so hauling that weight around plus the pack uses a lot of energy). If I ate the meals I brought, I would take in only 1000-1200 calories a day. That is not enough.

I didn’t bring enough food.

At this point, the nagging thought that this may not be the best time / opportunity to complete the Pemi loop came to final resolution. I needed to turn around. It would be unsafe for me to attempt to cross 3 major peaks on the way to Garfield Shelter (my next destination), while I didn’t have enough food to support me, the weather was poor, and it was an unfamiliar route.

Sure it's pretty, but not what I planned for
Sure it’s pretty, but not what I planned for

So I packed up my gear, mounted up… and returned to the Lincoln Trailhead. The descent took 5.5 hours (an expected faster transit), but it was NOT easy. The new snow made the walking conditions worse. The microspikes work by giving a hard grip into ice. The problem is the new snow was heavy and wet, and would clog up on the spikes, rendering then useless. So on steeper areas, I had to clear the snow from the spikes every couple steps (usually by banging on them with one of my trekking poles). Even with that, I fell at least half a dozen times, sliding down rocky icy trails on my ass. Definitely unsafe.

By the time I reached the trailhead, I was exhausted all over again. Looking back on this now, I think the problem is my pack and my clothing was carrying a lot of water, and that probably added another 5-6lbs to the total weight. I was drinking water at a phenomenal rate. I’m not a huge water drinker, but I was going through a 20oz bottle of water every 2 hours. I replenished it from stream runoff, dumping fresh fallen snow into the bottle and shaking, or whatever else I could do. I found one great dripping stream on the way up that was almost on top of Liberty, and I was able to park my bottle under it and whhhooop, it refilled. That was satisfying ūüôā

Once I was back in my car, the only thing I could think of was drinking (no, not that kind). I went to a local food place, assuming I was super-hungry, but all I wanted were sweet cold drinks. I chugged 2 24oz cups of root beer, and that took some of the edge off. The burger was ‘eh’, but I also downed a chocolate milkshake, and it still wasn’t quite enough.

I tried to drive home, but realized I was scary-tired. Pulling over in a dunkin donuts parking lot, I put the seat back, and was out like a light inside 30 seconds. It’s not uncommon for me to take fast naps in the car, they usually last 10-15 minutes, and I wake up refreshed. I was asleep this time for almost an hour, and I remember nothing of it. I woke up thirsty again, so DD provided me a big orange juice and a cup of coffee, which I wolfed down. By then I felt human enough to drive all the way home.

So, if that wall of text didn’t slow you down, here’s the salient points that caused me to come back early.

  • Not enough food by calorie count to complete 3.5 days of hiking. I can probably supplement for the next trip – the common filler seems to be peanut butter, which is 190 calories per 2 tablespoons.
  • A cooking stove that was not appropriate for the conditions. I own an MSRP IsoPro camping stove, and all things considered, next time I’m just bringing that. The gadgety bit of the Biolite recharging stuff isn’t worth the weight and inconvenience.
  • The weather changed on me in a way that made the walk much more dangerous. ¬†Walking in winter conditions is doable, but backpacking a challenging trail in it is too much for me. There may come a time when I can attempt this again in these conditions, but I need to up my game dramatically. I’ve now been home 5 hours and my knees are still hurting. Note that I didn’t intend this to be a winter hike. No where in the forecast did it say snow. Grump.
  • The hardest thing to acknowledge is… I may not be physically up for this. ¬†It totally kicked my ass. ¬†Maybe in warmer months where the burden for survival is lower things will be better. ¬†It’s possible my pack weight was too high. ¬†Postings on the web are saying 7 day packs should be around 17% of your body weight (which would be about 42lbs for me). ¬†I was hauling 35-37lbs of pack for a 3.5 day hike. ¬†That seems high, but it was also midwinter. ¬†Lots of wiggle room here.

Am I glad I went? Hell yeah. I learned a lot, and I challenged myself to do something scary and intense. Do I consider this a failed outing? Nope. Will I do this again? With some different planning, sure.

And now, I go to bed.

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A wandering geek. Toys, shiny things, pursuits and distractions.

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