Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Bondcliff 3 Day Backpack (or "A Pemi Loop Gone Awry") - 7/27 - 7/29/09

There are so many other possible subtitles for this hike. "How To Turn 10 4k's Into One", "How Not To Get Started Backpacking", etc. I think my choice however would be something more like "Turning a Potential Disaster Into an Awesome Trip".

Warning: This may turn out to be move of a novel than an trip report so if you're into trail conditions and hiking stats you may want to stop now.

Another Warning: Diehard peakbaggers and hardcore backpackers will likely be shaking their heads. You too may want to stop now. If you are the kind of hiker that can appreciate time on the trail and a leisurely afternoon on a summit rather than bagging a few more that are within reach then you may want to continue...

For those that prefer the abridged picture book version the complete photo album is here:

This trip had been in the planning since sometime last winter when we asked our teenage daughter what she wanted to do for "camp" this summer. Last year was a 5 day backpack in the 100 Mile Wilderness with an AMC teen group while my wife and I did Mt Washington (Seek the Peak) followed by a 4 day hut-to-hut. She loved the trip last year and we figured that she'd want to do one of the AMC trips again. After showing her all of the available trips for this year she announced - "what I'd really like to do is go backpacking with you guys". Wait, did I hear that right? Yup, that's what she said. "Would you like to do the huts Jamie? We had a ball doing them the last two years." Nope - backpack. "Honey - our daughter is asking to spend time with us this summer!!!" No possible way to turn that down. OK - off to REI to add the requisite backpacking gear. A few weeks later and the new tent, stove, sleeping pads, cook set and all the other gear not required for the huts is acquired and ready to go. Now for the plan...

We knew that we were going to do Seek the Peak again so the plan would revolve around that. Jamie has been hiking in the Whites with us since she was about 6 and doing progressively tougher hikes each year and her backpack last year proved her ability on the trail. She hadn't done any NH 4k's yet and after we'd knocked off quite a few without her we wanted to get her to some great peaks. Mt Washington would be #1 (and it's all downhill from there...). After a lot of consulting with friends and many great recommendations we finally decided on a 5 day Pemi Loop. We'd done close to 1/2 the route with our hut hike last year so we knew the degree of difficulty and just how awesome a route it would be. Not to mention knocking off 10 4k's in 5 days. We left our options open based on the last minute weather but coming down to the wire it looked like all systems go. After a fantastic day on Mt Washington on Saturday (with Jamie kicking our butts up and down the mountain) we took a down day on Sunday and were ready to rock Monday morning.

The plan was to stay at an off-trail campsite on the Bondcliff trail on Monday night (thanks to a tip from some wonderful friends - your secret is safe) and then to stay at Guyot, Garfield and Liberty Springs tent sites the next three nights. Nice doable days similar to the distance between the huts. The perfect plan. Or so it seemed...

Day 1 

Monday morning we packed up at Moose Brook and were at Lincoln Woods and ready to go at noon. I had sort of checked the pack weights at home and they seemed reasonable for the extra gear (we were carrying about 25 pounds the last couple of years and that was fine - a few more pounds wouldn't be too bad). When I put my pack on (or more accurately tried to pick it up) I said - "hmmm, seems a bit heavier than I thought". Just that first day on the trail weight adjustment... We met a family of 5 that had parked next to us and was packing themselves up to head out. I said hello and asked them where they were headed. The youngest daughter (nine) piped up and said "to Bondcliff to die!". Her parents and siblings laughed and shook their heads. She seemed quite serious though. We told them our plans and said we'd see them on Bondcliff tomorrow.

We set out with a few clouds drifting around in the sky on a beautiful day. About a 1/2 mile after the junction of the Wilderness Trail a few raindrops started to fall. No problem - actually felt good on a pretty warm day, About a minute later came the huge BOOM followed about 10 seconds later by the heavens opening up. We were drowned in what seemed like seconds. First order of business - get the pack covers on. First backpacking neophyte mistake. Don't assume that the pack cover that always perfectly fit the pack before is still going to fit when it's stuffed and strapped with backpacking gear. And of course they didn't. Get them to cover as much as they can and just plod on. In about a half hour the rain stopped and the sun came back out. Too late. Everything was soaked and our boots were sloshing. So much for that nice waterproofing job before we left...

We kept going and made it to the camp site in a couple of hours. Never would have found it without the great directions and map. It was as nice a spot as could be imagined for a back country site and we quickly went about setting up camp. Wasn't long before we were settled in and wet clothes were hanging from the trees everywhere. When we started unpacking the food and getting ready to make dinner I finally figured out why the packs weighed so much. Turned out that we'd brought enough food for an Alaskan expedition. I have to take the blame for this though. When Natalie was showing me what she had planned for meals I commented that just soup and such for dinner seemed pretty light compared to the huge meals we'd been eating at the huts the last couple of years and wondered if it would be enough fuel for those long tough days. Big mistake. That was when the mothering instinct clearly kicked in. " Oh my god, my family may starve - I have to provide for them". While keeping the family fed is part of the mothering instinct, death by pack weight is apparently not. While we didn't know it at the time we each had about a 45 pound pack (which isn't really heavy by backpacking standards but is not good when you have 50L packs that aren't meant for that load and a long tough route ahead). We also started to realize how much extra work backpacking is. Several hours at night to set up camp, cook, clean, hang the bear bags, etc, etc, etc and then more of the same in reverse in the morning to get ready to go. Obvious when you think about it (which we hadn't). And if the weather is bad all of that just gets worse. (This would be about the time that any hardcore backpackers that are still reading are saying "ha, sissies").

At this point I had reached the lowest of lows. The day hadn't been all that bad and being in camp was good. The realization that our plans were almost surely shot put me (and all of us) into a real funk. We cooked dinner (which by now none of us was really in the mood for meaning we hardly made a dent in all that wonderful food) and then set about getting ready for the night. Next trick - hang bear bags. With the expedition food resources safely stowed in 3 large stuff sacks I set off to find a suitable tree. Turns out that there are less huge oak trees with big strong branches in the White Mountains than one would imagine . I finally found a pine with a branch the right height slightly larger than a pencil and after a number of interesting attempts managed to get the bags up. For future reference the PCT hanging method works well ( although I actually had to run the rope over the branch twice to get the extra leverage to get those heavy bags up. Having had enough fun for one day we turned in before dark and slept fitfully all night.

Happy and ready to go

Not so happy after the rain

Sun's back out soon

Home sweet home

How much food???

Bear bags

Day 2

We got up on Tuesday to a beautiful sunny day. We hadn't had the energy (or inclination) last night to even discuss how we were going to proceed. Nat and I talked things over for a while before trying to wake Jamie up. We didn't want to just turn around and go back but we weren't prepared to commit to our original plans. The obvious trouble with this route is that there aren't many bail out options. We originally figured that if we needed to cut a day off we could go from Guyot to 13 Falls and then out from there the next day but that was really the only other option. I had listened to the weather radio that morning and the forecast for Tuesday was perfect - sunny with zero chance of rain - but for the rest of the week it was iffy at best: high probability of rain and thunderstorms all the rest of the days. After a family meeting to discuss all the options we settled on a plan: leave camp set up and spend the beautiful day today on the Bonds with nice light packs, camp tonight and then hike out tomorrow. We'd at least get one really good day and we could actually enjoy the afternoon and evening in camp without the stress of yesterday. As soon as the decision was made our moods immediately changed. We were really excited about the wonderful day ahead and all the stress was gone.

After cooking breakfast, re-hanging the food and "securing the camp from varmints" we headed out. The hike up the Bondcliff trail was very nice (if not exceedingly muddy). We all had our hiking legs back now and the climb to the top was pretty easy. Since we had been socked in with fog/clouds on Mt Washington on Saturday Jamie had yet to see any of those incredible high peak summit views. That was about to change in a BIG way. We made it to section at treeline that the WMG describes as "a short, rather difficult scramble up a ledge" which I had been worried about negotiating with heavy packs. Turns out it's more of a staircase than a tough scramble and we were quickly on top. Jamie stepped out onto the ridge and got that look on her face that can only be caused by standing on a summit like this on a perfect day. Words don't work here. It looked like all of the White Mountains were spread out around our feet. We dropped our packs on the first ledges and just sat there soaking it all in for quite a while. We finally headed up across the ridge to the summit where we were greeted by 360 degree views like I've never seen. I have to say that after spending two weeks of bluebird days the last two years in the Presidentials, Franconia Ridge and many other incredible summits I have never been anywhere that could compare to this.

After we'd been on top for a while the family that we'd met in the parking lot showed up. Turned out that they'd camped at another location on the Bondcliff trail not far from us and were doing the same 3 day Bonds out and back that was now our modified plan. We discussed our plans for the rest of the day and whether we were going on to bag Bond and West Bond. Their younger daughter was still pleading with them to leave. "We've been here now and you've taken at least 100 pictures. Let's go back now. I really want to to go to Whale's Tail". The rest of the family was shaking their heads again. Soon we saw Mom and the older brother and sister head off toward Bond. Dad had agreed to stay with the younger daughter on Bondcliff and then hike back down with her while the rest of the family was off peak bagging. I was tempted to join them and at least do Bond but I knew that Nat and Jamie weren't really interested at this point and we decided just to enjoy the day where we were. We hung out on the summit for a couple of hours either sitting and shaking our heads at the incredible views or wandering up and down the ridge. We of course had to get out on the cliff for the traditional photo op. Our fearless daughter just hopped right out to the edge and sat with her feet hanging over as my heart went up in my throat. Nat felt no need to get out that far and just spectated. I knew that I had to do it but my acrophobia was kicking in big time. I finally slid out there on my butt and sat there long enough for a couple of pictures while trying not to look terrified. I have to say that I actually enjoyed it after the initial terror subsided and I actually wound up wandering out there more times before we left.

After a couple of incredible hours we finally grudgingly packed up and headed down. The hike down was nice with a couple of stops at the brook to cool off. We were back at camp quickly and settled in to enjoy the rest of the beautiful day. I spent at least an hour just laying in the tent and watching the clouds drift by above the tree tops and listening to the birds singing. It's one of the most peaceful things I can ever remember doing. We had a wonderful evening in camp and a nice dinner before turning in on the early side again - this time without the stress. I can't remember that last time that I slept so well. I have to say that this may have been the best day I ever spent in the mountains.

Heading up the Bondcliff trail

Jamie goes first up the "ledge scramble"

Bondcliff and Mt Bond

Hanging out on the ledges with a view to Garfield

Jamie and Nat looking very small

The classic Bondcliff

Franconia Ridge and Garfield from Bondcliff summit

Jamie too close to the edge!

I made it too

Beautiful Mountain Sandwort all over the summit

On top of the world

Day 3

Wednesday morning we woke to another beautiful day. Seeing the blue skies I immediately though what it would have been like waking up at Guyot this morning and for a fleeting moment wondered if we'd made a mistake by not going on. After listening to the weather forecast though (which was now even worse than predicted yesterday) those thoughts quickly left. It took us a long time to pack up and get ready to go and that reinforced the decision in my mind even more. I was picturing doing all of that work for the 4th straight day (possibly in the rain) and was feeling very good about how everything wound up. We made it back to Lincoln Woods in good time. The trails were starting to dry out and the mud was a bit easier to navigate. By the time we finished our shoulders were aching from the heavy packs - even with 3 days food gone. We couldn't even imagine what it would have felt like dragging those over our original route. We went down and dunked ourselves in the river to cool off, changed and headed to Woodstock Station for a nice lunch out in the garden. A perfect way to end the trip. The drive home through Boston and Providence rush hour traffic gave us a jarring return to reality but even though it was two days early it felt good being home.

Heading out - the mud is now only ankle deep (not knee deep like on the way in)

One last look back

One thing that this trip did for sure was to inspire Jamie. She's been working on writing a book for a while and every time we turned around this week she was busy working on another chapter. Sure is a great place for inspiration.


This was another example of no amount of planning making for the perfect trip. Things are overlooked, situations change and all you can hope to do is adapt. This time it worked really well and the trip wound up being wonderful. When I asked Jamie how she felt at the end she said that she loved it and had a great time. That's all the measure of success that I need. Any regrets? None. I have to say that on Thursday and Friday after we were home I looked north a few times and thought about where we might have been that day. But those were dreams of bluebird days on high ridges and peaks that are still to come. The mountains will still be there for a long, long time and we'll be back...

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Seek the Peek '09 - 7/25/09

This year was the second Seek the Peak for Nataile and I and the first for our daughter Jamie. While we considered taking a different route from last year we decided to stick with the same one (up Lion Head and down Tucks) since it was so awesome the first time and we wanted Jamie to have that experience for her first time up the mountain. We spent the weekend at Moose Brook campground with several other STP groups which was just great. We had planned to get started at 6:00am to beat the crowds but it was 6:30 by the time we got going. The weather may have kept some of the groups from starting early since we had the trails pretty much to ourselves most of the way up.

Heading up Tucks

The weather was comfortable for hiking but there weren't many views on the way up. Got a little break in the clouds as we got above treeline on Lion Head.

Tim, Val, Debi and company met up with us here

Me and my best girl!

Clearing didn't last long and we were socked in by the time we got to Lion Head. 

Got cold and windy too and everyone started adding layers.

And then off into the clouds...

And finally on top (still in the clouds)

Got a great tour of the OBS from Stacey

And after a nice stay on the summit we got our summit photo with one (or two) of the local celebrities before heading down.

We then ventured back out into the crowds that were now headed down Tucks.

As we got near the top of the ravine the clouds started to clear and the rest of the afternoon was incredible!

The snow arch wasn't quite gone and Jamie got her first taste of snow in July

Jamie had had just about enough by the time we got to HoJo's and we barely saw her the rest of the way down as she got into "Seek the End" mode and flew down the rest of Tucks. We met up with Tim&Val again below HoJo's and hiked most of the way down with them.

The dinner/party was excellent again although some were a bit tired.

Everyone had their eye on Brad's car 

which actually turned out to be Brad's car!

And the "king of the fundraising" cleaned up the rest of the big prizes

All in all it was another fantastic year for STP and another great day on Mt Washington. Saturday night was great hanging out with the gang at the Moose Brook shelter (thanks Kevin and Judy) and another excellent day Sunday with the mandatory lunch celebration at Moat and a great evening hanging out by the campfire with Tim & Val. Monday began a new adventure for us - but that's another TR...

Can't wait for STP '10!!!

The rest of the photos are here: