Monday, August 10, 2015

1995 Backpacking New Hampshire's Pemigewasset Wilderness

At 45,000 acres, the Pemigewasset Wilderness is one of the largest roadless areas in the Eastern United States. It is contained within the 750,000 acre White Mountain National Forest of New Hampshire. The national forest was named by sailors who used the white snow-topped mountain crests as navigational landmarks in the mid-1800s.

Forty-five trails of varying lengths traverse the wilderness, many classified as strenuous. One of the most arduous sections of the Appalachian Trail crosses the crests of these White Mountains through this wilderness area. At-large camping is allowed except in a handful of Restricted Use Areas. Also, backcountry shelters and tent sites, some with summer caretakers and minimal fees, are available (I was only charged $5 to camp on a tent pad in 1995.)

Over 1200 miles of trails are in the White Mountain National Forest, leading to 45 lakes and 650 miles of fishable streams. Twenty campgrounds are available within the national forest. Below are two views from the Appalachian Trail. Extremely thick fog the third day hampered me in taking more photos while I was in this magnificent but strenuous wilderness area.  Most of my backpacking had been in the mountains of the west, and I discovered that trails in the East go straight up the mountain due to lack of room for switchbacks and because the trails were not constructed to be used for moving livestock to pasture as out in the mountains of the West. My loop included the Appalachian Trail as well as Bondcliff and Wilderness Trails.

Early in my 35 mile backpack, I came upon Franconia Falls Cascades and spent a few minutes watching the kids having a ball.

My first night's camp was alongside North Fork.

The guide book told me I was traveling one of the most scenic portions of the AT and the White Mountains, and the first two days, when I had views, it was certainly true.  I did a loop hike, starting from the Kancamagus Highway, going up the old railroad grade Wilderness Trail, then over to the AT, past Mounts Guyot and Bond, and back.

Thoreau Falls was aptly named and I'm sure Henry David would have approved. It was a lovely area and a good spot for my lunch break the first day. It was much wider than the photo below indicates, and at one point one of my two water bottles began rolling down the incline and I barely retrieved it in time. 

This was far from my first backpack trip but it was my first solo trip, and I learned a number of lessons during those three days, one of which was to watch your water bottles carefully.  I only carried two of them, and losing one would have cut my carried water supply in half!

Yes, this IS the trail! The AT was basically boulder climbing in sections like below and my legs got bloody from abrasions from climbing up them, with blood flowing down and staining my hiking socks. Lesson learned: There are times when long pants are better than shorts!

There was one Appalachian Mountain Club hut on my route, so I stopped to check it out -- the Zealand Falls Hut. Very nice!

I was pleased and ecstatic when I reached this section and saw there were stairs to ease my passage up instead of having to climb up the cliff face. Thanks to the trail crew that build them!

Unfortunately, I only had three days available.  A longer trip would have allowed me to see more of the area and also given me more "out of the fog" time. The guide book said Bond had the most majestic views in the northeast, but this is all I saw the third day - lots of fog instead of scenic distant mountains.

The next photo encapsulates one of my scariest experiences on any of my 60+ backpack trips. I was coming across the top of the cliff and arrived at the top of this precipice and was looking down.  All I could see was the ground 20 feet below. I had no idea there were basically natural steps in the cliff face as seen from this photo until after I got down. It was damn scary up top. I took off my pack and explored to the left and right, figuring (hoping) there was an actual trail on one side or the other. Nope. After several minutes of contemplation, I realized I couldn't retrace my two day loop backwards to return to my vehicle. I was expected in town that day. So I turned so my stomach was to the rocks and gradually lowered my lower body down and thankfully found the footholds, grabbed my pack, and easily climbed down as my racing heart finally slowed.

Though I was a runner averaging a thousand miles a year for nearly 20 years and thus in good shape, I was tired and sore when I arrived back at my vehicle. I drove for 20 minutes and hit a small town with only a McDonalds, so I parked and started to get out to walk to the building. My entire body had stiffened up during the short ride and was painful, so I got back in, went thru the drive-thru, and ate in the car. And when I got to my lodging in Durham, I painfully walked to the lobby, got to my room, filled the tub with hot water, and soaked for 30 minutes. I certainly agree that this section of the AT was one of the most strenuous backpacks I ever did!

AMC White Mountain Guide, Appalachian Mountain Club, Boston, MA; 587 pages.

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