Catching up on posts! This one is from October:
This year I set out to do a crazy thing. The Pemigewasset Loop (or “Pemi”) is a roughly 31-mile trail through a section of the Pemigewasset Wilderness in the White Mountains.
Because it touches eight official 4,000 footers, it’s a popular option for folks wanting a two or three-day backpacking experience in the Whites. It also haunts crazy trail runners with its siren call: Can you survive a one-day pemi? (Spoiler alert: I did)
Backpacker Magazine calls the pemi the second hardest day hike in America. No matter what time of year you attempt it, unless you’re among the trail record holders, you’re likely starting and ending the “run” in the dark. I began at 5:30am and finished up around 7:30pm, about 2 hours past sunset. That put my overall time around 14 hours and my moving time around 12 hours, which is exactly where I aimed to be for my first pemi.
Yes, I put “run” in quotes. Since so much of the route is hiking or scrambling up steep terrain, I did a fair bit of the route simply hiking fast. I ran on the flatter parts, ran on the ridges, and ran as much as I could on descents without risking a tumble down the trail. The last eight or so miles is along a flat-ish trail, and I reveled in it, my knees deeply grateful for the descents of the day to be done.
When I set out, I was running in the pitch black with my headlamp on and some music playing through my phone to help me not get freaked out about every little sound in the woods. (Note: I still got freaked out about every little sound in the woods). As the sun came up, it turned the forest a deep blue and then purple, and then finally, as I made it up the first summit, I got my first taste of sunlight of the day.
I was lucky enough to leap frog with a fellow trail runner for the first few hours (Hi, Jason!). We took each other’s photos at the summits and encouraged one another to enjoy the views, but keep moving, too!
I was nervous I might not be able to finish out the day since summiting Flume took me longer than expected. But once I got onto the ridge, I had fun flying from peak to peak. I made up time and resolved again to finish out the loop instead of bailing out halfway, which was my back-up plan.
They say that the true sufferfest of the Pemi is the descent from the Franconia Ridge and then the quick climb back up to Garfield. They’re not wrong. It was horrible and slogging, but hitting Garfield and knowing there was only one big challenge left, besides the mileage, was encouraging.
The challenge ahead was summiting South Twin, which is less than a mile from the start of that section of the trail, but is a non-stop climb at an incredibly steep pitch. I’d done this section last summer and remembered how fun it was. It’s my favorite kind of trail: big boulders, climbing and scrambling, throwing all your weight into going up, up, up, and emerging victorious at the top. I was all smiles as I got to the top and looked out over the remaining 13 or so miles I had to run.
I didn’t take many more pictures after this. The clouds were coming in and the sun was setting fast. I put my head down, took my poles out, and just focused on moving as fast as I could.
Logistically, I have to give a huge shoutout to Nate, who not only woke up at 4am and drove me to the trailhead, but also was on-call all evening, waiting to hear when he should pick me up at the end. I don’t have cell service in the Whites, but a lot of others do, so every time I met someone on the trail, I asked them if I could send a quick text or call. (Some of those sweeties texted Nate later on to make sure I made it back ok!). I called Nate when I was about 2 hours away from the end and the timing worked out perfectly! He was waiting with water, beer, and snacks, but after running for about 10 miles straight, I just wanted to sit down. We went to our favorite local bar for beer and nachos once I cooled down a bit – the best part of any hike.
Inspirationally, I’m shouting out to Richard – who is always cooking up the next grand adventure, and Matt, who I met on the trail during his pemi loop run this past summer. I was so inspired by how joyful he seemed though the sun was setting and he had a casual 10 miles left to run. Thanks to both of you for your invaluable advice.
As I write this post, it strikes me how matter-of-fact I’m reflecting on my experience. The fact is: I had no idea if I could finish the pemi. Most days I was pretty sure I couldn’t do it. Me? I can’t run through the dark woods alone. I can’t run freaking 30+ miles in one day. I can’t hike up – and down – eight peaks in one go. The way I went about training can be summed up as “lazy marathon training meets weekend warrior hiker”. But once I got going, once I started looking around above the treeline and could see the whole route laid out before me, I was full of promise and adrenaline. The hardest part of the whole thing may have been getting out of the warm car at 5am and walking into the dark alone. But I’m so glad I pushed through all the fear and discomfort. I had the most fun I’ve ever had hiking OR running OR racing. And I can’t wait to do it again.