As Jessica and I walked through the clouds along an exposed rocky tree line, it was easy to imagine we were somewhere in the western US. But, we were actually just a few hours north of our Massachusetts home in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. It’s early August, and we are celebrating our one-month wedding anniversary with a two-night backpacking trip.
Our plan is to complete the Pemi loop — a 29 mile traverse of a u-shaped ridge line in New Hampshire’s Pemigewasset Wilderness. With beautiful weather in the forecast, wedding planning complete, and my mother volunteering to babysit our pup, we couldn’t be more excited for 3-days of backpacking.
Most of our hiking experience has been out west. Last summer we drove cross-country (and back) and we have made lots of trips to various locales in the mountain and western time zones. While I had read that hiking in the whites can be challenging, I was optimistic that we had set a challenging but reasonable itinerary.
There is that moment on every flight where the plane bursts through the clouds into the upper reaches of the troposphere. The light changes as you climb up and up. Great hikes mimic this experience in slow motion. After climbing about 3000′ on easily-graded wooded trails, we earned our through-the-clouds moment when we climbed out of the trees and onto the summit of Mt. Flume.
Mt. Flume’s summit marked the beginning of what is essentially a 15 mile ridge line: a u-shaped tour of the the Pemigewasset Wilderness and many of New Hampshire’s 4000 foot peaks. But, most of that tour would need to wait for the next day as we descended off the ridge to our cozy shared platform at the Liberty Springs Tentsite.
Day two was to be our biggest day of the trip. So we got some rest next to a nice father daughter pairing who were thankfully very quiet. We would need that rest on day two when we would learn how much more rugged New England hiking can be than on the trails out west.
After breakfast and breaking camp, Jessica and I climbed our way back up to the mountain crest and continued along the loop. The beginning of our day took place on what is known as Franconia Ridge. Nearly the entire ridge is above the tree line, and the views are predictably exemplary. We lucked into perfect weather: 60s with a light breeze and moderate cloud cover which rolled up the western sides of the peaks sometimes hiding the trail and the nearby peaks.
Franconia Ridge was incredible. The light, the views, and the exposure of the trail are all fantastic. As we made our way across the summits of Little Haystack, Mt. Lincoln and Mt. Lafayette, we kept finding that we were falling behind our usual pace and schedule. Honestly, months of planning our wedding and then all of the eating and drinking associated with the event had likely taken a toll on our fitness. We just were not in the same kind of shape we had been in the previous summer when we had been hiking every day.
Compounding our less-fit-than-usual issues were the trails. New Hampshire trails are notoriously difficult and for good reason. Unlike trails out west, which are often graded for travel by horseback, the trails in the White Mountains are rocky and steep. Walking down the trail often means hoping from rock to rock or clambering with hands and feet down a steep gully. There were many times where I felt walking the trail more closely resembled scrambling than hiking.
Going downhill was as slow as going uphill because of the steepness of the trail. And, by the time we reached the midpoint of our second day, it was already late in the afternoon. At that point it was time to consider our options. Knowing we were feeling tired and still had a lot of hard hiking left, we decided to bail on our original route. We left the ridge and headed south on the Franconia Brook Trail with a new destination: Thirteen Falls Campsite.
We were pooped by the time we arrived and claimed a secluded spot at the campsite, and I knew we had made the right decision. We were able to cook dinner, refill our water bladders, and happily climb into our sleeping bags before the sun set. Both Jessica and I can be pretty stubborn, so it was not easy to give up our planned itinerary. Sometimes, though, you have to be realistic about what you can (and want) to do. In this case, choosing to adjust our route ensured we both enjoyed our trip more. And, enjoyment is key when you are trying to convince your new life-partner that this backpacking thing can be fun!