Thursday, June 28, 2007

Epic Day

An extraordinary ADVENTURE into the heart of the White Mountains

Epic (slang) Extending beyond the usual or ordinary; extraordinary.

It was an epic day.

When the thought of adventure comes to mind I often think about J.R.R. Tolkien's imaginary world of Lord of the Rings and the classic James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans. These two particular stories paint the perfect picture of an adventure for me. In LOTR a group of adventurers forms a fellowship and journeys out across the vast and dangerous middle-earth crossing over green velvet hills, vast snow-capped mountains ranges, crystal clear lakes, and dense forest in pursuit of one common goal to destroy a powerful ring. In the Last of the Mohicans an adroit scout named Hawkeye and his companion Chingachgook weave through the spectacular and dangerous wilderness of upstate New York the Adirondacks, fighting to save the beautiful Munro sisters from the Huron renegade Magua. With its death-defying chases and teeth-clenching suspense, this American classic established the adventures out on the American frontier.

My adventure begins in the heart of New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest surrounded by lush green forest and high mountain ranges of the Pemigwasset Wilderness. The Franconia Range and the Twin Range are the two high ridges that form the great horseshoe or the unofficial title Pemi Loop. Like many places this is also a land of harsh climates and demanding terrain, storms can increase in violence with great rapidity towards these summits, temperatures can raise and fall in matter minutes, winds can blow at hurricane force, and just as an example the highest wind velocity ever recorded at any surface weather station was 231 mph on April 12, 1934 attained atop Mt. Washington. You have to be prepared for anything and everything. With this all in mind I know something incredible is bound to happen.

It’s June 23rd on a cold overcast Saturday morning a group of sixteen runners/hikers from various walks of life have all come together with one goal on mind to finish the Pemi Loop in the shortest amount of time, bask in the beauty and overcome the challenges of this pristine wilderness. You could and I will call this group a fellowship of adventurers!

6:10A.M. my dad and I are standing in the Lincoln Woods parking lot the gateway to the Pemigwasset Wilderness. It was a somber morning spent worrying and double checking my gear. My dad was my one man support team and he was hiking up to Galehead Hut (part of the hut system maintained and run by the AMC) nestled in a valley just a little beyond the half way point in the loop with extra food and supplies, all I had to do was worry about getting myself there with what I was carrying on my back. It was comforting to know he would be there with additional supplies and a positive attitude. 6:32A.M. we break trail, warm up on the Wilderness Trail and all to soon begin the gradual climb on to Osseo Trail, as I climb I can see dark clouds developing over Owl’s Head Mtn. to my right.
Sherpa John and I quickly push forward not knowing what is looming above on Franconia Ridge. We scampered up Mt. Flume (4328ft.) and capture the fist glimpse of the stirring gale force winds as we quickly move off the exposed ridge and into the cover of trees. I’ve never appreciated going back down as I did in that moment. Once I got back into a rhythm we can upon some of the early morning hikers wished them well and within a few miles down the trail witnessed one of the faster more experienced runner’s approaching in the opposite direction. He was heading back to Lincoln Woods after witnessing the winds on the next ridge, under dressed with only a tech tee and shorts he was staying below tree line for the day and then it crosses my mind that all I have in my pack is a wind shell. We wished him happy trails and pressed on towards Mt Liberty (4459ft.). It was especially nice running with Sherpa John, he’s a great conversationalist, I enjoyed listening to his amazing adventures and had some good laughs thanks to his witty humor. We pick up Franconia Ridge Trail the last chance to ditch as we emerge from the tree line, at this point SJ puts on his jacket, hat and wind pants I put on the only extra layer I packed my old standby Mountain Hardwear wind shell, I was going take on the elements. I tell SJ to move fast, I’ll be tailing. The gale force winds of 40-50mph and temps around 35 degrees quickly take my breath away…”holy smokes” I yell! My wind shell whips and crackles so loud I feel like it’s going to shred into a million pieces, then my glasses blow off as I try to adjust my gear. SJ shortly takes cover behind a large overhanging granite rock. We both look at each other and shake our heads, he asks if I’m okay “yup I’m still here” and amazingly my legs and arms are still attached to my body! The wind is howling at us and the ridge is engulfed in blanket of mist its at this point I feel like I just entered a scene from Tolkein’s world as I look out onto a vast wasteland of rocks, I had the feeling I was running through the ruins of a medieval castle. Into the mist we roll and it’s a constant battle with the wind and terrain from here on out. Every once in a while SJ and I would duck under these interesting rock formations to catch our breath and get a quick status report, if I stopped for long I would certainly be in danger of hypothermia. I need to keep moving and finally after traversing the windy, cold and craggy Little Haystack Mtn (4780ft.), Mt Lincoln (5089ft.) and Mt Lafayette (5260ft.) we make a quick descent off the ridge. I hoped everyone in the group made it safety across. We continued on jolly happy to be back in the trees and to see the sun break through the clouds out on the horizon. The day was looking brighter but not even half way through the loop and we were climbing again along Garfield Ridge Trail leading up and over Mt Garfield (5260ft.), the hardest and physically/mentally most demanding portion of the trail. When I stopped my legs would shake, when I moved my legs would burn, I hit a mental wall on this portion of the loop and put one leg in front of the other as I climbed slow and steady from rock to rock. Peter Kelly came around the corner and joined company as he and SJ keep me moving along. Peter’s sense of humor and SJ’s stories and history behind the Pemigwassit Wilderness kept my spirits high. Even with some nasty blisters of his own SJ never let this affect his positive outlook! We moved swiftly and quickly along Garfield Ridge Trail looking forward to reaching and resting at Galehead Hut (3800ft.).

Galehead Hut was a grand sight and I knew my dad would be patiently awaiting our arrival. This was a bustling place of hikers; we ran into two of the front runners and I was glad to see they made it past the winds. With the hardest section completed and a just beyond the half-way point refueled and replenished SJ and I stepped back onto the trail to tackle the rest of the beating heart. Thanks to my dad I was sporting a new fleece he bought me from the Hut….yes I’m just another crazy tourist but I was a warm tourist.

The next section climbs from Galehead (3800ft.) up to South Twin Mtn (4902ft.). No escalators here..just more rocks. Up and onward we climbed and climbed and climbed. Once we reached the ridge I started feeling really good and began to pick up the pace for home. The main ridge now swings southeast, then south, crossing the bare summit of Mt. Guyot (4580ft.), Mt Bond (4698ft.) and then Bondcliff (4265ft.)

From here through Bondcliff I was in the groove, stopping only to snap a few pics every now and then. In the distance SJ caught a glimpse of the two leaders and headed of to catch them. Meanwhile only a few clouds lingered in the sky and I enjoyed the expansive vistas of forest and mountains I was encircled by.

Once off Bondcliff it’s a relatively long descent to Lincoln Woods. Agian I felt really good in this section, with a burst of adrenaline and the rocks fading away I hammered down the trail it was nice to open up my stride and stretch my legs. When I started seeing day hikers I knew I was home free. Back on the Wilderness Trail with 4 miles to go I really push myself onward and started struggling to keep the wheels turning. It’s always those last miles that last an eternity. On and on and on when I finally approached the rope bridge cross over to the parking lot where it all began exactly 10 hours and 24 minutes ago. When I was finished with this 32 mile journey across the harsh and beautiful terrain of the Pemigwasset Wilderness I new we all shared this epic day together, this act demonstrates the feeling of Fellowship that is created during a long journey. Total strangers become friends it doesn't matter who you are or where you’re from.

Yes the White Mountains cast its spell over me this weekend and this comes from not only seeing but also physically experiencing the magic up close and personal.