Evan came to me at the beginning of the week and said: “Pemi loop. This weekend?”
I was firmly against the idea because I had already made plans for Maine, and the last time I did the Pemi loop was a year ago through the middle of a tropical storm. I wanted no part of that idea. Then, while rock climbing that afternoon, I shuddered at long it had been since I had done anything that challenged myself. I texted Evan before the class was over “we’re sending the loop.”
The 0145 alarm pierced the funk that filled the inside of the car. I unfolded myself as best I could from the contorted position I created in the night and knocked the rear door open. Evan had chosen to sleep on the asphalt of the parking lot next to the car. In my deepest, groggiest, voice I croaked out a “Hey… Hey… You want to climb a mountain?” He rocked upright, still cocooned in his sleeping bag and looked as confused as a person can look. I closed the door and started to fumble around for the gear I would need for the day that lie ahead.
Fifteen minutes later, Evan, Ryan, and I were tromping through the thickest part of the New Hampshire night. Headlamps cut the night and cast foreign shadows through the forest. I was in lead, setting a lively pace during the first hour. A stick untied my bootlace, giving Ryan and Evan a chance to catch me. Ryan, between breaths, growled out “what are you?” Evan was not helping the situation by telling Ryan my “horse legs” could keep this all day. After a brief discussion, we decided that we would have to slow it down a little if we were going to complete what remained of the thirty miles.
As the trail kicked up the south end of Franconia Ridge, we got our first panoramic views of the black morning sky and a sliver of a red moon that was just peeking over a layer of distant clouds. Up here, the conditions are unforgiving. Only rocks are the only thing that grow with any success. We summited the first peak an hour into the hike. Even with the lighter pace we were making good time. For the next two hours we rolled up and down the topology of Franconia Ridge, being chased along by a cold wind and inspired by the shooting stars cutting across the Milky Way. The three of us were giddy with determination. The exposure above tree line locked our cheeks into broad smiles. From the summit of Mt. Lafayette, our hearts warmed with the first golden light of October 6th. We paused for a bit, huddled away from the wind. Watching the crest of the morning sun rise, punctuated by rugged mountain tops, is the best cup of coffee one can sip. Groggy as we were, there is no other place any of us would have rather been. We hopped up and continued down the trail.
From the height of Franconia ridge, we could see the rest of the loop that would encompass the rest of our day— the Pemigewasset Loop is a 31-mile, 9,000-foot loop. Leaving the ridge, the trail drops sharply downhill before climbing back up another high spine of mountains. Getting closer to mid-morning now, we started running into hikers who had started their days at much more reasonable times. I can safely say our favorite was an older woman who, upon finding out where we started our morning, and where we were planning to end it said, “I hope you don’t mind a woman with a foul mouth, but you boys are sick motherfuckers.” She cackled and went on her way down the trail. The three of us took her words as a second wind of sorts and laughed our way along the next several miles.
We got to a nice rock—just short of halfway through the hike and decided that was the place we needed to take a break. Two of us were having trouble with old injuries that were flaring back up in response to the rugged trail were forcing our bodies along. Evan, the forward thinker he is knew how great a beer would be about this time in the day and whipped one out of his pack. The cold morning kept it just cold enough, and I tell you that sip of beer was exactly the thing I didn’t know I needed.
The clouds started to roll in and we were quickly socked into a view of less than 300 yards (spectacular visibility by White Mountain standards). The last ten miles flew by. We made it back to the trailhead in fifteen hours on the nose. While we were nowhere near the fastest known time of 5 hours 45 minutes, we were entirely satisfied with our time because we met our goal. It had been a while since any of us had extended ourselves in the mountains and this hike was just the reminder we needed that we are all capable of pushing our boundaries. I did the pemi loop a year ago to the day—only as an overnight with a 30lb pack and marching through the remnants of a tropical storm for the entire weekend. I said I would never go back to that trail, but I am glad I did this weekend. I am happy to have friends that push me to be better, even if they do call me the grandpa.