Critical Fail: The Pemi Wilderness

My first epic. "We don't like this at all."

One of my favorite mechanics in the “Powered by the Apocalypse“ role-playing game system happens when your character attempts to do something important and you roll a one, a critical fail. The action fails and there are narrative consequences for that, but you also get to mark an experience point. Accumulating experience points helps you level up and gain more skills and abilities, and probably fail less in the future.

I love this because it’s how life works. Everyone loves to succeed, but most growth comes from failure. Sometimes you try something new and it works right away, and you learn “hey, that works!” But those times are either the rare exception, or the laborious result of trying a dozen other things that didn’t work first. As Carnegie Mellon computer science professor Randy Pausch said, “experience is what you get when you didn't get what you wanted.”

I have rolled a one for hiking New Hampshire’s Pemigewasset Loop in the winter at least four times, and I don’t regret any of them because they all taught me something. But the first time, in (I think) February of 2005, was both one of the worst hikes of my life and one of the experiences that has continued to level me up ever since.

By 2005 my friend Rob and I had done what we thought was a good amount of winter camping, and we’d climbed a bunch of the White Mountains 4000 footers in the winter, mostly as day hikes. And what, after all, is a 30 mile loop but a few mountain climbs and a few overnights strung together in a row, right? How hard could it be?1 We were 29 years old, we thought we were pretty experienced, we were in what felt like our backyard. We studied the maps and identified bail-out routes, and I loaded up my huge L.L. Bean backpack with plenty of food. I was afraid of being cold, and outdoors in the winter the only heat available comes from burning calories. That pack was at least forty five pounds, and I didn’t even have most of the hardware I’d take on an alpine route in the winter these days.

I didn’t have crampons, for example. Did you just go: 😬? If not, stay tuned. I had some borrowed snowshoes, and single leather hiking boots. I had a tall, straight handled mountaineering axe, which was the style at the time. I had a new and very warm North Face -20 degree sleeping bag, which is still my go-to winter bag, and probably the one thing that would have saved my life if things had gone a tiny bit more wrong. We shared a tent, we had a couple MSR white gas stoves, and I had probably fifteen pounds of food. Every disaster is made of an accumulation of small mistakes, and those were just some of mine.

Take a look at the map above. We departed from the Kancamagus Highway on the Lincoln Woods Trail, the light blue line starting at the bottom. The Lincoln Woods Trail is wide, well packed, and heavily used by snowshoers, skiiers and fat tire bikes from the parking lot to the point where it crosses the river. Then we took the Bondcliff trail to start the Loop counterclockwise.

We had better conditions for this first attempt than we’ve ever seen since. Good hard-packed trail, easy to follow. It was a trap. We ascended along Black Brook and then up the steep, blocky shoulder of Bondcliff, reaching the Bondcliff summit just as the sun sank behind Franconia Ridge to the west. The trail off of summits is often hard to find, and I remember we floundered around a bit searching for the right way off the top of Bondcliff, burning another half hour of twilight. But finally, as dark fell, we headed up the mile of exposed ridge ascending to the Mt. Bond summit.

I still remember walking up that ridge as it grew darker and the stars began to come out. The air was perfectly still, which I now realize was incredibly rare. The rocks were dry, we had our snowshoes strapped to our packs and were just climbing in bare boots. My pack was heavy and I was very tired, but even after ten miles I felt good. There was such a peace and stillness on the mountain that evening, a calm that’s unusual on an exposed high mountain ridge in any season, but in the winter it was like nothing I’ve ever experienced since. Again: it was a trap, but I still don’t regret that one incredible mile.

We arrived at the Guyot campsite, which has a whole shelter now but back then was just a handful of tent platforms on a steep hillside. The spring was running, and that meant we didn’t have to melt snow for water, which was also a gift. We had dinner and squeezed into the tent, where I spent what felt like a hundred sleepless hours but was probably more like a few hours of fitful dozing.

The next morning, though, everything was glazed with fresh ice. It had rained overnight, and everything that was dry the day before was now coated with a glittering shell. I was worried about not having crampons—already the first day I’d worn my snowshoes just for traction on some awkward sections of trail that would have been much easier with real spikes. We consulted the map and thought about what we might be likely to encounter on the long ridge traverses that make up the rest of the Loop. I got more worried about not having crampons. After a slow breakfast and some discussion, we decided to bail before we got ourselves into trouble. We had, in fact, already gotten ourselves into trouble, we just didn’t know how much yet.

Bailing always seems easy at the trailhead. But in practice it is less so. We both agreed we didn’t want to just turn around and take our chances with the fresh ice covering the long steep ridge down to Bondcliff or the rock scramble below that. We’d barely made it up yesterday on dry rocks. Descending it on fresh ice in bare boots was out of the question.

Our intended route was the light orange line on the map leaving Guyot and heading west along Garfield Ridge. We decided our best bet was instead to head up Mt. Guyot, a few tenths of a mile above us, and then turn east on the Twinway along Zealand Ridge, the darker orange line on the map. This is part of the A.T. so it’s well marked and pretty well traveled, even in the winter. From there we could take the Ethan Pond trail down to Thoreau Falls, which follows the Pemi North Fork river to the Wilderness Trail, another old logging railbed that would deliver us back to the Lincoln Woods trail and the parking lot. To cut off a little more distance from what would already be a very long day, we decided to take the Zeacliff trail down from the Twinway to Ethan Pond. We consulted our map book which said something along the lines of: “Absolutely do not take the Zeacliff Trail down from the Twinway to Ethan Pond in order to cut off some distance, especially in the winter you idiots.” We weren’t sure who that was meant for, but it clearly wasn’t us.

By the crack of 10:30am we were finally on our way out of camp, glad to be headed back to the car and feeling good about making a safe decision when we realized we’d bitten off more than we could chew. We reached the summit of Guyot quickly, and then it started raining again.

No one loves rain when they’re hiking, but rain at 4,500 feet in the White Mountains in February is kind of a disaster. Snow turns to sticky mush, everything that wasn’t ice turns to ice, and ice turns to even more ice. Rob’s sleeping bag wasn’t in a fully waterproof stuff sack, and it got wet. Both of us got drenched and then the water immediately froze on us. As we walked I could hear the loose straps on Rob’s pack tinkling against the frozen pack fabric. Whatever happened now, we had to get back home that day.

On the Twinway we saw some other hikers, which cheered me up a lot. But only a few, and none after we turned off on the Zeacliff trail. Fun Fact: when a trail has the word “cliff” in its name, and the guidebook specifically says it’s not good for descent, that trail is often quite steep. The Zeacliff trail was completely untracked and largely unmarked, if we were even anywhere near the trail itself which who knows. In the winter “the trail” can be more of a vibe than a specific location.

Zeacliff was a mile of somewhat controlled falling through waist-deep snow. Without any kind of packed trail to follow, we adopted a strategy of "we know the junction is downhill, so if we just go downhill we’ll hit it eventually.” But toward the bottom we did pick up what appeared to be post-holes in the snow, like someone had walked down here in bare boots, somehow. We thought that was strange, but were glad to be following someone else finally. We hit the Ethan Pond trail, picking up the distinctive white blazes of the A.T., and by dusk we were carefully creeping across the icy rocks above Thoreau Falls, at the top of the Thoreau Falls trail. We stopped for a snack as the last daylight leaked out of the sky. We’d gone about five miles. We had at least eleven more ahead.

That waterfall crossing is the last coherent sequential memory I have of this night. After that it’s mostly guesswork and isolated moments in the dark. The Thoreau Falls trail was also untracked, and we lost the actual trail almost immediately. But we knew if we kept the sound of the North Fork close on our right, it would eventually lead us to the main Pemi River, so we took turns breaking trail in the deep snow by headlamp.

It seemed like every few dozen feet there was another tributary stream across our path, and we were constantly sliding down a steep embankment and then struggling to climb back up out of the other side. I fell into chest-deep spruce traps that pinned my snowshoe-encumbered feet under clutching branches as I waved my arms around for something to grab to pull myself out. But we picked up the tracks of our post-holing friend again, and thinking they marked the trail, we followed them carefully for a while. Eventually we followed them up a slope to the left, where they circled around a tree, then meandered back vaguely uphill. We stared at the circle of tracks around the tree in absolute bafflement, and then Rob said:

“They’re moose tracks.”

Three things instantly became clear to me:

  1. They were OBVIOUSLY moose tracks. What I had taken to be the outline of a large mountaineering boot was clearly a hoof print. We thought there was just a guy out here? Walking along in his boots?? In snow so deep we were struggling with snowshoes??? What????

  2. We were very alone.

  3. My brain was not working right.

Unfortunately, like with childhood trauma, just knowing the facts didn’t provide any solutions. We simply had to keep the sound of the river on our right and keep going downhill. We had plenty of food so we tried to keep eating. I ate a whole eight ounce pepperoni stick. I watched Rob tear open an ice cold spaghetti and meatballs MRE and squeeze it into his mouth like the worst Go-Gurt you can imagine. Outside of my small yellow circle of headlamp light, the darkness was complete. Rob kept making me stop because he could “see the moose moving right over there.” I told him he was hallucinating. He was definitely hallucinating. I opened another pepperoni.

After an infinite number of stream crossings, the sound of the North Fork on our right was joined by the louder sound of the Pemi straight ahead. It was one thousand o’clock at night, it had always been night, we lived in the night now, I had never seen day. The climb yesterday felt like it had happened in a dream a very long time ago to someone I had never met. I could not make myself eat any more pepperoni.

We did still have enough situational awareness to know we had one last problem to solve. The Thoreau Falls trail crosses the Pemi over a large bridge, and the river there is deep and fast. We had to get to the other side of it, so we had to find the bridge. But we knew we weren’t on the trail. The question was, which direction is the bridge? We stood there looking at the uncrossable Pemi in the dark and debated: left or right? We looked at our map, but it stubbornly refused to tell us “you are here.” This was before maps could do that. In the end, we took a guess, and after only a few minutes of clambering along the riverbank the bridge loomed into view against the river’s navy blue foam.

We had gone ten miles, more than half of it in deep untracked snow, largely off-trail. But we had finally reached what we thought would be the easy part.

We had made it to the Wilderness Trail, which is a green-circle cross country ski trail. Easy walking. Our navigation problems were over, and the Wilderness Trail was well packed and relatively flat. But at this point we had been going for probably twelve hours. We still had almost seven miles left. Even at a very good pace for winter hiking, that’s at least three more hours. And we were not moving at a very good pace, by this point. Those seven “easy” miles taught me more about my actual physical limits than anything before or since.

The trail was a weak circle of light at my feet, with a vague sense of trees looming around the edges. Nothing seemed to move. An hour passed, one excruciating minute at a time. I felt like I was taking the same step over and over, without getting anywhere. My legs were shaking. My pack, still loaded with food for five days, felt like it got heavier with every step. I counted my steps just to feel like something was changing. Up to one thousand, start again, up to one thousand again. I started to lose count as my mind wandered. We didn’t talk anymore, Rob and I were each alone in our private struggle.

At one point I asked if we should stop and set up the tent and rest for a few hours, now that we were basically safe. Rob reminded me his sleeping bag was wet. I went back to counting steps. Another hour passed, but this one somehow contained at least twice as many minutes as the previous one. We didn’t have GPS, so apart from a couple trail junctions we didn’t know how far we had left to go. I was taking two steps and then leaning on my trekking poles to breathe, and then taking two more steps. I looked like I was climbing Mt. Everest, but on flat ground. I learned that I can just take two more steps. And then I learned that I can just take two more steps after that. I intuited that somewhere in me was a final step, after which I could not take two more steps, or even one. I wasn’t at the final step yet but it was gradually becoming present, like a shape half seen under murky water. I learned that I had never in my life come even remotely close to my true limit before that night, and I don’t think I ever have since. I don’t want to. But now I know what it will feel like.

Around 2:30am, after seventeen miles of snowshoeing, we got to the parking lot. Miraculously we still had the car keys, and the car started right up. I could not have driven but Rob somehow managed to get us to his family’s house a few miles away in Thornton. I took a shower and it felt like needles in my skin. We slept very late the next day, and I went shopping for crampons.

Mica told me recently that he likes hiking with me because in the woods, no matter how tough things are, I am always relentlessly optimistic and cheerful. He’s right, I usually am upbeat even when conditions suck and no one is having a great time. I’m notorious in my family for convincingly assuring them that “it flattens out just up ahead.” I think it’s because a tiny bit of me is still walking down the Wilderness Trail toward Rob’s car that night; one step, then another, then stop to breathe. Count to one thousand and then count to one thousand again. Like the butterfly dreaming, I’m never completely sure I’m not still there in the endless dark, hoping to see the bridge at the Lincoln Woods parking lot appear after one more step, or maybe another. It’s easy to stay positive now, because whatever else happens, at least it’s not that.

This began as a kind of a part two to my outdoor resumé, but the story of the Pemi Death March completely took over whatever else I thought I had to say, so I just went with it. Most people who spend time outdoors have that one trip that defines them, for better or worse: their first epic. As these things go, mine could have been a lot worse. We found out later that someone else had been caught in the same rainstorm and stayed up in the mountains alone, and was found in his tent the next day dead of hypothermia.

Like the idiots we are, Rob and I have been back three more times since then, but never got as far as we did that first time. The most recent, in 2020, we tried going clockwise instead but turned around at the top of the Flume slide, where our path crossed what looked to us both like avalanche terrain. We didn’t have any ropes to protect ourselves with. Another lesson learned, and this time I took a little video to remind myself later that I made the right call. That’s Rob at the beginning, and what I say at the end is: “We don’t like this at all.”

If you like to read this sort of thing, you can subscribe at one of two convenient paid membership tiers for full access to the rest of the Today on Trail newsletter. We depart for the A.T. on July 2nd! Time grows short, my list of preparations grows long. Whatever happens on the way, it probably won’t be as bad as the Pemi Death March.

Thanks for being a paid subscriber! You are making this hike possible. We depart for the A.T. on July 2nd. Time grows short, my list of preparations grows long. Whatever happens on the way, it probably won’t be as bad as the Pemi Death March.

1  Lol.

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