The long awaited explanation of the Backpacking Trip of Doom(tm)! I know you’ve all been waiting with baited breath… in that… you know… not sort of way.
Anyway, I’ll start this with a tiny bit of qualifier/explanation. We’ve been backpacking as a family since I was old enough to carry a small pack with emergency gear and spare clothes in it. My parents were backpacking well before that. It is a very good thing that this is the case. If it weren’t, we likely wouldn’t have had the backup and emergency gear we did.
So the last week of September into the first week of October we packed up all our gear and headed off into the wilds of New Hampshire. Our target was the Pemigewasset Wilderness in the White Mountains off the Kankamagus Highway. The main goal of the trip, to get up Mt. Bond, one of our favorite peaks in the Whites, and yet a mountain we have not a single photo from.
We chose a loop plan that we’d done before in three days and gave ourselves six. We geared for cold, for wet, for changing conditions, because it’s the White Mountains at the end of Fall and we knew there was a small rainstorm coming up the coast (the very last remnants of one of the tropical storms of the late summer).
Things started out well. Beautiful day, walking along the edge of the river, enjoying being with family and away from the hustle and worry of the working (or waiting, in my case) world.
Unfortunately the lighting isn’t ideal because I forgot I had my camera set on it’s fiber/yarn photo settings, but such is life…
I still got some good photos of the family, which is always nice, I never have enough.
I took a lot at the beginning because it’s nice to get some before you’re all sweaty and gross. You’ll see later why this turned out to be a very good plan.
I especially lack photos of Mom and Dad together. I have a few, and I love them. I think this one is adorable.
So we hiked along the side of the river and off into the wilderness.
We stopped for lunch at some white water/low waterfalls that were awesome. We ate our lunch, that we’d made ourselves (like most of our backpacking food) and then were off again.
At this point we’re all dry and fresh, carefully skipping/stepping across streams…
We had some fun side-hilling along the edge of a very steep (and moist soiled) mountainside. It’s hard to capture in photos just how steep it was.
The first night we found a nice campsite that Mom and Dad had stayed at with my brother a year or two ago. A nice clean campsite and flat. We ate a nice warm dinner of… beef stroganoff, I believe. The next morning we had breakfast were off again!
There were lots of these little waterfalls dripping off the sides of the mountains as we passed. We ended up bushwhacking a little to get around a waterfall crossing that was just going to be too rough. Not that big a deal, about 1/2 mile.
This was a very long day. We ended up hiking into full night. But eventually we found a nice site. We got the tents set up but then it started to rain and blow. The tent on the left is mine (REI Quarterdome) and the one of the right is my parents’ (Nemo). I love my tent, it’s super easy to put up. Comfy and spatious too. Not too heavy. You can see our stuff drying out in the morning before we headed out again.
So far the trip is going pretty much exactly as planned. We got rained on the second day/evening and then things cleared up to a gorgeous sunny day. We started the “hardest” part of the (planned) trip, which involved some very steep hiking upward. Soon, we got to the bottom of the waterfall that marks the steep part, the Zealand Falls.
It’s actually a long series of falls. So we hiked up and then there was another overlook to a larger piece of the falls…
Very pretty, if steep. But we were making good progress and everyone’s knees and backs were doing pretty well.
We made it all the way to the top of the falls, the top of the hardest part of the trip, and we were trucking along. And then we ran into the crossing (planned). Except that there was no bridge, no rope, and the small crossing was… well… not that small. It was about an eight-foot straight out jump onto a slanted, wet slab of rock. And if you slip/miss you fall into the rushing water and go over a series of three thirty-foot waterfalls. Doh. We went up and down and talked and debated for probably half an hour. But it wasn’t safe, there wasn’t another place to cross to make it safe… so with very heavy hearts, we turned around and headed back down the mountain.
At least the day was nice and there were pretty views. But we were pretty discouraged. The plan was to go out another path, still doing a big loop, to get back to the car.
We ran into two people that day that both said another storm had developed while we were out and was tearing its way up the coast and would hit late this evening and rain all the next day. Luckily one of them also pointed us to a campsite. We found it, got set up, and settled in for dinner.
We also met three lovely Grey Jays, also known as Canadian Jays. They were very brave and would hop up and down on the ground and logs near us asking for treats. We gave them some bits of gorp (they smartly avoided the M&Ms). That night it (as expected) rained.
In the morning, we packed up and headed down the trail, setting a fast pace so we could get out. It was drizzling but not pouring.
As we went, it got rainier and rainier, and wetter and wetter. We were very thankful during much of this trip for our GPS. At this particular juncture we were using it to see how far we were down the (very very wet) trail and how far we had to go. Also, as we were hiking there were a lot of streams which were rapidly getting harder and harder to cross. So we were trying to see how many more there were.
By the middle of the day, the path itself was a stream. And our standards had dropped. “Hey, this part’s only 6 inches deep and has packed sand bottom!” became a happy pronouncement.
This is because that was not always the case. The path was often submerged two feet down with a muddy bottom and a current.
And then… we got to the second to last river crossing. You can’t see it in this shot, but that water is two or more feet deep basically all they way across and frequently quite rushing. This is how it looked when we arrived.
After MUCH debate and walking up and down the stream looking for alternate routes, we made the tough decision to set up camp on a small flat place. The storm would pass, the water would drop, and it would be easier. And besides, we were cold, wet, and exhausted, so we knew we probably weren’t making smart decisions. We set up the tents and about an hour or two later…
Same exact view. Notice there aren’t any rocks anymore.
Another hour or two later and there were no rocks further downstream (these were big rocks).
An hour after this… there was no white water. The river was flat. Four-foot tall boulders were submerged enough they weren’t disturbing the surface.
At this point, my camera died from the wet. Very sad. So I don’t have photographic evidence of the rest of the trip, but I’ll describe it.
It was the most terrifying night ever. We could hear large boulders rolling down the river, and roots popping loose in the dirt underneath us. Deadfalls were falling all around us in the woods. We had been forced to camp way near the water. We were terrified the river was going to wear free the tree at the edge of our campsite and take the whole thing into the raging river.
In the morning we got up and the river looked like it had when we first arrived. We cheered our decision and ate breakfast, waiting for the river to go down further…
And then it started to rain. And then it started to rain hard. In 20 minutes more the river was back up to impassable. Well crap. After much more debate, we turned around, again, and started hiking back the full distance we hiked the day before. The plan was now to get back to the branch (above the campsite from the night before) camp, and hike out another trail. This would put us on the wrong side of the Wilderness area, 40 miles from our car, but we’d be out and safe, and could get a shuttle from the base to the town, and a taxi (expensive) to our car.
Only those not fun, but not a big deal, stream crossings the day before had turned into raging rivers. There were five marked on the map. Five streams that we had hopped across or splashed through. Every one of them was waist deep or higher. And they were full of deadfalls, and rushing dark water.
The rule of fording is “Do not ford rivers over your waist.” We had no choice. We had to get out. The shallowest any of these were was my waist. The deepest was at my chest, which is over Mom’s. And, like I said, rushing, like knock you down carry you away, and drown you, rushing.
We linked arms, with Mom in the middle, me on point and Dad on anchor. Each stream was a horrible adventure. Over deadfalls, deep water we couldn’t see the bottom, missed steps…
At one point in one stream, Dad stumbled and lost his footing. In trying to get him back up, Mom’s (just under chest deep) feet just went completely out from under her and went downstream. Luckily at that point I was braced in a hole and just planted for all I was worth and held on, swinging them both across the current as Dad scrambled for footing and then managed to get Mom planted again. That was probably the only time during it that, while doing it, I thought “If I slip, I’m going to lose them… permanently.” Definitely the most terrifying.
Unfortunately, the five marked streams, while the worst, were not all we had to cross. Things which weren’t marked because they barely qualified as runoff had turned into torrents. At one of these, rather than try to cross a very deep but fairly narrow channel, we jumped. Unfortunately, Mom’s walking stick caught and stalled her jump, causing her to land straight in the channel. I jumped in without thinking and Dad grabbed on from the bank as we all dragged ourselves out and kept on.
Ten major linked arms crossings later and we managed to get to a lean-to shelter. Wet and absolutely exhausted, but still alive. Luckily for us we have had bad experiences with rain before so everything in our packs lives in dry-bags. So we had dry clothes to sleep in, and dry sleeping bags. If we hadn’t, the fordings would have soaked everything and we would have died of exposure. As it was, what we were wearing was wet and gross, but we could still get dry and warm.
In the morning, though, we had to put back on a lot of the wet gear. Our boots were drowned and just barely above freezing, water ran out of them as we walked. It was pretty miserable, but we didn’t have to cross more streams.
On the way out we ran into a ranger. After asking us about our trip and listening to the whole sordid story, he very very very kindly offered to drive us back to our truck (even though they’re not supposed to do that, he figured it qualified as an emergency). So as he went to do his thing at the shelter, we continued on towards the endpoint where his truck was.
Eventually, a long while later, and moving by pure willpower alone (thank goodness the weather was finally nice at that point), we made it out and he drove us back to our truck. Once there he talked a lot with the other rangers there, warning them about the conditions. We went out to lunch, drove home, and thanked our lucky stars we were all alive.
I also, like usual, took some closeup photos of lichens and fungi and things.
It was… an adventure. At the time, I was very rarely thinking about consequences directly. It was all very much “and now we will do this because it is necessary, and then we will…” clinical dissection of the necessary actions to reach the desired goal. Only looking back on it later did I pause enough to say, “Holy crap, if we had slipped…”
But we’re home, safe, and have quite a story. I don’t think I need to add another one like it any time soon though. So, um, yeah, for all you people who probably didn’t really need that much detail… The Backpacking Trip of Doom(tm)