Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Biking Bondcliff

My White Whale

Waterlogged and exhausted from close to 25 miles and 8,000 feet of hiking in the rain with a 30 pound pack it was all I could do to put one blistered foot in front of the other.  Lower back spasms brought me to my knees more than once, but each time I managed to climb back upright on my cramped legs and push on in the rain.

It was the second day of Gered’s bachelor party weekend.  Our motley crew of hikers had set out the previous day from the Lincoln Woods visitors’ center intent on completing the famed loop around the Pemigewasset Wilderness. We were supposed to climb up onto the Franconia ridge, march past Garfield and eventually descend down off of Bondcliff. 

We had failed miserably.  And now the Wilderness Trail was having its way with us.

Bondcliff is widely accepted as having some of the most scenic views in all of the White Mountains.  It’s no coincidence that AMC’s WhiteMountains Guide features a picture of its dramatic rock outcropping on the cover. 

I’ve made three attempts to reach Bondcliff, with the first two ending in failure. 
The Pemigewasset Loop and Bondcliff

My first failed attempt, on that bachelor party weekend, was by far the most spectacular.  It began raining before our crew reached Mt. Flume, stopped only briefly when we spent the night at Liberty Spring, but started again in earnest as we descended off of Lafayette toward Garfield.  By the time we reached the trail junction above the Thirteen Falls campsite, darkness was descending, we were exhausted, soaked, and demoralized, and we had given up hope of seeing Bondcliff.
During the death march.  At this point I was still using coherent sentences.

The decision was made to retreat down to the valley floor and spend the night at Thirteen Falls, and then hike the remaining nine flat miles back to the car in the morning.  When we discovered the tenting sites more closely resembled wading pools, we resolved to hike the nine miles by headlamp that night.  Those nine “easy” miles of hiking have turned into what is now affectionately known as “the Bachelor Party Death March”.

The deepest scars carved into my psyche by that trip were left by the three miles of abandoned railroad bed along the Wilderness trail.  We had practically skipped along this section when we set out the day before.  The railroad ties that were quaint historical artifacts on day-one had  transformed into Olympic sized hurdles on day-two.  We bumbled along, alternatively sloshing through the puddles between the ties, and skittering along the smooth wooden tops: knees buckling with every slip or skid.   Like some sadistic wilderness zombie steeplechase our party only broke the monotonous pounding of the rain to groan in pain or give a profanity laced tirade to no-one in particular.  Those two hours of limping along in the rainy darkness left on me a lasting impression of the Wilderness trail.

Dave on Guyot contemplating whether
he'll need to beat me over the head with a rock to
stop me from dragging him to Bondcliff.
Needless to say, my second attempt at Bondcliff avoided the Wilderness trail entirely.  My friend Dave and I set out from the Zealand side, looking to hike past the Zealand Hut, up over Zeacliff, past Guyot with an overnight stay at the Guyot shelter.  Unfortunately, Dave was about sixty pounds overweight and totally out of shape.  Even this wouldn’t normally have stopped him, but I had already spent the previous day dragging his ass around Kingdom Trails and he was hurting so bad I caught him in a convenience store bathroom putting Carmex on chaffed and blistering places I shall never mention. 

We still managed to reach the Guyot shelter, but didn’t have the time to hike over Bond to Bondcliff.  I had failed (again) to reach Bondcliff. We also failed to agree on a pronunciation of Guyout. 

As an aside, my buddy Dave didn’t take our failure lightly.  By the time I saw him again six months later he had lost all of the extra weight and as of this weekend, just finished his third triathlon.  Dave may have slain his demons, but my White Whale was still waiting for me in the middle of the Pemigewasset wilderness.

A little over a year ago I hatched my master-plan to turn Bondcliff into a day hike.  Given that the Wilderness trail is outside of the National Wilderness area up to the point where it crosses the Pemigewasset River, it is mountain bike-able.

This is how the Wilderness trail should be traveled.
It would still involve fourteen miles of hiking and close to 3000 feet of climbing, but would lack the god-awful steeplechase at the end.  Although the AMC White Mountain Guide indicates it is a 12 hour round-trip, I can easily average ¾ the recommended time.  With the use of the bikes, this would put the hike into the very reasonable 6-8 hour range.

After waiting for over a year, the perfect day to launch my plan appeared:  a warm fall day during peak foliage season.  Brad, who had also been eagerly awaiting the opportunity to check out Bondcliff, cleared his schedule and joined me.

We set out just before nine o’clock in the morning and covered the first three miles in about a half an hour.  We could have bested this time had I not been so intent on stopping to document our voyage.
 After locking up the bikes and crossing into the wilderness, we covered the next couple of flat miles in just over a half hour.  We started our journey up the Bondcliff trail at about ten o’clock.  The trail rises steadily, but only moderately over the next few miles.  There are only a couple steep sections, but stairs have been cut into the trail which help immensely.  Although not steep, the trail is littered with rocks that demand careful foot placement- especially when wet.  I’m guessing that it could be more easily hiked during the early spring on crampons when the trail is smoothed over by packed snow and ice.
Taking a break on the staircase.

Barely onto the Bondcliff trail we encountered an elderly gentleman in nothing more than shorts, jogging shoes and a thin shirt who was on his way DOWN the mountain.  He commented about how it was a beautiful morning “up there”.  Before we could call “bullshit” he had disappeared from sight.  We spent the better part of our hike trying to figure out how he managed to run on the wet, leaf covered rocks that littered the trail.

After the steep staircase, the trail continued on its slow to moderate climb to the ridge.  Our steady pace was interrupted only by the handful of stream crossings.  At about noon we suddenly emerged from the trees and onto the ridge with breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains.  The dramatic change from staring at the three feet in front of us, navigating the broken rock, to a broad vista of the entire Franconia ridge had us both smiling from ear to ear and laughing like little schoolgirls.
Brad emerges from the trees.  That backpack is full of apples.

The views only became more dramatic and unreal as we climbed up onto the top of Bondcliff.  Given that it was a Friday, we had the summit to ourselves for a good while.  Soon we encountered some hikers on their way from Zealand, but we never saw more than a handful of people.  We ate lunch on the calm, warm summit stretched out on the rocks and admiring the view of Whitewall, Carrigan and the Desolation Wilderness area.  We also stared longingly at the slides on West Bond and examined the treeless areas of Bondcliff, wondering if they were skiable with a few feet of snow.  When the wind calmed, the silence was striking.  No cars.  No voices.  No phones. 
Eating lunch with a view of Hancock and Carrigan.
Well… almost no phones.  As we sat there, we heard a familiar ringing.  We looked at each other thinking that the other had violated one of the cardinal rules of hiking: a cell phone call on the summit.  When we realized that it wasn’t our phones, we looked over the ledge we were sitting on to see someone’s backpack hidden in the bushes only a few feet away.  We figured someone had stashed their pack to go grab the Bond summit.  
View of the backside of Lincoln's chin (slide) and Lafayette with
Owl's Head in the foreground.

After lunch, we hiked down into the col between Bondcliff and Bond, but before we could climb up onto Bond reached our one-thirty turnaround time. So we climbed up over Bondcliff and headed back down toward Lincoln, heading back into the trees around two o’clock.

At that point I was slowed by aching knees.  Part of the problem was that I had worn my cross training shoes, and although they had good tread, their lack of foot and ankle support was taking its toll.  This was combined with the fact that I had done zero running to prepare for the hike- instead filling my schedule with mountain biking.  Although my lungs were prepared for the hike, my lower body was not.

Luckily I had the foresight to bring a hiking pole.  This had already helped with stream crossings, and now on the descent it was the only thing saving me from a sprained knee ligament.

We made our way down the trail, eventually reaching the Bondcliff trailhead at four o’clock.  Our descent had taken almost exactly as long as the ascent.  Our next few miles along the flat Wilderness trail to the bridge were slow and I started having flashbacks to the bachelor party death march.  Only this time, I knew there was a bike waiting to whisk me along the final three miles.

We crossed the bridge over the Pemigewasset and lept onto our bikes.  Relieved to have the pressure off of our feet and knees, we sailed down the trail.  Instead of lamenting the railroad ties, we used them to launch jumps as we raced down the trail to the Lincoln trailhead.   What had taken more than an hour on the death-march we covered in a mere fifteen minutes. 
No wilderness zombie steeplechase = smile.

Tired and sore but still buoyed by the adventure, Brad and I rolled into the Lincoln Woods parking lot before five.  I had finally put my nightmare of the bachelor party deathmarch behind me, and completed the goal that had been haunting me for the better part of a year. 

And as Brad and I wolfed down our post-hike burgers we were already discussing a return on skis.
Obligatory Bondcliff glamour shot with West Bond slides in the background.

Enjoy the video:


  1. I think everyone hiking into the Pemi from Lincoln Woods has had their sanity tested. Biking in sounds borderline genius.

  2. Thanks. Yeah, lots of adventure to be found in there. That place is HUGE. btw.. excellent photos on your blog. Great work.

  3. I used to do the Bondcliff every Columbus Day weekend, until I had kids. Never once thought of bringing a bike. Great call.