It was the second day of my buddy’s bachelor party weekend, and it was all I could do to put one blistered foot in front of the other. I was waterlogged and cramping from two full days of hiking in the rain with a 30 pound pack. Our motley crew 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 instead descended into the basin near Thirteen Falls campsite. As we made the final leg of our retreat under cover of darkness, the seemingly mild 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 the Appalachian Mountain Club’s White Mountains Guide features a picture of its dramatic rock outcropping. The bachelor party was the first of my three attempts to go there. The deepest scars carved into my psyche by that trip were left by the three miles of abandoned railroad bed along the Wilderness Trail. The railroad ties that were quaint historical artifacts on day-one had seemingly 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. 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 were my lasting memory of the Wilderness Trail.
My second attempt at Bondcliff avoided the Wilderness Trail entirely. My friend Dave and I approached from the Zealand side. Unfortunately, Dave was totally out of shape. We only managed to make it as far as the Guyot shelter before giving up. I had again failed to reach Bondcliff and poor Dave was hurting so bad I caught him in a convenience store bathroom putting Carmex on chaffed and blistering places I shall never mention.
After that defeat I hatched my master-plan to turn Bondcliff into a day hike with the use of mountain bikes. Bikes are permitted up to the point where the Wilderness Trail crosses the Pemigewasset River. It would still involve 14 miles of hiking and close to 3,000 feet of climbing, but I figured the use of bikes would put the hike into the very reasonable six to eight 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 quickly covered the first three miles on our bikes. After crossing into the wilderness on foot, we followed the nearly flat trail until the start of the Bondcliff trail.
The trail was only moderately steep, but littered with rocks and stream crossings. After a steep stone staircase, the trail continued on its slow to moderate climb to the ridge. At about noon we emerged from the trees and were struck with breathtaking mountain views. We ate lunch on the calm, warm summit and stretched out on the rocks to admire the view. When the wind calmed, the silence was striking. No voices. No cars. Nothingness.
We soaked in the incredible views and ogled the large slides running down the surrounding ridges before setting out on our return. While my hiking shoes cut down on the weight I was carrying, their lack of foot and ankle support were taking its toll on my knees. Luckily I had the foresight to bring a hiking pole. It had already been invaluable in stream crossings, but was now the only thing between me and sprained knee ligaments.
We made our way down the trail, eventually reaching the Bondcliff trailhead at 4 p.m. 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 stretch.
We crossed the bridge over the Pemigewasset and leapt onto our bikes. Relieved to have the pressure off of our feet and knees, we sailed down the trail. Instead of cursing 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 15 minutes.
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 death march 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.