A SUMMER DAY ON BONDCLIFF: 8/14/09
If you want to see the White Mountains in all their wild glory, the ledgy crest of Bondcliff is your kind of place. I was long overdue for a visit to this wonderful perch - a favorite of many who have climbed all the 4000-footers. Rising nearly in the center of the Pemigewasset Wilderness, Bondcliff is one of the most remote peaks in the Whites. The hike there is long - 9.1 miles one way - but with two short exceptions the route is at a gradual, or at most moderate grade. Thus it is more of an endurance test than a challenging climb. Carol sent me out into the hills on this fine summer Friday, and I was on the familiar Lincoln Woods Trail at 7:05 am.
Shortly after a group of three passed by me (more on the Chamberlain family later), I stopped for a peek at my destination where the trail comes by the river sooon after the Osseo Trail junction. Guess I wasn't fully awake yet as the camera was apparently tilted a bit.
After an hour's stroll I crossed the bridge over Franconia Brook, where there was a view of Mt. Flume lit up by the morning sun.
As I exited the bridge, I was hailed by Forest Service backcountry ranger Garth Dickerman. Garth is the son of friends John and Jane Dickerman and the nephew of my longtime hiking and writing associate Mike Dickerman. He is a fine young man and an outstanding representative for the Forest Service. He had just waded the East Branch in his crocs and was headed out on patrol in the western Pemi. After a chat, he headed north up the Franconia Brook Trail and I swung eastward on the Wilderness Trail.
The hardwood forest was suffused with soft morning light.
All was quiet on this 1.8 mile walk on the Wilderness Trail.
Someone had draped a logging era relic from J.E. Henry's Camp 16 on the sign at the Bondcliff Trail junction.
A piece of rail lies alongside the first short section of the Bondcliff Trail.
I took a break here by Black Brook, which the trail follows up the valley for three miles.
The first mile of the Bondcliff Trail was plagued with numerous mud pits, a testament to how wet this summer has been. Through the AMC Four Thousand Footer Committee, some friends and I were the adopters of the first 2.5 miles of this trail from 2001-2005. In those years we never saw the trail anywhere near this muddy. The story is the same on many other trails around the Whites this summer.
The four crossings of Black Brook were not difficult today. This was the first crossing, at 1.4 miles from the Wilderness Trail.
The third crossing was dry.
Above the third crossing there's a climb up a long series of rock steps - one of only two fairly steep sections on the hike to Bondcliff.
At the top of the steps the trail swings out on the level to a high gravel bank where you get a peek up at the headwall of the Black Brook valley.
You also look up at the high ridge on the west side of the valley, with some rocks near the summit of Bondcliff peering over at the crest.
The AMC trail crew has done a nice job stabilizing this bank, which is part of an old slide.
Just beyond was the fourth crossing of Black Brook, where the water was running again.
At a bend in the trail above the crossing, I made a short but thick bushwhack across to the brook to visit a slide that had revealed itself on Google Earth. The woods were dripping wet from fog or an overnight shower, and my shorts were soaked by the time I reached the brook, where there was a pretty little cascade.
The bottom of the small slide was a wet and slick-looking slab.
I worked my way up along the edge to have a look at the broken ledges higher up.
From the edge of the slide there was a view out towards the northern side of Mt. Hancock, with North Hancock behind on the left. The sharp peak at left center is Northwest Hancock, which sported a Parker-Young Company firetower for a few years after the 1938 hurricane. This peak enjoyed a brief stint as a New England Hundred Highest peak, then was raised above 4000 ft. on the newer USGS map. It now resides on the Trailwrights 4000-footer list and is reached by a sizeable bushwhack.
Returning to the trail, I followed the long, gradual climb on old logging roads up the east and southeast sides of the Bondcliff ridge. At 3900 ft. the trail turned right onto the ridgecrest for the final climb to the peak. I had thought of making the side bushwhack to Bondcliff's sharp, 3900-ft. south peak just down the ridge, but one look at the dense woods at the jumping-off point dissuaded me of that notion.
From the right turn the trail makes its second steeper climb, passing an alpine zone sign along the way.
Higher up comes the one challenge on the ascent of Bondcliff - a scramble up a steep ledge that could almost be called a small cliff. A series of natural steps makes the pitch relatively easy.
At the top of this ledge the first view bursts out - looking down into the broad basin of Camp 9 Brook and out to the southern Franconia Range, with Flume and Liberty on the right.
Looking beyond the pointy south peak you see Mt. Hitchcock and the Osceolas.
The final approach is completely in the open - spectacular!
From the south end of the cliffs there's a great look into the upper ravine of Hellgate Brook, closed in by slide-scarred West Bond.
I reached the summit about 12:30 pm, and met the Chamberlain family from Springdale, PA (near Pittsburgh). They have been working on the 4000-footers for nine years, coming up for a week each summer and always dropping by the store. Earlier in the week they had made the long hike out to Owl's Head; on an evening walk at Lincoln Woods, Carol and I had run into them as they neared the end of that trek. Bondcliff was their 48th and final peak - congratulations!
This was an especially meaningful feat for high school senior Brandon Chamberlain. He was born with Subaortic Membrane Stenosis, a congenital and incurable heart disease. He has had two open-heart surgeries, most recently in October 2008. Yet he came back this spring to start for his high school baseball team as a third baseman and pitcher. In recognition of his strength and courage, he received the John Challis Memorial Award from the Baseball Coaches Association in western Pennsylvania. The award is named for a high school player who battled cancer for two years before succumbing and served as an inspiration to his family, friends and teammates. Challis founded the Courage for Life Foundation (www.courageforlifefoundation.org), which provides sporting opportunities for high school athletes with life-threatening illnesses. In July the Foundation treated the Chamberlains to a visit to Boston and Fenway Park, where Brandon got to meet Sox players David Ortiz, Jason Varitek, Dustin Pedroia, and ex-Pirate Jason Bay, as well as Manager Terry Francona and longtime baseball reporter Peter Gammons. And now he's a member of the 4000-Footer Club! Great job, Brandon, and best of luck as you head off to college next year!
I had a nice visit at the summit with the Chamberlains, then they headed back down to Lincoln Woods. For the next 50 minutes I had the summit to myself (this would never happen on Lafayette on a sunny August day) and repaired to the east side to soak in one of my favorite views in all the Whites: looking SE into the upper East Branch valley (called the Desolation area in days of old) to the huge bulk of Mt. Carrigain.
I love the way the East Branch winds off into the distance. With binoculars I was able to spot the bridge at the south end of the Thoreau Falls Trail.
More to the south looms the complex massif of Mt. Hancock.
And to the NE is Mt. Willey seen beyond the broad, spruce-cloaked basin of the upper North Fork.
Even though there were some black flies who weren't reading their calendars, it was a great afternoon for relaxing in the sun.
During my three-hour summit stay, I had to spend some time on the west side as well, looking down the twisting Hellgate Brook valley to Owl's Head and the upper Franconia Range.
Mt. Garfield is prominent to the NW, rising above the inner recesses of the Franconia Brook valley. In the foreground is the westernmost and most prominent of the five major slides on the south face of West Bond.
Back in October 1995 I descended partway down the scrubby and in places mega-thick west ridge of Bondcliff, then dropped into the Hellgate valley. (My notes indicate that this descent was "advanced bushwhacking" - very steep and dense with dangerously bad footing, often requiring crawling; definitely not recommended.) Once down into the valley I whacked across to the bottom of this huge slide.
As you might expect, there was a unique view looking back up at the cliffs. (Photo scanned from 35 mm slide.)
A handful of other hikers came by the summit while I was hanging out. Here a father and son are seen on the classic crag that many a hiker has posed on.
Towards the end of my stay I wandered over to the crag - approaching it, the trail is well-defined by a scree wall, keeping hikers off the fragile alpine vegetation beside the trail.
I sat on the edge for a while, enjoying an intermittent breeze and a startling look down into the wild gully below.
Looking up the rocky ridge towards Mt. Bond.
Peering down into the floor of the Hellgate valley. This is one of the more dramatic down-looks in the Whites.
Before leaving, I had to take a final shot of the classic Bondcliff vista.
I headed down about 4:00 pm after a fabulous summit stay. One last view before dropping into the woods.
The cliff scramble from the top.
On the way down the long switchback on the east side of the ridge, I tanked up on water from a trailside spring at about 3500 ft. Down between the second and first crossings of Black Brook I saw what looked like a small cascade through the trees. It turned out to be an old bridge support left over from the logging days.
As I started back along the 4.7 mile flat runout on the Wilderness Trail/Lincoln Woods Trail, who should come up behind me but Cath Goodwin, on the end of the 31-mile Pemi loop and still looking fresh as a daisy. What a nice surprise to walk out with an old friend, by headlamp from the Osseo Trail junction onward, a great ending to a long summer day on Bondcliff.