White Mountain Nightmare: Revisited and Plans to Reconquer

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Back in 2012 I wrote a blog post for The Old Spokes Home’s blog about a 3 day tour I did with my friend Dan Hock.  It still sticks out in my mind as one of the more interesting and challenging rides I’ve ever done, and I’ve thought many times since about retracing our route with on a more capable, lighter bike with much, much bigger tires. Since 2012 a lot has changed, Dan has moved up and on to running Bike Recycle Vermont and recently purchased our old place of employment, The Old Spokes Home, turning it into a non-profit bike shop that will support his efforts to improve access to bicycles and mobility for the underserved populations of Burlington Vermont.

As I browsed through OSH’s blog recently I discovered my old blog post and thought I might re-post it here just so I’ve got everything in one place, and perhaps to inspire a second attempt if it ever stops snowing…

Below is the original text.

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September 5th, 2012

Firstly, I just want to wish our friend Dan Hock a speedy recovery after a pretty scary run in with an SUV last week. Thankfully, he was wearing a helmet and although his injuries are serious, he will make a full recovery. Another (unnecessary) reminder to stay aware and play it safe, and for drivers to slow down and watch for cyclists. Getting someplace thirty seconds faster is not worth killing someone. We’re all rooting for Dan to get healthy and back on his wheels as soon as possible.

A couple weekends ago Dan and I took a little weekend tour through the White Mountains in New Hampshire. We drove out to Plainfield, VT after work on Friday and began riding around 9pm. Right out of the gate we began climbing up towards Groton State Forest, blindly navigating through unmarked dirt roads and almost immediately getting lost. This was not really unusual for our rides, as we usually had a more exploratory approach to bike touring, but we were trying to get to Bethlehem, NH to meet up with Dan’s friend Zack, and then head over Franconia Notch and down to Thornton, where we would spend the next night.

The fact that we had a little bit of a schedule to keep, and also knowing full well that the route I had planned may be more challenging than we were prepared for, made it slightly stressful to keep getting lost. We finally found our way up into Marshfield, VT where we began a steep climb up Jerusalem Road. Google maps shows it as a dead end, but it seemed to go through on the Gazetteer, so we pushed through the loose, rocky dirt until we saw headlights approaching us. We pulled over as the pick up truck slowed to a stop and an older gentleman, likely in his 70’s, shirtless and a little bit giddy leaned his head out the window and yelled “Going all the way through?” with a big, creepy grin. Earlier we had crossed onto a private road we hoped would cut through into the state forest and ended up dead ended at someone’s camp. As we approached to see if there was a way through, the loud hum of the generator had suddenly cut off and scenes from the movie “Deliverance” suddenly flashed through my head. We got scared and bolted off to back from where we came. Now, this half naked pick up truck driver in the middle of absolutely no where was making me want to just keep pedaling.

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Once we managed to avoid conversation and were on our way, we found a pretty awesome camping spot and ducked off into hiding to spend the night. In the morning we awoke to blackberry bushes, and began our ride on prestine class 4 dirt roads headed east. The ride Saturday morning was great, although we had more ground to cover than we had liked, the roads were nice, and weather was perfect, so spirits were high. We made our way through Groton State Forest and into Peacham, where we continuously made wrong turns and zig-zaged our way across the state. By lunch time we had succesfully doubled our neccessary mileage and were just crossing into New Hampshire. At about the 65 mile mark we finally reached Zacks house and got a little bit of a break. The next part of the ride was up and over Franconia Notch, which was pretty impressive. The winding bike path on the descent was a roller coaster that followed an upper branch of the Pemigewasset river, and we continued to follow that river on a slight descent for almost the remainder of the ride.

It had been a while since I pushed through a century on a fully loaded touring bike so I was feeling pretty beat once we reached our destination and ended up “losing my lunch.” I felt quite a bit better after that and once we had a good nights sleep I was ready to go in the morning. We were staying at my parent’s house and were talking our route over with the neighbor, asking a bit of advice. Looking at the maps I had seen all these little trails that used to be railroads winding through the forest, and most of them said they were bikeable. We talked to this guy Rich who told us his friends had mountain biked on the first trail we intened to ride and that there were “41 trees down” across it. This seemed a little alarming, but he assured us that his friend had got through, so we figured we’d give the 15 mile loop a shot to start things off, I mean, how hard could it be to get over a few trees, right?

To start the ride off, we hit Sandwich Notch, off of rt. 49 near Waterville Valley. From this side it’s not too long of a climb, but very steep, and a mix of loose dirt and chunky pavement at the steepest parts. The scenery was great, and aside from one flat tire the climb was pretty enjoyable. After a short descent, we came to Guinea Pond Flat Mountain Trail, a 15 mile trail that I had read up on before hand. According to Traillink.com “These connecting trails follow the bed of the old Beebe River Railroad up to Flat Mountain Pond, a large, remote pool high in the Sandwich Range Wilderness. This is a great trip for advanced mountain bikers; novice/intermediate bikers should expect a challenge. Hikers enjoy a relatively easy trek, as there’s little gain in elevation.”

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This however, was not really the case. The trail started off great, exactly what I had hoped for, a narrow dirt trail winding deep into the national forest. It slowly turned into single track, before opening up again, and then back to single track. We crossed a few rivers, carried our bikes over a few trees, and then over some rocks, and more tricky single track. We hit the 6 mile marker and were already pretty beat, noting that the trail was a little more than we had really bargained for. We decided that the next 4 miles to the Flat Mountain shelter were going to be our last of the day, and forged onward. Slowly it became less and less rideable, until 90% of the time I found myself pushing or carrying or throwing my bike over trees, boulders, embankments, rivers, and anything else that was in the way. Before I realized it, we had passed the point of no return and found ourselves pretty much carrying 80lb bikes up a mountain on a hiking trail. My only ambition in life became making it to the shelter.

Dan and Zack made it before me, and by the time I got there they had their clothes laid out drying in the last of the days sunlight, and were starting the process of making a fire to cook dinner. Luckily everyone was still in high spirits, but it had been the hardest day “riding” I’d ever had. The shelter however, was amazing, located on the edges of Flat Mountain Pond with an impressive view, I think we all agreed the trek had actually been worth it.

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The next morning we awoke to what would be our last day of riding. We had given up on all plans and ambitions to ride around the national forest and were simply focused on the best way to get back. It was only 5 miles to the other side of the trail and we figured since we were more than half way it would probably open up and become rideable again soon. We were absolutely, completely 100% wrong. The trail continually got harder as we worked our way around several beaver ponds, up extremely steep embankments, through mud, over more trees etc. etc. We ended up hiking our panniers ahead and doubling back to carry our bikes several times.

I was way too demoralized to take any pictures, and after the first four hours of the hardest bike ride I’d ever been on (again), I was finally able to sit on my bike and actually ride it. When the trail opened up and we pulled out onto Wintervale Road, a tiny gravel road that lead out to rt. 113A, we saw the first people we had seen since we left my parent’s house. They helped us with some directions, and soon we were headed back over Sandwich Notch. The ride back was hard, but I’d never been so happy to pedal in my easiest gear up the steepest hill I could find. After cresting the peak and descending towards the final destination, I suddenly forgot all the misery and exauhstion of the last three days and wished we could just keep going, but I guess that’s a pretty easy thought when you’re moving at 30mph without pedaling…

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My shoes at the end of the trip.

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