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A long summer day on Bondcliff

A remote peak with incomparable views

The classic view from Bondcliff, a spectacular 4,265-foot peak deep in the Pemigewasset Wilderness, looks across the wild ravine of Hellgate Brook to the slide-scarred ridge of West Bond. Bondcliff is reached by a long but gradual 18.2-mile round trip hike from the Lincoln Woods trailhead off the Kancamagus Highway. Steve Smith. (click for larger version)
August 27, 2009
Bondcliff is located in the center of the 45,000-acre Pemigewasset Wilderness and is among the most remote peaks in the White Mountains. Though it's 2000 feet lower than Mt. Washington, at the top it breaks above treeline in a spectacular burst of cliffs and ledges.

The views from Bondcliff are incomparable: high ridges and deep valleys on all sides, with no roads visible in any direction. Here is the place to see the mountains in all their wild glory.

The first record of a visit to these cliffs is from 1871, when two members of Charles H. Hitchcock's geological survey team spent several days exploring what was then untracked wilderness in the vast drainage of the East Branch of the Pemigewasset.

As they ascended the Bond ridge (which includes two other 4000-foot summits, Mt. Bond and West Bond), surveyor Warren Upham noted "the almost perpendicular face of rock, like some castle wall" on the northwest side of the south peak. For years they were known as "The Cliffs of Bond," or merely "The Cliffs."

In 1882, A.E. Scott of the Appalachian Mountain Club led five other hikers on an epic six-day bushwhack across the Bond range and out to Crawford Notch. Of Bondcliff, he wrote: "…the view from this crag surpasses everything we have ever beheld. Never before have we realized the extent of the Pemigewasset Forest, or the grandeur of the mountains which rise in and around it."

The next year Scott and friends cut the first trail across the Bond range. Although in subsequent years the slopes of these mountains were decimated by J. E. Henry's loggers, and in part by fire, this area in the heart of "the Pemi" has made a remarkable recovery. It is once again beautiful, sprawling backcountry.

I hadn't been to Bondcliff since Carol and I made a traverse across the Bonds a few years back, so I was long overdue for a visit. The Friday I chose to go earlier this month was sunny and not too humid. I made a 7 a.m. start from the big Lincoln Woods parking lot near the western end of the Kancamagus Highway.

Though the round trip to Bondcliff is certainly long at 18.2 miles, it's not a difficult hike. With two short exceptions, the grade of the climb ranges from gentle to the easy side of moderate. The only challenging spot is a short ledge scramble near the top. You don't have to be a superhiker (which I assuredly am not) to do it in a long summer day. The trek is an endurance test more than anything.

The first three miles on the wide, flat and familiar Lincoln Woods Trail went quickly. From rocks along the edge of the East Branch about 1.6 miles in (a nice objective for a short, easy hike), I could look upstream and see the day's objective rising in the distance. Here I was passed by a family of three headed the same way — more on them shortly.

As I crossed the bridge over Franconia Brook, a voice hailed me from below. It was backcountry ranger Garth Dickerman, who had waded the river in his "croc" water shoes from the East Side Trail and was headed on patrol into the western Pemi Wilderness. Garth is a fine young man and an outstanding representative for the Forest Service.

Hiking and the outdoors run in Garth's family. His dad, John, is the manager at Crawford Notch State Park, and his uncle Mike is my longtime tramping and writing partner and pens "The Beaten Path" hiking column for the Littleton Courier.

After a chat Garth headed north on the Franconia Brook Trail and I swung east on the Wilderness Trail for a quiet 1.8 miles of railroad grade walking to the start of the Bondcliff Trail.

The first mile of the Bondcliff Trail usually provides a pleasant walk on a hardwood plateau. But after the rains of June and July, this section was plagued with boot-sucking mud pits.

From 2001-2005, some friends and I were the volunteer adopters for the lower 2.5 miles of this trail on behalf of the AMC Four Thousand Footer Club. During those years we never saw mud like this. (That same story has been told on other trails around the Whites this soggy summer.) The trail was much drier after that first mile.

As it climbs gradually up the valley of Black Brook, the Bondcliff Trail makes four stream crossings. After a week with little rainfall, the fords were easy, and the third one was bone dry. Approaching the fourth crossing the trail traversed a small gravel slide where the AMC trail crew has done good work shoring up the treadway. From here I could look across the valley and up to crags near the summit of Bondcliff.

The next mile was a long, gradual climb along the east and south sides of the Bondcliff ridge on an ancient logging road. It's amazing how gentle the grade is here. As the trail crested the ridge, I swung right for a short, stiff climb. After nearly nine miles of easy trekking, this pitch had me sucking wind. Then came the 10-foot ledge scramble, which was easier than I remembered, thanks to a series of natural steps.

At the top of the ledge I abruptly busted out of the trees for the day's first views, spreading wide to south and west. The effect was startling after four and a half hours of hiking in the trees.

I followed the trail up along the edge of the cliffs, gawking at the sensational vista ahead to the steep wall of West Bond, striped by landslides and soaring out of the wild ravine of Hellgate Brook.

The only other hikers on the spacious open summit were the Chamberlain family from Springdale, Pa. (near Pittsburgh), who had passed by me early in the hike. They've been working on the 4000-footers for nine years, coming up for a week each summer and always dropping by my bookstore in Lincoln. Bondcliff was their 48th and final peak. I offered my hearty congratulations!

This was an especially meaningful feat for high school senior Brandon Chamberlain. He was born with a congenital and incurable heart disease and has had two open-heart surgeries, most recently in October 2008.

Yet he came back this spring to pitch and play third base for his high school baseball team. 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. I repaired to the east side ledges and soaked in the marvelous view across the upper East Branch valley (called the Desolation area in days of old) to the huge bulk of Mt. Carrigain.

Before leaving I walked over to the famous jutting crag atop the west-facing cliffs, where many a hiker has posed for the classic Bondcliff photo-op. Sitting on the brink, I could stare a thousand feet down into the lush green depths of Hellgate ravine, twisting out towards the lurking mass of Owl's Head Mountain and the high crest of Franconia Ridge.

All told I spent three hours in the sun atop Bondcliff, making up for those many dreary days in June and July. Nearly half of that time I had the summit to myself, a rarity on any open peak in August.

The walk down the Bondcliff Trail was long but easy, except for a few stretches of rocky footing. As I started back along the 4.7-mile flat runout on the Wilderness Trail, I was overtaken by Cath Goodwin of Thornton. She was on the end of the epic 31-mile "Pemi loop" hike (starting and ending at Lincoln Woods and traversing the Franconia Range, Mt. Garfield and the Twin-Bond Range) 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.

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