Sunday, March 31, 2013

Mount Hale via the FireWarden's Trail - March 23, 2013

It had been 2 weeks since finishing my New Hampshire Winter 4000-Footer list, and calendar winter was over. But winter hadn't gotten the memo. On the first day of spring, the White Mountains received around a foot (or more!) of new snow, depending on location. And I wasn't quite ready to let winter go either. With the more snow on the ground than there really had been all winter (and it's been a very snowy winter, especially since the beginning of February!), it was a great time for another snowshoe, this time without any real care towards list or the like. With high winds in the forecast (80-100 predicted for the higher summits) and the day predicted to be mostly cloudy, something nice and protected in the trees was in order.

I had no real hike calling to me on this day, but decided I would head to Crawford Notch and hike Field, Willey, and Tom. But as I was driving South through Twin Mountain, I passed Zealand Road where a couple of hikers were about to set off. A light bulb went off somewhere reminding me that I had wanted to hike Hale via the long-abandoned FireWarden's Trail in winter, and what better day to do it than a windy, cloudy day that promised no views?

So I turned around, drove the couple miles to Little River Road, and parked in the turn-around at the end of that road, getting the second-to-last spot. In a few minutes, I set off ahead of a couple of people getting skis on their feet, but a few minutes behind another, larger group of skiers. The FireWarden's Trail is a very popular trail with backcountry skiers, as it passes through a large expanse of open birch glades, so I was not surprised to see a bunch of skiers would be around on this day.

Leaving the parking lot, I crossed the snowmobile bridge (having to climb over the gate is a rough start to the day mind you...) and immediately took a left onto the winter herd path to the North Twin trailhead. This herd path follows what looks to be an old railroad grade most of the way and pops out right at the bridge over Little River at the trailhead. From there I took the North Twin Trail, until the trail makes its first crossing of Little River. Here I took the herd path bypass, which was the only way that had seen traffic. Soon I crossed the tributary brook on a weakening snow bridge (this bridge is propbably gone by the time of this writing, or will soon be if not) and in short order I was at the turn off for the abandoned Fire Warden's Trail. Here I passed the large group of skiers and headed up the trail.

Along the old rail grades to the North Twin trailhead

Little River from the bridge at the North Twin trailhead

Large ice bulges along the North Twin Trail

Lower crossing of Little River - took the bypass instead

To this point I had been enjoying a great snowshoe on a trail well-packed by the backcountry skies, but now I had only a single set of ski tracks ahead of me, possibly from the day before. But the FireWarden's Trail corridor was obvious, even without the tracks heading ahead of me, and I enjoyed a terrific snowshoe ascent along the gentle grades of this route all the way to near the ridge, where the skier had headed downhill once the glades ended. From here I was breaking out the trail, but it wasn't hard, and aside from a drifted section near the viewpoint on the ridge, the corridor was still easy to follow.

A sole set of ski tracks heading up the abandoned Fire Warden's Trail

The skier headed down through the birch glades here

A seat-like tree high on the Fire Warden's Trail

The summit of Hale is nothing to get excited about. It once held a fire tower (serviced via the route I had just ascended, which was a tractor grade hence the easy ascent), but the tower was removed over 40 years ago, and the trees, once small and allowing what was apparently a terrific summit vista, have grown up and all the summit has to offer is a large clearing with a giant pile of rocks serving as a summit carin. Here the wind was blowing stiffly through the trees, but the solid cloud deck had a few tiny holes in it where I could see blue skies briefly. After waving at a shy gray jay (first one I've ever seen that showed no interest in scavenging food off me!) I ducked back onto the trail and headed down a little out of the wind for snacks (my fingers were also not thrilled with the cold, nor was my camera which started to rebel, hence not a ton of pictures...

Hale's summit carin

A peek through the clouds towards the Presidentials from the abandoned Fire Warden's Trail

The trip back down was more wonderful snowshoeing, with lots of evidence of where the skiers had come up to near the ridge then headed back down through the glades (versus the trail). I saw even more of them coming up as I descended, and in fact I only saw 2 other people that WEREN'T on skies (both were on snowshoes) and one of them had a snowboard on-board for descent. It was a quicker hike, but a very enjoyable one. The birch glades of Hale are wonderful in winter even if you aren't a skier, but boy did those skiers seem to be having a blast heading down through the powder!

Peaks: Hale (4054', NH4K)
Trails: Herd Path, North Twin Trail, abandoned Fire Warden's Trail
Mileage: 9 miles
Elevation Gain: 2550'
Book Time: 5hr 45min

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Grand Finale - Zealand and the Bonds for a Winter Finish!

Pardon the lengthy post that doesn't actually talk a ton about the hike. This is more of a reflective posting on the last year or so while I've gotten into winter hiking. There are some pictures later in this post, I promise!

For quite a number of years to this point, I had pretty much hated winter. Yes, when I was a young kid, I loved playing in the snow, what kid didn't? But the luster of winter quickly wore off as I grew older, with near daily shoveling (where I grew up "enjoys" 100" of snow a year, usually a couple inches at a time for 3 months, with little sun, just gray skies during winter), and then having to drive in it (which can be fun, but also tedious depending on the day), and so on.  So, essentially I dreaded winter, and spring never came fast enough for me. On top of that, my first winter in Massachusetts saw one of the snowiest winters in a long time hit the area.

Now here I was in late 2011, with another winter about to start, and me waiting for it to end and the hiking season to begin again. During the fall when I had gone on the random hiking weekend with my friend, I had signed up on one of the Northeast hiking forums, Hike-NH. Around this time, people started posting trip reports from their winter hikes. And there were GORGEOUS photos of snow-draped landscapes, rock-less trails, and the bluest skies I'd ever seen in my life.

After a month of this, you could say something snapped in my head. It was mid-January and I decided to bite the bullet and dive into this winter hiking thing. For whatever reason, it never entered my head that I might not like winter hiking, despite my overall hatred of winter hiking. Perhaps it was the fact that there had been essentially no snow thus far where I lived. Perhaps it was something else entirely. All I know is that I went right out and bought snowshoes, microspikes, winter clothing, and more, all the stuff I would need for a safe and fun winter hike per suggestions from the experienced winter hikers on the forum.

Where to go first? Well, opinions widely varied there, with most people suggesting something low-key but still fun, something like Mount Crawford in Crawford Notch, and similar suggestions. But I went right for a 4000-footer. Heck, I had essentially not hiked in 4.5 years, it shouldn't pose a problem, right (well, I was out of shape, but it did go smoothly enough)? Ultimately, I settled on Mount Hale due to the weather forecast (light snow), and set out early in the morning (solo! - the first time I'd ever hiked alone) on January 21, 2012 from Route 302 hiking up Zealand Road to the Hale Brook Trail. While Hale doesn't have views anymore on even a clear day, this day was lightly snowing pretty much the entire time, guaranteeing nothing to be seen from the summit. However, that combination with the already snow-draped woods was mesmerizing. I had a terrific time, and the next day hiked to the open summit of Mount Jackson on what I would later come to know as a "Presi Day" - clear skies, mild temps, and light winds. Yes, this was something I wanted to do more of, and yes, I was going to go right after that Winter 4000-footer patch!

As the remainder of the winter unfolded, I spent every week watching forecasts and picking 4000-footer hikes. Early in February I took a Friday off from work and hiked Franconia Ridge on another bluebird day. ALL of Franconia Ridge, as in from Lafayette all the way to Flume and back to Liberty, with the bike path walk back to my car at the end of the day, the longest hike I'd ever done in my life at that point. Later that weekend I hiked with some of the people from the forum I had joined, as we hiked with the rest of their friends to Mount Isolation on what ended up being a view-less and frigid (-10F at the summit with -40F windchills), but nonetheless awesome day. Carrigain fell, the Kinsmans were an awesome President's Day hike, and more came in between. I entered March that year wanting to hike at least once in the Presidentials before the end of this winter. Just once! I got 3 days, all in one long weekend, in early March that year, finishing off that range completely. Then there was the undercast spectacular on Moosilauke a week later.

While the winter of 2011/2012 was certainly extremely mild, particularly in terms of snowfall, it was a great winter for me to get into winter hiking. Trail-breaking was minimal, and I could just focus on the little details of clothing adjustments, gear loadout, and such. I enjoyed every single hike immensely, and by the end of the calendar winter, I sat at 27 of the 48 4000-footers completed in a mere 2 months! To me, it seemed like a slam-dunk to finish in the winter of 2012/2013, as I'd have 3 whole months to do fewer hikes.

The rest of 2012 was spent hiking, and hiking a lot. But in the back of my mind all year was the anticipation for winter. I had found what all other winter hikers already knew: winter hiking is better than any other season. The trails are still steep, you need to carry more gear due to the cold weather, trail-breaking in deep snow is tough, and you can't stop too long or you get cold fast. But, the rocks,roots, and other things that make the trails in the rest of the year so tough are hidden under a nice smooth ramp of snow. There are never any bugs. Descents can be a ton of fun (if you like to slide), and quite a bit faster than in summer even if you stay on your feet (my general preference). And if you get a sunny day, the views are almost guaranteed to be better than anything you would get in the summer with the haze limiting things. And oh yea, snow falling during a hike is a lot more pleasant than rain. Now that I had something to do in winter that I enjoyed, it didn't seem to last nearly long enough. What was going on, was I actually looking FORWARD to winter?!?!

December 2012 came and all I was doing was wanting the snow to fall, and eventually it did. I had to wait until after Christmas to start back in on the winter 4000-footers as it was the holiday season, but I did get back on the trails. 2012/2013 was a much tougher winter than the year before, with nearly every hike requiring snowshoes, often breaking trail at least through a couple inches of fresh snow, and it seemed that every weekend was rotten weather. I had the good fortune to have found a couple of people from the forum that I hiked with fairly regularly during the winter, so I actually did more hikes with at least one other person than I did solo (versus the year before were only 4 were not solo). With the poor weather, I didn't rack off the peaks quite as fast as I had expected, but that was fine by me. I was enjoying myself instead of just trying to "get it done".

Eventually I decided I'd love to finish on a Zealand & Bonds traverse, ending on Bondcliff. I wanted to save such a long hike for late February or March, when days are longer and the weather tends to be better, and so it was logical that these peaks would be near the end anyway, and the Bonds are possibly my favorite peaks of all the 48. February was riddled with storms, both at home and in the mountains, but I stayed on track to finish on the Bonds. Yes, it meant that I got no views from Garfield or Moriah, a couple of my favorite non-alpine peaks, but they were cool hikes in their own ways (especially Moriah for #44, which I hiked solo, amid a snow storm of sorts (light snow accumulating roughly 3" during the hike), where I saw not a single sole the whole hike).

And then it was down to the final 4. The stars all aligned for this hike, with over a week of stable weather in the White Mountains at long last (though at home I got dumped on with 14" of wet snow the day before the hike), many hikers posting trip reports from hiking the Bonds and Zealand in various fashions (so we wouldn't be breaking trail), and then absolutely the greatest forecast I'd seen all winter. Patrick (working on his all-season 4000-footers and needing all of these peaks) and Ian (needing these for winter) came along, while most everyone else spent the day in the Presidentials, and we set off from Zealand Road at 5:45 in the morning, with the sky having just lightened to the point where headlamps were not necessary.

Yes, this was to be a 23.5-mile, 5000-foot elevation gain hike, a top-2 difficulty hike for me all-time based on those numbers. But I was eagerly looking forward to it. The first leg of the hike, a long 3.5-mile road walk to the Zealand Trail trailhead went quickly enough with bare boots working perfectly. Somewhere shortly before the trailhead was reached, I realized the irony of how we were going to be hiking on the first trail I had ever hiked on in my life on way to my final winter 4000-footers (Zealand Trail). The walk through the beaver swamps in the morning sun, with not a cloud in the sky, was magical.

Zealand Mountain from the Zealand Trail

Ice-covered bushes along the Zealand Trail

The climb to Zeacliff after a break at the Zealand Falls Hut and putting on the snowshoes was its usual steady self, with the outlook at Zeacliff being absolutely stunning. A nice break here, enjoying the views, before the trek over to Zealand, with peeks here and there above the trees to the summit ahead. We were amazed at just how much snow there was on the ridge, with a solid 5' covering most of this day's hike above 3000 feet or so in the trees. Those before us had done a terrific job of finding the trail through the tree branches that were now neck-height instead of being well overhead, and we made it to the summit spur to Zealand's view-less summit in good order. Pictures taken of the always-fabulous sign on the summit (now a mere 2 feet above the snow as opposed to the over-my-head that it usually is), we were off to what I was looking forward to the most: the alpine summit of Guyot, and then the Bonds.

Nice view of Carrigain Notch from Zealand Hut's front porch

Pano from Zeacliff Overlook

Whitewall Mountain from Zeacliff


Jefferson and Washington behind Mount Tom from Zeacliff

Bond (L), Guyot (C), Zealand (R)

This sign is normally above my head, now it's 2 feet off the snow!

The trek across the open summits of Guyot was awesome, and one of the highlights of my winter hiking time thus far. We spent copious time gazing across the snowscape, eyeing all the surrounding peaks, and even easily seeing distant ski slopes in Vermont by eye. Then it was off to West Bond for its awesome views, then to Bond, and its 360-degree views. It was all stunning, and we marveled at the lack of wind and how warm it was (so warm in fact that we had some mild snow-balling under our snowshoes, and were sweating on the uphills - perhaps black clothing isn't always the best color in winter!). Furthermore, we had seen not a sole since leaving Zealand Hut, where the caretaker and 2 overnight guests (both heading back to the road) were all we had seen. We could see a few people on the Bond-Bondcliff Ridge while on West Bond, and shortly after reaching Bond a few of them reached the summit.

Pano from Guyot - Franconia Ridge in the center

Turnoff onto the Bondcliff Trail

Trekking across Guyot

Someone had to dig out the sign at the spur to the Guyot Shelter

Bond from West Bond

South Twin

Bondcliff from West Bond

Carrigain behind Bond from West Bond

Pano from West Bond (slightly lower summit of West Bond in front center)

Thor reaches the summit of Bond

Mount Washington from Mount Bond

Thor and Dave Bear reach Mount Bond

Flume and Liberty, Moosilauke between them in the distance

After a nice break on Bond, it was time for the awesome ridgewalk and final climb to the final summit, Bondcliff. Many thoughts were going through my head during this section, but mostly they related to how lucky I felt to be where I was on such a gorgeous winter day. With a final push, the short climb to Bondcliff was complete, there were congrats and handshakes from my hiking companions and a couple we had met on Bond. While I'd contemplated doing/bringing something special for this final peak, I ultimately didn't, as I wanted to enjoy the moment as I'd enjoyed all the others (and I didn't want to carry any more extra weight for 23 miles!). The normal "cliff shots" on the famous cliff by the Bondcliff summit would have to suffice as special. That, and the couple of snowballs we threw off the cliff and watched fall until they were out of sight a couple thousand feet below.

West Bond

Bondcliff from below Bond

West Bond from Bondcliff

Franconia Ridge and Garfield from Bondcliff

Carrigain from Bondcliff

Mount Washington from Bondcliff

The famous cliff by Bondcliff

Woo-hoo, Winter 4000-Footer #48!

Patrick stares out over the Pemi

360-pano from Bondcliff

Had to try the pano feature on my phone (versus the camera shots stitched together above here) - not bad!

Another phone pano from Bondcliff

The hike out to Lincoln Woods was long, and headlamps came on about a mile before the bridge at the Lincoln Woods Trail/Bondcliff Trail junction, with the remainder of the hike out being mostly in silence as we were all tired but also reflecting back on an amazing day.

The bridge over the Pemi River by the parking lot at Lincoln Woods

For me, it has been an amazing 14 months, during which time I re-discovered a love for hiking, found "my" winter sport, and have met many great people along the way. While I may be "done" with the winter 4000-footers, I have no plans to stop now, and foresee many re-summits of these peaks in the years to come. While there will be other awesome hikes in the future, this trek to Zealand and the Bonds will always rate as my favorite, not for it being the end of a journey, but for it starting yet another chapter in my hiking career. Here's to many more winter summits!

Peaks: Zealand (4260', NH4K), Guyot (4580'), West Bond (4540', NH4K), Bond (4698', NH4K), Bondcliff (4265', NH4K)
Trails: Zealand Road, Zealand Trail, Twinway, Zealand Spur, Bondcliff Trail, West Bond Spur, Lincoln Woods Trail
Mileage: 23.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 5000 feet
Book Time: 14hr 15min (actual: 13hr 55min)