- Elevation: 4,055 Feet
- Location: Bethlehem, NH
- Date Hiked: 10/23/2016
- Companions: Stud, Zannah, Seven
- Trails: Up Hale Brook Trail, Down Lend-A-Hand trail and Zealand Trail
From sunny glistening peaking foliage and crispy fall breezes to gale force freezing winds and snow. Welcome to the White Mountains.
Some time ago Stud and I had blocked off a couple days to try and hit a few more peaks on our NH48 list before fall turned to winter. We recruited our pals Zannah and Seven to join us on an epic 22 mile round trip traverse over the Willey Range to try and summit Mount Willey, Mount Field, Mount Tom and maybe Zealand Mountain as well. We reserved 4 bunks at Zealand Falls Hut which is maintained and operated by the AMC (Appalachian Mountain Club). Some of the AMC huts stay open during late fall, winter and early spring with self service rates. During self-service season you bring a sleeping bag but they still give you a pillow and a bunk with a mattress. Instead of the Croo (Croo=AMC staff of young energetic outdoorsy campers) cooking dinner and breakfast for the guests, you get to use the kitchen and cook for yourself. But they still keep the water flowing if not thru the pumps and pipes they keep it gathered and keep it potable. Guests can use all the pots and pans and cutlery in the kitchen. And there are pit toilets. It’s a pretty sweet deal and it’s about $100 cheaper then the full service rates. It’s a good way to try an overnight hike without having to carry a tent, sleep mat, stove, fuel, pot, bowls, mugs, sporks, etc…
The weather forecast called for snow, gale force winds, and freezing temps. Like I said, I’m not trying to die on a mountain. We decided to avoid any exposed alpine zones and cliffs given the forecast. Instead we chose a much shorter route to the hut on a more protected trail that would still bring us over one of the NH48; Mount Hale. All the while, never leaving the trees.
The drive up was ominous and the foliage changed the more north we got. Once the White Mountains were in view we could see them living up to their name as everything above 1500ish feet was dusted in snow and stormy clouds swirled over the higher summits. Driving into Franconia Notch always flips my stomach and even more so in winter.
The dirt road we would be taking to our trail head closes in winter but not until November. It was all snowy on the road and there were lots of downed branches. We heard later that a tree had fallen and was blocking the road and some hikers were waiting for Fish and Game to clear the road so they could drive home.
It was fully snowing and very cold as we started walking up the path. We warmed up quickly and started shedding layers before we got too sweaty. It was too cold to take breaks so other then stopping to pee or to quickly eat something or chug water we had to keep moving to avoid cooling down to that dangerous speech slurring hypothermia.
The snow wasn’t deep but it left the trail slick and it was slow going as we deciphered what we were stepping on. We felt the wind pick up as we popped out on the summit which was a big cairn of rocks in the trees and we took a quick pic and ran back into the trees following the Lend-A-Hand Trail towards the hut. There were lots of little water crossings and we miraculously kept our feet dry. We reached the hut around 1pm and all was quiet. We discovered it was no warmer than the outside air. In fact I think it was colder inside the hut then it was standing on the icy front porch outside. The sun shed some rays on some mountains in the distance and it was beautiful. We sat drinking hot chocolate and soon the caretaker popped in and made a fire in the tiny wood stove. Other weary hikers came in covered in snow describing tales of literally crawling on all fours in fierce winds over exposed alpine ridgelines and losing their rain covers. Some hikers talked about continuing onto other exposed alpine ridges.
The caretaker (AMC Croo Member) shared the weather report of dropping temps and gale force winds. 130 mph winds and negative whatever wind-chills were being reported on Mount Washington. We looked at each other wide eyed and relieved we made the decision not to traverse the Willey Range in these conditions while the caretaker strongly discouraged another party of hikers from continuing on up over the higher peaks as they planned. He told tales of other hikers stumbling into the hut the night before at 2am all hypothermic and sleeping on the floor next to the wood stove. Fortunately the group that wanted to keep hiking heeded the caretakers caution and settled in. We all warmed our boots by the wood stove and cooked our dinner and played games and laughed and talked to other hikers. It was cozy.
I was concerned I’d be cold in my light summer sleeping bag but with my liner and all of my layers on I was toasty even though I could practically blow “smoke” rings with my breath. I found a copy of “Not Without Peril” in the huts’ library and I read aloud to my companions in our little 4 person bunk nook. We had our lights off and were drifting by off by about 9PM. I listened to the howling wind outside and hoped no hikers were stuck or lost out there.
In the morning we made our coffee and oatmeal and followed the Zealand Trail under a sunny sky. The moss and smell of pine revealed itself as we descended thru the valley and we walked by beaver ponds and across streams. The clouds moved quickly over the higher summits and we happily strolled thru the temperate valley.
Once back at the car we drove in and out of Crawford Notch and through Franconia Notch and left the stormy White Mountains in the rear view mirrors while the brilliant peaking foliage came into focus blowing our minds under the bluest skies with the puffiest Simpsons-like clouds.
It was rather invigorating to face some more intense elements in the White Mountains. Zannah talked about the quality of aliveness that comes with harsher weather. Stud shared excitement about our forced change of route and how we still managed to bag a NH48. Instead of views and relaxing summits, we got muffled snow caked pines and frozen air delightfully snapping us into the present moment again and again. Seven posed a question about hiking away from something vs towards something and then later concluded that it might be possible to be doing both at the same time! I recently had the opportunity to notice that I am often living my life almost a week ahead of myself at a time. When I finished the Long Trail I set an intention to scale back my involvements in ways that that would allow more simplicity and spontaneity and less rushing around from thing to thing. Last Monday after hiking the Kinsmans with Stud I learned my dad had a heart attack. A few days later he had a double bipass heart surgery. All week I was forced back into the present moment with no other choice but to live in each day as every plan I attempted to make or unmake was not in my control. Things happened really fast and really slow at the same time. Yesterday my dad went home after a long week in the hospital and days in ICU. I just got home myself after staying with him and helping him get settled in after returning from my hike that he insisted I not cancel. He’s doing so great and I am so grateful for the reminder to slow down as every plan I made last week ended up not being what I expected.
Hiking continues to be this great metaphor for life in that I can set my intentions and make my plans but I can’t get too attached or I might miss out on what’s right in front of me or I might really suffer when things have to go differently. Hiking simply supports my desire to be more conscious and suffer less. Grateful for the babbling brooks that are like miracle grow for my amygdala and grateful for my companions who willingly walk into snowy cold mountains with big smiles, open minds, and great senses of humor.