Mt. Hale: A Surprisingly Tough Hike to Start Our New Year’s Backpacking Trip
There are a few mountains that are considered the easiest of the NH48 footers. Tecumseh, Jackson, Pierce, Waumbek, Osceola, and Hale to name just a few. Hale was one of the first 4,000 footers that I hiked back in the summer of 2018. Thinking back to then, it feels like such a long time ago. I’ve done so much hiking since then! Some days blur together but I remember Hale distinctly. It was a hot, humid July day and I carted a huge pack up the trail in training for my Pemi loop a few weeks later. Even on that miserably muggy day, I still have fond memories of the viewless summit.
This time up Hale was a bit different. I had been planning this trip for months with two nights at Zealand Falls Hut, five 4,000 footers in all, and a great way to start off the new year. Hale was first, but in retrospect I realize that might have been poor planning. Will and I started out on Zealand Road on New Year's Eve with heavy packs and lots of enthusiasm. There were a few other friends that were supposed to come with us, but when we started a few of them were up in the air. I wasn’t sure if any of them would make it, but Will and I were determined to ring in the new year in the backcountry.
When I mentioned my new year’s plans to family and friends, they wondered why I would choose to spend the night staying at an unheated hut, cooking our own food, with no running water. The AMC huts have held a special place in my heart since I was a young child. I remember when I was six years old hiking with my father and younger sister out to Lonesome Lake one March day. I was fascinated by shelters dug into the snow on top of the lake and we stopped into the hut for some home baked snacks. On the way back out of nowhere, a blizzard raged through Franconia Notch. I remember his voice steady telling us to stay together and that it was going to be fine since we were almost back to the car. I loved every little flake of snow that flew by my face and nipped at my nose but didn't understand the severity of the conditions. Looking back, he must have been riddled with anxiety with the unexpected weather and drop in temperature. That night in fact, a young woman passed away due to hypothermia just across the street on Mt. Lafayette. Despite the potentially dangerous turn of events, I remember the day hike in nothing but the best light, and ever since then I’ve loved the AMC huts.
When my bosses mentioned that they usually spend New Year’s Eve at the AMC huts, I thought it was such a fun idea to start the new year on the right foot! There are three huts open for self service during the winter, Carter Notch, Lonesome Lake, and Zealand Falls. The Bonds happen to be my favorite mountains in New Hampshire, so a stay at Zealand Hut would make it just a tad bit easier access their remote beauty. As we walked along Zealand Road, we realized the weight of our packs was going to be a challenge. On top of all of our food and equipment, we packed our bags inefficiently, leaving them teetering top heavy threatening to throw us off balance with every step.
The 2.5 mile road walk was a great warm up to get our legs moving, and when we got to the Hale Brook trailhead there were big decisions to be made. Should we ascend Mt. Hale likely having to break out the trail from the summit to the hut? Or take the easy way in with hardly any elevation gain on Zealand trail? We had a bit of a late start, but by my calculations we would arrive at our destination well before dark. So even though our packs were weighing us down, we started up to our first summit of the trip.
Hale Brook trail is steep and steady, climbing at an even grade to the summit. After the five new inches of snow the night before, only one hiker had broken the trail in front of us. We had been battling heavy, sticky snow balling up under our snowshoes, and thankfully as we climbed it got a bit more powdery. It was still heavy, but at least we could walk without the feeling like tennis balls under our feet. As we ascended our packs seemed to get more and more heavy on our backs until we got to the most difficult section of the climb. It was then that I realized we could have came out this way at the end of the trip once our food was gone and the trail was broken.
Here we had to traverse across a steep, drifted slope with a very narrow ledge across. With each step the snow gave out beneath our feet and we slid down little by little. There was only enough width for one snowshoe on the tricky pass, so we had to maneuver our legs twisting around with each step. It was slow and very frustrating, especially with our balance being so affected by our packs. It was a tough area to move through, so we were certainly glad once it was over.
From there it was just a few switchbacks and a steep climb to the summit. As we broke through the brush to the flat open summit we were so excited to see the giant cairn! It had taken us longer than expected, but we were certainly glad to be there. It was immediately clear that no other hikers had broken trail down Lend a Hand to the hut, so we quickly realized the hard work was not over just yet.
Descending was much easier as we used our snowshoes to slide down the more gradual slope. Lend a Hand trail was new to me, but luckily the bright blue blazes were easy to follow. Although this was the fastest pace we had kept all day, it was still a bit slow going breaking out the fresh snow. Daylight started to dwindle, and we started to get worried about reaching the hut after nightfall. Our bodies ached and our eyes tired, but we kept on moving, determined to get there before dark.
When we finally reached the hut we were so glad take off our packs and sit down. Luckily we found our way there just before last light so we didn’t need to pull out the headlamps. We were greeted by Cathy the caretaker who asked if we had picked bunks yet, and just as I uttered the word “no,” I felt someone put a hand on my shoulder with a familiar voice saying, “yes they already have bunks!” I turned around and was so relieved to see my friend Adam standing behind me. A friendly face after such a long day was welcomed, and we were so glad that he grabbed us bunks right on the other side of the wall where the wood stove gave off heat.
After signing up for our dinner cooking time slot and setting up our bunks, we sat down for a much-needed cup of hot tea and a quick charcuterie snack to hold us over. I had prepared beef stew the day before, so heating it up only took a few minutes. The stew was just what we needed after the long day. Because of the holiday, Cathy put together a talent show for some entertainment before a special (snow)ball drop at 10:00 (hiker midnight). There were magic tricks and stand up and Will even played a song on the guitar! It was so much fun!
Although the day was long and difficult, staying in the hut with a hot meal lifted our spirits and we were lucky to have great company. We definitely learned some lessons like the importance of packing our bags correctly and thinking about pack weight when planning the itinerary, but we made it to the hut before dark and tagged a 4k on our way. I was fortunate to have Will as my hiking partner because he was such a good sport about everything and never complained along the way. It was a great day but a big start to our three-day trip!
Mt. Hale (4,055 ft) via Hale Brook Tr and Lend a Hand Tr [8.28 mi, 2946 ft, 7:00].
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