Zealand Mtn: Returning to My First 4K in a Snowy Winter Wonderland
Day two of our backpacking trip to Zealand hut was supposed to be our big hiking day, but unfortunately mother nature had different ideas. The forecast called for high winds and 1-3 inches of snow. The goal was Zealand, West Bond, Bond, and Bondcliff, a 13.1 mile day with potentially gorgeous views of the Pemigewasset wilderness. The weather kind of threw all of my plans out the window as it does so often in these mountains.
Getting out of our warm sleeping bags was difficult but after a hearty breakfast of hard boiled eggs and stovetop toasted bagels we packed up to hit the trail. Our packs were so much lighter than the day before with just snacks, water, and emergency gear. We didn’t hit the trail until about 7:15, so I was worried we wouldn’t have enough time for our big plans. Little did we know that our hike would be shortened considerably at our first summit.
The Twinway had been broken the day before, but with about five inches of fresh snow, the trail was once again untouched. Will, Adam, and I took turns leading up the steep slope to Zeacliff. This is one of my favorite views in the Whites, and we were surprised how far we could see considering the incoming weather. Whitewall mountain stood before us, its slide taunting us as we looked across Zealand Notch. Just behind it stood Willey, Field, and Tom with their summits just barely peeking out in front of the clouds. To our right we saw Mt. Carrigain and the Hancocks. We stayed here for a while looking out at the orange and yellow horizon almost as if it were a sunrise in front of us. Dark gray clouds were moving in to our right, engulfing Zealand, Guyot, and the Bonds.
It was at Zeacliff that we started to reset our expectations for the day. I doubted we would make it all the way to Bondcliff with the amount of daylight we had, never mind with the weather moving in. As we climbed toward the Zealand summit it got more and more windy with the skies opening up and snow starting to shower down upon us. It was only a light flurry, but it was enough to start to cover the tracks we were leaving behind. As we neared the Zealand summit spur gusts of wind hit us through the trees threatening to knock us over into the untouched snow around us. When we finally made it to the summit we were so excited to see my favorite sign in the clearing. Zealand was my first 4,000 footer, but although I had stood in this same place a year and a half ago, I felt like a completely different hiker.
My first 4k experience was difficult and I was unprepared as so many hikers are their first time. I had only six of the ten essentials in my north face school backpack, with an unconditioned Lucy carrying her gear in hers. It was a hot day and a long hike, much longer than we were capable of at that time. Lucy was miserable for the last two miles, and I learned the important lesson that even though I could gut it out Lucy couldn’t. The tired, desperate look in her eyes on the flat hike out Zealand trail still haunts me to this day and reminds me that I have to be careful not to push beyond her capabilities. Since then we’ve made lots of strides and learned to communicate better so that I know when she’s done.
After a quick summit snack, the three of us conversed about whether to push on or turn back to the hut. I wanted to continue to Guyot, just above treeline, to see what the conditions were like, but as soon as we packed up and started hiking again I knew that even that was going to be a stretch. Before we had even gotten back on the Twinway from the Zealand spur, I turned to Adam and expressed my growing concern about whiteout conditions above treeline. We agreed to turn back now and end the day on a good note instead of trying to fight our way through the growing storm.
There are moments on the trail where I feel like a real hiker and this was one of them. Although we were within just a few miles of one of my favorite places in the world, I decided it would be best to turn my back on it and retreat back to safety. These dilemmas are always difficult, but instead of pushing on I told myself that I had been there before and I would be able to go there again. The mountains weren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
As we descended our spirits lifted with each step. It had been a tough ascent even though the mileage didn’t reflect it. I broke out most of the Twinway and I hadn’t realized what a physical toll it had taken until I was able to relax and go downhill again. We were all tripping over ourselves in the fluffy new snow, but it was fun flopping down after every misstep into the forgiving blanket of white. The small ladder between Zeacliff and the Zealand summit had been easy to ascend, but one clumsy move going down sent me into a glissade down the trail that left me giggling to myself laying in a heap a few feet below.
We took our time, moseying and chatting down the trail. It was so nice to relax, not having to worry if we would make it back before dark. One of my favorite parts of the day was our short detour to Zeacliff pond just a tenth of a mile off trail. The snow on the pond was beautifully untouched, with not a track in sight. We stood here for a while in silence, taking in the beauty of our surroundings before continuing back to Zeacliff to see how the views had changed in the few hours we had spent hiking. We could now barely see Whitewall Mtn, and Willey, Field, Tom, Carrigain, and the Hancocks were all out of sight. It was crazy to see how the storm had engulfed all of the surrounding mountains in such a short time, leaving nothing but a misty gray view in front of us.
When we got back to the hut, we realized that we had been the only ones ascending towards the Bonds that day. Nobody else had even attempted it, so even though we didn’t get all the way there I was still proud that we made it as far as we did. It was nice to get back to the hut early and relax and we had a great night with even more beef stew.
On Wednesday we got a bit of a late start, but after packing up our things and eating a quick breakfast we were on our way back to civilization. It was a gorgeous day and I was up early to see the sunrise from the porch of the hut. There were a few people heading up to the Bonds, but although I was jealous, I was looking forward to a hot shower and sleeping in my own bed.
Zealand trail was all of the nostalgic glory I remembered from my childhood. The boardwalk through the ponds was gorgeous and the fresh powder glistened on the trees weighing them down. I remember coming to Zealand Falls when I was little and eating our picnic lunches perched on the rocks behind the hut. I didn't realize it until this trip, but my dad took me hiking much more than I had remembered. Now I often do small hikes with Lucy and recognize them once I get to the destination because I did them in my childhood.
As we walked the final 3.5 miles out Zealand Road I took a few minutes to reflect on the trip. This was my first time winter backpacking, and I happy to say it was a great success! I'm glad we eased into it at the hut instead of a tent, and with the cost of staying there being so cheap in the winter I would love to do it again. My favorite part was getting to meet lots of new hiking friends hanging out at the hut! It was a great three day celebration of the new year and I'm so glad that I had some great company every step of the way. Adam and Will made the trip so much fun and I can't wait to do this with them again in the future!
Zealand Mtn (4,265 ft) via. the Twinway [6.54 mi, 2290 ft, 6:10].
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