Earl, Sue, Brian, Larry, Dave, Ken, Karen, John, Tim, Marty, Jason and Kevin
I have to be completely honest here. This hike became a monster to me. I have been completely intimidated by it for a couple of winters now. Except for this hike, and the Northern Presidentials, I have been within the goal of finishing the winter 48 for a couple of years. Getting my winters done has not come easy for me. Repeated failures at the hands of deep snow, unconsolidated snow, icy snow, equipment failures, bitter cold coupled with episodes of loss in my family life had begun to sap my will to finish. Along with the growing monster was another, more sinister spectre, the knowledge of what failure could bring. These phantoms have intimidated me for several years now. Part of what has fed my growing fear was the thought of not only bringing myself to face these fears, but of putting Judy and Emma in these situations as well. I was not sure that putting two of the things I love most in the world in harm's way was the right thing to do.
While I wrestled with these fears, time didn't wait for me to confront them. An experienced dog became an old dog. A dog that at nine or ten winters probably could have made this hike, was now twelve. How could I ask her to make this journey with me now? Could she still do it? My head said she probably could, but what would be the cost? Would this be pushing her further than she should be pushed? My heart said it probably was, but my head still said, "This one last time." I now was using this as my excuse for not getting this done. In the week leading up to this hike I dragged Judy into my world of angst over making this one last big push in Emma's hiking career. In the end our hearts won out over our heads, and Judy stepped down from a hike she didn't feel comfortable about doing herself. The thought of putting her old dog and most loved friend through this grueling test was just too much. Emma didn't care. She wasn't getting a patch anyway.
So now the mental struggle with myself became simple. I just had to push myself to go and do this. That in itself is often difficult for me. We got a room in Lincoln for the night before and night after the hike. Judy and Emma would be my support team. The big test now would be my usual struggle to sleep in a strange place, then force myself out of bed at an ungodly hour to meet in the cold hours before dawn for a hike that would start in the dark and no doubt end in the dark. I was still doubting my ability to do this, but I was now committed to trying. We drove through Franconia Notch and windblown snow towards our meeting place at Zealand Road. As we drove past Boise Rock I thought of Thomas Boise whose horse had frozen to death in the notch. He skinned the horse and crawled inside the skin to barely survive himself. The spectre of fear tapped me on the shoulder again, "Are you sure you want to head out in the cold and snow to where you'll be ten miles from anywhere?"
We arrived in the parking lot where headlamps pierced the darkness and belied the folks who were gathering their equipment and getting ready to face this madness with me. Emma jumped out to greet them, but soon jumped back into the car. Thank you! That was easier than I expected! I grabbed my gear and tried to shake off the cobwebs of a restless night. Soon we were gathered and ready, and we started off on the three and a half mile road-walk that made this long hike all the more difficult. Thankfully the road is more or less level, gaining little elevation as it leads to the summer trailhead of the Zealand Trail. The walk went quickly and I began to realize I was not alone in this. I walked with Brian for a good part of the road and learned he was having some very difficult problems of his own, having very recently lost his home and possessions to a fire. My problems seemed to fade a bit as the darkness began to give way to the light of a new day. Snow drifted down and coated the trees, and the wind blew it about in swirls and vortexes.
We regrouped at the summer trailhead. Folks put away their headlamps, changed layers and adjusted packs. The feeling of the day was changing as it became light out and the spectres of the night were chased away with the blowing snow. We headed out on the Zealand Trail through woods dusted with a new snow. It seemed like no time at all to reach Zealand Hut. Indeed, we had made the first six and a half miles of our journey in two hours and twenty minutes, which seemed like good time for a group this size and of varying abilities! There was little in the way of views down towards Carrigain Notch with it being obscured by clouds and blowing snow. We refueled, re-layered and put on our snowshoes at the hut. The snowshoes would stay on for the rest of the hike.
We soon set off again, now along the Twinway which early on crosses Whitewall Brook, then begins the steep climb to Zeacliff. The difficulty of the climb was tempered by the beautiful surroundings of birch tree and spruce dusted with the finest of powdered snow Mother Nature could offer. We soon found ourselves at the spur trail for Zeacliff where we regrouped again. There were still no views to be had, but there were some songs to be sung and jokes to be told. It was apparent that each in the group was pulling for the others to make it through the difficulties this hike would offer, and I began to settle into the thought that this was not so bad as I had anticipated. Now that we were on the Zealand Ridge our surroundings changed. The fir trees were wrapped in a thick coating of snow and rime and looked more like they had been molded with porcelain than that they were actual trees. The ridge would rise and fall as we crossed, each time we rose we would pass through the porcelain conifers, and each time we fell we would sink into a thick forest of deciduous trees whose snowy attire made them appear to be made of thick white pipe cleaners.
Before long we found ourselves at the short spur trail that rises to the summit of Zealand Mountain. Here we found some friends, Dave Bear and his beautiful Norwegian Elkhound, Thor, and Mad River. After quick hellos we made it to the wooded, viewless summit and took some quick pictures. I changed out of my soaking wool shirt into a dry poly-pro. In the midst of changing John (Paradox) snapped a pic of my shirtless self giving a beastly roar against the cold. I look like one of those shirtless nuts at a February football game. Indeed, it was part a roar for the Patriots, who didn't fair as well as the hikers on this trip. Dry shirt on we were back on the trail and soon dropping into the col between Zealand and Mount Guyot where we ran into Ryan (Farmer) and his trail running partner who greeted me with a big, "Happy Birthday!" very cool! From there we reached Mount Guyot and things got interesting.
Rising to the open summit of Guyot we felt for the first time the force of the wind blowing in from the west. Blowing snow and fog made it difficult to see exactly where the trail led. We sort of spread out a bit looking for cairns in the stark whiteness. This was the sort of thing I had worried about. I could see no cairns marking my way. Blowing snow stung my face. I pulled on a balaclava as others had pointed out my ears were turning white. I wasn't sure which way to turn in the fog. I suppose if I had thought about it long enough I would have remembered that the trail led south from Guyot, but in the wind and the lack of visible trail markings I was disoriented for the moment. I didn't have time to think, I needed to get out of the wind. It wouldn't have taken long for me to become so cold that I would have just headed to the nearest trees to get out of the wind, no doubt missing the trail. Although I had the proper equipment with me, I didn't take the time to put it on before heading into the wind. I figured we would be across the summit and back into the trees before I really needed it. That was a big mistake. It emphasized how one bad decision can cause a snowball effect. Fortunately for me there were others along who still had their wits about them and helped me out of a situation which could have gone bad really quickly. For the first time ever I was glad Judy and Emma were not with me. Where most of us thought we had to descend a bit to find the trail, John had things under control with his GPS and led us south to where we dropped down into the trees and onto the trail, out of the wind. For the first time ever I was glad there was a GPS track to follow!
Things eased up a bit after that. We began to see patches of blue sky above us, and even dared to hope that the snow would stop now and things would clear. As we reached the spur trail to West Bond we came across other hikers. Trish and Alex had joined us on Guyot and stayed with us to West Bond. As our group rose up the trail to West Bond I saw another familiar face in John Gutowski, coming down from the summit. Things were clearing as we broke out of the trees and onto the summit. We stood in awe as the clouds lifted and revealed the stark white mountainsides of Mount Bond and the icy spine of Bondcliff. Here is where my shortcomings as a photographer and as a hiker came into full focus for me. As is often the case, the difficulty of the hike pushes from my mind the concentration and focus of attention it takes to make decent photographs. In the near white out experience on Mount Guyot, and in the excitement of the clearing skies and actually reaching the summit of West Bond, I forgot to adjust the settings of my camera for the changing conditions. I came away with no decent photographs of either Mount Guyot, or our time on West Bond. I did not adjust for things until I was on my way up Mount Bond, and even then the push of the hike outweighed my attention to camera settings. I missed a number of good shots, including, much to my dismay, a picture of friend Tim on Bondcliff. I think I need to remember that when the going gets tough, to switch to automatic settings on the camera and let it do the work. Hopefully, lesson learned, but a tough lesson I should have learned long ago!
As i approached the group again on Mount Bond I was beginning to appreciate the fact that I had reached the third 4k of the day (4th, really, Guyot should count!) I looked across at Bondcliff and began to think, "Wow, I am really doing this!" but memories of having made the hike before reminded me that it was no easy task to get across the mile plus from Mount Bond to the summit of Bondcliff, and that the difficulty would be exacerbated by snow and icy wind. About then the spectre tapped me on the shoulder again to remind me that it was still a ten mile slog back to civilization from the summit of Bondcliff. I knew I couldn't think about that now, I just had to keep plodding along, and that's what I did. Before I knew it I was joining the group again on the summit of Bondcliff. Folks were celebrating and having their pictures taken standing on the classic Bondcliff precipice. Again I didn't check my settings for a picture of Tim and the brilliant clouds and snow blew out all the highlights, sorry Tim! I am especially sorry because he took the time to be sure he got some good shots of me on the precipice, and did a much better job with my camera than I did. Probably my only regret of the day was not doing the same for him. For me, the highlight of the day was about to unfold as I stood conducting a choir of eleven other hikers who sang Happy Birthday to me as I stood on Bondcliff, the 44th summit of my winter quest. I can't think of a better birthday present, ever!
Eventually we dropped back down into the woods from the beautiful summit of Bondcliff. The afternoon sun was getting low and cast a beautiful light on the snow laden trees which formed the corridor we were now descending through. As the trail wound its way along and down into the shadows we could see the white slopes of the Bonds above us. As we marched on and finally reached the junction of the Wilderness Trail my mind breathed a hesitant relief. I knew we had another five and a half miles to hike, but it was relatively flat and shouldn't be too hard. As we regrouped again Earl joined us and stated, somewhat astonished, "It should be dark! We shouldn't be here yet! What time is it?" It was almost 5pm, the sun was getting ready to set. We had made great time! We began the long trudge along the Wilderness Trail back towards Lincoln Woods. The setting sun lit up the clouds in the west. It was almost dark when we reached the suspension bridge at Franconia Brook. My mind breathed another sigh of relief. We set off again and soon became aware the moon was casting our shadows along the trail beside us. I for one did not pull a headlamp on, preferring to hike out by the light of the moon.
We trudged on knowing the end was in sight. I thought about what we had seen and accomplished this day. The moonlight soothed my fears of the trials that were now behind me. The spectres which had been so monstrous the night before had now dissipated like the clouds from the mountains. The warrior within me had taken the fear and made it into strength. I had conquered the beast, but I knew inside that the mountain gods had smiled on me had let me and allowed me to accomplish this quest. I was thankful in my heart as well as my mind. As we reached the suspension bridge at Lincoln Woods I could no longer contain the beast inside and let some wild howls escape. There, waiting in the parking lot for me was my wife and my my little dog. My day was complete! Big thanks to Earl and Sue for organizing and leading this trip and for letting me play a small part in it as well!, and big congratulations to them for finishing the Bonds grid on this trip! Also, big congrats to Marty for finishing his winter 67 on Bondcliff! Thanks everyone for encouragement and camaraderie along the way, and for making it my best birthday ever!