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AT Section Hike: Walking on the Treetops

Zealand Mountain Summit Sign in Snow
Zealand Mountain Summit Sign in Snow

Winter Section Hike

I just got back from an incredible 2-day backpacking trip in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. We had fantastic weather and took full advantage of it by extending our hike, doubling our planned mileage, and bagging a few more major peaks.

Originally, our trip plan included hiking Mt Hale (4,054) on day 1 and Zealand Mountain (4,260) on day 2. We approached Mt. Hale by hiking up the Little River Rd, parking our cars at The Seven Dwarf’s Motel just outside Twin Mountain, New Hampshire off Rt. 3 in the White Mountain National Forest. Watch out for the speed trap at the interchange between Rt. 3 and Rt. 302. The state police there are known to estimate your speed before writing you a ticket rather than empirically determining it with a radar gun.

At the end of Little River Rd, we came to North Twin Trail trail head. From there we continued on for about a mile to the Fire Warden’s, an unmarked trail that is a short cut to Hale. It ascends steeply for about 2 miles, climbing 2,500 ft, to the exposed summit. Snow conditions were pretty good, so we were able to hike in just plastic boots.

Mt Washington, White Mountains
Mt Washington, White Mountains

The End of Winter

The views of the Presidentials from Hale were great. Mt. Washington (6,208) is shown above with Mt. Jefferson (5,712) to the left. This was the last weekend before the end of winter and the last time most of us would experience winter conditions this year.

I was accompanied on this trip by a group of climbers with a lot more experience than me. Three had climbed Mt. Ranier together, one was training for Denali, another has climbed around the world, and the rest were very experienced White Mountain hands. I was a newbie by comparison, as this was my second winter backpacking trip ever.

After a quick snack on the summit of Mt. Hale, we continued down the Lend-a-hand Trail 2.7 miles to the junction with the Twinway near to Zealand Hit. It was only 2:30 pm, so we continued just under 3 miles, past Zeacliff overlooking the impressive Zealand Notch. From our viewpoint, it was pretty clear that one false step and it was bye-bye.

Hiking the Twinway

From Zeacliff, we continued another 1.5 miles on the Twinway, which coincides with the Appalachian Trail. We stopped just shy of Zealand Mountain, dropped our packs at a nice wild campsite, and continued on, summiting Zealand before the end of the day.

Returning to camp, we set up our tents and dug a common kitchen area. I spent the next hour or so melting snow and boiling water for dinner with my MSR Simmerlite white gas stove. While I was melting snow, the sun went down and the stars came out. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many stars in my life. They filled the entire sky and I was content to gape as I wolfed down my freezer bag mac’n’cheese.

The next morning we broken camp by 8:45 am and we were off. Our plan was to summit Mt Guyot (4,580), South Twin Mountain (4,902) and North Twin (4,761) before hiking out another 5.5 miles to our cars.

Mt Guyot in Winter
Mt Guyot in Winter

The hike to Guyot from our campsite was a ridge walk pretty close to treeline. Guyot is a very exposed bald summit (above). To get to it, we needed to hike over a frozen wasteland of scrub bushes and snow with a slick frozen crust. Once we passed through this zone, the summit cone was an easy climb.

Bushwhacking and Postholing

From there, we turned northwest and resumed hiking on the Twinway to South Twin Mountain, known for its spectacular views. However, this stretch got difficult quickly. We started to posthole and quickly switched to snowshoes. In order to get from Guyot to South Twin, you need to hike 2 miles through a dense forest. Normally this is easy, but today the snow was 8-10 feet deep, so we were forced to bushwhack between the tops of trees where they arch over the trail. Our packs kept getting tangled in the pine branches which whipped back on us, and scratched or stabbed us, drawing blood. Our pace slowed to a crawl as we literally fought our way through this section.

When we finally emerged two hours later, it was time for a break. So we climbed to within 200 feet of the summit of South Twin and had a fine lunch, reveling in the warm sun, and soaking in the outstanding views including Mt. Liberty (4,459) and Mt Lafayette (5,260), above. These are both on the New Hampshire AT and I plan to summit them in a few months after mud season.

Our next stop was the summit of South Twin where we paused for a few personal and group photos.

Section Hiker on South Twin Mountain
Section Hiker on South Twin Mountain

From there, we continued 1.3 miles along the North Twin Spur Trail to the summit of North Twin and started our descent back to the Little River. This descent is very steep and drops about 1800 ft. in the first mile. After that, the trail mellows considerably but the snowshoe out requires numerous stream crossings, over ice shelves in many cases, and should be treated cautiously.

Gear-wise, I was able to field test my entire winter hiking kit, and it performed admirably in most cases. However, hiking with 40 lbs or gear, water, fuel and food was exhausting and I’m looking forward to carrying a 15 lb pack again this summer.

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2 comments

  1. Being from R.I. and a UNH alum, I often miss my old stomping grounds, so I look forward to your trip reports and photos from the Whites and other places in New England. I need to plan a trip back there soon.

    We have awesome mountains out here in Arizona and other places in the southwest, but there's just something about their older, northeastern relatives that's so special and unique.

  2. Looks like an incredible trip! Kudos to you for increasing the mileage when the weather was better than expected. Looks like you were rewarded with many great sights.

    The Ozark mountains here in Missouri are actually much older than the mountains in the northeast. But in terms of height they are just babies. The views you are showing here are great. It makes me want to come try the White's sometime.

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