I completed a Winter Bonds Traverse two weeks ago,one of the toughest and most remote winter hikes in the White Mountains. I was accompanied by four other very strong hikers: Ron, Craig, Larry, and Garret, who hike together regularly and were nice enough to let me join them.
A Winter Bonds Traverse includes a minimum of three peaks on the AMC 4000 footer list: West Bond, Mount Bond, and Bondcliff. Hikers who do the traverse from the north to the south often climb Mt Zealand, another 4,000 footers on the AMC list, and Mt Guyot, which is on the Trailwright’s 72 list. This is the route we took, bagging all five peaks starting from the north at Rt 302 at the base of Zealand Road (closed in winter) and ending at the Lincoln Woods trailhead off the Kancamagus Highway.
This wasn’t the first time I’ve attempted to complete a Bonds Traverse this winter: a week earlier, I’d had to abort an attempt 6 miles into the hike due to deep snow, and two others before that because freezing rain had made hiking and driving too dangerous. But a weather window finally opened up ten days later for two days, which was just long enough to try again.
On this last successful traverse, three members of our party (Ron, Craig, and myself) hiked into the Zealand Falls Hut the night before, which is 6 miles into the 23 mile traverse, so we could get a fresh start the next morning. Stopping at the hut part way is a nice luxury, although it’s not heated and you need to bring your own food. Still it means you can get hot water before your hike (you can use the hut stove to cook) and get a decent night’s sleep before the hard part.
The Zealand Falls Hut is nestled below a 3000 foot mountain called Zeacliff, which has excellent views of Mt Washington and the Presidential Range from its western facing cliffs. There’s also a famous view from the hut porch of Carrigan Notch which was particularly clear that afternoon. The peaks on both sides of Carrigan Notch: Vose Spur, Mt Anderson, and Mt Lowell were easy to identify in the distance.
When we arrived the caretaker wasn’t around, so Ron and I bundled up inside and hung out while Craig climbed Zeacliff (1100 feet of elevation gain) to watch the sunset and check out the first stream crossing. We’d have to climb this ascent first thing in the morning and had no interest in doing it twice, but we promised Craig we’d come looking for him if he didn’t return to the hut by 7 pm.
Cameron, the hut caretaker returned by 5 pm, coming back from town with fresh vegetables and food, a round trip hike and ski of 12 miles. This was her fifth day at the hut (winter caretakers work a one week on, one week off rotation), and her first season as a winter caretaker after spending five years as a summer croo member in the full service huts.
She stoked up the wood stove and we sat around it talking as the hut warmed up, probably to the low fifties is my guess. The hut has four rooms…a center common room with an attached kitchen, two side bunk rooms that can hold 18 guests each, and the croo quarters upstairs, above the common area. The stove only heats the central rooms, not the bunk rooms,which got down to twenty degrees that night.
It being mid-week, we had the 36 person hut all to ourselves, which meant I wouldn’t be disturbed by other snoring hikers (or disturb them). I grabbed a back bunk in the rear nook of the bunk room farthest from the bathroom (which is in a separate unheated building) while Craig and Ron occupied the other bunk room.
Although it was still light out, Ron and I munched on a small wheel of Gouda and Triscuits I’d brought along to share, before we started preparing our dinners. I’d brought dried tortellini and shredded parmesan which I cooked on the hut’s 12 burner stove. That’s when I discovered that pantry moths float to the top of a boiling pot of water. There were only two of them and I scooped them out. This batch of pasta had been sitting around my house for a while, the remains of a bag of dried tortellini from a previous backpacking trip in October. Still tasted mighty good though.
Craig wandered back to the hut by 7pm and reported that snow conditions above the hut were favorable for our hike the following day with only about 6 inches of dry powdery snow. This was welcome news since we’d made the decision not to carry snowshoes to save weight. The snow depth would prove to be borderline the next day..not quite deep enough for snowshoes, but very close.
After dinner, I headed out to the front porch to check out the moon which was nearly full that evening. Miraculously, I could still see the mountains in Carrigan Notch in the moonlight, the view nearly as clear as it had been earlier in the day. I called the caretaker and my friends outside and they shared this spectacle with me.
We hung around chatting more with Cameron until she stopped feeding the fire around 8 pm. I grabbed a book by Peter Marchland on The Ecology of the Northern Woods from the hut library and snuggled into my sleeping bag. I’d brought along a 20 degree down bag to cut my pack weight, knowing I could augment its warmth with my down parka and insulated pants if needed.
I set my phone alarm for 5:30 the next morning, tucking it into my shirt pocket before going to sleep to keep the battery warm and prevent it from draining. I also carefully positioned a bottle of hot water in a neoprene cozy and a bar of chocolate on the ladder next to my bunk so I could eat and drink during the night. I rarely sleep the entire night through and like to eat something when I wake up because it helps me sleep warmer, especially between three am and when I wake up in the morning. I was asleep by 9 pm.
I woke before my alarm and slipped on my mountaineering boots before making my way to the bathroom to pee. I’d slept warm overnight and there was external condensation on the outside of my sleeping bag. When I got outside, the hut was unexpectedly shrouded in heavy mist. My first thought was that we’d have no views during the hike which is unfortunate because the views from the Bonds are amazingly scenic. It was surprisingly warm outside and a fine rain was falling, which had covered the front porch with a thin layer of ice. The forecast had clearly deteriorated.
I set about my carefully choreographed morning routine before a winter hike which always starts with boiling drinking water which I carry in insulated bottles. Once the water had been started on the stove, I got dressed and packed up most of my gear, moving it all to the common room. Ron appeared soon after, followed by Craig, and we started our breakfast.
I drank a quart of water to prehydrate before the hike and ate a bowl of muesli mixed with low-fat dehydrated milk that I’d bagged at home in a ziploc. Ron has a different ritual, which always starts with fresh dripped coffee. Craig is also a coffee drinker but he carried his to the hut premade in plastic bottles and reheated it on the stove. While I enjoy two or three K cups of coffee at home, I almost never drink it when I am backpacking and don’t miss it in the morning.
After eating, I sat down to put my mountaineering boots on. These were not the optimal boots for this hike and I knew it. The weather was going to be way too warm for them, but I’d blown a seam on my soft winter boots, Garmont Snow GTXs, and I hadn’t broken in a replacement pair yet.
On the flip side, there was a danger that we’d encounter high stream crossings on this hike and there is no other boot I’d rather be wearing than my plastic Scarpas in those conditions. While they don’t let much moisture out, they also don’t let it in either!
We also had three miles of above treeline exposure ahead of us and I always prefer wearing real mountaineering boots in those conditions, not just because they’re extra insurance against frostbite, but because I can wear a step-in crampon with them that locks onto my boots. I’ve had mixed luck with strap on crampons on hikes, where they’ve come off at the most opportune times. While I will still wear strap ons on lower risk hikes, I expected to encounter thick ice on this hike and wanted to wear my most secure and reliable crampons for it.
It probably took Craig and I 45 minutes to get our boots on to our satisfaction. Craig spent a lot of time taping his feet with duct tape to mitigate some friction he’d experienced with his boots the previous day. I’d taped my feet up with leukotape at home the day before, putting pieces on my heels and on the top of two toes where I’ve been having some friction problems lately. My problem that morning was with the lacing on my right boot, which was too tight. I had to tie it about 6 times before it was loose enough not to cause shin bang, a very painful condition where the tongue bangs against the front of the calf.
We finally got all sorted by 7:00 when we heard noises on the porch and Larry and Garret arrived at the hut. They’d started at 4:30 am but still made good time in. Unlike us, they’d carried in snow shoes as insurance in case we needed to break trail later I the hike.
I introduced myself to Larry and Garret, who I’d never met before, and we were soon on our way up Zeacliff, headed towards the Bonds.
The climb up Zeacliff is very steep, which is why Ron and I didn’t climb it the previous evening. I was huffing and puffing on the way up, falling a bit behind the group. We stopped and quickly stripped off all of our layers, but I was sweating very heavily, sweat pouring off my forehead and fogging up my glasses so I couldn’t see very well. I was also a bit self-conscious with these guys, especially Larry and Garret who I’d just met and are both very experienced White mountain hikers well on their way to finishing The Grid, a White Mountain peakbagging list that requires 576 mountain ascents.
Larry was very nice about it though and fell behind me, running sweep, and encouraging me up the slope. I soon caught up with the rest of the group at the top of the cliff and regained some of my composure.
The trail wasn’t broken out, which wasn’t that surprising because no one had been up this way with all the bad weather we’d had the previous few weeks. But the walking was still pretty easy, with about 6 inches of un-consolidated powder.
While there was still some elevation left to get up to Mount Zealand, it was far more gradual than the climb up Z eacliff and we made good time, using microspikes or Hillsound Pros for traction. We turned off onto the Z ealand Spur trail and took a short break below the summit sign, before heading out toward Mount Guyot.
It’s been a while since I hiked this stretch of trail and I was surprised that I couldn’t remember it all. Leaving Z eland, the trail descends steeply into the col between Z eland and Guyot before climbing again on a path that was bordered by snow loaded spruce.
We paused for a moment before breaking out of cover at treeline to layer up and put on our shells, deciding that face masks and goggles were not needed. Larry took the lead going off trail over Guyot, the surface scoured free of snow over the bald summit. We paused briefly at the summit cairn so Craig could take a photo of me, finishing my Trailwrights 72 peak list. Unfortunately Guyot was completely socked in with fog and so were the Bonds, with visibility down to about 25 yards.
From there, we dipped into a patch of krummholz and thigh deep drifts before dropping below treeline again and passing the spur trail to the Guyot campsite. Still protected by trees, we came to the spur trail to West Bond, the first of the three Bonds that we hoped to climb that day.
We dropped our packs at the head of the trail which is a half mile long and protected by trees, coming to the final scramble up to the summit over heavy ice. We were all still wearing microspikes for this section, which proved marginally sufficient for the short climb. There were no views off West Bond and I rapidly left the summit to get out of the wind and into the protection of the trees.
When we got back to our packs, all of us switched to full crampons with the exception of Larry who kept his microspikes on. While we all fumbled with our bindings, Larry headed up to the next Bond summit, Mount Bond, which has 360 degree views of the surrounding mountains. I followed him leaving behind the others.
I caught up to Larry on the Mount Bond summit, which was quite close, just as he was starting down the trail towards Bondcliff, the next peak on the ridge. There were no views, so we kept walking right past the summit cairn.
As we descended, Larry and I started chatting and I got to know him better. Like me he’s got the bushwhacking bug and has done all kinds of off-trail hikes throughout the White Mountains. He’s finished hiking the 48 from all the directions of the compass (North, South, East, and West) and is well into The Grid, logging 16 hikes per month. He’s retired so he gets out three times a week!
Before long, we came to the bottom of Bondcliff which is a long knife-edge ridge shaped like a sailfish fin. Visibility was poor and there were no views, just white cloud to be seen from the western facing cliff that runs the length of the ridge. We stayed well away from the edge and picked our way through the rocky boulders and rubble on top of the cliffs, finally dropping down below treeline again at the Hillary Step. This is a 10 foot ledge that you need to climb down (or up if ascending) that’s a little tricky when it’s covered by ice. Ron had even brought some rope along in case we needed it to descend safely.
Larry found a way around the ledge, edging along its side in the krummholz and then jumping the last few feet. Larry’s a very tall guy, and handled the height easily. I turned around and down-climbed the step using the front spikes on my crampons for purchase and jamming the pick of my ice axe between two rocks to create a handhold. That’s the only thing I needed it for on the entire hike.
After that point, the Bondcliff Trail becomes decidedly easier, following old lumber roads all the way down to the Pemigewasset River. We flew down the trail, 8 miles of it, passing over several streams that Larry and Garret had been concerned might be running too high. The stream crossings were easy and running normally, although there was plenty of evidence that the area had been flooded recently.
When we were about two miles from the Lincoln Woods Trail head, Larry asked me whether I had a key to one of the shuttle cars we’d left at the Lincoln Woods lot. I didn’t and neither did he, which meant we needed to slow down our pace in order to stay warm: we’d only gotten about 15 minutes ahead of the rest of our group. They did catch up with us eventually where we changed clothes, and then shuttled back to the cars we’d left off Rt 302, some 30 miles away.
I had to wait a long time to hike this route, but I still wished we’d had better views from West Bond, Mount Bond, and Bondcliff. I’m sure I’ll be back through here again, perhaps in March when the weather starts to change. Still, I bagged peaks #41, #42, and #43 on my Winter 4000 footer list with this hike. Just a few more to go (5) and I can start another challenge.