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Hiking a Z-Bonds Traverse in December

Hiking a ZBonds Traverse in December

A Z-Bonds Traverse is one of the more difficult hikes you can do in winter in the White Mountains. It’s even longer than a Presidential Traverse and much more remote. It requires hiking across the breadth of the Pemigewasset Wilderness for 23.3 miles from Rt 302 near Twin Mountain, NH to the Lincoln Woods Trailhead outside of Lincoln, NH. It’s complicated by the fact the forest service road to the northern trailhead is gated shut, so you have to walk it, which adds 3.5 miles to the length of the three-season route. In all, you can expect to spend 12-14 hours hiking from one end to another unless you have to break trail in deep snow, which makes the hike much more time-consuming.

The route plan:

  1. Zealand Rd – 3.5 miles
  2. Zealand Trail – 2.5 miles
  3. Twinway 4.4: miles
  4. Zeland Mtn Spur – 0.2 miles
  5. Bondcliff Trail: 8.7 miles
  6. West Bond Spur:1.0 mile
  7. Lincoln Woods Trail: 2.9 miles

The route climbs four mountains on the Appalachian Mountain Club’s 4000-footer list:

  • Zealand Mountain – 4264′
  • West Bond – 4518′
  • Mt Bond – 4696′
  • Bondcliff – 4263′

My regular hiking partners weren’t available for this hike, so I hooked up with a crew that I’d never met in person before. There was a weather window that was too good to pass up, with low wind and little snow cover. I needed all four peaks for December on the White Mountain 4000 Footer Grid peak list and I was psyched to hike them early in the month. The Grid requires hiking all 48 four thousand footers in each month of the year for a total of 576 summits. It takes most people multiple years to finish the 12 complete rounds of the four thousand footers required to finish.

Sunrise on the Zealand Trail
Sunrise on the Zealand Trail

This was a special hike because it was the last hike that one of the hikers, Jamie Brunt, needed to complete his Grid. He’d been working on the peak list for 11 years and he was psyched that he’d finish on Bondcliff, which is one of the most picturesque peaks in the White Mountains. You couldn’t ask for a better day too, with gorgeous weather and excellent trail conditions.

This was also a special hike for me. One of my “big” goals for this year was to reach 500 summits on the road to the 576 summits required to finish the Grid. Bagging these four peaks would bring my count to 498/576, putting me just one or two hikes from reaching that goal with a few weeks left in the year. Of course, hiking means more to me than just filling in a list. I love these mountains and being a member of the closely-knit White Mountains hiking community.

The day of the hike I woke up at 3:00 am so I could meet the team at 5:00 at the Zealand Lot on Rt 302, near the Mt Washington auto road. It usually takes me about 75 minutes to get out the door for a winter hike in the morning. I ate, drank a lot of coffee, boiled 3 liters of drinking water for the hike so it wouldn’t freeze during the day, and packed the food I hadn’t packed the night before. The key to these long winter hikes is to eat and drink very frequently to keep up your energy level.

Zeacliff in the distance - our first climb
Zeacliff in the distance – our first climb

The most dangerous part of these winter hikes is driving to the trailhead in the dark and then home in the dark afterward. I hate driving in the National Forest at night because there are so many animals crossing the road. I’ve had several close calls in the past with moose, deer, and bears and most of my friends have too.

Jamie arrived, coming from the trailhead at the end of the hike with all of the other hikers in our crew: Alex, Molly, Donna, and Jeremy. I couldn’t see any of their faces or what they really looked like standing in the dark, despite our headlamps.

We crossed the highway and started up Zealand Road, passing the closed gate. The road was covered with a light coating of snow but there wasn’t any ice and we were able to bare boot it. Give it a month and it will be covered in ice, rotten snow, and snowmobile tracks that are much harder to walk on.

It was 3.5 miles to the normal 3-season trailhead. The girls took off and the boys tried to keep up. I knew this was going to be a fast group and the miles went by quickly in the light of our headlamps.

Taking a short break at Zealand Hut
Taking a short break at Zealand Hut

We came to the three-season trailhead after an hour and had a short break before heading up the Zealand Trail to the Zealand Hut, an AMC cabin staffed by a caretaker which is open in winter. The rates are reduced if you want to sleep there, but the cabin is unheated so you need to haul in a heavy sleeping bag, pad, and food if you want to spend the night. I stayed there before on a winter Bonds Traverse in 2014 and I don’t think it’s really worth it. It doesn’t save you that much time the next day and you have to haul heavier gear all day as a result.

Jamie and I bare-booted for a while longer until the trail became too icy to continue. Everyone else has put on microspikes back at the three-season trailhead. We made it to the hut in after another hour and took a short break to relax on the porch. The caretaker came outside and chatted with us for a while and then we took off, managing the stream crossing at the bottom of the Twinway Trail with ease.

Early morning view of Carrigain Notch
Early morning view of Carrigain Notch

The first mile of the Twinway is not my friend. It climbs straight up 1000 feet in a mile. I couldn’t keep up with the pace of the rest of the group but I was only few minutes behind them. This section is probably the hardest part of a Bond Traverse but it was over soon enough. We met at the Zeacliff viewpoint which overlooks the eastern half of Pemigewasset Wilderness, Mt Carrigan, Mt Hancock, Mt Washington, and Mt Jefferson. It’s a marvelous viewpoint, well worth a stop.

We set off toward Zealand Mountain and I fell off the group’s fast pace again. We were hiking in about 4″ of unconsolidated powder. I caught up with everyone at the Zealand summit sign and told Jamie I wasn’t feeling so hot. The group was really supportive and they encouraged me to continue, especially since we were nearly halfway through the route. They slowed down a bit and I was able to regain my composure. I suspect the all-out sprint up to that point had worn me out. Even though I hike a lot, I am in a different age group, and I’m not the speed demon I was 20 years ago.

Above treeline on Mt Guyot
Above treeline on Mt Guyot

We left Zealand Mtn and climbed into the col between Zealand and Guyot, climbing through slightly deeper powder. It was easy going though and then we broke above treeline at Guyot, which is a 4000-footer in the center of the Pemigewasset, although it’s not on the White Mountain 4000-footer list. Guyot is my favorite peak in the Whites. It’s named after the person who drew the first map of the Whites, Albert Guyot, pronounced with a hard “G”, Gee-oh.

There was virtually no wind. The sun was out as we turned onto the Bondcliff Trail, reaching the summit cairn on Guyot before descending back into the krumholz on the south side. We passed the spur trail to the Guyot campsite and climbed a short distance to the West Bond Spur, where we dropped our packs to hike out to the summit, a half mile away. We still hadn’t seen anyone all day.

Jamie is reveling in the perfect weather
Jamie is reveling in the perfect weather

West Bond was an easy climb and we were soon back on the Bondcliff Trail, climbing to Mt Bond, the highest peak in the group. Jamie was now at 575 peaks and the anticipation was growing. Molly had brought some small cordial bottles to share with the group and gave Jamie his favorite, a Jameson’s.

The long decent from Mt Bond to Bondcliff.
The long descent from Mt Bond to Bondcliff.

Jamie led the way down the long ridge that runs from Mt Bond down to Bondcliff and we followed close behind. While it is gradual, you do have to climb up the back side of Bondcliff to get to the famous viewpoint overlooking the Hellgate. This is a rocky ledge with a tremendous view of Owlshead Mountain, Garfield, and the entire end-to-end length of Franconia ridge. Thousands of people have stood here for a summit photo.

Jamie and Alex head toward Bondcliff, #576
Jamie and Alex head toward Bondcliff, #576

Molly and Donna caught up with us and raced ahead of Jamie to prepare for his celebration. They’d bought party favors and sparkling white wine to celebrate Jamie’s finish. It was good fun. We blew tiny plastic horns and posed for numerous photos. Even though these were Jamie’s good friends, I felt very welcomed by them and joined in the celebration.

Jamie brunt’s Grid finish on Bondcliff
Jamie Brunt’s Grid finish on Bondcliff

Jamie was eating it all up, but I can’t imagine what he was thinking. Imagine working on peak list for 11 years and finally finishing it. It must be a tremendous sense of accomplishment.

The hellgate.
The Hellgate.

We were soon back at it, beginning the long 9 mile hike out to the Lincoln Woods Trailhead and the last 6 miles in the flats went by fast. We’d discarded the spikes and were back in bare boots again. There was very little snow on this side of the mountains. so we were able to finish quickly despite the dark. When we finally arrived at the Lincoln Woods Trailhead, I was amazed at the number of people who came out to greet us. Jamie is a very popular guy!

After a few pieces of pizza supplied by Jamie’s wife, we ran the reverse shuttle and I drove back home in the dark. I was tired but exhilarated to be part of such an outpouring of friendship in Jamie’s honor. One of these days, I hope to finish the Grid too.

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  1. Great write up and congrats to Jamie! Such an awesome hiking community.

  2. Thanks for a great report! So jealous.

  3. Very interesting and your writings make me want to come back again. I was in the area twice this year for the first time to celebrate my 60th birthday and did not get to do the Pemi Loop on my 2nd trip as planned because of wearing a leg muscle out hiking down Washington on my 2nd day and the peaks being forcast to be in the clouds for two days so I decided why bother and explored the pemigewasset valley instead which was new to me. Luckily on my last day I was able to do the Franconia Ridge loop and had great views.

    The weather there is very interesting. I first arrived in late June as advised and it was extremely windy in Franconia Notch and that day someone died of hypothermia but luckily it cleared up greatly for my Presidential traverse.

    On my 2nd trip after labor day on my last two nights it was predicted to be around freezing at night so I chose to stay in a cheap hotel and day hike. I have camped all year round for many years but for those months the temperature was very interesting and about as windy as I had ever experienced.

  4. Congratulations, Jamie! Now go and get yours, Phil!

  5. Hmmm… 576 peaks, 11 years, that’s “only” 52 per year. An average of 1 a week for 11 years. THAT is a lot of hiking. Congratulations!

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