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Hiking a Zealand Bonds (ZBonds) Traverse in March

Hiking a Zbonds Traverse in March

A winter ZBonds Traverse is 23.5 miles long and climbs four White Mountain 4,000 footers: Mt Zealand, West Bond, Mt Bond, and Bondcliff with 4,500 feet of elevation gain. While you can backpack it or stay at the Zealand Hut at mile six, many winter hikers just hike it end-to-end in a single day because it’s less of a hassle to push on through. The winter route (usually December through April) is three miles longer than a non-winter one because the road leading to the Zealand Trail trailhead is gated closed in winter. The thing that makes this hike really hard isn’t the distance or even the elevation gain required, but the surface conditions: breaking trail for miles and miles in snowshoes and/or crampons takes a lot more energy than hiking on terra firma in the warmer months.

Logistics

I hiked this route last Saturday with my regular White Mountains gridding partners, Ken and Karen. Ken wanted an early start, so we met at 5:00 am at the south end of the route at the Lincoln Woods trailhead. I woke up at 2:30 am, ate breakfast, drank 4 cups of coffee, boiled water for my water bottles, and pulled out of my driveway at 3:45 am. I then drove west across the National Forest, something which I hate doing in the dark because animals cross the road at night. Ken and Karen arrived shortly after I did, we loaded their gear into my car and drove my car another 45 minutes to the Zealand Rd Trailhead off Rt 302 at the north end of the route.

Karen and Philip on the gated portion of Zealand Rd
Karen and Philip on the gated portion of Zealand Rd (Photo: Ken Robichaud)

Zealand Road to Zealand Hut

We got started a little before 6:00 am and started walking down Zealand Road in headlamps. The road was covered in loosely packed powder but we were able to bare-boot it the three miles to the summer Zealand Trail trailhead. The wind was calm and I was able to strip down to my fleece hoodie/baselayer in terms of insulation.

The surface of the Zealand Trail was firmer so we were able to keep going with just boots. The wind picked up a bit as we hiked through the beaver pond meadows closer to the hut. We got our first glimpse of Zeacliff which is the first steep climb (1300′) after the hut. We were all dreading that one.

Zeacliff - the first big climb comes into view
Zeacliff – the first big climb comes into view

When we got to the hut, I put on a K94 mask and popped indoors to get some hot water to refill our bottles. The hut runs on a self-service, unheated basis during the winter where you get a bunk bed, but have to bring your own food and sleeping bag. The caretaker usually has hot water in a big pot on the hut’s stove and you can fill up for free. The last time I stayed there was in 2014 in order to break up a January ZBonds traverse into two days. That was a memorable trip because we did the entire route in driving snow and freezing fog and didn’t get to see any of the great views along the route.

We had a quick bite to eat before packing up and starting the next leg of our route.

Zealand Hut in Winter
Zealand Hut in Winter

Zealand Hut to Mt Guyot

The water crossing above the hut was bridged with ice and we crossed without difficulty. This crossing had been a question mark because we hadn’t seen any recent trip reports about trail conditions on NETrailConditions where hardcore hikers post them to help others plan their hikes. We’d soon discover why…

Whitewall Mountain and the Willey Range from the Zeacliff viewpoint
Whitewall Mountain and the Willey Range from the Zeacliff viewpoint

The trail up to Zeacliff was well packed and we made surprisingly good time wearing snowshoes, raising and lowering the televators as needed, to climb the steeper sections. Once at the top we wandered down the Zeacliff spur to take in the view. This is one of the best viewpoints in the White Mountains. The day was very clear and we could see Mt Washington and all of the western Pemigewasset to Mt Carrigain.

The snow got much deeper as we headed toward Mt Zealand
The snow got much deeper as we headed toward Mt Zealand

We headed back to the Twinway trail and headed west toward Mt Zealand and then Mt Guyot. The snow was a lot less consolidated from here to Zeacliff Pond and while the train has been broken out, we were snowshoeing in much deeper powder. The elevation gain to Mt Zealand is fairly moderate with a few steeper pitches. We hiked up the spur trail to the Zealand summit and then back to the Twinway.

The team at the Zealand Mountain summit
The team at the Zealand Mountain summit (Photo: Ken Robichaud)

It was clear that most of the hiker traffic hadn’t ventured past Mt Zealand and looking ahead along the Twinway, we could see much deeper snow ahead. Thankfully one hiker, wearing very large 30″ snowshoes had broken out the worst of the trail ahead, but the snow was still deep and unconsolidated powder so we had to work much harder to make headway. It became clear why there were no trail reports on NETrailConditions.com about this portion of the trail since the last big storm: no one had been on it!

Philip climbing Guyot with Mt Washington in the background
Philip climbing Guyot with Mt Washington in the background (Photo: Ken Robichaud)

The Twinway drops steeply into a col between Zealand Mountain and Mt Guyot, which is at the junction of the Twinway and Bondcliff trails. I took a turn breaking out the steep-down section before switching off with Karen who started to climb back up to Guyot. The going got a lot harder as we rotated the lead but our moods lifted as we climbed and headed back into the sunshine.

When we reached the Twinway-Bondcliff Trail junction the wind had blasted all the snow off Mt Guyot, which is a bald dome with no tree cover. We put our hardshells on and switched from snowshoes to trail crampons to make our way up the summit cairn over the icy surface. There wasn’t enough wind to warrant the use of balaclavas and ski masks which we had been expecting. I hate wearing them unless there is a risk of frostbite, but we’d all packed them.

Karen on the wind blasted dome of Mt Guyot
Karen on the wind-blasted dome of Mt Guyot

Guyot to Bondcliff

Descending once again into the Krumholz, we switched back to snowshoes to avoid post-holing as we dropped into the col between Guyot and Mt Bond and started climbing up the other side. While I had been faithfully eating and drinking up to this point, I started to bonk and slowed way down. I felt like I was walking in slow motion. I just hit a brick wall.

I took a short break to eat and drink at the West Bond Trail junction while Ken chatted with some hikers who had climbed up to the Bonds from the south. The Bonds are a group of three peaks, West Bond (4540′), Mt Bond (4698′), and Bondcliff (4265′) which we needed to summit in March for our 4000 footer grids.

Avalanche scars on West Bond Mountain
Avalanche scars on West Bond Mountain

Now revived, we dropped our packs and snowshoed 0.5 miles to the West Bond summit, which has a great broadside view of Bondcliff, a gorgeous curved ridge that makes it one of the most popular hiking destinations in the White Mountains.

Bondcliff Mountain is one o fthe most popular destinations in the White Mountains, but a hard peak to get to in winter because its so far from a paved road.
Bondcliff Mountain is one of the most popular destinations in the White Mountains, but a hard peak to get to in winter because it’s so far from a paved road.

Next up was Mt Bond. We picked up our packs and snowshoed up to its summit for another view of Bondcliff from the north. The trails were much more heavily used from West Bond on with much more hiker traffic to pack them out. Snowshoes were still required for traction, but we weren’t breaking trail anymore.

Ken Robichaud pauses to take in the view on Mt Bond
Ken Robichaud pauses to take in the view on Mt Bond

The hike up to Bond was pretty straightforward and we kept going when we reached the top and started our descent down the other side. The route follows a very exposed section of trail that descends Mt Bond to the north end of the Bondcliff Ridge. It’s a beast to climb this from the south, which is one reason why it’s arguably better to hike the Zbonds Traverse from the north instead.

The steep ridge connecting Mt Bond to Bondcliff
The steep ridge connecting Mt Bond to Bondcliff

At the base of the descent, we strapped our snowshoes back onto our packs and climbed up the Bondcliff ridge in bareboots. There was very little snow and some easily avoided ice on the route up to the summit and back down the other side.

There was very little snow and ice on Bondcliff so we hiked over it in bare boots.
There was very little snow and ice on Bondcliff so we hiked over it in bare boots.

Bondcliff to Lincoln Woods

The distance from Bondcliff to the Lincoln Woods trailhead is 9.1 miles and we snowshoed all but 2.6 miles of that. While it wasn’t physically hard because we were headed downhill, it seemed like it went on and on and on. The final 6 miles are completely flat as they run parallel to the East Branch Pemigewasset River and we did them by headlamp, hardly speaking to one another as we hiked along.

The final 2.9 miles of this segment follow the Lincoln Woods Trail which is usually rock hard frozen in winter because it is heavily used by casual walkers. But the trail surface was still quite powdery snow, though hard enough that we could shed our snowshoes again and bareboot it. We were all a bit flabbergasted by this, but our feet were grateful.

When we finally arrived at our car at the Lincoln Woods Trailhead, 14 hours had passed, which was a pretty good pace for a winter traverse given the conditions we’d encountered. I was pretty tired but I’d certainly consider doing that route again if we can get another good weather window like the one we’d experienced. I have a feeling that may happen again next month (April) with the same crew, although the weather will probably be somewhat warmer depending on when we can go.

Here’s a list of the trails we followed:

  • Zealand Rd: 3.5 miles
  • Zealand Trail: 2.5 miles
  • Twinway 4.4: miles
  • Bondcliff Trail: 8.7 miles
  • West Bond Spur:1.0 mile
  • Lincoln Woods Trail: 2.9 miles

This hike brings me to 382/576 on the White Mountain 4000 footer grid. While I am making progress through the list, it is a humbling experience, quite unlike the other hiking challenges I’ve tackled in the Whites previously but one that I have grown to savor.

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One comment

  1. I must say although I have never done that traverse in winter, that 6 mi. of flats on the south side can be a buzz killer with the last 3 that seems to never end being my least favorite section in all the Whites. South to north is the only way I’ll go !!!

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