I went on a one night solo backpacking trip recently to scout out some possible campsites for an Appalachian Mountain Club trip I’m leading on the first day of winter, weather permitting. We’ll be doing a 23 mile winter traverse of the Bonds, (West Bond, Mount Bond, and Bondcliff), three of the most remote and scenic peaks in the White Mountains.
I wasn’t planning anything overly ambitious for this scouting trip other than climbing up Zeacliff, a magnificent ledge that overlooks Whitewall Mountain and the Zealand Valley and camping out with my winter gear. Although I’ve been following the weather forecasts closely, I didn’t really have a good sense for whether winter had arrived yet or not.
Early December can be indecisive month in the White Mountains, with a noticeable chill in the air, but little snowfall. With so little hiking traffic this time of year, it’s hard to assess trail and camping conditions without experiencing them first-hand. I also had a free pass for the weekend from my wife and I was determined to get in a short backpacking trip even if it was a bit more leisurely and goal-oriented than normal.
My hike started with a 3.5 mile road walk up a seasonal road – Zealand Road – which has been closed for winter. Parts of it were clear, but I had to switch to microspikes the farther I got from the highway. After that, I walked another 2.5 miles up the icy Zealand Trail to Zealand Hut along an old lumber railroad grade that passes over a series of beaver ponds.
The bridges over these beaver ponds have been in pretty rough shape in the past few years, but a new bridge has been constructed over the worst of the water crossings. They haven’t put the railings on yet, but the rest of the bridge is finished and amazingly solid. They must have sunk concrete pilings under the bridge in anchor it, although I wouldn’t put it past the beavers to incorporate the new bridge into a mega beaver dam before long.
The first landmark I expected to see on this hike was AMC’s Zealand Hut, which is still open for winter on what’s called a caretaker basis. You can stay at the hut in winter for a fraction of the three season price, but there is no heat, no food, and no entertainment like there is when the hut is staffed by a full-time crew.
While it was tempting to sleep indoors, I wanted to camp out and sleep in my -25 Western Mountaineering Puma sleeping bag, a little luxury I bought for myself a few years ago. I had some other gear I also wanted to try and to explore a couple of nearby off-trail areas at my leisure.
As I approached Zealand Hut, the ice on the trail got really thick. I managed to get up it wearing microspikes, but I expected I’d need full crampons to get down. I paused briefly in front of the hut to look at Mt Carrigan and Vose Spur in the distance, one of the most famous and distinct viewpoints in the White Mountains. I climbed Vose Spur recently and plan on visiting nearby Mt Lowell later on this winter.
I checked on the stream crossing above the hut which my group trip is likely to reach at sunset when we hike this route. It’s a tricky water crossing, situated at the top of a water fall, that’s a little wide for people wearing mountaineering boots and crampons. Getting across requires that you rely on a frozen bridge, eh, which I’d rather just avoid. Instead, I bushwhacked upstream about 25 yards and found a much narrower crossing that we can use if the lower crossing is problematic. Glad I checked that out in advance.
After the stream crossing, I climbed up toward Zeacliff and checked out the forest on either side of the trail for possible campsites. Once you’re a quarter-mile past the hut, it’s legal to camp in the woods alongside the trail, although leave no trace etiquette recommends you do so 200 feet off trail or at a previously impacted site.
Sadly, there are a lot of impacted campsites in this area, mainly due to AT thru-hiker activity. I generally avoid these spots in 3 season weather because they’re such an eyesore, but I feel a bit less guilty about taking advantage of them when they’re covered by snow because it’s a durable surface and I’d have no impact on the underlying vegetation.
Checking out possible campsites involved walking off trail and poking around in the woods looking for good pitches. Besides rocks, the biggest obstacle to camping out in this area are the abundant widow makers, dead trees propped up by other trees that you want to avoid camping under. They’re surprisingly abundant here. It’s a pretty crappy place to camp, I concluded.
I gave up looking after a while and finished the ascent to Zeacliff encountering very thick ice just below the ledges. If you’ve ever wondered about the limits of microspikes, this is pretty close (below). Why not put on crampons earlier? Energy conservation is the name of the game in winter – and microspikes take a lot less energy to hike in than full crampons.
At Zeacliff, I paused to take in the view of Whitehall Mountain, a bushwhack hike that is currently on my radar. While there are several possible ways to climb the peak, I want to approach it from the north, starting at the A-Z trail and camping somewhere below its summit ledges.
After leaving the Zeacliff viewpoint, I came to the Twinway trail junction and headed down the ridge toward Mounts Zealand and Guyot. This trail is the main thoroughfare to get from Zealand Notch to Mt Guyot, The Bonds, and the Twins and coincides with the Appalachian Trail. I followed it a ways, still looking for wild campsites in the woods adjacent to the trail where a campsite might be possible out of sight from passing hikers.
I don’t recall seeing many such areas along this stretch before, so I was surprised when I spied one just off trail. It seems like these kinds of sites are popping up more frequently along popular White Mountain trails, complete with crudely constructed fire rings. I have no idea what the solution is to put a stop to them, other than establishing tent pads and sites where hikers pay a nightly fee and are supervised by a caretaker. Indirect educational efforts about Leave No Trace camping have obviously failed and more direct intervention is needed.
I checked out the site and followed it a fair ways off trail, spying one campsite after another, the deeper it led into the trees. A damn shame this and not that well sheltered from the wind anyway with krummholz trees only about 10-12 feet tall. Camping under trees that are 8 feet tall in the White Mountains violates backcountry camping rules, but this was technically still legal. I couldn’t see the ground underneath the snow, but I don’t doubt that it was once moss-covered before being trampled. There is only so much wild left in the Whites that is untouched by people and I feel like it is inexorably draining away before my eyes at times like this.
Back on the trail, I continued down the snowy path past the spur trail to Zeacliff Pond, a wonderful high elevation pond nesting below Zealand Mountain and surrounded by cliffs. Here’s a view of it from a previous hike I did in the area two years ago. The pond feeds a stream at its southern end and I’ve always wanted to follow the path it takes down to Thoreau Falls and the North Fork of the East Pemigewasset River.
Daylight was fading fast and I considered carrying on toward the Guyot Shelter Campsite, but doubted that I’d make it before dark. Instead, I turned around and hiked part way down Zeacliff before finding a wild campsite deep in the woods at around 2900 feet. Pretty slim pickings actually with all the rocks and blowdowns in the area, but camping below the ridge turned out to be a very good decision. While the winds that night sounded like a freight train overhead in the trees, camping up on the ridge would have been far less protected and frightening. The roaring got so loud after dark that I put in my ear plugs and went to sleep around 8:00 pm, rather than listening to the sound effects all night.
Once I had my tent set up, it was time to melt some snow for drinking water. I only needed to melt two liters and this proceeded fairly quickly, although the snow depth was shallow enough that I scooped up quite a few spruce needles in the snow I fed into the pot. Luckily my pot lid has a colander, so I was able to strain most of them out. They say that pine and spruce needles contain a lot of vitamin C and can be used to ward off scurvy. But the water tasted like bad breadth, so I doctored it with this fabulous instant ginger and honey drink I love to make with hot water, and drowned the bad taste out.
Water melted, I made up a big pot of cheese tortellini mixed with shaky cheese and olive oil and had myself a little feast in the woods. The only thing missing was some red wine. Sitting there in my insulated pants and parka, deep in the woods and alone, I enjoy these solo trips when little campsite jobs are the only company I need to stay occupied and content.
After dinner, I cleaned up and changed into my long johns before crawling into my sleeping bag to read a book on my cell phone for a while. I put two liter bottles of hot water in my sleeping bag, but didn’t have to sleep with my boots because I’d been wearing vapor barrier liners and the insides of my boots were still bone dry. I was trying out a new vapor barrier liner system on this trip which works very well. I’ll write about it soon. Ten minutes later I was sound asleep.
The next morning my water bottles were still warm, which may be a first for me on a winter trip, because I’ve never slept with them in my bag before. I’ve got to do that again! Rather than cook an elaborate breakfast, I decided to eat some of my cold snacks and drink my remaining water before hiking out and getting a hot meal on the way home. I had 8-9 miles of walking to do to get back to my car and reckoned I could make the distance in 3-4 hours, tops. I still wanted to explore a few campsite options up the Lend-a-Hand trail Tehind Zealand Hut and down the Ethan Pond Trail below Whitewall Mountain, but those were quick detours that only added a few extra miles to my route.
There’s a zone around shelters in a White Mountains called a Forest Protection Area or FPA for short, which “outlaws” camping with a quarter-mile of heavily impacted sites like huts, campsites, shelters, and certain mountain tops. Unfortunately and predictably, people establish campsites just outside the FPA boundaries, I guess because they think it’s more legal that way. You find this behavior throughout the White Mountains.
Sure enough, there are established campsites just beyond all of the FPA’s surrounding Zealand Hut. The one down the Ethan Pond Trail is enormous with room for 20 or 30 tents and a real eyesore. It is close to running water though, which is a nice thing to have in winter if you need a low-level camp site to get out of the weather. I wanted to make sure I knew exactly where it was in case my group needed a baolout campsite like this on our Bonds trip. I’ve actually camped here once as part of a Leave No Trace training certification course, where it serves as a bad example of a heavily impacted campsite.
Having reconnoitered a few more “just-in-case” camp sites, I hiked the remaining 7 miles back out to my car before driving to the Irving’s on Rt 302 for a few tall steaming cups of coffee and cider donuts. I was calmly contented, the way one is after a solo backpacking trip, well-rested, and eager to get home to tell my wife about my little adventure.
Calendar winter starts on Saturday afternoon this week and I hope to be hiking on the Twinway by nightfall, en route to the Bonds.