Winter Backpacking: Zealand and Guyot

I haven’t been backpacking since October, so when a weather window opened during a holiday week, I requested a day off from work and headed north.

My plan was to hike in on January 1st, stay the night in a hut, and hike out on January 2nd. The White Mountains received several inches of snow over the preceding days, with snowfall only coming to an end on the morning of the 1st, so I wanted to choose something I thought was likely to be at least somewhat packed out. I figured Zealand was a likely choice, given how easy the first part of the hike is; it’s a perfect First Day Hike for families.

So, I made a reservation at Zealand Falls Hut, and crammed my winter backpacking gear into my pack – adding crampons and snowshoes, since I was hoping to hike to at least Mount Guyot if not West Bond.

I wasn’t in a rush to arrive early on day one; I just wanted to get to the hut before dark, so I left home around 9am, pulling into the parking lot on Rte. 302 across from Zealand Road at about 12:30. The lot was nearly full despite the bitter cold temperatures and strong winds, all of which conspired to get me moving quickly.

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There were dozens of people out – backpackers coming down from the hut, cross-country skiers, families out for a pleasant post-holing stroll, snowmobilers. The road was somewhat packed, but still required snowshoes. It’s kind of a slog in winter, amounting to approximately a 4 mile road walk each way. It took about 2 hours to get from the car to the Zealand trail.

Fortunately, my first steps into the trail submerged me in a winter wonderland.

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I kept my snowshoes on for the remaining 2.8 miles to the hut.

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I reached the hut just before 4:00, in time to watch the sun set over Zealand valley.

There were several other groups at the hut, but all in all, I don’t think there were more than 10 or 12 guests. I grabbed a top bunk and unpacked my sleeping bag to let it regain its loft, then signed up for a dinner slot. The caretaker had just lit a fire but the hut hadn’t warmed up yet; I changed out of my hiking clothes and into a thermal base layer, fleece, and puffy coat.

I was feeling pretty drained, probably more from my recent cross-state-move than anything else, and wasn’t my normal social self, but I did enjoy being in that atmosphere, surrounded by like-minded folks’ conversations.

After a quick, easy, lazy, delicious dinner and a mug of hot cocoa, I crawled into my bunk and was asleep by 9:30 – hiker midnight.

Since the bunkrooms are attached the hut at Zealand Falls, the air never got as cold as it does at Lonesome Lake Hut or Carter Notch Hut. In fact, I had to unzip my sleeping bag to allow some ventilation, and I warmed right back up and fell asleep easily after my usual 3AM bathroom trip.

I got up at 7:00, quickly returning everything to my pack and boiling water to make breakfast and coffee.

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Early morning sunshine from the porch

West Bond is one of the few 4,000 footers I have left on my list, and it seemed like a lofty but remotely possible goal for the day, depending on conditions. I definitely wanted to make it to Zeacliff, Zealand and Mount Guyot, since it was going to be a beautiful, clear day, and that alone would require 16 miles of hiking to get back to my car.

I set off from the hut at about 8:30, which meant I had almost eight hours of daylight.

The trail was broken, but an inch or two of fresh snow had fallen overnight and everything had been blown in. One small group had headed off in that direction before me, but it was still hard work – and the hike up Zeacliff is quite steep, gaining 1,000 feet in just over a mile.

While the climb is painfully steep, it’s also mercifully short, and really… how could you pass this up?

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The wind was howling, even at that low elevation, but the bright sunshine kept conditions tolerable enough to take some photos and enjoy the near-360-degree view.

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From that viewpoint, it’s another 1.6 miles to Mount Zealand. While you’re still headed uphill, the grade becomes more varied and generally eases. Of note, however – there are two ladders that are a bit unnerving in snowshoes, at least when there’s not enough snow to completely bury them.

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I love the trees and ice and snow against these bright wintry skies

It took about an hour to get from Zeacliff to Zealand.

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I felt okay at this point; my legs were certainly tired, toiling under the weight of all my winter gear and, of course, enslaved by snowshoes. It was only 11, so I figured I’d make it over to Guyot and see how I felt there.

On the way to Guyot, my suffering intensified. The trail was softer; a lot more hikers had packed out the trail to and from Zealand than had headed to Guyot. It took a bit longer than it should have, under ideal conditions, to get to Guyot, and when I got there, it was stunningly gorgeous….

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….but also incredibly windy (45-55 mph winds; enough to knock me over at times)…

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…and bitterly cold.

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Since the hike from Guyot to West Bond is unprotected, I decided to nix that plan.

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I retreated back to tree cover, watching the three hikers who had been ahead of me all day push forward. (You can actually see them in this photo!)

Once I was out of the wind and had descended a bit, I stopped to have some Nutter Butters (thanks to one of my soulmate-friends for the tip), a Clif bar, and some water.

The descent was brutal in its own right; I’d run out of toe warmers so just dropped some hand warmers down my socks, and that worked beautifully until I was hiking steadily downhill, at which point they got trapped by my snowshoe straps in the toe box of my boot, leaving no room for my actual toes. There was of course no lasting damage, but it did not feel pleasant.

Once I got past the sketchiest downhill sections, which are between Guyot and Zealand and around the ladder, I felt much more relaxed, and was able to enjoy the scenery.

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I wasn’t in a rush;  I’m very comfortable hiking in the dark. (I do recommend carrying two headlamps on every winter trip, plus extra batteries – they drain faster in the cold.)

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About 0.2 miles from the hut, I caught sight of the caretaker, Christy, using the hand pump to fill buckets of potable water, and offered to carry one back to the hut for her. Those things are heavy and super unwieldy. I can’t imagine having to haul all 6 or 8 of them down to the hut on a regular basis – those caretakers put in so much hard work!

Once at the hut, I took my boots off and let my feet air out, had another mug of hot chocolate, used the bathroom, finally switched from snowshoes to microspikes, and started the death march out.

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In the winter, there are great views all along Zealand Trail

Seriously, in the winter, the hike out of Zealand Falls reminds me of the hike out of Lincoln Woods. It’s endless and, once you’re on the road, it’s relatively featureless, so it’s impossible to tell how far you’ve come and how far you have yet to go.

This is only exacerbated, of course, by hiking out in the dark – but at least I got to soak up every second of sunlight.

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I got back to my car at about 6:30 – a wonderful, full day in the mountains and that cold fresh crisp air. I’ll be back in a few weeks for my next hut stay (and hopefully before then for some more hiking), and I’m already looking forward to it!

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