What I didn't know going into winter was that there were going to be a couple of more factors that would make my quest even tougher. First, the weather. The WEATHER! It was a BRUTAL winter. Lots of rain, thaws, and refreezes early on led to ice luge trails. Temperatures were always below the 10 degree mark and even on the sunny days the wind just would not let up. Wind chills were well into the negative during almost every hike I went on. But still, I went. I climbed. I conquered. And I bitched. We all did! But I also smiled and laughed because you have to if you are crazy enough to go out in these conditions for "the fun of it."
The other unforeseen factor was my tired body. I pushed myself hard all winter and coupled with the stress of packing up my life and getting ready for the AT, my body started to fight me towards the end. Two weeks ago I did a 17 mile hike up Owls Head followed by a ~12 mile hike up Madison and Adams the next day. It was painful as both my hips and my shoulder had been bothering me but me being me I went anyway. I wondered as I inched my way up the summit cone of Adams that day, if that should be my last winter hike for the season. Fast forward to this past week when I am torn between calling it a season or going for one more. "Maybe I'll feel better?" "I am so close to the end!" "Fight! Fight through it!" These are all things I told myself. So, with 8 peaks left and a week and half left until winter was over, I made plans with Kyle to do the biggest hike of the season: a Zealand-Bonds traverse which would be just shy of 24 miles and 5,400 feet of elevation gain.
The weather looked OK for the day (not favorable for a long and exposed hike like the Bonds, but decent enough). Cloudy, ~30 MPH winds and temps in the 20s (way warmer then what we had been hiking in all winter) and just a small chance of a morning snow shower. We got teased with some rays of sun during our long hike in (it is 9 miles from the Lincoln Woods parking area to the summit of Bondcliff, the first mountain of the traverse). The wind was nonexistent and the skies though cloudy, parted here and there to reveal a little blue. We were in high hopes that we may have good weather after all, until we reached the summit of Bondcliff and World War III broke out (Mother Nature style). The wind was fierce and whipped around us so fast it sounded like I had a helicopter inside my hood. The wind would calm down in small doses which allowed us to take some summit pictures. The clouds cleared a bit and we could see down into the ravine and parts of other mountains around us.
We continued down the exposed saddle between Bondcliff and Mt. Bond where the wind returned with a vengeance. Now, not only did I have a helicopter beating my eardrums deaf but the snow was being blown up into my face at an alarming rate. Even with the protection from my face mask it felt like hundreds of mini bee stings. Every time I picked up my foot to take a step forward the wind would take it and shove it sideways. I was pushed off trail a few times by the wind and fell into spruce traps up to my chest. We plodded our way up the ridge towards Bond stopping occasionally to rest and breath by turning and standing with our backs into the wind. We looked at each other through our goggles and though I couldn't see Kyle's face, I knew he was smiling. So was I, even though I yelled over the wind to him at one point "What the Hell did we get ourselves into?!" The clouds put on a show as they danced and twirled up out of the ravines below and over the summits of neighboring mountains. We finally found our way into the scrub where we found relief from the wind. We both admitted that our "space walk" was fun for the first five minutes then it was just plain annoying after that.
We made our way back out of the scrub and up to the windy and socked in summit of Mt. Bond. Back into the trees and over to West Bond we went. We had partial views of the Twin Range from West Bond and even some blue sky (for 3 seconds) on our way down and over to Mt. Guyot. Once on the summit of Mt. Guyot we were back to World War III Mother Nature Style. We made quick work of this section and then once back below treeline we were on our way to the final summit of the day; Zealand Mountain.
After a quick trip to the treed in summit of Zealand we began our descent and wouldn't ya know, the skies started clearing! We were able to catch some nice views from Zeacliff (an amazing lookout off of the Zealand Trail) and then again at the Zealand Falls Hut (we also stopped for a bathroom break and a quick snack here as this is one of three AMC huts open in the wintertime). We got back down to the trailhead with light still left in the sky and began the 3.7 mile walk down Zealand Road to Kyle's car (Zealand Rd is closed to vehicular traffic in winter). As nighttime fell on us we caught up to two others and a dog on Zealand Road. It turned out to be our friend Bob, his friend and Dusty the Wonder Dog! Of all places to run into someone you know on a Tuesday night! Shortly thereafter we were back at the parking lot where we left Kyle's car that morning. See the bottom of this post for a funny story about that...
I made the decision that this would be my last hike for the season somewhere between West Bond and Guyot. My hips were not happy with me and my shoulder was tight and achy. It was cutting it too close to my departure for the AT. I would need time to rest. "What if I already overdid it?" "What if two weeks isn't enough time to recover?" "WHY DID I SCHEDULE MY A.T. START THE WEEK FOLLOWING THE END OF WINTER???" I cursed at myself. I didn't think this through when I bought my airplane ticket back in January. You know what they say about hindsight...
So, where I would normally buck-up and work through the pain I had to bench myself for the season leaving myself 4 peaks short of completing my Winter NH 48. I had to be honest with myself, the AT is way more important to me and I need to give myself the chance to succeed on the trail, not start with injuries. It was a hard decision to make especially knowing that it would mean staying home for Denise's single season finish on the Wildcats. We had both worked so hard all winter and had hiked so many of these mountains together it just wouldn't feel right not being there, though I know she would understand.
5 mountains, 24 miles, 12.5 hours and some wild weather for my last winter hike of the season. Not a bad way to end things!
Me: I made the incredibly dumb and irresponsible decision to leave my snowshoes in my car. I new I wouldn't need them for the first 9 miles and since my hips and shoulder were bothering me I didn't want the added weight on my back when I wasn't wearing them. Friends who had done the traverse the day before did not need them but I knew there was a couple of new inches of snow (actually more like 5-6) and therefore should have been prepared with them. I was fine for the most part without them but could have used them for some sections of deep drifts as well as some softer sections of trail (I post holed up past my waist in some spots). Lesson learned: If I am not healthy enough to carry the proper gear then I shouldn't be out there in the first place.
Kyle: I met Kyle before then sun came up on Zealand Road where we left his car (that is where we would end our hike later that day). We took my car over to Lincoln Woods, located about 45 minuted away. Somewhere before the summit of Bondcliff I looked at Kyle and said:
"This may be a stupid question but you do have your car keys right?"
"No, not stupid. Not at all" Kyle says as he pats the pocket of his jacket. "Not stupid because they are in my other jacket, in your car at Lincoln Woods."
Lesson self explanatory. :)