A fist full of peaks

September 22, 2020

In April of 2016, a friend and I went on my first backpacking trip to ‘The Bonds’.  We summited my 4th and 5th 4000 foot peaks by reaching Mount Bond Cliff, and Mount Bond. However, due to an extreme drop in temperature after we had eaten and set up our tents, we spent the entire night shivering (literally) and not sleeping. A slow, late and cold start that next morning, and utter exhaustion, lead to not being able to reach Mt. West Bond while also making it back down to a safe elevation for the second night of camping.  Mt. West Bond would have to wait. This past April, I attempted to summit Mt. Hale via the Fire Wardens Trail. The day I hiked was the morning after over a foot of fresh snow.  With only one hiker and his two dogs' worth of tracks to follow up (the Fire Wardens Trail is unmarked, there are no tree blazes), I was never able to make it to the summit.  I was very, very close, but didn’t officially make it before daylight and safety won the day, and I had to leave.  That sad story can be read here

Maybe I shouldn’t hike in April in anymore!

Fast forward to this past weekend. My plan: A two day, solo backpacking trip that will allow me to reach Mt. West Bond, and Mt. Hale, while also bagging the Twins, and Zealand. I would start at the North Twin Trailhead at the end of Haystack road. Hike the North Twin trail to both North Twin and South Twin, then head to the Guyot Campsite to claim a decent spot, and drop more than half my gear before heading up to Mt. West Bond for sunset.  The next morning, I would head to Mt. Guyot (not an official 4000 footer) for sunrise pictures, and continue on to Mt. Zealand, the Zealand Falls Hut, the the Lend a Hand Trail to Mt. Hale, and finally, come down my nemesis - The Fire Wardens Trail - back to the North Twin Trail, and back to my truck.

I love to hike, I’ve rarely backpack.  They are NOT the same thing. For anyone who’s ever read the book, or seen the movie, Wild, I must have looked like Reese every time I pulled my backpack up. Even after several attempts to drop and shave ounces anywhere I could, my pack was still heavier than I would have liked.  I didn’t weigh it… on purpose! I simply didn’t want to know the number.

For the days leading up to this weekend, Mountain-Forecast.com had Friday, Saturday and Sunday as “CLEAR” essentially all three days.  Even with a day's worth of pouring rain predicted at home on Friday, the mountain forecast was still favorable. And, overnight Friday was supposed to be much warmer than overnight Saturday, hopefully avoiding a repeat of my last backpacking freeze-fest. Saturday was forecasted to be perfectly clear all day - which I thought would work out great for sunrise pictures from Mt. Guyot.

I arrived at the trailhead at 7:30am Friday morning, I was hiking by 8:00, and the rain I drove through most of the way up had stopped at about 8:05.  Perfect!

The weather was weird, though. Even though the rain had stopped, the humidity in the woods was extreme, yet, the temperature was probably no higher than 55 degrees. It was a tough beginning to regulate clothing and comfort due to extreme sweating from the humidity (and a 400lb backpack), while being colder than normal due to being sweaty and it only being in the 50’s. Thankfully, the North Twin trail is Lincoln Woods-esque.  Flat, easy, with no real challenges, and it runs alongside the Little River.

You cross Little River about three times before beginning the ascent up to North Twin Mountain.  At the final water crossing, the last reliable water source before the Guyot Shelter, it was time to fill the water bottles. 

The route takes a fairly pronounced turn to the west as it heads up towards North Twin mountain. For the most part, this is your basic White Mountains trail consisting of roots, rocks, and mud.  Lots and lots of mud on this trip.  I always take special notice and appreciation of the man-made stairs and ladder sections and wonder how much work it must have taken to create these so deep in the woods.
The summit of North Twin is supposed to have decent views, not as good as South Twin, but on this day, the cloud cover was doing it's best to hide a lot of what normally can be viewed from here.

That white spot in the middle left in the photo above is the AMC Galehead Hut within close proximity to both Mount Galehead, which I summited this past summer, and South Twin, which I would be summiting shortly after taking this photo.

The hike between the peaks was short, about a mile, and actually quite easy.  It looks a lot like this...

Once you start to break through the shrubs, you can just barely make out the first of a bunch of boulders on the top of South Twin Mountain.

Now on the summit of South Twin, the views in one direction weren't all that bad, still a lot of clouds, but still a great view!

The views in the direction (south) that I would be heading, not so clear...

Leaving the summit of South Twin, I would be taking the Twinway trail (also the Appalachian Trail) towards the Bond Cliff trail and the Guyot Shelter.  This is a great section of White Mountain trail.  Super scenic, some ups, downs, a little of everything in here, including more mud.  

The next stop would be at the Guyot Campsite to drop my gear off, and claim a tent platform, and then head to Mount West Bond in hopes of catching a good sunset from the peak.  The Appalachian trail continues left at the junction of the Bond Cliff trail. I would be headed that way on Saturday, towards Mt. Zealand, but for this day, it was onto to the Bond Cliff trail, and the Guyot Campsite. 

I arrived at the campsite, choose a vacant platform and got everything set up and ready so that when I returned in the dark after sunset, there would be nothing left to do except slip into the sleeping bag.  My five-star accommodations for the night.

With camp set up, it was time for what would turn out to be the highlight of the weekend. Not only would this be some redemption from not being able to get to West Bond two years earlier, but I would be on a mountain peak for sunset for the first time ever. Upon arriving at the peak, the views towards the Franconia Ridge were completely cloud covered. However, the view to the east, was completely open. The view of Bond Cliff and the Bond Cliff trail with the late afternoon sun was spectacular! I was the only hiker on the peak to see this. 

And the view in between Bond Cliff and West Bond was a mix of cloud cover, with little pockets of sun and views of the valley below with some nice fall color peaking through.

About 30 minutes after I arrived, I was joined by a few more groups on the summit who all had the same hopes of sunset that night. Prior to anyone else showing up, I wasn't completely alone. As the night went on, the clouds got much thicker.  In addition to any views to the west still being totally blocked by clouds, the views of Bond Cliff and the eastern side were now completely gone once the other hikers started showing up. For anyone that's ever been on a peak waiting for a view, sometimes you only have to wait a matter a minutes for things to drastically change.   On this night, not only did the skies start to clear up, but they did so in a way that lead to another first for me. I had never witnessed undercast before this night. If you've never seen undercast from a mountain peak, stop reading this blog, go get a warm coat and drive to the mountains right now and hope you see it, I promise it will be worth the effort!  Here is Mount Garfield just starting to peak through the undercast.

A few minutes later, Lafayette started to show itself.

Then, the best parts of the night started to take form. The undercast continued to lower, exposing more and more peaks. The clouds under the undercast continued to disappear, exposing more of the valleys below. This was all happening while the sun continued to set, casting more warm light over the entire scene. 

What happened next could not be properly captured by any camera. The naked eye was the only way to truly appreciate this, but the clouds cleared enough to perfectly silhouette the ridge line just as the sun was dropping behind Mount Lincoln. 

As soon as the sun dropped completely behind the ridge, everyone left. I was once again alone on the peak.  Throughout this amazing show to the west, the east view remained completely clouded in. And, just like earlier, no more than 10 minutes after everyone left, all the skies opened up again in every direction.  This is an almost 360 degree video of how clear it was up there.

The following photos were taken as the sun finally went down for good.

Two more hikers showed up just before the show ended and took my picture with the amazing backdrop of Lafayette and Garfield.

After an easy headlamp walk back to the campsite, and some gear and clothing preparations for the next morning, I was in the tent and asleep by about 8:30pm.  That completed a roughly 9-1/2 mile day, with three more 4000 footers reached along with the best sunset views I could have ever asked for. The alarm was set for 4:30am, the forecast was for clear skies all day on Saturday.  The next morning, I would be off to Mt Guyot in the dark for some epic sunrise mountain pictures.

Up at 4:30, packed up and on the trail out of Guyot by 5:30.  I could see the moon, but I could also hear the wind and see lots of clouds blowing by really fast. But I remembered just hours earlier how quickly the clouds can disappear and offer amazing views, so I kept hiking. This was another first. Hiking alone, in the dark, in the White Mountains. Just as I broke above tree line, and struggled to walk even 20-30 yards without being knocked over, it quickly became obvious to me that this wasn't going to end up being the sunrise I had anticipated.  The wind was really blowing, the clouds were wet, and the temps were cold! It looked like this...

New plan: Don't die.  I decided to come back down below tree line again and wait for daylight.  I had to eventually walk through this, but I didn't have to do it in the dark and risk getting blown off the trail -  a trail that I couldn't see.  After enough daylight had arrived, I returned up the trail and was able to more confidently negotiate this weather. Still, it wasn't exactly a walk in the park.

Less than a mile later, I was on the AT again, and over the peak to the eastern side and free of any wind and bad weather. It was time to head towards Zealand.  What a difference a few miles can make in the trail conditions.

There are no views from the summit of Zealand, but there is this cool little clearing and summit cairn. 

My next stop would be to take in the views at Zeacliff. I had read many times that this spot was well worth checking out.  Prior to arriving at the cliff, I took a quick spur trail down to Zeacliff Pond, checking off another mountain pond of my list.

It was worth the 1/10th of mile walk down to the boggy shoreline.  I had hopes of seeing a moose knee-deep in the pond eating vegetation, but that didn't materialize. Back to the trail, and to the Zeacliff lookout.  If you're ever on this trail, do yourself a favor and follow the small signs for this gem of a view. The viewpoint is a few feet from the main trail, and offers incredible views!

Oh, and just so you know, there's plenty more mud on the way to this viewpoint. I have mentioned to a few friends that I think I only stepped on about four dry rocks over the 21 miles along this route. 

Prior to reaching the junction of the Lend A Hand Trail, which would be my route to Mt. Hale, I stopped for a few quick captures of the stream and Zealand falls

I was making decent time, even with my 30 minute delay waiting for daylight at the beginning of this day, and decided to stop at the Zealand hut to rest my feet and legs and eat a relaxed lunch.  A bottle of cold water, some cold, left-over egg/bread/vegetable thing from the hut, and a 2-day old squished turkey sandwich. I swear, this all tasted like a gourmet meal at this stage.

After a short break, and my amazing lunch, it was time for the final push to Mt. Hale.  The Lend a Hand Trail was really beautiful. A slow, easy rise in elevation through the open woods, dark woods, wet areas (more mud!) and eventually a tough, fairly steep final 1/2 to 3/4 mile stretch to the summit.  Despite feeling like I just could not get to the summit, the beginning sections were really pleasant and scenic to walk through.

Finally, FINALLY! The summit was in sight!

The summit of Hale has no views, unless you're 7' tall and stand on the top of the largest summit cairn I've ever seen! There used to be a fire tower on this summit and only the old cement and supports remain.

One last trail... the dreaded Fire Wardens Trail.  The only trail that I've been lost on in all my hikes and trips to the White Mountains. The ease to follow this trail, without snow on the ground, was mind blowing.  Without following previous footprints or having an accurate GPS with this trail on it, following it in the winter is next to impossible. Following it on this day, was as easy as any other trail I did all weekend. The birch glades of the Fire Warden Trail are just as awesome with or without snow as a backdrop.

The Fire Wardens Trail joins back up with the North Twin trail and it was less than a mile back to the truck. The last step at the truck completed an 11-1/2 mile day, making for a total of 21 miles over the two days. Those days includes lots of firsts for me, including a sunset experience that I'll never forget. The trip also resulted in reaching peaks 31, 32, 33, 34 and 35 out of 48. If all goes as planned, it will take only eight more hikes to reach those last 13 peaks. My next hike is already planned, and the weather watch has started.  Until then, I'll be reliving the memories of my first solo backpacking trip, that sunset, all that damn mud, and finally reaching the two peaks which had eluded me the most. 


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