Jason, Fred, Porter and I drove north with the windows rolled down, enjoying the sunshine and warm air. It was March 12th, and despite knocking off an uneventful trip to the Kinsmans on the 6th, I still had 8 mountains to summit in the 7 days of winter that remained in the 2015-2016 season. I hadn’t allowed myself much wiggle room if something were to go wrong, but I tried not to think about that as we cruised along, our Dunkin' Donuts in hand, headed towards the North Twin trailhead.
Our plan for the weekend was pretty straightforward; on Saturday we would hike the North Twin Trail to North Twin Mountain and then continue ascending to South Twin. From there we would drop down to to Zealand Mountain and then continue descending to our campsite near Zealand Falls AMC Hut. On Sunday we hike to the top of Hale, then connect back to the North Twin trail using the often-traveled Fire Warden’s Path.
So much of the winter had been filled with cold pre-dawn starts, so as we parked the car at the end of Little River Road under sunny skies and warming temperatures, I took a moment to appreciate it. I love snow and cold temperatures, but sometimes it’s nice to not worry about frostbite.
After packing up for the overnight ahead and attaching Porter’s doggy backpack, we hit the trail. In the summer, you can drive all the way to the North Twin Trail on Haystack Road, but since the road is closed until the end of mud season we would have to bushwhack our way from the end of Little River Road to the trailhead. Luckily we were able to follow a fairly well traveled snowmobile trail that led us to almost directly to the start of the established path.
The North Twin Trail starts on the east bank of the Little River, then crosses to the west bank, back to the east, then back to the west bank again before ascending North Twin Mountain. Little River isn’t so little when rain has fallen in the region or warm temperatures have increased snow melt. Both of these scenarios had occurred in the couple days leading up to our hike.
Thankfully, a side-path diverges from the trail at the first water crossing and runs along the eastern bank of the river for a short distance before meeting up with the trail again, allowing hikers to skip two potentially hazardous river crossings.
After walking for a few miles we arrived at the last crossing. We took a look up and down the swiftly moving river and tried to formulate a plan. Employing much different techniques, Jason walked downstream to scramble and jump from boulder to boulder, while I found a large log to shimmy up.
Jason and Fred both got a good kick out of my technique as I struggled up the log; it was neither efficient nor smooth. But a few minutes later, I was standing dry on the other side of the river. Fred passed Porter over the river, shimmied up the log himself, and we were on our way again.
The grade kicked up and we started slowing down, dodging the small sections of ice on the steep trail. As we climbed, the temperature dropped, the brown leaves on the ground became covered with snow, and winter reminded us that it hadn’t left just yet.
Before long we reached the top of North Twin Mountain, checked another peak off the list, and took a few moments to appreciate the view of the Pemi Loop.
Continuing on, we quickly dropped into the flat col between North and South Twin, and began the ascent towards the south summit. Jason and I had already gotten our butts kicked by South Twin on our two-day Pemi Loop from the West, so we appreciated the more gradual grade on the northern approach. We soon scrambled up the rocky summit of South Twin and stopped to look around in disbelief.
Two months ago at that 4,902’ marker, it had been 5 degrees with 40+ mph winds and 6-foot tall snow drifts, a far cry from the cloudless sunny skies that now completely surrounded us.
After a couple minutes of relaxation we turned south and headed towards Mt. Zealand. We shuffled along the Twinway Trail for two miles before the forest opened up into the pristine fields surrounding the summit of Mt Guyot.
We quickly hopped up and over Mt. Guyot (not an official 4,000 footer), and descended down the other side towards Mt. Zealand. The descent was quick, but the occasional misstep off the packed snow would often end in a post-hole and a couple swears.
The trail leveled off and we continued moving quickly. We reached the intersection with the Zealand summit spur trail, hustled out to take a photo at the summit sign, then turned and headed onwards again.
As we continued our descent to Zealand Falls, the mileage started to wear away at us. We had already hiked 10 miles and ascended over 4,000 miles; we were beat.
The Twinway trail is steep as it descends to Zealand Falls, and it allowed for a good combination of downhill running and glissading while attempting to dodge the bare rocky sections. We were soon standing intact at the AMC hut and happy to be done with the downhill.
We quietly made our way to the hut’s porch, opened a couple granola bars, and started to rehydrate and satisfy our hunger as we stared out at the beautiful landscape surrounding us.
We eventually meandered down past the hut to set up camp. Inside the White Mountain National Forest it is illegal to camp within ¼ mile of any established campsite or hut, but we knew of some stealth camp-sites just at the edge of the Wilderness Protection Area.
We walked around the sites looking for some flat ground, and eventually found an icy area that was uniform enough to accommodate our large tarp. We set up camp then headed back up to the hut to make dinner.
As we entered the hut we were met with a commotion of a large group of overnighters cooking their dinner for the evening. We placed our wet gear near the fire, pulled out our Good To-Go backpacking rations, and tried to keep to our corner of the kitchen as we boiled our water and discussed the plans for the next day.
Our plan failed miserably as we were quickly approached by some very friendly members of the large group. They immediately apologized for the loudness of their group, despite our assurances that the commotion was no bother. They followed up by offering us some wine and appetizers as we waited for our food to rehydrate.
We obliged and quickly were engaged in great conversation while munching down on prosciutto and toast with artichoke dip. We chatted with their group, amazed by the extreme effort they must have put forth to haul enough food to cook a multiple course meal for a crew of 20+ people, say nothing of the backpack completely full of wine. One member of the group spotted Porter hanging out on the porch and polled the entire population of the hut to ensure it was ok that a dog came in. With no objections, Porter came running in and was immediately lavished with attention and food scraps.
We laughed, drank, and ate our dinner amongst the overnighters before eventually deciding it was time to make our way to our beds. We stepped out onto the porch to admire the stars surrounding us for a few brief minutes, then headed down the icy steps towards our home for the evening.
“Well that certainly wasn’t the best night of sleep I’ve ever had,” Jason said when we woke up the next morning.
After arriving back at our shelter the night before we had laid down an emergency blanket for porter to sleep on, but she was so uncomfortable with the noise and texture of it that she refused to lie down. Instead, she nudged her way to the head of Fred’s sleeping pad, which then forced him off the bottom of the pad.
Additionally, the temperature from 3 bodies in a closed tarp had warmed the ice enough that it had begun to melt. What the bottom half of Fred’s body was lying on was essentially a thin layer of water on top of ice. As expected, the water had soaked through many sections of our bags by morning.
To make matters worse, the wind had picked up overnight and pulled up some of the stakes. Jason had awoken in the middle of the night to re-stake the tarp in the hard ice.
Needless to say, we were fairly exhausted in the morning in the morning, and after slowly packing up our possessions we stumbled up to the hut to make our oatmeal.
“At least we’re actually on time this trip,” Jason said, referencing our extraordinary ability to start an hour late on every overnight we had done together.
I nodded in agreement until I heard a hut-goer mention daylight savings time. We had forgotten to adjust our watches, and we were already 45 minutes behind.
We hurried to finish our breakfast, bid farewell to the crew, and shouldered our packs. It was 2.9 miles to the top of Hale, the 43rd 4,000 footer.
Porter was protesting, and refused to wear her backpack. Once Fred forced it on her, she howled and cried when faced at the first steep uphill, and refused to budge. She was vocalizing exactly how we felt.
Just like us, Porter eventually gave in and started moving slowly.
The short ascent seemed to continue on and on. We were all tired from the poor night’s rest, but we kept pushing. After what felt like hours, we finally saw the clearing at the summit of Hale and started to speed toward the opening. We popped out into the open and immediately spotted the enormous cairn, thankful to be done with the last summit of the weekend.
After snapping a few photos we turned and headed down the Fire Warden’s trail, an unofficial descent that runs from the summit of Hale down to the North Twin Trail that we had hiked the day before. Fred did the honor of removing Porter’s pack and she started sprinting down the mountain and leaping through the woods, beyond enthused to finally be free.
The switchbacked descent among the birch trees went quickly. We all took turns stumbling a bit on the ice and even slipped and landed flat on the ground at times, but we laughed it off and continued on.
Before we knew it we had linked back up with the North Twin Trail and were standing back at the Little River bank. Unbelievably, we remarked, the weather was even better than the previous day. We turned north and headed back to the car. 43 summits down, 5 to go.