While hiking at night up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail toward the Hermit Lake Shelters below New Hampshire’s Mount Washington a number of years ago, I puzzled at a canned ham stuck in a snow bank.
A few yards farther up I encountered other food items and assorted gear similarly scattered along the path. I could hear shouting and cursing ahead.
Propelled as much by curiosity as a desire to reach shelter and burrow in my sleeping bag before tackling the summit the next day, I pushed forward and soon solved the mystery.
Half a dozen college-age guys were dragging an enormous toboggan laden with hundreds of pounds of supplies up the steep slope, and little by little they were jettisoning cargo to lighten the load. Among the last provisions they would sacrifice, I suspected, was a case of beer lashed down with rope.
The exhausted crew staggered noisily to the shelter hour later, and one peek through the zippered opening in my bag proved my prediction about the beer had been accurate.
I thought about their Sisyphusian struggle the other day as I slogged the last few yards to Zealand Falls Hut, perched more than half a mile high at the eastern edge of the Pemigewasset Wilderness in New Hampshire’s White Mountains.
For three miles I had cross-country skied while towing a plastic sled loaded with about 60 pounds of gear along a relatively flat, unplowed forest road. Then the road ended and a winding, 2.8-mile path to the hut began. Because the narrow trail was deeply rutted and crossed several streams I found it easier to hike, so I took off my skis, strapped them to the sled and plodded rather than schussed while still towing the sled.
This worked relatively efficiently until the last 500 feet, when the trail rose steeply over ice-covered rocks. A light rain that had been falling for the past hour switched to wind-driven sleet, and I didn’t want to undo the waterproof tarp covering my pack and dig around for hiking boots and grippers, so I slipped and slid while dragging the cursed sled. I also may have let loose with a few profanities.
At this point a crew of skiers also heading to the shelter that had started out behind me caught up and I thought to myself, this is a nice way to make an impression. My buddy Phil Plouffe, who had arrived ahead of me, came back to help me pull the sled the last 50 yards, and a few minutes later we all stamped up the steps to the wooden shelter, tired but happy to be out of the wretched elements.
“We made it!” cried Rick Ely of Stonington, a longtime friend who organized the expedition.
In addition to Phil, Rick and me there were four others: Rick’s wife, Laura; and Jeff Parker, Andrew Watson and Chris Smarz, who all work in the bike store Rick and a partner own, Mystic Cycle Centre. The purpose of this outing, as if we needed one, was to celebrate Andrew’s birthday.
Zealand Falls Hut, owned and operated by the Appalachian Mountain Club, is one of several White Mountain shelters open to hikers all year. A few years earlier I had spent a week as a winter caretaker a few miles north at the Gray Knob Shelter owned and operated by the Randolph Mountain Club. Over the years I’ve also bunked at virtually every shelter in the Whites, as well as pitched tents at campsites and hunkered down in just about every lean-to, when my son, Tom and I were tagging all 67 of the 4,000-foot-plus-high mountains in New England.
Zealand is one of the most accessible and one of my favorite winter destinations because the unheated bunkrooms are directly off the main cabin instead of located in separate buildings, making it a relatively easy transition from dinner table to sleeping bag. Also, the outhouse connects to the cabin.
Caretaker Steve Frens lit the wood stove right on schedule at 4 p.m., and soon our quarters were relatively toasty.
Zealand has a giant gas stove and Steve kept a pot of water boiling that we used to prepare meals of couscous, Ramen noodles, oatmeal, hot chocolate, soup and other backpacking staples.
I’ve hiked and climbed extensively with Phil, a Mystic mail carrier who has traversed the notoriously treacherous Khumbu Icefall en route to Camp IV at 26,300 feet on Mount Everest, and have been on several outings with Rick, an extraordinary triathlete and cyclist who once raced his bicycle for 19 straight hours on a course covering a portion of Alaska’s fabled Iditarod dogsled competition. I also run occasionally with Rick and Laura, but before this trip hadn’t known Jeff, Andrew or Chris except by reputation as hard-core cyclists.
Nothing develops friendships faster than a winter mountain expedition, particularly during long, trash-talk filled games of the card game Uno that followed dinner. We all teased Jeff for his Elmer Fudd-like hat; took pity on Chris because he had the least-warm parka and taunted Andrew for reaching the ripe old age of 27.
To his credit, Andrew graciously shared the cupcake Laura had thoughtfully carried in, though it appeared to have been somewhat mushed during a fall.
The hut can accommodate 36 but we were the only guests, which made it easier to cook, spread out gear and dry clothes on wooden racks lowered from the ceiling with a rope.
We initially contemplated hiking or skiing to higher elevations the next day, perhaps a few miles to Mount Bond and Bondcliff, which have among the most exceptional views in New England, but the forecast called for 120-mph winds and temperatures in the single digits.
Been there, done that.
So after breakfast in the morning we hiked back down the icy trail. This time I wore my backpack and strapped grippers to my boots – a vast improvement.
While the others put on skis at the base I decided to continue hiking for the 2.7 remaining miles along Zealand Trail, which had iced up during the night. Though it took me a little while longer to cover the distance, I didn’t slam into any trees as I feared I would had I been on skis.
The others took a few tumbles but otherwise successfully navigated the tricky terrain.
After arriving at the snow-covered road I took the pack off my back, lashed it to the sled, wrapped a towline under my arms, donned my skis and took off back toward the parking lot.
Some ski-packers build elaborate harnesses out of plastic piping to keep from being run down by the sled on downhill stretches, but I stuck with a rope and pretty much avoided such mishaps on a road that was mostly flat with a few gradual declines.
Only once did the sled get ahead of me, and then as if it had eyes veered directly across my path. Down I went in a tangle of rope and poles, but quickly righted myself and resumed the descent, happy at least that no one had witnessed my humiliating crash.
Zealand Falls Road ends on Route 302 near Breton Woods, and the final quarter-mile drops at its steepest angle. The road also was iciest here.
Just before the downhill plunge I slipped the towrope over my head and gave the sled bearing my pack a gentle push. It rocketed away and I followed, snowplowing on skis.
I caught up to the sled just before Route 302, where our cars were parked, and pulled it the rest of the way.
Andrew helped me carry the sled across the road to the parking lot, even though he had a couple of nasty blisters from wearing new ski boots.
“You know,” I said, “crazy outdoor people are the only ones that can go off with heavy packs in the freezing cold, snow, sleet and ice, spend a night in a cabin with no electricity, and then rave about what a great time they had.”
He nodded. “And then say, ‘Can’t wait to do that again.’”