Trip Report: Awash in powder in Zealand

Mt Zealand attempt, 4260 feet. 2019-10-24 (Thursday.) Via the Zealand Road, Zealand Trail, and the Twinway.

10 dF or so throughout the day. Winds in the 10-15 MPH range in more open areas, moderated when in tree cover. Partly sunny throughout the day, with high altitude clouds casting the odd bit of shade here and there. (Also some very obvious brisk high altitude winds blowing those clouds across the sky.) 

Car Park: 0845. Trailhead: 1015. Zealand hut: 1200. Turnaround: 1300. Zealand hut: 1330. Trailhead: 1500. Car: 1645. Sunset: 1704. 

There was a foot of powder. What can I say? 

So the lede says it all. It was an hour of step-slip, step-slip on a pretty steep incline. But if that’s all it was, I’d have summited for sure. As things went, of course… hey, it’s winter, and the road to the trailhead is closed. A hike that might have been nailed down in a few short hours was made about 7 1/2 miles longer the instant they shut the gate. Harry Jekyll, meet Edward Hyde. I now know why people suffer a night in an unheated hut on the side of that mountain. 

Heading up, things were fairly pedestrian on my fresh legs. The road in is fantastically long, and by about halfway, I was having doubts I’d ever reach the trailhead. There was a group of locals (Bethlehem and St J’s) on skis having a fantastic outing; kindly, they let me pass fairly early on. If you’ve driven it only in summer, you’re forgiven for forgetting the road pitches up pretty robustly early on, and then thinking it’s pretty flat after that. Rest assured, you make a bit of a climb over those three miles. 

Some of last night’s guests… finally! 

After the trailhead, I began to see overnighters on their way down. Two guys proclaimed themselves the guys who broke out the trail to the hut, and I later found out from the caretaker that this was indeed true. Their bearing was one of snow-stomping machines, and I wished later on that they’d decided to spend some of the morning heading up to Zeacliff. T’was not to be. But they were quite nice in conversation, and hey, they’d already done quite strong work, which I was already enjoying. 

I probably saw about a dozen or so more people, several on skis. I was happy to have such nice footing to the hut as they made, but each who stopped for a short chat told of completely unbroken trail above the hut. One group of four women had come over from Hale, so I knew above the junction with Lend-A-Hand trail, I’d be on my own. (Their bit of trail breaking that I enjoyed, from the hut to the junction, was also a solid effort.) At the hut, this was confirmed by the caretaker. She added that it felt like yesterday’s arrivals were “a race to be last, so they wouldn’t have to break trail.” Not just that, but I was told there were 15 cancellations last night. Who among those might have been the ones to break trail up to Zealand’s peak? Apparently none. It was going to be all me. Argh! 


And so I found myself at the junction, looking at a trail covered in unblemished snow, just a little after noontime. I set forth. When I reached the trailhead, I was thinking Zealand, with West Bond as a “nice to grab”. Not long after leaving the junction, I’d completely forgotten about even reaching Guyot, thinking Zealand, or even Zeacliff would be “nice to grab.” The powder was knee-deep in places, a mere eight to twelve or so inches everywhere else, and it was bone-dry, and completely unconsolidated. 

After half an hour of soul-crushing work, making upward progress to somewhere near halfway to Zeacliff, and perhaps one in the afternoon before turning around, became the end goal. I was feeling cooked, but I wasn’t ready to bag the trip without at least making it to some kind of halfway point. There was much frustration, much thought on the meaning of “Type II fun”, and a lot of sweating. And with all that, no small amount of thinking about the time it would take to get back to the car, and what time was sunset… gah, I wished for some companions to share the trail breaking duties with. Many hands make light work as they say. 

Time to go!

As the hour hand crossed the one o’clock mark, it became quite sunny through the trees, and within a few yards or so was a small sag. I pushed forward and made that my goal for the day. Descending, I tried to clean up the trail a little, and y’know, doing that is a lot easier when you have gravity working with you. There was a little skiing on my snowshoes here and there… did I mention the powder was deep and bone-dry? Finally I made it back to the hut, and I signed the register with a short description of what I’d managed to accomplish. Hey, it was something. 

Hiking back down, the trail was easier until stuff flattened out. And then, it was just a very long six and a half miles to the car. I might have felt a bit cooked while breaking trail. Now, with all those hard miles behind me, I was feeling outright broken. For someone else, there’s a bit of an easier hike up to Zeacliff, and beyond that, getting to Zealand’s peak is a fair bit flatter mileage. One would hope a few people might take their turn on the sharp end, and perhaps next week, I can nail this one down. We’ll see. 

As always, stay safe out there.

Nuts and Bolts: From 93, make your way to Route 302, and head in the general direction of the Cog Railway. Pass the normal entrance for Zealand, which in winter will be closed. Park at the snowmobile parking that’s about a quarter mile down and across the street. If you come out of the parking area and hoof it across 302, you’ll note that between the road and river is a snow machine route. Hiking here will keep you away from highway traffic, but remember to keep your head on a swivel. Snow machines pop up with little advance notice, and they move swiftly. 

After you reach the trailhead… Blazes are blue until you hit the AT, and white while on any section of the AT. The blue blazes are reasonably visible, but the white blazes both blend in with the snow, and most of them are in need of a refresh. The hut is open in winter on a “caretaker” basis only. This means limited services are available. Count on cold water, no food except that which you’ve packed, and not much else except basic shelter. (And don’t expect a Croo. I’ve never seen more than one staffer at any time in the winter.) Find further info on overnighting in the huts on the AMC’s website. 

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