With familiar tipsy parties and ragged resolutions approaching, my sister and I ran for the hills. To be accurate, we snow shoed slowly, but the overnight escape blew away all dreaded notions of New Years Eve on the cold, snowy New Hampshire air.
Unfortunately ours was not a trip of great mountaineering, with the clock ticking down, we stuffed packs with bolstering trail food. But like preparing for a beach vacation in the midst of winter, planning for the backcountry after time in the city has it’s hazards and we ended up with packs lopsided with food and gear for days, including an actual bottle of Prosecco. We fled New Year’s Eve, but in our enthusiasm believed it a good idea to carry the hallmark of the holiday on our back. If we hadn’t grown up on “leave no trace,” we might have left a trail of our poor choices behind like breadcrumbs.
We chose the AMC beloved Zealand Fall’s Hut which stays open all year long, run by a caretaker in the off season, when the “kitchen is self serve, they may light a fire after 4:00 pm and will give you a pillow.” Although downhill skiers since we could walk, we lacked winter hiking or snowshoeing experience. If we had, some wryly told me later, we would have known better than to snow shoe.
As we crossed into New Hampshire and the snow fell harder we realized that the access road to the Zealand Hut would in fact, be closed, or rather, not plowed, doubling the hike distance to 6.2 miles each way, not insignificant on snowshoes. This brought some debate, but I was on break from graduate school and badly in need of deep nature immersion and Christina is a great partner in crime for any adventure. Committed to the alternate path, we drove through falling snow up Franconia Notch and parked in drifts off the edge of Route 302.
We took in the unblemished snow, walking in silence through sharp mountain air, the quiet broken only by our plodding “step-thwap, step-thwap, step-thwap,” as we kicked the snow up the back of our pants and pack with each stride. After a mile or so, Christina remarked that the lack of a glide when you expect your foot to flow gracefully forward was kind of a downer, and I had to admit that this might, in fact, be true. Still the falling snow swirled around us with fluffy detail like paper cutouts. We were in the woods on New Years, and it was everything you could imagine it should be.
By the time we got to the actual trailhead, the winter midway point, we were ready to throw the snowshoes off the trail. In hindsight this might have helped us go faster since the snowfall had not accumulated heavilyyet. But a product of our family’s enthusiastic, but sometimes misguided, adventures, we pushed on and settled into an easy, sisterly groove.
Christina, “J, I hate this.”
Me, “No, it’s awesome!”
“No, it really isn’t” [moaning, giggles]
“Yeah, but it’ll a great story.”
“Okay but I think my hip flexors is rolling up.”
“Do you want food? And then you will have less to carry. Wait, actually I have really good trail mix in my pack. ”
The banter was broken with explosive laughter, the kind when you realize you are acting like an idiot and give in because who cares, another gift of nature.
We paused at times, silent in appreciation of the snow globe we stood inside, trees and rocks coated in accumulating snow, as streams burbling away underneath a frozen glaze.
And then we settled back into bemoaning newfound workout targets and wondering at millennia of people who traveled by snowshoe. Pretty much just your average poorly planned type II fun.
At the foot bridge over the lower pond in the valley under the mountain peaks we stopped and honored a longstanding Donahue tradition, sending a light dusting of M&M’s to the mountain gods, and squirrels, as our family has done for decades when they came this way. Well, ever since a king sized bag of M&M disastrously broke open in the hands of an uncle, who will remain nameless because I cannot recall which one, scattering across the bridge to the horror of the young cousins looking on. Turning the loss into an opportunity for fun the spill became an impromptu tradition.
As we stood looking across the frozen pond, the snowfall shifted from delicately artful to windblown and slightly concerning. Christina buckled down with impressive speed as clouds loomed over the mountain where the Hut awaited us. We grew up in New England, hiking many of the 4,000 footers along with our father and know the power of these mountains. Another childhood mountain memory was of the memorial cairns dotting Mount Washington. We knew not to bring hubris to the mountains.
As we approached the stone steps leading up to the Hut, the only real steeps on the Zealand trail, the snow came down heavily blanketing us, and the darkness with it. We wondered at the hour and our irresponsibility at setting out so late, goofing around, and putting ourselves at risk. When she toppled into a bush after stepping one snowshoe on the other, utterly frustrated, Christina muttered, “Leave me. Just go on with out me. I’m going to stay here and rest.” Knowing this was unacceptable, we prodded each other up the steeps, in the final stretch.
Breathing heavily my sister and I looked out across the uninterrupted Pemigewasset Wilderness, the glow of Zealand Hut warming us from behind. We were tired but satisfied. We stumbled into the Hut, greeted by “hey-oh’s” “Happy New Years!” and room was full of the usual summer AMC suspects, only more festive for the winter chill outside.
Only then that we realized it was barely 4:30, much of the lengthy darkness was from the stormy cloud cover and our fierce backcountry adventure was well within the bounds of safety. Nonetheless happy in our achievements, and our warm seat on the bench, hot cocoa in hand, we watched revelers and urban escapees roll in over the next few hours, some having set out in darkness by headlamps. Dinners was cooked in shifts, side by side, pots and pans passed around the steamy kitchen, laughter and old fashioned games filling the hut on the side of the snowy mountain as true darkness set in.
The evening faded on, by Appalachian Mountain Club standards, and at 8:00pm we conceded defeat, sleep calling us. Faking midnight, just as our parents had when we were kids, we opened the Prosecco outside the Hut in the cutting cold air, took a swig each to reflect with gratitude on the year and then cheerfully handed off the bottle to our newfound friends, promising we would pack it out if they drank it down.
Christina and I bundled on extra dry layers in the frigid but somehow musty coziness of the communal bunkroom, our damp breathe hung in the air, illuminated in the beams of our headlamps in an eerie but satisfying way, like proof of life, or at least our effort that day.
It wasn’t an epic backcountry adventure, compared to some before and since, but I remember this New Year’s trip fondly. It was special not in spite of the all the absurdity and mishaps but because of them. And perhaps more because we set out to do something different that night and we followed through in all the snowy, sisterly, historic Appalachian Mountain Club glory. So often I set massive adventure goals, with the passport, visas, multiple international flights. But that New Year’s, we crossed a state border, stepped out of the car into the snowfall and our fairly unused snowshoes and set off into the woods for the night. The adventure was as much within us as it was the route, the commitment to the other path, however absurd, that we took daily as children, and so often forget about as adults. Exploration, curiosity and chances worth taking.
And I think this New Year’s Eve I will escape the standard to the backcountry again, but this time think I will leave the snowshoes behind and bring along something with a bit more glide. Maybe a sled ;)