by John V. Bellantoni, your cybah-spaced mountain correspondent

1984-1985 Mt. Hale, New Hampshire

Mt HaleIt's a beautifully clear and cold late December day as Fife and JB drive up to New Hampshire in Fife's Mom's El Camino. The plan is to hike Zeeland Notch and climb one of the mountains that form the notch. Arriving at the Rt. 302 parking lot, the snow is deep enough that they have to shovel a spot.

Zeeland Notch is the northern gateway into a vast wilderness area defined by Route 302 to the northeast, the Kangie in the south, and Rt. 3 to the west. In this rugged land are numerous peaks capped in snow covered beauty. Just east of Zeeland is Crawford Notch, and the presidential range rising above all of New England. Throeau Falls, Franconia Notch and the Pemmigewassett wilderness are among the treasures buried deep within this mountain region. Crowds made up of everything from clueless vacationers to serious backpackers arrive during the summer months, but the onset of winter brings only emptiness and true wilderness survival.

But not at the start of the trip. The wide trail from the highway is a gentle grade, and therefore loaded with cross-country skiers. A few of the skiers are going to, or returning from, the Zeeland Notch Hut. Most others are there just for the day. The duo hike slowly with backpacks and snowshoes. They are not moving quickly, and dusk is approaching. Striking east off the main trail, they bushwack for maybe 100 yards before finding a nice spot to camp.

It's classic early eighties high impact style survival camping. Leather boots. No saws. Fresh apple cider and tin foil wrapped frozen meats and potatoes cooked over an open fire. All abandoned in later years but for now they fall about the place gathering fire wood, packing down a tent platform and hauling in big logs to sit on. One of the reasons they were hiking so slowly is the gallon of fresh apple cider lashed to JB's pack. A fire is soon roaring and the apple cider is heated to boiling. Fife has got plenty of rum too. Mumm, hot toddies and haebars in the winter woods is better than getting laid....not.

An early start is not made the next morning and the duo are passed in both directions by skiers. After a long hike they eventually find out why. Straight up a steep slope from the trail sits the Zeeland Notch Hut. Run by the New Hampshire Appalachian Trail Club, it stays open during the winter to cater to yuppie skiers. The two scramble up the steep slope to the hut where they are welcomed by the caretakers. It's Sunday night and last night's full house has gone home, so there is plenty of room. A couple of other skiers arrive. The guys cook dinner and work on their packs, which are in a state of disarray. They leave the frozen food outside and crash out in the hut's bunk bed room, where conversation drops off as one by one tired guests fall asleep.

The second morning finds the duo feeling stronger. Two tough days on the ski trail and a good night's sleep leave them thirsting for adventure. Mt. Hale is a 4100 feet peak somewhere behind the Notch, and the Geologic Survey map shows a southwestern trail to the top. They set off. Making steady progress they plunge deep into the White Mountain wilderness. After a long, rising section of trail under Douglas Fir trees, they snowshoe into a more open, steep mountain grade and are up to their armpits. The pace slows to a crawl as snowshoes get caught in the deep snow. Wearing snowshoes the climbers post in chest deep and can't move. So they take off the snowshoes and flounder in over their heads. The snowshoes are tried like makeshift shovels to dig their way up. It's deep powder, then suddenly the snow will change to hard frozen over, then back to deep powder.

Both by now are quite tired. JB abandons the snowshoe shovel technique, and continues moving forward slowly using a stroke that a swimmer would identify as the snowbound version of the Australian Crawl. "More like fucking crawling," Fife recalls. The past two years have seen them abandon summit attempts, and neither wants to quit now. Fife and JB continue all afternoon battling away, taking turns at front. The temperature is dropping, and the duo is getting very wet from perspiration and melting snow. Within several hundred feet of the summit the snow changes for good, allowing the guys to get back up on top of the snow with snowshoes. They know they will make the summit now, and stop to compose themselves and assess the situation. It's too cold to stay in one place for very long. The final steep grade to the summit is attacked.

frozen peak

Meanwhile, unknown to the HAE team, a local college was giving a one day class on winter hiking. About a dozen gomers along with Mr. Instructor were snow shoeing their way up to the top of Mt. Hale, following a northeastern trail. That trail goes directly from the Rt. 302 parking lot to the top in a four mile long hike. The group had just barely been able to reach the summit, and where justifiably proud. The instructor was delighted that his students for the day had succeeded and that they appreciated his efforts to teach them snowshoeing. A beautiful clear and blustery cold day was upon them. To the east looms Mt. Washington. Looking south from the peak was a vast rugged wilderness region of jumbled snow capped peaks and deep valleys. Awe inspiring.

"Hey what was that?" asks one very tired gomer who was looking at the spectacular southern view. Others turned in that direction to see. There was some movement in the virgin snow. "Hey what could that be?" said another. A buzz arose among the group, and most turned to look southwest, looking into the wind, looking into a deep vast forbidden region of uncharted snow and terrorizing emptiness.

Striding and chuffing toward them over untouched snow, with backpacks and frost coated faces, were two handsome and ruggedly built climbers. It's JB and Fife bagging the summit from the southwest. They were hiking powerfully now with the peak in sight. "Howdy, how ya' all doing!" said JB. He was also surprised to find someone on the summit, but not overly so, considering all the gomers the team had seen previously. Mr. Instuctor's jaw drops in amazement. So did several other gomers who were familiar with the region, and knew that the southwest trail started deep in the wilderness. Cameras clicked. Questions were fired at the duo in rapid succession.

"Where did you guys come from?" asks Gomer #1 in total disbelief. JB knows how to make the best of a situation. "Oh...errr...somewhere back there," he replies vaguely, motioning toward wilderness behind him.

"How long have you been out there?" asks Gomer #2 in total disbelief. Fife knew the game was afoot. "Ahh... I don't know ya know... umm...maybe three or four days" he replies offhandedly.

"You mean you guys have been backpacking out there for days?!?" asks Gomer #3 in total disbelief, his head nodding toward the wilderness.

They were beginning to understand the magnitude of HAE's summit bid. Soon the HAE team was surrounded by gomers wanting to know all the details. They wanted to know all about their camping trip. They wanted to know how HAE survives winter nights camping on snow. They wanted to know what equipment and food HAE was carrying, and what was that jug of apple cider for. The questions were non-stop for a while and the team did their best to face the media attention. Several of the gomers, who had barely made it to the top, were female. It wasn't long before JB was taking advantage of his recently gained celebrity status to make some time with an attractive young college student; his shark like instincts were telling him she could be a potentially easy score.

Well that was enough for Mr. Instructor. Forgotten by his students, and watching his chance to get some poon-tang of his own melt in the snow, he was looking rather annoyed at the entire situation. So he rounded up his class and headed them down off the mountain, tossing HAE a dirty look upon leaving. "Hey I thought we were going to stay here a while," one of the gomers complained. Both JB and Fife were more than happy to see them go. Fucking gomers were ruining their wilderness experience. They were tired of answering stupid assed questions, and the nasty conditions had prevented JB from getting a phone number. The wind was too biting for standing around on the summit any longer, so just down the trail they stopped and celebrated HAE's first successful summit with some whiskey and a haebar. After eating a little, they too abandoned.

Packed down by the gaggle of hikers, the crunchy trail allowed for fast descending. Soon the team had descended to around 2500 feet, were open hardwood forest greeted them. Perfect wintah' camping woods. Hiking several hundred yards off the trail, camp is made near a clear stream. It's the ideal spot, and it's New Years Eve to boot. The view of the Presidential Range centered around Mt. Washington is unbelievable. The HAE duo fire up hot toddies and have a New Years Eve party with Mt. Washington majesticly shinning in the bright moon light. Tired and trashed, the crew eventually crashes out late to the sound of trees booming in the subzero night.

A survival situation arises the next morning when the team discovers that they no longer have any booze. Last night, JB in his drunken trashiness left the bottle top only lightly twisted on. It had fallen over, and the contents leaked out. With White Trash Night scheduled next, this was clearly unacceptable. So after talking it over they decide to leave camp set up, head into town, get some more whiskey, and then head back up to camp. The hike out is quick, and once in Conway, NH, Fife gets a Big Mac attack, after all this was the longest he had been in the winter wood, and he was dying for a burger. JB gets one too. "Hey don't tell anyone we did that," Fife instructs JB in a pang of elitist mountaineering guilt. They get back up to camp with plenty of daylight left, and do camp chores like breaking big branches into little ones using the crotch of a double tree.

Last Night in the Woods goes on as planned, and the duo wake up the next morning sorry that the trip is over. It has been a most excellent adventure. A big peak was bagged, gomers were impressed, and Mt. Washington has gleamed down approvingly upon them for two nights as they partied and camped in an ice cold winter wonderland. Survival in the winter wood, HAE style!

Copyright 1999 John Bellantoni and HAE