Expectations on Hale

Submitted by Nancy

Mountains: Mt. Hale (4,054)
Date: March 15, 2008
Time: 7 hours
Weather: Cloudy, temperature 30's at the bottom and low 20's at the summit
Miles: 10
Elevation Gain: 2,545
Steps: 24,968
Trail: Zealand Road -- Hale Brook Trail

Picture Gallery

So Pat and I have one more Saturday to try and bag a winter peak before the official ending of winter at the Vernal Equinox on March 20, even though winter will hold onto the New Hampshire Whites well past March. I pick Hale because I'm hoping for easy. Our last hike was Washington; sidestepping steep climbing in a refrigerator, and we turned around just short of Monroe's summit. I remember Hale as one of the easier 4,000-footers when we hiked it in the summer. So my expectation is easy...

On the slow, slippery drive up to Twin Mountain through beautiful falling snow, I take out my Smith and Dickerman 4,000-Footer book and read up on Hale. Ya gotta love those guys for this book that makes bagging New Hampshire's 48 easy, but could they get working on the 67 4,000 footers in New England? We could use some help with Maine. Anyway, reading the "Hale in Winter" entry I come to this paragraph:

"While the hike up Hale is considered among the easiest in summer and fall, it is a different story in winter. Because Zealand Road is closed to motor vehicle traffic in winter, any effort to reach the mountain by the Hale Brook Trail means an additional 2.8 miles of road walking each way. The cushy 2.2 mile one-way summer jaunt is stretched to 5 miles. The round trip hike is suddenly an epic 10 mile battle."

Epic 10-mile battle being the key words here, folks.

Well, I pay no mind to the facts on the page. "Easy" is still my expectation as we set out on Zealand Road at 9:45 am.

The road to the trail is hefty, but seems to go quickly and by 11 am we are climbing Hale. It kicks off at a decent moderate grade, but Pat and I have been exercising all week starting with Washington on Monday, so I can feel my legs already. Not a good sign, but this is an easy 4,000 footer so I am not worried. Up we go through a few inches of new snow, crusty hard pack underneath. As we hit the steeper parts, it gets slippery so we put on our snowshoes that immediately start to grow snow clumps on the bottoms. It feels like I am walking in high heels made for Bozo the Clown. Great, so tired legs, dragging snowshoes with 2-pound snowballs hanging off them. Easy is looking less likely...whose ideas was this anyway? Hale -- Easy? Is any 4,000 footer easy in winter?

We arrive at a neat little stretch that requires we have ankles of flexible rubber where we have to traverse along a steep side slope. Probably in the summer and fall, this is an cinch, but the snow has filled in any hope of a trail and we are walking at a precarious angle, trying not to tumble down into the ravine, which, by the way, is so far down that we can't see the bottom. I throw "easy" out the window and now secretly, I am just hoping I can make it. I am angry I'm struggling and consider making the universal wimp sign -- hold three fingers, index through ring, up against your forehead, but I have mittens on, so I don't.

Making our way along the traverse is agonizingly slow and tough work on our right quadriceps. No worries, Pat reminds me that we will get to work the other side coming back! All of a sudden I hear the snow crunching and I look up from my sideways slogging to see Pat take a tumble and head toward the ravine. Luckily there is a tree in the way and she comes to a halt. She's okay, gets up like a trooper and plows her way back up to the trail. You go girl!

We take a number of breaks on this sweet side traverse and notice a cool thing. As our snowshoes break the new snow surface, they send little snowballs careening down the slope into the ravine. I can feel my child within sparkle as I say, "wow!" Each snowshoe fall releases a team of snowballs, and they race down to their deaths in the ravine. Some break apart, some are too big and just don't get up the necessary momentum, but some are small and round and roll down the slope leaving an imprint of their journeys, a track we trace to see how far they make it before smashing into a tree. But we have this god-awful traverse to finish, so we keep plodding. My ankles are starting to talk with me, asking me what the heck I think I'm doing trying to touch my ankle to the side of my foot. They are telling me they are not made to do that, and they would like me to adjust my stance. Sorry, no can do!

We finally finish the traverse and the trail heads up, steeply. That's okay, I say to myself, this is a 4,000-footer. We have to gain some altitude! So up we go. Up and up and up. After a good bit of trudging, both Pat and I are sure we are almost at the summit. I mean for heaven sake this is only 2.3 miles up from the trailhead - we must have done that! We keep going up. My legs are finished. I decide a bit of positive thinking might help. I tell Pat that we are 500 yards, or five sees from the top. One see is as far as the eye can see in one seeing. We both feel better. We rest our hope in my omnipotent knowing. Yeah, right...

But it is wishful thinking. We keep slogging up. Five sees, seven sees, ten sees. I stop counting. The trees turn white with rime ice, and then they turn to ice covered with rime ice. And we continue slogging up. There is no such thing as an EASY 4,000 footer. I repeat that as I climb so I won't ever have that expectation again. I look back up at the trail. Surely we are almost to the top! We continue to watch the snowballs loosened by our snowshoes, tumble down the slopes as we walk. We start cheering for the snowballs. (What does this tell you, folks?)

The trail continues up, and every so often we hit another side slope so we are going up sideways. Who made this trail anyway? I scream into the woods. Was this their first trail ever and they didn't know that sidestepping is difficult, especially in snowshoes? I stop and chomp on a few icicles, buying breathing time. I want to blame someone, maybe Smith & Dickerman, but they told the truth - which just leaves me and my "easy" expectations.

My legs are aching. I stop, bend over and stretch my hamstrings and lower back, while drawing a star in the snow. This star marks the spot where I feel I can't go any further. I stare at it, zone out for a moment. Pat stops and looks back at me with a what-are-you-doing look and I continue on ... and on and on. In the privacy of my soul, I decide I'm throwing my snowshoes and winter hiking boots away when I get home. We turn a corner and I see that the trail continues. I decide I am going to give all my winter hiking clothes to the Salvation Army.

We stop stopping because we know if we don't get up there soon, we will never make it. So we put our heads down and up we go. We don't talk. Laughing has ceased for the moment. This is serious business. Get up this mountain, NOW. Minutes pass, it feels like hours. My legs are burning. Then, I hear Pat yelling with what sounds like glee. The summit is in sight. Oh thank GOD!

We arrive on the top and take pictures of us sitting on the summit cairn. Then we do a primal yelling of a very bad word as loud as we possibly can. This feels good!

The hike down is much easier than the hike up and we wonder what we were complaining about. But we know what to expect going down. Even the traverse isn't so bad. We laugh as we cheer on the tiny snowballs running rampant down the slopes, like little kids. We are lighthearted, though our legs are toast.

The walk along Zealand Road goes on FOREVER. We get back to the car at 5:06, totally DUN and ready for a warm car and a relaxing 3-hour-ride back home.

Rubber ankles and cheering for mini-snowballs and hollering swearwords and aching muscles are our hallmarks on Hale. We are two 50-plus-year-old women having a blast, even when we are slogging through the unexpected, not knowing when we will reach the summit. I guess I'll keep my winter hiking gear.

14 out of the Winter 48