Archives for February 1992

Zealand Falls Hut

Presidential Mountains, NH

Less than 24 ours have passed since I began my trek up this mountain, but in that time, the ordeal I put myself through could fill many days if taken at an average pace.

It started out rather innocuously with a hike from Zealand road up towards the hut. The road was closed, so that added an extra 4 miles to the trip. I got a rather late start by hitting the trail at 3:30 — it would mean hiking at least part of the time in the dark.

While on the trail, the snow began to fall with increasing weight and speed. I bundled up and only my eyes were exposed to the elements. Tracks abound — mostly rabbit, but occasionally there were bird, moose, or people tracks. The rate of snowfall let me know they were quite recent, for turning around revealed that even my own tracks were being erased at an alarming rate.

Soon, the darkness set in and I began to face the reality that I would not arrive at the hut by light. In fact, I might not even arrive at all if I were not careful. Though fully prepared with food, stove and tent on my back, there was a tremendous lure to being in the company of others at an existing shelter. I had chosen to go as far as the trail head for the hut, and make a decision from there: camp or push on.

A full mile from the trail head, I felt my energy reserves dropping. I had what would have been a ‘lunch’ for dinner, as I did not want to waste time cooking. It was difficult to drink enough water, as my bottle was rapidly turning to slush. It may well have been my continued motion which kept the contents from solidifying. The trick was to strike a balance between drinking enough water for my body’s needs, while at the same time keeping my stomach from freezing due to its extreme cold. As it was, droplets continued to freeze to the hair on my face.

After eating, the desire to simply stop in the middle of the road and pitch camp fell into conflict with the desire to press on. It was almost 6:00 at that time, and I knew that at least it would not get any darker. The snow reflected bits of light that had no apparent source, and my eyes had adjusted to pick up on even the smallest of details. I then realized that a full 10 minutes had passed as I stood motionless in my inability to make a decision.

My goal was now to simply make it to the trail head. From there, I would recognize where I was, and could either camp or continue towards the hut. No sooner had I made that resolve when the trail-head was upon me. It was 6:15. I knew where I was. Definite signs of fatigue were setting in, and there were still 2.5 miles to go if I were to reach the hut. The winds were now picking up, and there was another decision to be made. It seamed that each and every step was a small decision in itself, and I became aware of the fact that the hut might not be an attainable goal. I accepted that fatigue may very well win out on this journey and force me to stop in my tracks.

There was an ongoing dialogue in my head — I could go until I move no further, but I also had to keep enough energy to make camp should I not reach the hut. There were continued hypothermia checks, and I became aware of the fact that I was rapidly loosing the margin of safety that I had left with.

Drink. I must drink more water. No single item could effect my health more than adequate hydration, so I drank until my stomach began to cramp. Unfortunately, the water was so cold that I had only a few sips before this happened. I kept my trail mix handy, and continued to put little munchies of fuel into my body by the handful. The body is a machine, I thought, and it must be maintained or it will collapse.

Yet despite my fatigue, internal warmth was not a problem. I was well insulated, and I slowed my pace to reduce water loss. So once again I made the decision to press on. The time was 6:20.

Walking familiar trails lent a feeling of comfort to my trek, except that having now entered the woods, there was no light to be reflected. I now traveled by flashlight and directed my attention to staying on course. By daylight in the springtime, this "trail" has all the difficulty of a back-woods highway. By dark in a snowfall, the markers are ever so much further apart.

Now and then there would be a particular set of features that would clue me in to where I was — like a bridge, or a creek crossing. So when at last I arrived at Zealand pond, I KNEW I was just over a mile from the hut. As I approached, the pond was an incredibly welcome sight — until I finally stood at its edge.

Crossing the pond was done by walking on a series of logs which zigzagged its breadth. I knew the logs were there, but could not see them beneath the snow. There was a chance that the pond was frozen solid, but were it not, to fall in would almost certainly threaten my life. So it was with very ginger steps that I searched for the logs. Once I found the first one, the rest were not hard to follow. But then came the end of the third log.

There was still an open span of 10 feet between where I stood and where the trees grew out of the land. Was there a fourth log? I could not remember, nor could I find one. It was distinctly possible that I was at the end of the bridge, and all I needed to do was step to the land. But it was ALSO possible that I would step OFF of the log and into the pond. Kicking at the ground revealed only ice.

Preparing for the worst, I unbuckled my wait-belt to allow an easy escape should I fall in. With slow and deliberate steps, I made my way towards the trees, then found the trail once again.

Even with the knowledge that there was less than a mile to go, I still had my doubts that I would make it. I was prepared to pitch tent at any moment now, but still pressed on. Another hypothermia check revealed that I was becoming dehydrated, and my balance was beginning to fade. I fell down more often, and I realized that I had become so obsessed with reaching the hut that my judgment was clouded. Right then, I removed my pack with the intent of finding ground level enough for my tent.

While looking, I saw lights off in the distance that could only be the hut. So with my pack still on the ground, I poured more trail mix into my belly and rested my weary legs. Though it was in sight, there was still more than 1/2 a mile to the hut, and I knew the last 2/10 of a mile would be straight up an ice covered hill.

The time was 7:45. The other end of the hill promised a heated cabin, a stove, shelter, the company of strangers, and a bed. Beneath my feet was only snow, ice, and rocks, with space enough to set up my tent. Thought the obvious choice may seem to have been to push towards the hut, my physical reserves made that decision far from obvious. In fact, the safest choice was still to pitch tent.

Reaching for my water bottle yielded only a chunk of ice, which I returned to its home in my pack, then rose to my feet. It was now clear that I had made the wrong decision a mile AGO and I could not afford to make another. By pitching tent, I could safely maintain myself at status quo, but I was now in need of recovery. The hut was no longer a distant goal, but a physical necessity.

So with the knowledge that my physical well being depended on my ability to go another 1/2 mile, I donned my pack for the last time and traveled what proved to be the hardest fraction of a mile I have ever endured. As I climbed the hill, I found myself on the ground as often as on my feet. It was an accomplishment to travel five steps in a row without landing on my face. With each step, I was on the verge of tears. No longer simply fatigued, I ached with pain throughout my body, yet no one could bring me to the door of the hut but me.

There are stories of people collapsing a mere 20 feet from shelter, and one wonders why on earth those last 20 feet were so difficult that they could not make it. So as I knelt at the porch steps of the hut, my face planted firmly in my hands on the ground, I knew the answer. It is because equally as insurmountable as the battle against the elements, we all face a battle against ourselves. As human beings, there comes a point where we run head first into our limits — whether they be physical, mental, or emotional. To overcome such limits is no small task. It is a task, in fact, requiring far more energy than what was expended to bring one to the limit in the first place. But in overcoming such limits, we add strength to the resolve that ultimately, all limits are self imposed.

It was 8:30 when at last I fell through the cabin door. I felt a need to ask profound questions about what I had just done, but after "do I still have my car keys?", I went to bed and slept for a long, long time.

Copyright (C), 1992, by A. Guberman