Many friends have heard of the '02 Three Bonds in a Day trip, this is my attempt to document what happened and to try to understand what could have been done differently. I have shown drafts of this to the trip leaders, and believe that the Narrative is factually correct. The Analysis is mine, I hope that I have given the facts with enough detail to allow you, Gentle Reader, to reach your own conclusions.
On Sat. Jan. 12 a group of eleven hikers started out on a trip to the Bonds. The plan was to take the Wilderness, Bondcliff and West Bond Spur trails to the summit of West Bond, and then decide whether to return the same way or bushwhack down to the Franconia Brook trail. All participants were physically fit, and all had several years of winter hiking experience. The leaders and some of the participants had previous experience with the bushwhack route from the summit of West Bond to the Franconia Brook trail (in both directions), both in winter and in other seasons.
The trip started auspiciously, with the Bondcliff trail partially broken out up to treeline on Bondcliff. On the summit of Bondcliff the wind was found to be blowing moderately from the SW. Since it would be in our faces if we returned over the ridge, the decision was made to do the bushwhack descent to avoid the wind, as well as save about two miles and 900 feet of elevation gain. At that stage three of the participants decided to turn around, they reached the trailhead uneventfully at 6 PM.
The remainder of the group (now eight) continued over the col and found deep unbroken snow on the south slope of Bond. Somewhat less snow was found descending from Bond, and along the West Bond spur. We reached the summit of West Bond around 3:30 PM (a bit later than planned, but in any case we were prepared for a long hike out with headlamps).
Once we left the trail to bushwhack along the ridge we found the snow to be deep, unconsolidated, and with no crust. Progress was slow along the ridge, and remained slow after we dropped off its end, even though we were following a bearing which had led to an easy descent on a previous winter attempt. After about five hours we had only lost about 500 vertical feet, were still in dense spruce, and appeared surrounded by spruce traps. At that stage the decision was made to follow our footprints back to the Bondcliff trail, and then decide whether to attempt to return to the trailhead directly or to bivouac at the nearby Guyot shelter. It took us about two and a half hours to return to the summit of West Bond (around 11 PM), we continued down the trail and sat down for a good rest and meal at the West Bond/Bond col.
During that meal we made an inventory of the available emergency gear to help decide whether we should hike out or bivouac. We had a tent body (Zdarsky equivalent), one sleeping bag, one bivy sack, stove, pot, fuel and material for hot drinks, and a few sleeping pads and tarps. All the group had a spare wicking layer (tops and bottoms). About half the group had ample extra insulating layers for an overnight, the rest were essentially wearing all they had with them. The discussion on whether to bivouac or walk out initially centered on whether we had enough gear to bivouac. As it progressed it became clear that we did not want to bivouac. We all felt that we could (reluctantly!) walk out, and there was little joy at the prospect of a largely sleepless night huddled together in the Zdarsky, to be followed by the 12 mile trek out. I believe that, given the mild night, we probably had (barely) enough gear for a bivouac, but we did not reach closure on that issue as a group.
At that stage (around 11:30) the leader let participants use his cell phone to call and reassure spouses, telling them that we would be very late, but that all was well. He also called a friend in Campton, NH, asking him to bring food and hot fluids and meet us around the junction of the Wilderness and Bondcliff trails.
Further progress was slow (very slow!) but steady. We took our time climbing over Bond, and were happy to find that the wind had subsided when we reached the ridge. The climb up from the col to Bondcliff was our last climb, it was painful but got done. Once back in the trees below Bondcliff we stopped, lit the stove, reheated all fluids to have hot drinks, and melted snow to refill our bottles. The descent was slow but uneventful, we eventually were met by our two friends just below the lowest brook crossing. Both the hot drinks and the food were very welcome, and thus refreshed we were able to complete the trip back to the trailhead. The group split up on this final walk, the last two reaching the trailhead at 8 AM on Sun., about 26 hours after starting.
Even though we emerged intact, it is clear that the trip did not go as planned. So I think it is worth while attempting to find out what went "wrong".
But first a few words about what went "right". The weather was good, not too cold, not windy, and no precipitation until we were almost out, when we got some flurries. All our gear functioned. There were no snowshoe problems, and while some batteries and bulbs died, they were replaced. We were all exhausted at the end, but we were all able to hike for 24 hours or more. And our leaders saw to it that we were adequately fed and hydrated throughout that long night. As a result we all returned to the trailhead (the ultimate objective of any trip) tired but none the worse for the wear.
The cell phone allowed us to reassure anxious spouses, and in fact one had already called the State Police. She was able to call them back to tell them we were safe, thus preventing a totally unnecessary search and rescue effort. The Accidents Editor of Appalachia wrote about a similar use of the cell phone:
In my opinion, this is perhaps the most thoroughly justifiable use of a cell phone in the mountains.
In spite of the satisfactory outcome I have some questions about the amount of clothing some of the participants brought, and about the bushwhack.
I believe that, given the mild temperature that night, we could have bivouaced with no hypothermia and no frostbite. To me that is the definition of a successful winter bivouac, discomfort does not really count.
The fact that we could (in my opinion) have bivouaced safely had we needed to in no way excuses those who came on the trip inadequately prepared. When leading a trip with experienced participants one tends to assume that they will know, and respect, the basics. Such assumptions are dangerous. Experience, in fact, can lead to complacency, and I wonder how many participants on the average winter hike do have a full set of extra insulation to wear in case of an unplanned overnight.
This point is well addressed in Mountaineering, the Freedom of the Hills, where there is a section entitled "Nonevent Feedback" (p. 443 of 6th edition). I will quote the first few sentences, the entire section is well worth reading (and re-reading):
"You can be misled into accepting dangerous levels of risk by a simple phenomenon that might be termed nonevent feedback: nothing bad happened last time; therefore, nothing bad will happen this time. Nonevent feedback occurs when we do not experience the potential consequences of our actions. It can desensitize us to hazard."
In four years of almost weekly hiking in winter this is the first time I have had to even consider using the heavy fleece pants and down jacket that I always carry. I have often thought of leaving them out, fortunately I have resisted the temptation. Others, alas, succumb to it. In trips that I lead I will now be much more careful in emphasizing that this extra clothing is absolutely mandatory.
Some questions have to be asked about the bushwhack:
- Is bushwhacking down from West Bond in winter inherently
I believe that it is almost the standard route for hard core winter hikers. The rationalization is that it cuts off a couple of miles and about 900 vertical feet, and so makes the trip easier.
I do not believe that that is the real motivation of those who do the bushwhack. If the bushwhack goes smoothly it may indeed make the trip marginally easier, but if it does not go smoothly it makes the trip harder, potentially immensely harder. The risk/reward ratio is just wrong! I believe that the real reason why the bushwhack route is used is the precise opposite. It takes a very long but otherwise routine trip and adds an element of uncertainty to it. It also requires skills that the average winter peakbagger does not possess. All in all, a great way for the hard core hikers to differentiate themselves from the run of the mill peakbaggers .
While I believe that it makes the trip more uncertain, which means riskier, enough people (including the Accidents Editor of Appalachia) do it that I think we cannot describe the original plan as unreasonable.
- Given that bushwhacking is not inherently unreasonable, were
any avoidable mistakes made?
- Were there any avoidable navigation errors?
No. At all times we were on the course we had selected, as confirmed by the use of a GPS. We did not slavishly follow the bearing, in fact we were constantly looking for better going, but in the absence of a better path we followed our bearing pretty consistently. To state the obvious, at no time were we by any stretch of imagination "lost".
Bushwhacking is always an uncertain endeavor, and that is one of its main attractions.
- Should the plan have been changed when the snow was found to be
deep and unconsolidated on the West Bond ridge?
That would certainly have been the best time to change plans. There is always a tendency to hope that "things will get better", but if the snow is deep and unconsolidated at the start of a bushwhack, there is little objective reason to expect conditions to improve!
- Assuming it made sense to start the bushwhack, should we have
turned around sooner?
By and large I am not in favor of rigid turnaround times, and prefer to monitor the situation dynamically as it evolves. But the situation here was different.
Dynamic monitoring works well on a normal up to the summit and down trip. Thanks to the altimeter the group knows, at all times, how far the objective (the summit) is. Estimating return time to the trailhead is also easy, as it will normally be a relatively short distance downhill on a broken out trail. So the leader needs to monitor group strength, and can push fairly close to the group's limits, given the ease of the return trip.
But this was a traverse, and we never knew how far our real objective (good going) was. Furthermore, once we reached the good going it would be much faster to go down than to go back up. So there was a very strong motivation to keep going, hoping that we would soon get out of the dense trees and deep snow. We probably should have set a time for getting through the thick stuff before starting the bushwhack, or as soon as we realized that it was going to be a long and difficult descent.
- Were there any avoidable navigation errors?
When all is said and done, what matters is that we emerged safely. I, for one, am looking forwards to the '03 vintage Three Bonds in a Day!