During my years living in New York, I always felt like my life as a Manhattanite was a little different than others. But then that’s what makes Manhattan so great! EVERYONE is “a little different.” 😉 Unlike most of my friends, my closet contained more camping and hiking gear than it did designer shoes. That should have been a clue.
I was also a proud card-carrying member of the Appalachian Mountain Club. Since I didn’t own a car, it would not have been a practical affiliation were it not for their cabin out on Fire Island, just a couple of hours away via the Long Island Railroad. Being able to stay in a beachside cabin for only $50 a night, albeit in a dorm room, made membership in the AMC well worth it.
The Appalachian Mountain Club, founded in 1847, is one of the oldest outdoor clubs, originally geared toward exploring the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Being an AMC member means receiving their monthly magazine, AMC Outdoors. Always filled with full page spreads on their extensive High Hut system throughput New Hampshire’s Presidential range, the glossy photos had me dreaming of a “hut to hut” hike one day. The allure of reaching a mountain respite only accessible by the power of one’s own two feet, leaving one hut and arriving at the next, filled with warm hospitality and hiker camaraderie has always called to me.
It’s somewhat rare to find mountain huts In a country so full of natural wonder. Seems if it can’t be seen from the driver’s seat, there’s not much interest. There are a few hike-in lodges, like The Hike Inn in the Georgia Mountains, or The Mt LeConte Lodge in the Great Smokey Mountains. The Sperry Chalet, located in Glacier National Park sadly just burned to the ground before I had a chance to visit. And a few more out west, mostly in Colorado. So to find a string of eight “full service” huts along a well maintained hiking trail is a treat not to be missed by a hiking enthusiast like me…particularly while I’m parked in western Maine near the New Hampshire State Line.
The staff of the AMC Hut reservation line is extremely helpful. Since I am not familiar with the area, I need advice so I don’t book huts that are too far apart, or in the wrong sequence, particularly since they are not cheap, and I’m now within the “no refund” cancellation period. I explain my hiking abilities, as well as my desire to do a “hut to hut,” as opposed to a “lodge to hut” (which would mean departing and arriving from a parking lot.) I want to hike to different huts. Not only does the reservationist help me with trail advice, but she tells me I can leave the Winnie parked at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center. Overnight accommodations not just for me, but for the Winnie too!
I’ll be taking the AMC Shuttle Bus from Pinkham Notch Visitor Center. It’s a two hour ride around the mountains to the opposite end of the shuttle system, the Highland Center, where I will begin my hike. I’ll spend the first night at the Mitzpah Springs Hut (elev. 3,800’) and the second night at the Lakes of the Clouds Hut (elev. 5,030.’) From there, depending on how I feel by the third day, I can push on toward the summit of Mt. Washington (elev. 6,288’) before hiking back down to the Winnie at Pinkham Notch.
The first day hike up to the Mitzpah Hut is considered “easy” by White Mountain standards, only a 2.6 miles, but with a 1,900’ elevation gain, it’s “nothing but up.” Although I’ve been walking a lot while in Maine, I haven’t been doing any elevation gain aside from one or two hikes up the local ski “bunny hill.” So the constant climbing over ankle-rolling rocks and toe-trapping tree roots is tiresome. It doesn’t help that New Hampshire is experiencing record high temps. At a couple of points along the grueling climb, I am grateful that my hut fees are nonrefundable; otherwise I might be tempted to turn around!
Mitzpah Springs Hut, built in 1964, is the newest in the trail system. It was the first to have building materials flown in by helicopter.
The eight High Huts are all serviced by hut crew, (or “croo” as they spell it) young college-aged staff members who work a rotation of 11 days on, two days off throughout the hiking season. They maintain the huts, clean the bunkrooms and bathrooms, handle the check-in process, and crank out two full meals with snacks in between. The breakfasts are what you would expect for hearty hikers; oatmeal, eggs, bacon, pancakes and coffee. Dinners are four courses; homemade piping-hot soups, fresh salads with homemade dressing, a main course with vegetable, and dessert. And of course, the best part of the meal is their famous freshly baked bread. Their willingness and ability to cater to certain dietary restrictions (vegan, gluten-free, dairy free) in such a remote location is remarkable.
But the most impressive aspect of these young workers is their twice per week run up and down the mountain to dispose of garbage and retrieve supplies. Though all huts receive a helicoper dropped delivery a few times throughout the season for heavier staples, equipment, and propane refills, the day to day necessities, perishable items, etc. are ferried up the mountain lashed to traditional “packboards,” wooden frames covered in canvas on the backs of the “croo.” These old style boards, sans any kind of comfort padding, are used to facilitate easy exit should the hiker take a tumble. The job requirement is to carry from 40-80 lbs of supplies up and down the mountain, twice per week. It certainly makes one think twice about the food put on the plate…
The second day of hiking was by far my favorite…hiking above tree-line across four summits, Mt. Pierce, Mt. Eisenhower, Mt. Jackson, and Mt. Monroe. This 5 mile stretch follows the Appalachian Trail, and it’s mostly ridgeline all the way with spectacular views in every direction. A high pressure system overhead brings a rare shorts and teeshirt day in the White Mountains, notorious for their extreme weather.
The second night along my hut to hut hike is spent in the Lakes of the Clouds hut, the highest and largest in the AMC High Hut system. At over 5,000’ elevation, it is also the coldest, making me grateful I schlepped my sleeping bag to the top, rather than the optional “sleep sheet.” The only “heat” in the huts is generated by body heat. They are completely off the grid, using propane for cooking only.
Lakes of the Clouds is also the most popular hut in the AMC system because it sits in the shadow of Mt. Washington, highest peak in the northeastern US. It is also infamous for notoriously bad weather, having at one time clocked winds at 231 mph. For this reason, I haven’t allowed myself to be too “goal oriented.” I have in the back of my mind that I want to make it to the top. I know I will regret having come all this way and not at least attempting it. But I also know conditions must be right come morning…decent weather, clear visibility, and not too weary from the previous two days, as I still have to get back down.
I wake up the next morning to fog surrounding the hut. The “Lakes of the Clouds” is living up to its namesake. But by the time breakfast is over, the clouds are rolling off the mountain, and the sun is peaking through. I feel well rested and ready to push on for the summit. I am at the top of the mountain by 10:30am. Several of the hikers I’ve met along the route congregate at the restaurant accessible by the “auto road” to the top. We all enjoy a brief celebration at having made it to the top. I don’t realize the worst is yet to come.
There are a couple of options to descend the 5,000 ft down from the mountain. There’s the steep, exposed drop down the ravine, or the much longer spur billed as being “safer.” It goes down and back up over several mountain ridges before it gradually descends. I choose the more gradual route. But what I didn’t know is that it’s just a longer, more miserable version of the same boulder hopping….like peeling the bandaid off one hair at a time, rather than yanking it off all at once. Not used to hiking with a large, multi-day pack on my back, my center of gravity is off, causing me to have to go much slower than normal, which is already slow by most standards. I often times have to drop to my seat to get down the steeper parts. It ends up taking me the entire afternoon and on into the evening to get down the exhausting rock face.
I talk about Mt Washington as if it were a monster summit. But hiking is different in the Northeast. This is one of the questions asked by several of the AMC staff when seeking their recommendation on hikes. “Have you hiked in the Northeast before?? Because it’s not like hiking in the west.” No joke. It’s solid rock, rarely a level stretch, and boulders the size of a coffin, with gaps in between that make that comparison feel a bit too literal.
My hut to hut White Mountain experience now behind me, the memories of the pain are beginning to fade. Asking myself the day afterward if I would do it again, the answer was a resounding “No way in hell!” But it didn’t take long until I found myself looking at the AMC High Huts map again…
Fifteen miles and 5,000 ft elevation gain….It ain’t the Rockies…but it’s respectable.