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A Yankee Notebook

August 8, 2010

A Presidential Traverse

MADISON SPRING HUT, WHITE MOUNTAINS, NEW HAMPSHIRE – The wind roared around the hut here all night; but like the Biblical house built upon the rock, it fell not. With its thick stone walls, it didn’t even tremble. But when I got up a little while ago, just after dawn, and peered out the window into the maw of a thick cloud moving about fifty miles an hour, I’ll admit I did tremble a bit at the prospect of launching out into such a williwaw. Then I reflected that the hut is located right at timberline – less than 100 feet higher on either side, the balsam and spruce krummholz gives way to tundra – and that, descending, I’d be out of the worst of it in no time.

The four of us in our crew rode up Mount Washington a couple of days ago on the cog railway, experiencing for the first time the power and speed of one of the new biodiesel locomotives. The train let us off about 1200 feet below the summit, where the Westside Trail ducks under the trestle. We made our way leisurely to the Lakes of the Clouds Hut, perched boldly on the saddle between Mounts Washington and Monroe. Early as we were, we were able to pick out good bunks, which was a relief to me; I’m usually so late arriving that. like the Devil, I take the hindmost (in the case of the huts, the top bunk of three or four), and then experience anxious moments climbing down in the pitch dark on my much-repaired legs to go to the washroom during the night.

We left our packs on our bunks to claim them and went off to climb Monroe, a sharp-pointed little peak with an unbeatable view of the Dry River Wilderness to the south and east. Then back to the hut for a preprandial toot and the usual sumptuous supper. The hut was booked fully for the night – it holds 90 – so it was a hive of activity: an extended Midwestern family group ranging in age from 6 to 79; a group of 39 kids winding up a month of environmental studies and camping; the usual handful of romantic duos getting away from Boston for a vigorous few days of hiking; and a clutch of Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, who don’t pay, and sleep in the basement. They don’t dine with the regular guests, either, but sit nearby on a bench, ready to help with camp chores in exchange for leftovers after meals. The seven-member “croo” served us all homemade bread, meatless lasagna, green salad, juice and coffee, and dessert, all with the usual rough, jovial aplomb.

Some of the eight Appalachian Mountain Club huts have been around a long time. A rough stone shelter was built in 1888 where the Madison Spring Hut stands today. Lakes of the Clouds is the descendant of an emergency shelter built after two hikers died on Mount Washington in a summer storm in 1900. All but one are on state or federal land, and operate under permits as a “public service.” Since the permits must be renewed from time to time, the Club has been at some pains to mitigate the huts’ negative effects on the fragile mountain environment. Thus the electricity for lighting, refrigeration, and communications is generated by solar panels, small wind turbines, and in one case, water power. There are no paper napkins in the dining rooms (What are your grubby old hiking shorts for, anyway?), and no wastebaskets anywhere; what you carry in, you carry out. There’s bottled gas, flown in by helicopter, for cooking. Barrels of sewage from the toilets are flown out the same way. It’s as lightly as several hundred pedestrians per night can possibly tread upon the earth without leaving indelible wounds.

I lay awake for a couple of hours in the hut at Lakes, worrying about the next day’s hike to Madison Hut. Fifty-five years ago, on a brisk September day, some friends and I skipped across the Presidential Range like young chamoix, but those days, and that ability, are now long gone. I was genuinely concerned about making it across, as well as wondering what the options were if I couldn’t. We left at 8 o’clock after breakfast.

Washington loomed above us, 1.4 miles away and 1200 feet higher, studded with its myriad towers and buildings. Again we skirted it and ducked under the cog railway trestle. The Gulfside Trail stretched before us, visible for miles as it looped around Mount Clay, then Jefferson, and finally the great bulk of Mount Adams, seeming almost impossibly distant. But off we went. The die was cast. Steve, who’s worked on the mountain, showed us where in October 1990 a Cessna with three Texans flew just a whisker too low across the Washington-Clay col in thick cloud cover, hit one of the stone cairns marking the trail, and tumbled over the edge into the Great Gulf.

Thunderstorms had been forecast, but didn’t materialize. The wind was west and southwest, gusting to at least 60. It carried the sound of the steam whistle and the smell of smoke all the way up from the base station of the cog railway, where one of the coal-fired old-timers was just setting out. Not a bad day at all, with only 6.8 miles to cover on a relatively level trail. The kids working at the huts sometimes jog it round-trip just to make social calls on days off.

It’s a young person’s trail, no doubt about that. As I teetered gingerly from boulder to boulder, placing my cane carefully to maintain a two-point contact with the ground, young people skipped past in both directions, full of cheery greetings, as if they were auditioning for The Sound of Music. Two fathers from Connecticut slogged uncomfortably toward us, several hundred yards behind their bored and unsympathetic sons. I soldiered on around Mount Adams as my shadow slowly lengthened before me; and finally, a few hundred feet below, lay the hut.

I quaffed quarts of Madison Spring’s ice water to ward off cramps, rinsed and hung out my sweaty duds to dry, practically had to wrestle a Canadian woman to hang onto my floor-level bunk, and was off early to bed as the storm clouds blew in. Now I’m about to start down the mountain before breakfast, betting it’ll be clear and sunny before I get to the bottom.