July 2, 2012
THE HEIGHT OF LUXURY
MADISON SPRING HUT, NH – Almost 5000 feet up in the White Mountains, a clear, icy spring flows out of the rocks in a protected col between Mounts Madison and Adams. Long ago, the spot was an obvious one for a layover before or after tackling the exposed ridge of the Presidentials almost 7 miles to or from Lakes of the Clouds on Mount Washington.
So in 1888 a bunch of doughty Appalachian Mountain Club trampers – as they were called then – built a tiny stone shelter near the spring. A few years later it was torn down, and its stones used to build a more substantial hut that, over time, featured a crew to maintain and supply the place for overnighting hikers. In October 1940, however, just before the encroaching winter shut it down, the hut burned to the ground when a hutman, carrying gasoline for the generator, touched off a fire that destroyed the place. The two hutmen and three guests escaped and made their way to the valley, where they met rescuers coming to help. In an epic effort over the next few months, the hut was rebuilt, using the still-standing stone walls. It reopened the following August.
And there it stood for almost 70 years. In August of 2010 I trekked over the ridge from Mount Washington and spent a night here. The hut was at the time due to close in a couple of days for still another renovation, which was finished last summer. Yesterday the film crew and I hiked up the 3.8 miles of the Valley Way, “the most direct and easiest route” to the hut. The hut is regarded by the Club as the most difficult to hike to with supplies. Why, I wondered, as I struggled up the steep, bouldery last half-mile, couldn’t they have renovated an easier one to get to?
There’d been rain for the few days before our ascent. The trail was a running brook in many spots. We’d met a somewhat disgruntled middle-aged lady, clearly a keen hiker, in the parking lot at the start, waiting for a shuttle bus. The crew at Madison, considering the weather, had strongly advised her not to try the above-timberline traverse of the Presidentials. She’d hiked down, and would shuttle around in the AMC bus to the access trail for the Lakes of the Clouds hut, then hike up from there. I didn’t envy her the prospect. As we climbed, we got drizzled on now and then.
I arrived at the hut at last, hot, sweaty, and wet-footed, and changed my T-shirt in a hurry. It was about 40 degrees cooler here than in the parking lot, and a wet shirt wasn’t going to be warm long. We could see our breath in the huge new dining room with its walls of windows. The hut may be beautiful in its newest incarnation, but there’s still no heat except what each of us can generate within himself. Which is just as it should be in a mountain hut.
I walked into the bunkroom to get a bed before the place filled up. Big surprise! The old four-tier bunks that had stood cheek-by-jowl, with little room to hang anything beside them, had been replaced by semiprivate alcoves, and sloping ladders to the bunks above (the old ones had been vertical, which posed certain middle-of-the-night problems). Feeling the cold, I began to regret having left my light sleeping bag at home. There are few domestic situations worse on a cold night than sleeping in blankets and feeling your toes sticking out the bottom. I’ve devised a scheme to defeat that problem: I fold a blanket into halves or quarters and put it, like an envelope, at the bottom end of the mattress, coming up perhaps only to my mid-thigh. That’s for my feet to go into. Then I lay the other blankets in normal fashion on top of it. No matter how much I may tug them up around my neck in the night, I’m covered. I doubt Thomas Jefferson would have been so clever.
The huts run largely on renewable energy. The highest ones, like Madison and Lakes, run their wind chargers almost without a break. Solar panels and storage batteries also collect electricity for refrigeration, lighting, and maintaining negative air pressure in the waterless toilets. The cook stove – and the generator, if needed – run on propane. No more fooling around with gasoline.
There were 29 of us for supper. Meals are served family-style, at long tables with benches for ten. This is where the part of hut life that’s most fascinating to me occurs. Some groups of hikers stick together and converse with only each other; some introverts, hiking alone, stick to themselves, rallying only to pass a bowl or hold up a hand for coffee; extroverts plop down almost anywhere, starting conversations with “Where ya from?” and going on from there. A group of young Québécois men and women kept the air lively with laughter and French kidding. Our natural tendencies show up much more clearly in hut society than back in our accustomed settings. This time of year there’re also several quiet, solitary figures at the edges of the room, not dining with the guests and generally staring out the windows, reading, or jotting in journals. They’re Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, who’re allowed to sleep on the dining room floor or in the cellar, or in exchange for doing some chores, finish off some leftovers before setting off again next day.
The clouds lifted just enough for a perfect sunset over the distant Green Mountains to the west. The wind moaned lightly around the corners of the building. In the yard to the north, a crowd of yellow flowers – Arctic poppy, I think, but I didn’t go out to look – nodded in the fading light. I drank one last cup of tea with a few of the Canadians, brushed my teeth in the 38º spring water in the men’s bathroom, and shuffled off to my wool blankets, a magazine, and my headlamp. Imagine my delight when I discovered a tiny LED reading light by the head of my bunk. Every bunk has one. How the 1888-vintage trampers would hoot at that! I rolled in my blankets like a great burrito, and stuck only my wrists and hands out to hold the magazine. Not only did I not need the headlamp to read, but the path to the washrooms was illuminated by soft night lights. The window beside the bunk framed a rising, waxing moon. The Ritz at 4800 feet!