Monday, August 14, 2017

Hiking the Whites Day 4 - Return to Crawford Notch

After our rainy and cold hike to Zealand Falls Hut we settled in the the evening. We were the last group in for the day, so we scramble around to find empty bunks and places to hang up our wet gear before we could take the opportunity to relax.

Zealand Falls Hut wasn't my favorite. While the bunk rooms were recently remodeled, the common area was older and cramped, so it was difficult to find any place to relax. Even more difficult since the hut was full, and everyone was staying inside. A large number of our fellow guests were from a high school, participating in a pre-school year trip. Nice kids, once you broke the ice, which I did by taking on their ace chess player in a couple of games. He played a pretty scattered game, so I didn't have any trouble beating him.

We also killed some time getting to know a Dutch family who we'd first bumped into at Galehead Hut. Mom, dad, and three kids - they were having a great time in the mountains.

One other interesting sidelight of the evening was our guest "croo." The regular croo was off for the day to attend the annual all croos summer party at Galehead Hut, so a family of volunteers took over for them. While they tried their best, they didn't quite have the same polish and skills as our regular bunch, especially in the kitchen. Nonetheless, kudos to them for volunteering!
Cloudy, but at least no rain for today's hike!

Our school group hut mates at a morning meeting.
After breakfast we crawled back into our damp clothes and shoes and prepared to hit the trail. Today was a pretty short hike, mainly down, to the Highland Center at Crawford Notch. There we'd be able to shower, wash clothes, resupply, and get ready for the next leg of the trip.

For the first time in several days, our trail took us out of the alpine and sub alpine forests down into lower elevations. More streams were in evidence, including an impressive beaver pond, and we observed many more flowers in later stages of growth than we had at the higher elevations.
In the lowlands, after three days among the peaks.

Carmel and Traci take advantage of an excellent bridge.

A lovely beaver pond.
The lower elevations didn't end the rocks, which included a rough scramble up and over the shoulder of Tom Mountain, but after a while we began to descend along the stream leading to Crawford Notch. Encouragingly, we started seeing an increasing number of day hikers coming up from the Notch. We knew we were close!

Moss-covered rocks were a common sight. 

Time for a break!
A little after lunch time, we could hear US 302 carrying traffic through Crawford Notch, and we soon popped out of the woods near the Highland Center. Taking their ease and greeting us on the front lawn was our Dutch family, and we were happy to dry out in the sun with them while we waited on our rooms to be ready.
An international crew chills out at the Highland Center.

Four days in the books!
Next time - Back on the trail!

Friday, August 11, 2017

Hiking the Whites Day 3 - The Weather Turns

Our trip to this point had been a succession of glorious New England summer days. Sunny and warm, but never too hot. The forecast for our third day promised something different, though. "In the clouds, rain showers, winds 30-40 mph, and temperatures in the 40s" were promised for the high peaks.
A red dawn over Twin Mountain - the first climb of the day.

Clouds began lowering over the peaks as the morning began. 
Our hike for today was about 7 miles along the Twinway Trail, which the hut croo assured us was one of most scenic of the Whites. Although the first mile of the hike was a rocky scramble up Twin Mountain (4700'), the rest of the day promised ridge walking and a gradual descent to Zealand Falls Hut (2360'), the lowest in the hut system.
Rain gear on and ready to tackle the day!
Rain began falling during breakfast, and we dressed for the conditions, with rainjackets, pants, and extra layers. Climbing up the steep ascent of Twin Mountain, the extra layers  were a sweat-producing burden, but at the top we were happy to have them. Above treeline the temperature was 35 degrees, and we felt the full force of the 30-40 mph wind. No time to tarry - we were quickly ready to move on!
An inhospitable summit.

Summit selfie - photobomb by Traci.

Looking south towards Franconia Ridge and Mount Garfield. The only view we had all day.
Fortunately, the trail descended along the ridge and into the sub-alpine forest of stunted trees and krumholz. It wasn't much shelter, but it helped. Meanwhile the clouds descended upon us and we walked in a dense fog, with the views to either side only imagined in the grayness. Despite our rain gear, we were all wet and chilled, so the only goal for the day was to keep moving. Even a short stop to pass out sandwiches for lunch left us shivering and cold. 

As we descended the temperature gradually climbed, and we enjoyed some smooth even trail for large sections. Aside from one quick climb through gusty winds and sleet to cross a ridge line, we made relatively good time. 

Approaching the hut, we descended further into a forest of larger trees and warmer temperatures. But by the time we walked in the door of the hut we were a cold and bedraggled group. Zealand Falls Hut is next to a swift-flowing stream with waterfalls. It would be a wonderful location on a warm summer day, but we were content to get inside, claim some bunks, and shift into drier clothes. 

Next - Return to Crawford Notch

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Hiking the Whites 2017 - Hut Life

So far you've heard me mention "huts" quite a bit, so lets take a little time and talk about the Appalachian Mountain Club hut system and what staying at a hut is like.
Getting ready to leave the cozy confines of Galehead Hut on a blustery morning.
The hut system in the Whites can trace its roots back to the 1880s, when a rude stone building sleeping 12 was erected in the shadow of Mount Madison, the site of the current Madison Springs Hut. Over the years huts have expanded and been remodeled or rebuilt as necessary to accommodate more travelers and account for the wear and tear of mountain conditions.

Not your typical AT shelter

If you're familiar with the iconic open-sided shelters of the Appalachian Trail, throw out those preconceptions - the White Mountain huts are nothing like those. Every hut has some common attributes: a dining area for eating or relaxing,  a small library, several bunkrooms accommodating a dozen or more hikers, and indoor bathrooms with composting toilets and cold running water. Each hut is staffed by a "croo" of college students, who prepare and serve dinner and breakfast, and your bunk is outfitted with three wool blankets and a pillow.
Bunks at the Madison Spring Hut

Off the grid

Even the easiest huts to reach are several miles from the nearest trailhead, so you're truly living off-grid. Cooking fuel is propane, airlifted by helicopter at the start of each season, and power is supplied by either solar, wind, or hydro power. With the lowering costs of solar and lithium batteries, solar is the most common power source. Electricity is rationed tightly. With only one exception that I saw, there were no power outlets for charging devices, and lighting was generally restricted to the common areas of the hut. Bring your headlamp - I found that I needed mine during the day in some of the bunkrooms! As for supply, many of the staples are also airlifted in, but croo members continue the tradition of hauling loads of perishables via packboard on an almost daily basis. It's an impressive site to see!
A croo member hefts in a load. She's completing a 4 mile trip with 3500' of elevation gain.

Carmel models the latest packboard style.
A day in the life

When you reach the destination of your hut for the night, you're greeted by a croo member at the desk/camp store, where they check you off the reservation list and tell you which bunk room you're in. Then it's a mad scurry to get the bunk you want. Some like the lower levels, but I didn't mind being on the second or third levels. You spread our your sheet or sleeping bag liner, arrange your blankets and pillows, and hang up your gear on whatever hooks you can find (some huts have plenty, some not nearly enough - a real challenge when it's been a wet day).

The common area at Madison Spring Hut
 After staking your claim, it's time to hang out, read, socialize, have a cup of tea, or explore the area around the hut until the highlight of the evening - dinner! Served promptly at 6 PM, dinner is simple fare, filling, and almost universally good. Everything is served family-style, so you quickly get to know your hut mates as you ask for more bread, salt and pepper, second helpings, and pass around the food. A sample menu might include: creamy tomato soup with cornbread, green salad, pulled pork with rolls, mashed potatoes, plus brownies and coffee for desert.
Dinner time at Madison Spring Hut
Dinner is also when the croo introduces themselves. All college students, with a northeastern emphasis, many are doing their second or third summers - it's a highly prized summer job. Post dinner time consists of naturalist programs, more socializing, games, or more. After a day of hiking and a big meal, most hut guests are ready to turn in by the time it's lights out at 9:30.
Breakfast time is croo skit time - an opportunity to tell us to fold our blankets, pack out our trash, and leave a tip for the croo!
Morning wakeup call comes at 6:30. Usually the croo sings a song, but at Greenleaf Hut one croo member recited poetry. My favorite wakeup was at Galehead Hut, where the croo did a fine rendition of Gillian Welch's "Miss Ohio." A hearty breakfast follows at 7 AM, followed by the croo skit and the weather report. As the hikers depart, the croo tidies up and awaits the next bunch to come down the trail.
The weather forecast is a highlight of the morning. 

The hut system makes the peaks of the Whites accessible to a wide range of people. We saw a blend of seasoned hikers, day hikers, families, school groups, and guided groups. Some were out for a night or two, others had more ambitious itineraries, like our 7-day tip. That creates a lot of demand for the space available. In our case, I made reservations in January and still had to scramble to put together an itinerary that fit our schedule. And huts aren't free. An average night at a hut will cost about $100-$115 per person. Worth it, in my estimation, but quite different from the freedom associated with hiking on the Appalachian Trail nearly everywhere else.

The thruhiker conundrum 

That brings me to the final issue of the hut system. The huts provide a great service to many, and help preserve the sub-alpine and alpine ecosystems of the mountains by concentrating activity into specific locations. But to Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, the huts are a mixed blessing. Free shelters and campsites are generally located well off the trail in the Whites, and many thruhikers can't afford the cost of the huts, let alone predict their schedule far enough in advance to reserve space. The solution is "work for stay."
Two of three thruhikers who shared Galehead Hut with us. In exchange for leftovers and a spot on the floor, they assisted the croo with morning cleanup after their stay. 
Work for stay for AT hikers is an old tradition at the huts. Thrus who request work for stay will be assigned some task to perform, and are fed leftovers from the meals. Then they'll get a spot on the dining room floor to spend the night. Not a bad deal really, compared to a typical AT shelter. But as the number of prospective thruhikers has increased, the system is undoubtedly being strained. I saw as many as a dozen thruhikers crashed on the floor on some mornings, with more being turned away, particularly if they arrived early in the day.

Next time - Day Three, and Weather in the Whites

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Hiking the Whites Day 2 - From Greenleaf to Galehead (and the trials of Garfield Ridge)

At the end of the first day, we came down off of Franconia Ridge to our first hut stay at Greenleaf Hut. Greenleaf Hut is popular due to a convenient trailhead, so it was already packed with hikers for the weekend. We snagged our bunks and settled in for dinner.
Dinner with 40-50 of our close friends
The huts offer more than just meals and a bunk. Each evening after dinner, one of the "croo" will give a naturalists talk about some aspect of the local ecology. In our case, we attended a well-done talk about the history of logging in the Whites. The hut system is worth an entire post on its own, which you'll get shortly!
Our naturalist prepares for her talk
One nice thing about the huts is a strictly enforced "lights out" at 9:30. And in five nights at the huts I was never disturbed after nights out. If you don't count snoring, that is.

Our goal for Day Two was to hike back up to Mount Lafayette, then head north along the Garfield Ridge Trail to Galehead Hut. Aside from a rocky 1000 foot ascent at the beginning, the elevation profile looked pretty smooth. But we'd been warned the night before not to underestimate the challenges of this section of trail.

Sunrise over Mount Lafayette
While we stepped off under blue skies, by the time we reached the summit of Mount Lafayette, clouds had rolled in - a reminder of how quickly the weather can change in the mountains. Fortunately it cleared as we descended, and we enjoyed ideal weather for the rest of the day.
A view back towards Greenleaf Hut

Hiking in the clouds
I've hiked over a 1000 miles of the AT, and seen a lot of trail -- both good and bad. The trails of the Whites presented some of the toughest hiking I've ever encountered. The trails are well-maintained, but constantly throw challenges at you. Rocky footing is the norm, along with steep ups and downs, with a healthy dose of bouldering thrown in as well. Topographically the Garfield Ridge Trail didn't look like much, but it was a constant challenge. Hats off to the hardy New Englanders who get to enjoy these trails on a regular basis!
Carmel scoots down a section of steep rocks.

Yet another dicey section of trail.
The one significant bump on the topo map for the hike was Mount Garfield. After passing a lovely pond at the base, we inched up a steep climb to the summit. The 360-degree views were totally worth the effort, and the summit was a fine place to take a break.
Garfield Pond, a lovely sight at 3000+ feet of elevation

Carmel takes a break on Mount Garfield. That's Mount Lafayette in the background, with Garfield Ridge extending to the right. 

Looking south from Mount Garfield towards Franconia Ridge. The foundation is from an old firetower.
From Mount Garfield, we still had about 3 tough miles to go to Galehead Hut. The combination of tough terrain and climbing meant we got in after 6 PM - dinner time - but the very accommodating crew at the hut was happy to serve us late. 

Galehead Hut was quite a different experience from Greenleaf. It's more remote than Greenleaf, and smaller, with a more relaxed vibe than the somewhat frantic environment of Greenleaf. There was plenty of room to stretch out and relax after dinner, and even catch up with some north-bound AT hikers. With less than 400 miles to go, they were anxiously anticipating getting into Maine to finish their journey.
Traci and Carmel chat with NOBO thru-hikers. 
Next time - I'll talk about the hut experience, and then we get our first taste of bad weather.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Hiking the Whites Day 1 - Up to Franconia Ridge

After enjoying breakfast, our AMC shuttle picked us up promptly at 9 AM. The drive to our trailhead at Lafayette Campground took us back several Forest Service roads to other trailheads, where we dropped off other hikers. Carmel saw a bear crossing a river, and Traci a moose grazing by the side of the road. Nothing for me...

Back on the main roads, we retraced our steps from yesterday through Franconia Notch. It was Saturday during the peak summer season, and it looked like a large chunk of the northeast had decided to go for a hike. Parking lots were full, and cars clogged the sides of the roads. A steady stream of day hikers accompanied us as we began our way up the long climb of the Falling Waters Trail to our destination - the bare heights of Franconia Ridge.
We begin the journey!
Falling Waters Trail didn't disappoint. For most of the way it paralleled a watercourse that descended off the ridge in a series of cataracts, several quite impressive. The trail is well-maintained, but also quite rocky and rough - a preview of coming attractions, it turned out.
One of the falls - see the hikers at the top for scale. 
After a long climb, and lots of foot traffic, we came out of the woods to the open spaces of Franconia Ridge. Stretching away to the north were the peaks of Mount Lincoln and Mount Lafayette, both topping out at over 5000 feet. We broke for lunch with the crowds (note - don't expect a solitary experience on Franconia Ridge on a Saturday), chatted with a Ridge Runner, and started north along the ridge.

Ravens are in abundance on the ridge. They've learned to pick up food scraps from hikers. 
David and I check in with a Ridge Runner. 
The trail along Franconia Ridge is relatively short, but extremely memorable. Looking to the northeast you can pick out the major peaks of the Presidential Range, while looking west and down you can pick out highway cutting through Franconia Notch, and reflect on what a climb you've made to arrive at the top. Mount Lincoln and Mount Lafayette ranged ahead of us, before the descent of 1000 feet to our destination for the night, Greenleaf Hut.
Carmel and Traci step out towards Mount Lincoln.
Much care has been taken to channel the trail into a narrow path along the top of the ridge, to avoid damage to the fragile plants in this alpine zone. Fortunately for us, the weather was beautiful. We'd yet to experience the variety of weather the Whites can throw at you.
Carmel ascends Mount Lincoln
The iconic view, looking north towards Mount Lafayette
Carmel and I bag a peak!
After a few tough miles we'd reached the summit of Mount Lafayette and took some time to take in the view, including Greenleaf Hut, 1000 feet below us on the shoulder of the mountain. It was time to head down for dinner and to grab some shut eye. Our mileage was only around six miles, but we'd put in some work to get there!
Carmel and Traci (foreground) descend towards Greenlear Hut (upper left).

Next Time - Greenleaf Hut to Galehead Hut

Friday, August 04, 2017

Hiking the Whites - On to the north!

Of course, we needed to get to New Hampshire before we could hike. After consulting with Traci and David, we settled on a plan. They'd fly into Newark late on Thursday, we'd pick them up on Friday morning, and we'd head north to begin the hike on Saturday. Accordingly, we made reservations at their hotel and drove the first leg on Thursday afternoon.

The vagaries of 21st century air travel soon threw a monkey wrench in our plans. After a late departure from Denver, our companions were stuck in Washington, with no way to get to Newark. A quick change in plans rerouted them to Boston, so we struck north in the morning and braved the congestion of the north east to pick them up. Eventually all worked out, and we succeeded in getting the four of us, and all of our gear, into the trusty Subaru.

David and Traci settle in for the ride north.
To reach the AMC Highland Center, our home base, we passed through Franconia Notch, the westernmost of the three "notches" that funnel traffic through the Whites. Franconia Notch travels past impressive mountains on both sides. To the right, we could see Mount Lincoln and Mount Lafayette, two of the peaks we'd hike over the next day. And on the left, impressive rock walls loomed up - very different from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.
Yup, got some pretty nice peaks in NH!
The Highland Center didn't disappoint. A comfortable, modern structure with an old-time mountain lodge look, it's simply appointed and comfortable. Dinner and breakfast are included with the rate, and the clientele's fashion leans heavily towards hiking boots and fleece. The AMC runs daily shuttles to popular trailheads, so it's a perfect base for exploring the Whites.

The Highland Center
After checking in, checking our gear, and stocking up on a few snacks, it was time to enjoy dinner (an excellent buffet), and relax a little before turning in. Our shuttle left at 9 AM the next day - our adventure was nearly upon us!
Carmel and I relax before the big day.
Next - The Adventure Begins

Hiking the Whites - Prologue

The White Mountains of New Hampshire present some unique qualities to the Appalachian Trail section hiker. First, they boast some of the highest peaks and toughest terrain to be found on the AT. Second, there's an abundance of hiking above treeline, in alpine and sub-alpine terrain -- a result of the tough weather conditions that are common in the mountains. Lastly, they're the only place along the AT (or in North America, to my knowledge) that boasts an organized system of "huts" for lodging.
Carmel leaving Greenleaf Hut on a sunny morning.
These huts aren't your typical AT three-sided shelter. The hut system in the Whites is run by the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), and each hut is staffed by a paid "croo" of college students each summer. Reservations must be made - for about $100 a night - and for that fee you'll get a bunk with pillow and three blankets, plus dinner and breakfast. The huts hold anywhere from about 40 to nearly 90 hikers, and are a popular way to get out in the mountains without having to haul a tent, food, etc. They're an awesome way to experience the Whites.

Our Plan

Hiking hut-to-hut made it possible for Carmel to join me for a section of the AT, and we quickly enlisted our friends Traci and David, experienced hikers with a Colorado Trail thru-hike under their belts, as partners in our adventure. The plan was to hike the Whites for seven days, using the AMC Highland Center in Crawford Notch as our starting point and mid-hike break - a chance to grab a shower, do laundry, and relax before the second leg.

Leg 1

The first leg of the trip was planned for 4 days and 3 nights. We'd take a shuttle from Highland Center to the trail head at Liberty Springs, hike up to Franconia Ridge via the Falling Waters Trail, and hike north along the AT to Greenleaf Hut, Galehead Hut, and Zealand Falls Hut. From Zealand Falls, a short hike back to Highland Center to refit and regroup.

Leg 2

After a night at the Highland Center, the plan was to shuttle north, hike to the Madison Spring Hut via the Valley Way Trail, then head south to Lake of the Clouds Hut, via Mount Washington, and finish again at Highland Center. This leg would be 3 days and 2 nights. In all, we'd hike for seven days, and visit five of the seven huts in the system. Along the way, we'd pass by or go over the biggest peaks in the Whites - the Presidential Range.

Next - We Begin