“This is clearly the hardest part of the Appalachians, because you have to use your upper body”, Catherine Stratton says as we finish up dinner in the Galehead Hut on a perfect October night. Stratton is no stranger to hard trails, having through-hiked the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail four times, not to mention the Pacific Crest and Continental Divide Trails. By her own estimation, she has over 40,000 miles on her 67-year old legs.
“Out West, the trails were designed with pack horses in mind so they cut switchbacks up the mountains”, she says. “These trails in the Whites are some of the oldest in the country and they go straight up and down the sides of the mountains.”
Having spent two days on the trail already, I knew what she meant. This is full-body hiking. It wasn’t just my knees that were sore. My back, my lats, my triceps. What kind of hiking is this?
I came to the White Mountains with too much confidence and they kicked my ass. With its highest point barely above tree line and only one thousand feet higher than the starting point of my June ascent of Mount Rainier, I figured hiking here would be easy. I was wrong. Our final approach to Galehead Hut was a knee-crushing 1,000-foot descent in less than a mile. Straight down the side of South Twin Peak, I caught occasional glimpses of the hut through the trees as I literally crawled over boulders bigger than me, cursing the sadistic trail makers who didn’t bother to clear the rubble.
For thru-hikers of the AT, the White Mountains are a cruel joke, coming near the end of their months-long journey that started in the gentle hills of Georgia. There is nary a flat mile of trail and follows the spine of the Presidential Range before exiting into Maine and the final miles to Katahdin. But while the Whites can be cruel, they are also kind. In addition to the rocky steeps is a series of huts where a weary hiker can find a soft bed, warm smiles and hot meals.
The huts were built by a forward-thinking band of adventurers that became the Appalachian Mountain Club, or AMC. These men wanted some refuge in the mountains while they tramped around away from the hustle and bustle of New England’s growing cities. 2013 is the 125th anniversary of the completion of the first hut and more than a century later, there are eight huts, each a day’s hike apart. The huts sleep anywhere from 25 to 80 people and are manned during the spring, summer and fall by a cheerful crew, or “croo” in hut parlance, of mostly college kids who do everything from cook and clean to give naturalist lessons. Once a week one of them hauls garbage out and bring supplies in, all on his or her back using old-school wood and canvas frame packs. It is considered a challenge and badge of honor to do a “century”, a 100-pound haul. After hearing that, I stopped complaining about my 20-pound day pack.
I came to the White Mountains with too much confidence and it kicked my ass.
One expects the people who choose to spend their summers living in a mountaintop hut to be introverted and socially awkward. But that’s hardly the case. Without exception, the hut crews were friendly, talkative, stars of daily skits that accompany breakfast. At Zealand Falls hut, which is perched beside the cascade that gives the hut its name, I sat down with Eric Gotthard, a four-year veteran hut crew member and second season hutmaster, overseeing the day-to-day operations of the place. He values his intimate relationship with a place that most people see only briefly, weary from the day’s hike. “I meet these people passing through and learn their stories and I’m carrying on a tradition that’s been going on here for more than a century”, he says.
“I’ve got a foot in the real world—a girlfriend, an apartment in Manchester—and I know this won’t go on forever. But one old hutman told me to do this job as long as you’ve got the energy, so I’ve probably got another season in me.”
Though all of the huts have been extensively renovated, or in some cases rebuilt, over the years, there’s a feeling of time travel when you hike between them. The trail is as rough as it’s always been, despite the millions of feet that have trodden it, only marked with an occasional white blaze on tree or rock. Cell phones don’t work here. You still carry your daily needs—food, extra layers, perhaps a camera—and the sight of a hut after a long day of up and down is still as welcome as it was one hundred years ago. Modern conveniences here are limited to (often wind- or solar-powered) electric lighting and well-pumped water. But they are ports in a storm when weather is bad, as it often is in the Whites, which boasts some of the worst weather in the country.
Though all the huts are a little different, all feature a large common room with rows of dining tables and benches, a kitchen and communal bunk rooms, some with beds stacked four high. Guests are treated to spartan, yet tidy accommodations. A massive dinner is served at 6pm sharp (“eat all you want but only take what you can eat”) and bunks come with three wool blankets and a pillow. The rest is up to you. Come morning, after an equally hearty breakfast, the routine begins again, with hikers packing their bags and setting off for their next hut and the crew starting the stews and loaves of fresh bread for that night’s new band of weary arrivals.
On our three days on the trail, skies were sunny and it was unseasonably warm for early October, just a week before the huts closed for the full-service season. The rain shell never came out of my pack and the last of the fall colors on the mountainsides made for technicolor views. This didn’t make the hiking any easier but at least it was less unpleasant. We topped out on four 4,000-foot peaks on the traverse between Zealand and Galehead, with close to 3,000 feet of vertical hiked. Much of the hiking is in the woods, but occasionally we would suddenly top out on a bald peak peppered with knee-high bonsai-like “krummholz” trees, the only vegetation that survives in this low-altitude, windswept alpine zone. Views over the valleys are breathtaking; though roads thread through the White Mountains and small towns like Conway and Lincoln are mere miles away, you’d never know it.
After our stay at Galehead, we took the long way out to our parked rental car and decided for a detour to summit Mount Garfield, which required scaling a steep boulder-strewn waterfall that fortunately was a mere trickle that dry autumn week. Who in their right mind puts a hiking trail up a waterfall? Madmen or adventurers who liked doing things the hard way, probably a little of both. Garfield is an impressive peak, with a flat rock summit that used to be home to a lonely fire lookout tower and still bears traces of its foundation. Day hikers and thru hikers alike linger here for the view out across the dense Pemigewasset Wilderness before descending, some to head onwards to Greenleaf Hut, others to backtrack the five miles to the Gale River trailhead. I soaked in the sun for a few extra moments and then turned to face the 3,000-foot descent to civilization and bottle of Advil for my throbbing knees. I’ll never again underestimate the Whites.