HUT 1, HUT 2, HUT 3...
Civilized shelters in the White Mountains take the pack out of backpacking
"I think we're making a big mistake," my husband, an authority on worst-case scenarios, announced. "I've heard of people being caught in 70-mile-per-hour winds up therebeing pelted with rain and sleet." We were preparing for a hiking trip in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and Robert was obsessing about the notoriously wicked weather on 6,288-foot Mount Washington. "Just consider it part of the challenge," I told him, stuffing waterproof jackets, pants, and hats into our packs.
I'd done my research, after all, and a staffer at the Appalachian Mountain Club had assured me that our kidsexperienced hikers, though just six and tencould handle the four-day loop, especially if we spent each night in an AMC mountain hut. Sure, we'd be summiting the highest peak in the northeast, but at the end of each day there'd be a bunk bed, pillow, wool blankets, and a restorative dinneranything from calzones to ham and mashed potatoes. Unencumbered by the heavy packs that are part of a multiday wilderness trip, I was sure we could cover four to seven miles a day. We'd just keep an eye on the weather.
We spent the night at Pinkham Notch, an AMC lodge near the trailhead, outside of Gorham. At breakfast, the lodge crew indoctrinated us in hut etiquette. "Take as much as you want, but eat all that you take." My children happily heaped their plates with pancakes, fruit, bacon, sausage, and muffins, but the adults had more of an appetite for the latest weather report. "Overcast, with a chance of drizzle in the afternoon." Harmless enough.
The skies were mostly cloudy when we started up the trail. In true hiking tradition, each of us took a trail name. My son Jesse, our six-year-old, was Thumper; my daughter, Elly, Butterfly; my husband chose Egg Roll; and I became Blaze. With the kids setting the pace, the first of the day's 3.8 miles went quickly. It was steep, but excitement and energy levels were high: steady breathing, no whining. By noon, we were clambering up granite boulders for the last 600 vertical feet to reach Madison Springs hut, at 4,800 feet, in time for hot vegetable soup and fresh bread, served with views of Madison Gulf, Mount Washington, and the surrounding peaks amid light clouds and fog. We slept well that night, despite the din of snoring fellow campers.
On day twosunny and clear!came the big push. We aimed to summit Mount Washington by lunch and reach Lakes of the Clouds hut, at 5,012 feet, before dinner. This hike was longerseven milesbut the map indicated no steep ascents. Ridge walking, however, presented an unexpected challenge. The rocky, rubble-strewn path (the kids imagined we were walking on the moon) meant every step must be carefully placed. Our feet were taking a beating, and Jesse and Elly were losing steam.
It was well past lunchtime when the trail curved and we sighted a spire emerging from the granite outcrop. "We made it!" Jesse cheered, with a new burst of energy. With the goal in view, our pace quickened, and in slightly more than no time we were biting into hot dogs and wolfing down candy bars at the summit's cafeteria. After the mandatory photo-ops we forged on, limping into our hut at 4:30. When we checked our map that night, we discovered that the day's undulations had added up to an impressive 3,500 feet in altitude changes. There were no complaints about our early bedtimeand it wasn't the first time on the trip I was thankful we didnÕt have to set up camp.
The next day's four-mile descent to the Mizpah Spring hut was easy. We marched in at noon, commandeered the best bunk room, flung off our shoes, and settled in. Comfortable and content, Robert and I sipped tea and read, while Jesse played chess and Elly worked through a nature activity book AMC provided.
On the final daya one-hour walk back to the trailheadwe felt the trip's first raindrops. "We're melting!" I teased Robert.
We had nearly reached the car when a horn startled the children. We explained that it was the cog railroad, ready to take visitors to the top of Mount Washington. "You mean you can take the train all the way up?" We nodded. "But what," asked Elly, her cheeks flush with alpine air, "would be the point of that?"
HUT 1, HUT 2, HUT 3...