Location: Mizpah Hut, White Mountains
This morning came early. Last night I had difficulty falling back asleep after being woken up by some noise in the bunkroom. The snores from the bunkroom were intolerable. I rolled to cover one ear and then the other with my makeshift pillow, an inflated Ziploc freezer bag with the pink bunny inside and wrapped in my fleece. The pillow works well for sleeping, but not for blocking out noise. The bunkrooms slept fifty people. The AMC stacked the bunks to the ceiling. A person, a child even, couldn’t sit up in their bunk, yet people still pay eighty dollars a night to sleep in such conditions. Know also that there are three toilets and one urinal to be shared by staff, guests, thru-hikers, and any hiker that decides to visit the hut during the day. All of the waste either drops into a pit or is flushed to a nearby pit where it waits to be composted by the AMC staff. It’s hard to believe that the return rate for the job each summer exceeds 90%. The staff represents nearly every Ivy League school and many other prestigious colleges and universities in New England. Each night, before dinner, the staff collectively introduces themselves to the guests. The introductions include schooling, life facts, and a funny thing that the staff member did as a kid. I heard schools like NYU, Penn, and Colgate among those listed. Their life facts and cute stories were pretty boring and didn’t get many laughs from the audience but did humor the rest of the staff standing in the line at the front of the dining hall. The job that these students return for each year includes packing perishables in a backpack and hauling them to the shelter, several miles, twice a week. Once a week they, the staff that is, pack up all of the garbage and carry it to the nearest road. Constantly they are responsible for managing the composting of human waste, a real hands-on experience. In addition to these chores, the staff cooks and serves breakfast and dinner to the guests and fulfills domestic chores not assigned to thru-hikers. The job doesn’t sound too glamorous, but the staff members love the work and continue returning for the summer. Last winter, 400 people applied for the 8 positions made available at the end of last summer season.
Enough on the AMC staff, almost. I will add that the staff members have a pep that makes me queasy. They have chants, songs, and kitchen utensil percussion sessions that make me want to start smashing the dinnerware with my hiking sticks. The entire hut silenced at the conclusion of many of the staff’s chants, which usually ended with a uniform ‘Shasta!’ WTF? I said to myself the first time I heard their call and chants. I suppose the behavior is supposed to help fill the tip jar; I don’t know why else people would participate in the songs or the ‘hut hugs’ in which the entire staff hugs with an ‘awww’ in the kitchen. Anyone that knows anything about me can easily recognize my difficulty in taking orders from these people and having them treat me like a second-class citizen. When I reached the Mizpah Hut today, I didn’t even ask for work for stay. I paid eight dollars to camp in the woods, where it is quiet and not lame.
Speaking of today, it was quite a day. I woke up before the sun rose because Pilgrim and Mad Dog, a retired principal from Asheville, NC, set their alarms for 4:30am. They always wake up early apparently and today they wanted to make sure they reached the ski patrol hut. Although they like to start early and end early, they will have to wait for the gondola to close and the operators to go home for the night.
I decided that instead of going back to sleep I would pack up and leave before the guests’ breakfast. I could have stayed for leftovers, but then I might not have been hiking until 9:00am or so. One of the cooks was already in the kitchen breaking eggs and break dancing. I decided I didn’t want to have breakfast with chirpy people on this cold morning. I put on my cold shirt, wet socks and jacket and left. I could see my breath in the hut, so I knew it was going to be cold outside on the ridge. I didn’t know, however, how cold it would be.
The wind stole my breath when I stepped outside. Every movement shifted the cold shirt on my body and stung as new flesh tried to become used to the cold. I immediately wanted to turn around and return to the hut for breakfast, but I walked with my pop-tart up the first slope. The windswept up the eastern slope as I walked on the slick rocks through the gray and white clouds. A thick mist washed my body, leaving droplets of water on my clothes, my pack, and in my beard and lashes. Rain didn’t fall, but water droplets dripped from the bill of my hat and ran from my eyebrows down my face. I could have screamed as the water slowly rolled between my shoulder blades and down my spine. I kept moving in the wind, stomping one foot after another on the slick lichens coating the black rocks. At a mile in elevation, I could hardly breathe, but I couldn’t rest for the cold, so I continued to climb and slip up the jagged slope. I couldn’t see farther than 20ft, maybe less. The wind forced my eyes closed and water collected on my glasses. I could only see a dozen or so rocks ahead, so I only paid attention to those steps. I’d finish that section of rocks and then attack the next section as it emerged from the white. I could hardly spot the cairns, but I kept moving. My fingers froze stiff around my hiking poles. My exposed legs burned and chafed in the cold. With the bill of my hat shielding the wind and mist, I tried to follow the path. Sometimes only a footprint pointed the way; often a pole print assured me I was still on the path. Often I walked many yards and stopped to look for the next cairn. Rarely was I in line with the next trail marker. I crossed the fragile alpine grasses and plants to return to the trail. My safety was more important, and occasionally I seriously questioned my decision to leave the hut this morning.
As I forced my way up the exposed trail towards the summit of Mt. Washington, a few times I simply laughed and said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I don’t know why I laughed and didn’t cry. The frustration mounted as my body remained cold and wet and the wind gusts came and went in the upper 40’s. ‘Are you kidding me?’ I kept saying. Looking down the trail or at the winds ripping through the bushes and grass, I couldn’t believe that I was hiking through it. I could only laugh sometimes as I curled my body behind a stack of boulders to escape the biting wind and maybe have a snack. Once I laid flat on the ground for a moments rest in the calm draft of a long boulder. I pushed and pushed through these conditions for over five hours. Luckily there were many signs indicating the AT.
As I neared the end of six miles and an exceptionally long morning, I also neared the summit of Mt. Washington. I climbed higher into the icy clouds to the summit of the stormiest place on Earth. As I climbed, the sky opened a pocket of blue, the most beautiful blue I had ever seen. The wind calmed and the mist ceased. I took off my hat and felt the sun’s warm rays on my numb face. The clouds closed around me as the blue pocket collapsed. I slapped my hat back on and started climbing once more. A half mile later, nearly one hour later, I felt my feet on flatter ground. As I moved forward, the clouds parted to reveal a two-story observatory and two radio towers no more than fifty yards in front of my face. On a clear day, the towers can be seen from twenty miles. It was as though a curtain had been lifted from the front of the building, and then the curtain fell. I walked until I found the wall of the building and I followed it to the opposite side of the building. I followed voices in the blank fog and ended up at the entrance to the historic Tip-Top Hotel. Through no longer operating, I found warmth by the wood stove that heated the museum. I spoke momentarily to the ranger on duty who was quite surprised I had dared to cross the ridges between Madison Hut and Mt. Washington. I had very little choice however and probably less idea of what I was really getting myself into.
I examined lazily the exhibits in the museum and then left to find the cafeteria. The cold weather made me very hungry. Despite the weather, tourists were everywhere on top of the mountain. They walked about in the fog and wind, bundled to the max. Dozens crowded the summit sign. If I had a camera, I wouldn’t have been able to get a picture without someone else’s kids in the picture with me. Speaking of tourists at the summit, two NOBOs I met said they were asked twice on the summit of Mt. Washington to pose for a picture with someone’s children, as though they were an attraction. They also said that I will be able to have fun in Gatlinburg, TN, because I’ll be so grizzly. Tourists are just as bad there. On Mt. Washington though, people were everywhere. Many also looked at me probably thinking I had never showered, shaved or ridden in a car a day in my life. Several people asked me how long it took to hike to the summit. I resisted the impulse to make up some ridiculous time or story and told each the honest truth, five hours over six miles. It was a shame to find so many cars at the summit and 60 passenger busses in the parking lots. Also, many had paid forty two dollars a person to rid the cog train from the base to the summit. Regardless, I felt great about my achievement as I sat in the cafeteria to eat a bowl of chili smothered in Tabasco, an order of nachos, a bag of Ruffles, and two Snickers bars. The meal might make an average person sick, but I had worked up an incredible appetite crossing the cold ridge.
There were only fifty people or so in the building when I sat down to eat. The clear windows looked white for the clouds still outside. White wisps of air found their way through cracks and holes in the seams of doors and window frames. A few time while I ate, the clouds parted to reveal a mountain in the distance or to offer a glimpse of blue sky. The weather was going to break.
I hadn’t noticed while eating, but the summit house had been flooded by people. People packed the walkways and watched closely the Weather Wall, a wall with sophisticated radar and weather instruments. I heard language of all different kinds, English, French and Russian to be sure. Some people wore winter jackets, others leather jackets, and others the sweatshirts of US universities or from their previous travels in Vail, Cape Cod or Kennebunkport, ME. I felt as though I were in the plaza at Disneyworld or at Oktoberfest at Busch Gardens. People, young and old, all white though, pointed to pictures and video screens and laughed and talked. The experience at the summit of Mt. Washington differs from all others on the trail so far. I milled around the crowd a bit, probably offending everyone with my musty smell. I visited the museum shop and gift shops, and I couldn’t help but laugh when I saw the number of people buying bumper stickers that said ‘This car climbed Mt. Washington.’ When the weather finally broke, and after I had made a few phone calls and visited the Post Office, which operates out of a little booth and primarily offers people the opportunity to mail postcards with the Mt. Washington postal stamp, I went downstairs to the hiker room where I had hidden my pack under an overturned Rubbermaid trashcan. I packed up my bag with some new snacks and headed into the clear afternoon.
The views from Mt. Washington were well worth the climb. I didn’t get pictures from the top because the line at the gift ship was so long, but I bought another camera at the Lakes of the Clouds Hut 1.5m below the summit of Washington. The landscape in the Presidentials was unlike anything I had ever seen. The land was wide open. I could see the trail wind across the exposed ridgelines and over mountain bumps. I could see hours ahead of me, and the sunny afternoon recharged me as I followed the trail. Even when I got sidetracked and walked .2m the wrong way, I was still happy while backtracking. Finally I understood why the Whites, especially the Presidentials, are so heavily visited by people from all over the world. It didn’t take me long to reach Mizpah Hut. I finished my 14 mile day feeling great, probably because I had survived the morning. I chose to tent because I didn’t want to deal with the spunky crew, or as they spell it, Croo, of another hut.