Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Party Time at Lake of the Clouds Hut

Appalachian Trail, White Mountains, NH – 8/18/12 – Nauman Campsite to Lake of the Clouds Hut – 5 Miles (5 hours)

The slight drizzle during the night tapered off quickly and we woke to a foggy morning.  I rested hard but a little too warm, didn’t need the 15-degree sleeping bag zipped up.  Judy repacked her gear and improved her pack stability.  (She even poured out half of her brandy to reduce weight!)  We were on the trail by 7:40 a.m., carrying a little anxiety for what the day would hold.  The dilemma we faced was whether to stop at Lake of the Clouds Hut (5 miles) or continue up and over Mount Washington and on to the next legal camping spot (9.6 trail miles plus a 1-mile detour off the trail to the campsite = 10.6 miles).  Unless the hiking was significantly less complicated than yesterday, there’s no way we were going to make it 10+ miles.

We knew that the trail would continue to trend upwards, and immediately past Mizpah Spring Hut we met a half-mile steep climb, more rock walls and even a ladder.  Okay, say it with me again:  We can do this.

As we climbed higher, the trees became shorter and boards helped us stay on the trail in the fragile ecosystem. 

Rocks line the trail to guide hikers

We were now on the Crawford Path, the oldest continuously maintained hiking trail in the United States.

Say hello to Mount Pierce (aka Mount Clinton, but don’t ask me why).  

There were lots of people out this morning, most having spent the night at Mizpah Spring Hut and hiking on to Lake of the Clouds Hut.  Tall rock cairns now appeared regularly as we emerged above tree line, and you can see in the fog why they are so necessary.

One group that we leapfrogged for a while consisted of four teenage girls and five adults with daypacks.  The girls were playing some type of memory word game, very loud, not really paying attention to their surroundings.  At a sleepover this would have been normal, but not what I wanted to hear in this glorious outdoor setting.  They were faster than us, but stopped frequently.  We would let them pass, then catch up and pass them as they took many rest breaks.  We lost them once when they took the side trail over Mount Eisenhower (the AT skirts around this mountain), but darned if they didn’t catch us again.  Fortunately they planned to continue past Mount Washington today, so they finally hiked on into oblivion.

I don’t know the rhyme or reason for the AT route through this area called the Presidentials.  The trail goes over some peaks and skirts around others.  If you’re a thru-hiker the choice is obvious, but for peakbaggers it’s a dream:  forget the AT and hit all the summits. 

As the morning progressed the clouds played hide and seek.  This is one of my favorite photos of the entire trip:  Judy and Mount Eisenhower. 

Going around Mount Eisenhower.

People going up and down to the Eisenhower summit

Five minutes later, clouds rolling over Eisenhower

Looking back at Mount Eisenhower.  The wide open terrain reminded me of hiking in Switzerland and the views (when the clouds cooperated) seemed endless. 

We passed a father with his three young boys, ages 8, 6 and 4.  The two older ones wore their own daypacks and carried their own little hiking poles.  The 4-year-old scampered around like one of Heidi’s goats.  They were on a multi-day hut-to-hut trip.  I have never seen anything like that in North Carolina.  Everyone we met during our White Mountains adventure seemed well outfitted with proper footwear and gear, none of this stepping out of the car in flip-flops and walking 100 feet up the trail (granted, we were up at the summits that are a challenge to reach).  As for fitness, I felt like I was the “fat” person on the trails. 

The AT led us over Mount Franklin and then we caught our first glimpse of Mount Washington (home of communication towers).  At 6,288 feet, Mount Washington is the highest peak in the northeastern United States and, of course, the New Hampshire state high point. 

At last Lake of the Clouds Hut came into view, but look at the cloud cover. What was the weather going to do the rest of the day?  It was 12:30 p.m.

The five miles to LOTC was easier than yesterday, but still strenuous, some rock surfing and slow, tedious hiking.  It took us 5 hours to go 5 miles.  There was no guarantee that the next 5 miles to the next stop would be easier, plus we would have to hurry over Mount Washington without stopping to relax (and, yes, enjoy food at the snack bar).  Ultimately, although it seemed quite early, we decided to stay at Lake of the Clouds.  We resolved ourselves to enjoy the afternoon as a gift of time.

We threw ourselves on the mercy of Emma, the staff person in charge, and asked to stay in the “hiker dungeon.”  She said that was intended as emergency shelter for late arriving hikers and they didn’t usually start accepting people until after 3:00 p.m., but when I told her I’d sit and wait until 3:00 p.m. and ask her again, she relented and signed us in.  The cost is $10 per person and for another $10 you can buy dinner.  Since we had lugged our food this far, we opted to cook our own dinner. 

The hiker dungeon is downstairs underneath the dining room.  It looks like it used to be storage.

Home sweet home

Judy and I took seats on benches in the dining room and ate lunch with a view of Mount Washington out the window, in and out of clouds.  It looked so close (only 1.4 miles) yet so unattainable today. 

The dining room

After resting a bit and eating and inspecting the facilities (composting toilets and treated water), we decided to climb the mountain next door that the AT had skirted around, Mount Monroe, as a consolation (thus we bagged another 4,000-footer).  Again, loads of people plus some well-behaved dogs were going up and down this mountain. 

On the summit of Mount Monroe 

Looking down at Lake of the Clouds Hut - Mount Washington totally obscured by clouds

Judy seemed to be doing okay on today’s hike, not as treacherous as yesterday, and she wanted to do a little more hiking.  I was happy to just return to LOTC, so she descended down the far side of Mount Monroe and circled back on the AT.  A little down time was good for both of us and I was glad to see her enjoying herself.  (Side note:  when she got back to LOTC she reported that the descent was rocky and unstable and never to let her do that again – haha).  I noticed that in talking with people she complained about the difficulty of the rocks and that she no longer wanted to finish her goal of section hiking the entire AT because there was more of this terrain ahead and she felt it was too dangerous.  I empathized greatly with her because I hated crossing snow fields in the Grand Tetons and never got comfortable with it.  It is my fervent hope that with a little time for contemplation she will renew her goal.  And I remember that after summiting Mount Whitney I was sure I never wanted to do anything remotely as strenuous ever again – and yet here I was in the White Mountains, which felt a lot like Whitney but with oxygen.  In the meantime, during our NH adventure I tried to be vocal that although we ain't in Kansas anymore (i.e. different terrain than back home) I was having a different experience and felt okay with it. 

Back at the LOTC hut I sat outside on a bench and struck up conversations with fellow hut guests.  Most were surprised to hear about the hiker dungeon accommodations.  When Judy returned, we chatted with a man who, upon hearing we were from North Carolina, told us about a hiker friend of his in Tennessee that he had originally met at the New Hampshire huts.  He’s been to Tennessee to visit and has hiked a little bit in the Smokies.  Then he described to me a great guide book he picked up there, saying he would likely never get to do any hikes from the book but felt it was so well written that he bought it to read for fun.  Had I ever heard of an author named Danny Bernstein?  Small world again.

One gregarious fellow we chatted with several times went by the trail name of T-Bone.  He has hiked all around the White Mountains for many years.  We told him our trail names were Heartfire and Smoky Scout, and from then on he called us “Heart Throb” and “Smoky Princess.”  If you like socializing at the end of the day, try hiking in the White Mountains. 

Judy and I got out stoves and our backpacker meals and cooked near the benches at the front door.  My cuisine is made by Mountain House but Judy dehydrates her own meals. Then we enjoyed another brandy toast for Day 2.

Hut staff prepared a turkey dinner complete with homemade bread.  Yeah, my Mountain House pasta primavera tasted dee-lish. 

After eating, I sat inside and looked through the hut’s guest books (they have all of them dating back to when the huts first opened – you can go back and find what you wrote in 1974).  The staff made a big display of introducing themselves and explaining how the hut works, and it was apparent that these staff jobs are valued and much sought after.  It felt like being at summer camp.  Outside, Judy was talking with some young thru-hikers who were doing work-for-stay (in exchange for cleaning up after dinner and breakfast they would be allowed to sleep in the dining room for free).  One of the thru-hikers, a young law student named Blind Faith, would be sleeping in the dungeon with us.  Judy came in to tell me that the sunset was looking spectacular and I joined her outside.

The other hut guests drifted outside to see the sunset, too, and it was breathtaking. 

Smoky Scout at sunset

Judy’s sunset photo

Then the guests went back inside to play cards and board games in the dining room, and after hanging around a short time we headed to our basement bunker directly beneath the action.  Loud voices and thumping around couldn’t compete with my state of exhaustion plus ear plugs and I fell asleep soon.  Sometime during the night Blind Faith crept quietly into his bunk above me.  And at 1:00 a.m. I went outside for a bathroom break and was nearly knocked down by the stars.  I felt like I could reach out and grab the handle of the Big Dipper. 

When I admire the wonders of a sunset or the beauty of the moon, my soul expands in the worship of the creator.  ~Mahatma Ghandi


Linda W. said...

You got some nice photos of your trek. I especially like the sunset shots. What a grand adventure!

smoky scout said...

Judy's sunset shots were vastly superior to mine. I have to admit, we were so focused on arriving intact that I never thought about "gee, I hope we have a good sunset." What a bonus!