Jun 24, 2014

Thru-Hiker to Thru-Hiker: The How’s and Why’s of New Hampshire’s White Mountains


by Jeremy “Beowulf” Day

The White Mountains of New Hampshire are perhaps the most dramatic, awe-inspiring part of the Appalachian Trail. Mt. Moosilauke is the furthest south that you break tree line. The mountains are more sheer; rock spires thrusting out of evergreen seas. The notches are deep, the paths rugged and wind-whipped. All this combines to create beauty unparalleled.

The Whites are remarkable—and different in many ways from a lot of the places you’ve visited since you first hit the trail. I’d like to help take some of the confusion and worry out of this spectacular stretch of trail and help you get through the Whites with a smile on your face and, most likely, a little extra food in your stomach.

I thru-hiked in 2012 and had the immense benefit of already having been employed by the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) in a couple of capacities (supply chain and magazine). I knew how the area worked, knew the trails, and consequently was able to hike through the area happily. I went on to work in the huts for two full-service seasons (the season where they serve food, etc.) and got to understand the dynamic between thru-hiker and backcountry employee possibly better than most. So, here’s how to make the experience in the Whites a happy one.

Crawford Path, near AMC Lakes of the Clouds Hut
Navigating in the Whites 

An enormous number of the trails in the White Mountains were cut before the first tree was felled in the Herculean effort to get the trail all the way from Georgia to Maine. Consequently the trail, unlike the hundreds of miles you hiked further south, is not just “The Appalachian Trail” on a map. When you get to Mt. Moosilauke, the trail takes a slew of names that, unless you know the area (and I still took a wrong turn just past Lonesome Lake), it can be hard to follow. That being said, I would highly recommend picking up a trail map of the area. The AT is highlighted on most maps and that makes it pretty easy to follow. The trail, while not blazed in the Great Gulf Wilderness Area between Mt. Madison and Pinkham Notch due to federal Wilderness Area management, is very well signed at trail junctions and cleared of blowdowns, thanks to AMC’s Professional Trail Crew, as well as the Randolph Mountain Club, Dartmouth Outing Club, and the U.S. Forest Service. You can also try out the White Mountain Guide Online for free. Seriously, carry the map. It will save you the massive headache of accidentally taking the wrong trail. Also, it gives you knowledge of the surrounding trails in case you need to bail out of the areas above treeline or get to a shelter/campsite slightly off the AT.

Terrain and Speed
If you've been doing 20-mile days, expect to slow down to 15-mile days. The Whites are much more rugged than most of the rest of the trail. Remember Albert Mountain just before the road to Franklin, North Carolina? When I got there I thought, “This reminds me of the Whites!” It’s steep, it’s rocky, and there are a lot of exposed sections. Don’t hurt yourself trying to keep doing the same number of miles you were doing before.

Weather
The White Mountains are home to some of the most extreme weather in the world. A wind gust of 231 mph was recorded there in 1934, which according to the Mount Washington Observatory, is “the record for the fastest surface wind measured in the Northern and Western Hemispheres.” The weather can change at the drop of a hat, and I have personally been snowed on in the middle of August on Mt. Washington. Pay attention to the weather. If you see dark clouds coming in, don’t go above treeline. If you have a cell phone signal and can check the weather, do so. When you’re at a hut for whatever reason, ask the “croo” (what the staff at the hut is called) if they know of any impending foul weather. They receive weather forecasts from the observatory on the top of Mt. Washington every morning and can at least point you to what that says and potentially recommend campsites and ways off the mountain if the weather turns sour.

In light of all this discussion of foul weather, I would suggest making some adjustments to the gear you're carrying. Remember all that cold weather gear you shipped home in Damascus? You'll probably want that back, particularly if you're hitting the area in September. Get the heavier sleeping bag or a bag liner, some light gloves, and if you aren't already carrying a warm jacket, get one before you hit Mt. Moosilauke. It's all luck of the draw, but I've seen everything from 80 degree days in September to snow storms in August. We had a couple if thru hikers toward the end of September that got caught in a three-day rime-ice storm.

AMC Kinsman Pond Shelter
Camping and Campsites
There are a variety of options for camping throughout the Whites, from pitching your tent off trail to utilizing one of the 16 or so designated campsites and tentsites along the way. The White Mountain National Forest allows camping throughout the forest, except where otherwise designated. For a complete set of U.S. Forest Service rules, check out this PDF. However, to save yourself the headache of reading the whole thing and remembering it, in general, you have to camp at least a quarter mile from lakes, campsites, huts, and roads; all areas where you are not allowed to camp are indicated by “Forest Protection Area” signs. The theory behind this is to keep tents from sprawling in a ¼ mile radius around precious water sources.

When choosing a place to camp off-trail, there are a number of guidelines based in Leave No Trace. You should camp at least 200 feet off the trail and can’t camp above treeline. Camping above treeline is not permitted in order to protect the fragile environment in the higher elevations, including rare alpine plants. There is a plant called dwarf cinquefoil that only grows in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. That’s it. Nowhere else in the world. A lot of effort from the AMC, RMC, DOC, NH State Parks, and the WMNF itself in the Whites focuses on human impact management – trail erosion, habitat protection, human waste management, etc. Having stirred composting toilets many, many times, I know how much waste is being kept off the trails and out of water sources.

While the Forest Protection Areas may seem trying, there is plenty (roughly half a million acres) of camping available. There are hostels on either side of the White Mountains that have a list of places to set up your tent or hammock along the AT, but keep in mind that the list sometimes includes places that are not actually legal to stay at. These include campsites on the Franconia Ridgeline past Liberty Springs tentsite. These sites are in the alpine zone and it is illegal to camp in this fragile environment. Caretakers at AMC campsites are familiar with the surrounding environs and can usually direct you to a place off trail to pitch your tent and find water.

Campsite Fees
As mentioned above, a lot of the campsites and tentsites have caretakers living at the site and collecting a camping fee. (Work for Stay is available if work exists at these sites.) I’m often asked why there is an $8 fee to do something that has been free on the rest of the trail. Of course, finding caretakers at other shelters along the A.T. is extremely rare, so why is there one here? Again, it comes down to volume of users and managing the impact on the environment. Appalachian Trail thru-hikers make up less than 5% of the total use of these sites, which average 14,000 people annually overnight. What this volume of overnight visitors translates to is a significant impact on the natural environment, as well as the bear of the job educating the public on minimizing their impact. Of all the impacts to trails, water quality, erosion, the one that is most tangible is the human waste deposited by 14,000 people. While in the privies in the south it was just requested that you throw a handful of leaves in after you use it, here, the volume is so high (2,400 gallons across all AMC AT campsites, or about 300 gallons at Liberty Springs Tentsite alone!) that it requires a person to devote about one-third of their work time to manually composting human waste in a labor-intensive process.

In addition to building staircases and bog bridges on the Appalachian Trail, AMC caretakers work to maintain a balance between overuse and sensitive natural areas, so while you might find them sitting on their porch reading a book, their day started before 7 a.m. and likely involved a full 8 hours of trailwork in addition to managing a busy campsite. The origins of the caretaker program date back to 1970, when overuse almost destroyed Garfield Pond, Franconia Ridge, and others. However, as recent as October 2013, the caretaker’s role in protecting the resource through education and hands-on work was shown when AMC campsites in the White Mountain National Forest were closed and not staffed during the Columbus Day Weekend as a result of the federal government shutdown. The damage that resulted because they were unstaffed can be seen on the AMC’s Trails Blog. For more information on caretakers’ responsibilities and the “whys” of fees, give this a read. As a fun fact, the $8 fee has not risen in over a decade – and think about how many other things have increased in cost.

If you have a non-freestanding shelter, hammock or otherwise, ask the caretaker where you can pitch your sleeping quarters. At all AMC sites there is a location to accommodate non-freestanding shelters, it's just a good idea to ask before throwing your tent onto the ground somewhere.

Work for Stay at Campsites

Just like at AMC Huts, Work for Stay (WFS) is available at AMC campsites and tentsites. AMC campsites can take in two workers per night. If you want to take advantage of this, the description below about how to ask for WFS applies. Please show up early, ask gently and respectfully, and potentially be prepared to be spending a full hour helping move 50 pound bags of bark, or doing other chores. Just like with hut crew, caretakers work long days by themselves for 11 days in a row, and might have been spending 8 hours working on building a piece of AT (many of those steps and bog bridges were done by the hard-working hands of caretakers) in addition to answering questions from hikers, composting human waste, and keeping the campsite clean. The way WFS at a campsite works requires usually that the caretaker assists you and explains the work. However, if the caretaker does not have a project that you could help on then WFS is not available. Please be willing to stay a little bit later the next morning, as if it’s a busy Saturday night the caretaker might not have time to work with you for an hour on a project. There’s only one of them, and sometimes 60 people that they are trying to fit into the site.

Caretakers understand AT hikers and want to help. Many of the caretakers have hiked the AT themselves, and chose to take up their jobs as caretakers because they wanted to give back to the trails that gave them such a life-changing experience. The caretakers I met on my hike were extremely helpful, one even pointing me to a great (free!) spot a half a mile up the trail.

Lakes of the Clouds Hut Dinner Menu
AMC Huts 

This section is going to be broken up into a few different sub-sections because there are a lot of topics to cover. If you play your cards right, you’re apt to leave the Whites drier, happier, and with a few extra pounds on your thru-hike-emaciated body. 

About the Huts
The AMC runs 8 huts along the AT corridor. Greenleaf is about a mile and 1000 vertical feet off the trail, but the rest are either on the trail or no more than 0.3 miles off. They have bunk space for between 36 and 90 people a night and provide dinner, breakfast, and educational talks. In addition, they provide a place for day hikers to fill up their water bottles, get trail information, use the composting toilets, buy gear they might have forgotten, have a snack or a hot drink, or provide shelter from a storm. While thru-hikers receive AMC member rates at all facilities (20% off), for someone on a limited budget like most on a thru hike, affording a hut stay might not be in the cards. Because of that, the huts have a work-for-stay option in which you can do some work for the leftovers from dinner and breakfast, as well as a place to sleep.

Work For Stay at AMC Huts
The official WFS policy is that each hut can take two thru-hikers a night (except Lakes of the Clouds which can take 4), have them do 2 hours of work, and then give them some food and a place to sleep. Until it’s time to eat and do work, you’re usually asked to stay out of the dining area when dinner is happening. The croo member that you’ll be interacting with has probably been up since 5:30 a.m. cooking and is extremely busy making a soup, bread, salad, entrĂ©e, side dishes, and dessert. Don’t take their apparent disinterest as being rude or mean; they’re just busy cooking, by themselves, a dinner for 36-90 people.

1. The work you do on a WFS can vary from something as simple as cleaning the ice out of the freezer to a full two hours of scouring pots. I did both on my thru. It all depends on what the croo needs.

2. Lakes of the Clouds has a room beneath the dining area called, affectionately, “The Dungeon.” It’s the emergency shelter that’s unlocked all year round that has a few bunks, though no mattresses, that costs $10. It’s not the Hilton, but it’s shelter from a storm, you don’t have to do any work, and it’s a neat experience. When I was working at Lakes, I had a number of thru-hikers elect to stay there rather than do the WFS. Indoors is indoors.

The tricky part about WFS is securing one. Here are some tips that might help you get a WFS.

1. You’ve been camping most of the time on the trail, so you can handle camping some more. Don’t try to stay at every hut. You’re reducing the chances of everyone else getting a WFS at some point by hogging all the slots. If everyone tried to stay at every hut, barely anyone would get WFS. This can create tension between thru-hikers, as well as anger at croos that can’t really do anything about it.

2. If you’re in a big group, space out by the time you get to Kinsman Notch (after Moosilauke) if you’re northbound, Gorham if you’re southbound. Hut croos like giving out WFS, but if you’re hiking with a group of 8, there’s no way you’re all going to be able to stay and it’s going to get competitive. Don’t put that stress on your group or the hut croo.

3. Show up between 3 and 4 p.m. after having hiked a good number of miles that day. If you show up too early, you’ve got time to push a little further.

4. Show up and ask for WFS with humility and work like you mean it. You’re a representative of the thru-hiking community and your actions and attitude will affect how the rest of the thru-hikers will be treated in the future. If you work hard when asked, eat ALL the leftover chicken, and say thank you, the croo will be more likely to be happy to have more thrus. If you get all the perks but skip out before doing chores, then the croo might be less likely to be accommodating to the next batch of hikers. Yes, you are doing something difficult and epic, but hut croos see thousands of thru-hikers every year, and if you come in demanding things and acting entitled, it will not make them particularly inclined to grant you a WFS. Hut croos might have more amenities than you have in the woods, but I promise you that they work very, very hard. My days at Lakes of the Clouds were sometimes 15 hours long.
Lonesome Lake with Franconia Ridge in the Distance










So many of the people I knew on the trail deemed the White Mountains their favorite part of the trail. When I asked my thru-hiker friends what they would have wanted to know before they arrived in the Whites, I got a lot of what you’ve read above, but also tons of comments that sounded something like, “It was my favorite section. Hands down.” There’s nowhere else on the trail like it and the amenities of the huts can be a great part of that. The towns are all hiker-friendly, it’s easy to hitch, and there are a lot of people to talk to. Have fun. Enjoy every crag. If I’m up there working, stop in and say, “Hi.”

As I signed all the trail registers,

Love and arm rippings,

(Beowulf)

Jeremy “Beowulf” Day thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2012 and went on to work at Greenleaf in the fall of 2012, Lakes of the Clouds in the fall of 2013, was a caretaker at Carter Notch and Zealand Falls over the 2013-2014 winter, and plans to return to the huts this fall. He is currently thru-hiking the John Muir Trail, Long Trail, Cohos Trail, and 1,200 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. You can follow his trip at https://www.facebook.com/beowanders

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