Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The summer takes its toll

As I packed down the Gale River Trail the other day, I turned my ankle not far below Jacob’s Ladder, the long rock staircase which is the trail’s most notorious ascent. At the time, the twist seemed painful but not particularly serious, but by the close of lunch, I couldn’t walk, and purple blotches were spreading along the outside of my heel and toes. Hiking back up to Galehead that night was out of the question.

That more hutmen, or hut kids as we call ourselves nowadays, don’t hurt themselves in their duties is astonishing. The Huts Department bosses are emphatic about not carrying more than 60-70 pounds of weight on our pack up to the hut, but between exuberant 19 year-olds such as my hutmate, George Heinrichs, who has twice carried up a “century”—a load over 100 pounds—and the occasional need for lots of fresh vegetables and frozen meat all at once, loads exceed these limits from time to time.

Before the huts began to use helicopters for the pre-season supply run of a summer’s worth of canned foods, hutmen carried much greater loads. One croo member would run to the base each day, toting back up flour, tins of soup, and the like. The record load for the Gale River Trail is just over 160 pounds, while at Lakes, one hutman carried 312 pounds down from the summit over two days. Needless to say, as one OH informed me at our 75th anniversary earlier this summer, most OH from that era now have terrible knees and backs.

At Galehead, three of us are currently nursing sore ankles. For those with chronic pain, the summer becomes much more about socializing and enjoying the hut than hiking, and pack days must be carefully managed so as to be bearable. Our Assistant Hutmaster at Galehead, Hillary Gerardi, broke her leg badly last summer while working at Lonesome Lake. Confined to her house in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, the boredom eventually drove her back to the hut—but she ascended the Lonesome Lake Trail on crutches.

This year, hut kids have luckily avoided any serious breaks or burns (another serious danger, given the amount of time we spend in the kitchen). Our more rustic colleagues, the caretakers, have not been so lucky. Last week, Anthony, the Garfield caretaker, broke his leg and foot when a log supporting a rock slipped and slammed into him, throwing him quite a distance. He had been building a rock staircase on the Franconia Brook Trail with another caretaker, Aaron from 13 Falls, who promptly raced the three miles up to Galehead for help and the radio. The area of the accident is in a remote bowl in the Pemigewasset without radio contact.

Three of us from Galehead and Aaron headed down after informing Pinkham Notch Front Desk of the accident’s details. We planned on walking Anthony out with crutches to Franconia Brook Campground, some 8 or 9 miles from the site of the accident; NH Fish and Game decided to bring in a helicopter, however, precipitating a mad dash to Anthony to move him to a clearing in time to get the chopper’s attention. Anthony was in remarkably good spirits—he’s a tough fellow—but the bone was clearly out of place beneath his skin, and the swelling was dramatic. We moved him as quickly as we could, but given the thickness of the forest, the National Guard Blackhawk was unable to see us waving our jackets when it passed directly overhead.

An hour and two more near misses later, the helicopter headed off to refuel. We were beginning to dread walking Anthony out, when Eric suggested via George, whom was manning the Galehead radio, that we climb a tree or light a fire or “do something McGyver like.” Better an illegal fire than a broken back from a weak limb. My old campcraft was actually put to use as we made a small teepee of twigs, supported by birch bark. Aaron luckily had a lighter, and we got a small blaze going as the helicopter returned. But how to make thick enough smoke to attract attention. I remember the incredible blaze some campers had made by putting a recently chopped balsam fir tree in our campfire on my Wild River Expedition in early July: we piled fresh fir boughs on the fire, and a dense column of smoke rose above the treetops at last. The helicopter saw it and finally swooped in.

Anthony will be out for the rest of the season, unfortunately. As for myself, I will be hobbling back in tomorrow, somewhat more cautiously than usual. My desire to pack a century has been extinguished; it will be enough to make it through the summer in good health, having seen every last sunset from the hut.

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