Saturday, August 16, 2008

Thoughts from a kinda-sorta-ex-hut kid

This piece is written by Beth Weick, currently the rotating caretaker in the Eastern Pemigewasett and a former Lakes of the Clouds Hutmaster.

For those who don’t know me or would feign not to, I’m writing this as a shelters caretaker. A new and different gig for me, and one that generates all manner of comparisons to the huts, however unfair and non-judicious that may be.

So. Guests. In shelters, we call them visitors, but we all know to whom we are referring. Those folks who come up from near and far to traipse about these White Mountains. Too many are foolhardy and stubborn, from Boston; many are also foreigners who don’t speak the language…from Quebec; and then there are the others who are from the far corners of our country, and abroad.

Let me tell you: you want your hutguests to be as inadequate as they are. Yes, guests—“goofers,” if you must—are the source of complaints, stories, expletives, frustrations, and burgeoning alcoholics. But that’s the point. Without miserably incompetent hikers, half the hutkid repertoire is gone.

In shelters, I daily interact with folks who can shoulder fairly well-packed packs, follow a map, feed themselves, entertain themselves, and infer from the rain that the weather is bad. They know that moose don’t become reindeer after age 10, they know the alpine zone wasn’t built by cutting down the trees, and they can distinguish between a wind generator and fighting mountain lions.

Boring. Not only do I have no one to complain with, I have little to complain about. Imagine what this would do to a hut.

1) You’d never miss a drinking opportunity due to late night “guided hikes.”
2) You could have meat, bread, and peanuts in every meal without hysterics and epi-pens to boot.
3) “Excuse me, sir” and “please, ma’am” would never imply “get the f*** out of my kitchen.”
4) You’d never revert to Borat-isms in a fruitless attempt to communicate with the ceaseless French-Canadians.
5) You’d never ruin a sunset moment with stock-option conversations or unsupervised rascals picking up the wilderness.
6) The tip jar would be $100 lighter because people could carry their own packs, or find their own family, or not break their ankle.

Moral of the story? Medicocrity, nay, failing at even mediocrity is never as fun to witness as in our “high mountain destinations. May guests live on as goofers in our huts, and may their obliviousness always hide them from it.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Bushwhacking Whitewall Mountain

It has been a wet summer, and my hiking, like my writing on this blog, has amounted to less than I had wished. Nonetheless, I was inspired to bushwhack Whitewall Mountain a couple of weeks ago, accompanied by the intrepid old hutsman Alex MacPhail (or Macfool, as they called him when he worked in the huts).

Whitewall sits directly across the notch from Zealand Falls Hut, and its white cliffs provide a striking foreground to our view south through the notch. It was first named for an obscure local woodsman, but after one of JE Henry’s immense fires scorched the area so severely that the soil was incinerated down to the rock, it was renamed for the scars that endure, though much diminished, to this day.

As we did the bushwhack on a pack day, I had little time to spare. Shortly after breakfast, we descended the doozy and plunged into the brush immediately opposite the junction of the Ethan Pond and Zealand Trails. This way, we minimized the angle of our ascent and avoided any contact with the slides or cliffs, but we did ensure that once atop the main ridge opposite the hut, we would have to walk farther to reach the ledges on the south side of the summit. Indeed, while the initial slope was easy, the ridge proved overgrown.

Alex, who holds the record for the hut traverse (twelve hours) and once hiked (sprinted?) from Lakes of the Clouds to Zealand in 2:10, pointed out that the vegetation has changed since he roamed the ridge in the sixties. Apparently, there are many more balsam fir, and the forest has grown up considerably. While we encountered many beautiful birch glades, shining white as well emerald green thanks to the damp hobblebush, the going was generally slow through the spruce-fir forest.

The glades were full of moose scat, and we found many flattened ferns that had been used as bedding. Unfortunately, we did not encounter any megafauna, nor did we find evidence of a rumored “antler grove,” but we did find plenty of bear scat and a semi-alpine bog. At one point, I wandered off, nearly losing Alex in the process, to examine some largish trees in the distance—some of them were approximately ten inches in diameter, so they may be survivors from the pre-Henry days.

Eventually, we crested the summit and found some outcroppings of bedrock. After some more scratching and clawing, we emerged onto the ledges themselves, which have superb views over the heart of the Pemigewasset, including Carrigain—“the prince of the wilderness,” according to Professor Charles Fay, one of the AMC’s founders—the Hancocks, and the Bonds, in addition to the splendid forests in-between. While the mist obscured more distant peaks, it added an ethereal dimension to what mountains and valleys we could see.

The ledges themselves were of interest, as well. Some of the more sheltered crevices were blackened, evidently from the fires of a century ago. There was a Z shaped from rocks on the ground, presumably the handiwork of a past Zealand croo, as well as some rocks my own croomate Nick Anderson had left earlier in the season.

Before heading down, Alex wanted to check out a gully that runs from the ledges to the Ethan Pond Trail, about a thousand feet below in the notch. Given the night’s rain and the instability of the rocks, we had chosen not to ascend this way, but a closer look convinced me to try going down this way, especially as I still needed to pack. Alex declined and returned the way we came, more or less.

His was probably the right decision. The couloir drops between two cliffs, and there are some very large, very loose chunks of rock that need extremely careful negotiation. After observing just how fast and hard several shot down the slope and smelling pulverized rock in the air, I slithered into the brush on the side of the slide and avoided treading on rocks as best as I could.

After several hundred feet, the gully emerges beneath the cliffs, and the entire mountainside becomes a sea of scree and boulders. This section is slightly less steep, so I descended much more quickly and easily, feeling a palpable sense of relief. At the bottom, the steadiness of the Ethan Pond Trail was exceptionally welcome.