All photos/art by Jarrod McCabe
The most direct walk up to the Appalachian Mountain Club’s hut on Mount Madison rises from the north, along the Valley Way, an ancient, eroded pack trail that lifts 3,550 feet in less than four miles. The gain is relentless, but the grade is moderate, well sheltered, and efficient, and therefore preferred by the hut crews who have hauled in food and supplies to the various incarnations of Madison Spring Hut since the original stone structure was built in 1888.
That simple, self-service building mirrored those found in t
The Austrian Alps and provided shelter for up to a dozen members of the oldest mountaineering club in North America, Boston’s Appalachian Mountain Club. By the time it was built, railroads had opened up the White Mountains to tourists: Grand hotels in the valleys catered to throngs of well-heeled travelers; the Mount Washington Summit House alone featured 100 bedrooms, a 150-seat dining room, and a house orchestra.
But barely a dozen trails brought hikers into the actual mountains, and almost all of them centered on Mount Washington, the 6,288-foot-tall crown of the Presidential Range. The men of the new mountaineering club, dedicated to “explor[ing] the mountains of New England and adjacent regions, both for scientific and artistic purposes,” wanted to get off those beaten paths and into the wilderness.
Initially they set their sights on the range’s remote, windswept northern peaks, and built their first permanent shelter along the scrubby western treeline in the col between the summits of Mounts Adams and Madison. Eventually, the club would add seven more “high hotels” across the top of the White Mountains, spaced a day’s hike apart along the Appalachian Trail.
Their chain of huts would become the model for alpine travel and hospitality in the distant Rockies and the High Sierra. The club would go on to develop hundreds of miles of trails, a network of shelters and tent sites, and the classic White Mountain Guide to help hikers get into the wilderness.
For more than 30 years–before helicopters began airlifts in 1964–mule teams helped pack in supplies to the AMC’s huts. But throughout their history, the huts have also been supplied by strong-backed college men (and then women) carrying ungodly loads strapped to rugged packboards made of wood, canvas, and leather. In 1940, hutman Bud Hefti carried 224 pounds on his packboard up the Valley Way to Madison Spring Hut, the same year an October fire destroyed the original structure. The AMC has long discouraged such “stunt packing”; 60 to 80 pounds is the standard weight, but 80- and 90-pound loads are still common.
On a hot morning in July, I watch one of those loads pass me on a lower section of the Valley Way: a grim-looking hutman sweating beneath his packboard and the bulk of a massive, awkwardly balanced subwoofer that had, the previous night, shaken the floor of the annual hut-crew party called “Madfest.” Carrying much lighter day packs, my 13-year-old daughter, Ursula, and I laugh at the craziness, and then turn our attention back to the relentless grade in front of us.
High up, we trudge past a group of young folks breaking for lunch off to the side of the trail–a Catholic-church youth group from Canton, Massachusetts. Then we pop out of the trees at 4,800 feet and see, right in front of us, the latest incarnation of Madison Spring Hut: a million-dollar renovation in stone and wood shingles that has added light and room to the shelter. A waterless toilet system has been installed, and the hut’s solar-power system has been expanded to include the most up-to-date, state-of-the-art technology.
Inside the hut, Ursula and I sit at a wooden table still new and shiny and blonde. I marvel at the light and the cathedral ceiling–so much airier than in my own days working on the AMC trail crew back in the 1980s–and the magnificent view sweeping out over the krummholz and off to the distant northern reaches of the national forest, which hasn’t changed at all.
We sit with hutmaster George Heinrichs, left, recently graduated from Middlebury College and already a veteran of six seasons working in the huts. He has likely covered more miles than any of the 60 other young people working in the huts this summer. On a large fold-out map of the White Mountains, he has systematically traced with a black felt-tipped marker every trail he’s walked; south of Route 2 there’s hardly a trail not blackened in.
He describes his favorite approaches to Madison Spring Hut. Gulfside Trail from Lakes of the Clouds Hut: “Classic alpine hike, seven miles, all above treeline. From the 10-foot cairn at Thunderstorm Junction it’s almost paved in stone and you can really fly.” Osgood Trail on the east side: “Continuation of the Appalachian Trail, rocky, exposed, but gorgeous views.” Madison Gulf Trail: “Upper part is wicked steep, with giant boulders, and you could easily get lost in bad weather–an awesome trail.”
He glances out the window, and an uncommon sight interrupts our conversation: two very fit women trail-running out of the treeline toward the hut. They stride through the door, not noticeably breathing hard, for water and advice: Where else in the Whites should they train over the next few days in preparation for a cross-Rockies trail race later in the month?
George pulls open his map and gives them an expert’s answer, a hutmaster’s answer, from a subset of the subset of the organization that wrote the book on high-mountain walking in New England.
High Huts of the White Mountains: 2nd Edition by William Reifsnyder (Appalachian Mountain Club, 1994) is one of the best guides we know to this region. To learn more about the Appalachian Mountain Club, go to: outdoors.org