Snow? In July? In the White Mountains, she explains, anything is possible since three major weather systems converge in the area; it’s notorious for surprising hikers with bad weather. We might be inexperienced, but at least we won’t be unprepared. L.L. Bean donates thousands of dollars worth of gear – from boots and fleece to sleeping bags and water bottles – to encourage beginners. All are free to borrow when you book through the AMC. The club, launched in 1876, is the oldest non-profit organization in the U.S. devoted to outdoor education and conservation.
The plan is to arrive at Mizpah Spring Hut (elev. 1,151 metres) for a night and then climb a few mountain peaks the next day before heading back down to the Highland Center for our second night. There are a total of eight off-the-grid, full-service huts spaced about a day’s hike apart. The route covers 90 kilometres of the 3,500-kilometre, 14-state Appalachian Trail.
Our uphill traverse is just more than three kilometres, and takes us nearly three hours (with only a couple more tantrums). As we get closer to the top, the trail flattens out and, surprisingly, that’s all it takes for Jack to perk up and take the lead, yelling back to us as if it was Christmas morning: “We made it to the hut!”
Mizpah Spring Hut sleeps 60 in eight co-ed bunk rooms, and it is full that night. (Thank goodness the earplugs are also free.) I had forgotten the conviviality and bonding that happens among hikers at high elevations, and we share stories over our four-course dinner, served family-style on long wooden tables. Homemade bread, roasted pork, bow-tie pasta, French-cut beans, chocolate-chip brownies – the food is tasty and cooked from ingredients the staff brought up on their backs that day. (The hike takes these recent university grads – carrying 18- to 36-kilogram packs – less than one hour.)
It’s lights out at 9:30 with a morning wake-up call at 6:30, sung by two harmonizing staffers to lessen the sting of the early hour.
After savouring a hearty breakfast and listening to a hut staffer deliver the longest weather report I’ve ever heard – no one wants to get caught in a storm on an exposed mountain ridge – we head out, with Jack now excitedly leading the way up the rock scramble to Mt. Pierce. The trail is as steep as yesterday’s, but much shorter. As we climb above the tree line into the alpine zone, Jack is so far ahead he surprises a bunny on the trail. Julie tells him it’s rare to see animals this high up, and he’s chuffed. I think he’s finally having fun.
After we’ve been hiking through mist for some time, Bethany notices the clouds are close enough to jump up and touch: We must be near the summit. The lack of any view at 1,300 metres is disappointing, but not the buzz kill I’d feared, and it makes the decision to take on another mountain an easy one. As we continue farther on the Crawford Path (the oldest continually used mountain trail in North America), the clouds drift apart for about 10 seconds and our jaws drop at the view – we’re in the middle of a mountain range.
Midway up our last ascent, the clouds clear out for good. Now we can see the Appalachians for miles; the farthest mountains look like paper cutouts against the sky. As we scramble up the switchbacks to the peak of Mt. Eisenhower (1,460 metres), Bethany is the first to see the red roof of our old stomping grounds, the Omni. Leaving that lap of luxury was hard for her, but I watch as her lips curl into a smile and she says: “Now all those people on the veranda are watching us on the mountain.”
And that’s when I finally start to relax. Operation Hike Appreciation is a success.
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