Reaching Lakes of the Clouds

By Natalie Beittel

The past two summers I worked for the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Professional White Mountains Trail crew. This coming May, after I graduate from the University of Massachusetts, I will return to make it my third year on the trail crew. My first year on the crew was a blur. We spent the beginning of the season patrolling trails maintained by the AMC in and around the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Every morning our crew of 22 split into smaller groups, and were sent out to hike certain trails and chop out fallen trees from the winter storms. The first few patrols were nerve-racking. My body was in shock from the extreme physical strain, and I had never swung an axe before – never mind working through trunks and limbs often falling at inconvenient angles.

I jumped out of the truck at the trailhead everyday shaking with adrenaline and nerves jogging up the trail. Patrols are leapfrog style, the first person to hit a tree stops to clear it and the rest keep going on ahead. Reaching a blown-down tree I would panic while I chopped worrying about catching up with the rest of the crew. I did get used to the burn in my thighs climbing and knowing I would eventually catch the crew after a chop.

The last patrol of the season was a two-day adventure with a night spent at one of AMC’s high mountain huts, Lakes of the Clouds, which sits on the shoulder of Mt. Washington. We woke as usual the morning of the last patrol and shoved our sleeping bags into our packs in addition to the usual stashes of food and our axes. At the parking lot we climbed out of the truck and started racing up the trail as usual. We started up the Airline Trail, which would bring us to the saddle between Mt. Madison and Mt. Adams.  There were not many blown down trees going up, so without a break from hiking I quickly was sweating heavily and breathing hard as the crew kept a hard pace.

It had started to rain as we hiked, but it was when we broke free of the trees into the alpine zone that the wind slammed into my wet body chilling me. Stopping quickly I threw on a raincoat. Racing over the bare rocky trail I saw Madison Hut appear suddenly out of the clouds and made a detour inside. We had made a big climb up to 5,000 feet in about 2 hours. Luckily the hut crew had just made a batch of fresh fudge and I shoveled several squares into my mouth. Standing inside I started to shiver and headed back out into the weather with another crewmember. We wandered around disoriented in the clouds looking for a trail sign pointing us in the right direction.

I knew from looking at my map earlier that we would descend the Madison Gulf Trail into the crevasse between Mt. Madison and Mt. Washington, losing all elevation we had just gained only to climb back up later above the trees. The Madison Gulf Trail was steep and filled with slippery rocks, which we slid down, but the movement and being below the trees again warmed me up. Now in wilderness-designated forest, we chopped only what wasn’t easy to walk over or under. The crew had been scattered before, was now back together and we moved quickly along.

The descent led us to an intersection with the Great Gulf trail and then to Chandler Brook trail. Chandler Brook was a steep straight shot up to the auto road on the north side of Mt. Washington. Climbing hand over hand it was now past 2 p.m. Having started at 8 a.m., we had yet to stop for lunch because it was too cold. The trail spit us out suddenly on the road just around the four-mile mark. On the road, the cold wind and rain once again whipped at us and walking up we were bent over trying to step. My face, hands and thighs quickly became numb with cold and I regretted not packing my rain pants and a pair of gloves. A lone van came down the road out of the fog and shouted out the window that the weather was worse above. Thanks, good to know. The crew once again started to split up and spread out, as people were now tired and moving at different speeds. Struggling to place one foot in front of the other, I watched a crewmember pull out a black plastic trash bag and put it on over his t-shirt, obviously lacking a rain jacket. Unable to hear anything else over the wind, it flapped wildly and noisily around his body barely covering the tops of his arms.

Two crewmembers were ahead of me, and two behind, all falling out of sight. Finally, the Alpine Garden trailhead appeared on my left and I jumped off the road making the final crossover to lakes. I was very alone at this point and couldn’t see more than 10 feet in front of my face. The Alpine Garden is a confusing place in the clouds, with no trees to herd you along the path, and all surrounding scenery lost in grey. My hands lost all feeling and I struggled to keep them inside the sleeves of my jacket but needed them to stabilize myself climbing along the rocks fighting the wind and the slipping.

In hindsight, this was maybe a bit dramatic, but I remember telling myself as I crawled along I needed to keep going or else I would die. Talking about the experience later, I found that other crewmembers had similar thoughts. Suddenly interrupting my morbid thoughts, I saw a bright yellow light appear in the distance and thought maybe I was now hallucinating and it was the sun, but it was my crew leader, even better. It was the happiest I have ever been to see anyone in my whole life. He was in a head to toe yellow rubber rain suit and huddled behind a rock shivering eating a sandwich. “Hey, buddy,” he said to me with a smile. He had been waiting for me. Too cold to wait for the others we headed for the hut. I jogged when the terrain allowed, tripping over my own feet from the lack of feeling in my thighs. At the final intersection I would have been lost without my crew leader, as I took a left, confused from being frozen and the lack of discernable land marks. He steered me back right and finally, before we saw it though the thick clouds and rain, we heard the signature sound of the small windmills atop the Lakes of the Clouds hut and rushed to the door.

Natalie Beittel is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected].