How I Hiked Like It Was 1915 in the White Mountains: The Full Story, Part II

September 08, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

Me on Mount Webster, NH. Photo by Laura Hurley.Me on Mount Webster, NH. Photo by Laura Hurley.The big photo shoot... I met two colleagues on Mount Webster. They took some awesome photos! I had been hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire for about three days in 1915 period clothing: wool knickerbockers, coat, socks and hat, silk blouse, neckerchief, and leather hiking boots. I was on my way from the Appalachian Mountain Club's Greenleaf Hut above Franconia Notch all the way to Madison Spring Hut at the northern end of the Presidential Range, stopping for the night at four other huts along the way. The hike was meant to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Lakes of the Clouds Hut and to be an historical experiment for me, the club's Archivist. The weather was hot the first couple of days and my challenge for this new day was to hike up the grueling Webster Cliff Trail high above Crawford Notch.

After an easy trek the day before I was a little keyed up for this hike. I had decided to follow the Appalachian Trail from Zealand Falls to the next hut at Mizpah Spring. The total distance for the day would be over thirteen miles. Much of this was fairly flat, but the afternoon included the Webster Cliff section. As an added challenge I had promised to meet two colleagues on the summit of Webster so they could photograph me, the views, and the hut for a few social media spots via the Appalachian Mountain Club. I hit the trail after breakfast and made the first seven miles in just under three hours. Right before I reached Route 302 in Crawford Notch I met a couple in street clothes and sneakers coming up the trail. They were likely going on a short walk to a nearby waterfall, but they did not seem to be carrying so much as a bottle of water. The woman told me I looked like a "real hiker." We chatted briefly about the toughness of the trails in the White Mountains when a sudden look of concern came over her face and she asked if I was hiking all alone. I replied in the affirmative. She said she would pray for me. As I began my ascent of Webster Cliff and thought about how utterly unprepared this couple looked for being in the woods I thought it might be better if I pray for them...

I built up a lot of adrenaline zipping down the flat parts of the trail in the morning, but as I began to climb the three-mile, relentless beast that is the Webster Cliff Trail, my energy was quickly sapped. I kept to a slow pace and finally reached an open cliff where the wind pulled away all the sweat that had poured out of me on the way up. Further along I came upon an Appalachian Trail section hiker and her companion. We stopped to talk briefly and I mentioned where I was headed as well as my work with AMC. She suddenly asked, "Are you married to Stu?" Turns out she had met my husband the day before at the Ethan Pond Shelter where he had acted as a fill-in caretaker for the night. The trip was full of funny coincidences like this, but this pair, "Rangeley" and Jenn became a familiar sight. 

I eventually reached Mount Webster where I'd made a simple, verbal agreement discussed the week before to meet two coworkers around 2:45pm. They appeared on the trail just as planned and we had a good time taking photos, hiking toward Mizpah Spring Hut, and staying there for the night. One of the photos, along with other clothing inspiration images I used can be seen here. The shenanigans continued into the next day when we went as far as Mount Pierce together. We shot some footage of my boots walking by and me climbing pensively up the trail in my full costume. Heady film-making indeed. At the junction with the Crawford Path they began their descent and I was left alone to climb deeper into the clouds and wind. The rest of day's hike would be above treeline, exposed to whatever weather the mighty Presidential Range chose to throw my way. I felt tiny moments of nerves, but reminded myself that I was prepared for these conditions, smart about where I was going and what to expect, and ultimately lucky to experience the wild, mysterious, and powerful environment of a somewhat bad day on the range.

AMC Lakes of the Clouds Hut, N.H. Photo by R.M. Fullerton.AMC Lakes of the Clouds Hut, N.H. Photo by R.M. Fullerton.Graphically demonstrating its namesake, Lakes of the Clouds Hut sits on the side of Mount Washington, enveloped in clouds much of the year.

I saw a few hikers on their way up or down, all emerging from the fog and disappearing swiftly, but mostly I was alone with my thoughts. Before the trip people asked if I would be hiking solo and if that made me nervous. I couldn't say I was alone much, meeting so many people in the huts and seeing them on the trails. I crossed paths with many in these crowded mountains. No one I met was threatening or suspicious. Most hikers either just walk on by or want to stop and chat. I began to relish the times when I really felt alone on the trail. 

The Crawford Path is a chilling and exciting place to ponder being alone. There is no real shelter above treeline. I had under six miles to hike to Lakes of the Clouds Hut below Mount Washington, but on a bad weather day this is significant. The hut itself was a high-point destination for the trip since I was hiking in costume appropriate for the year the place was built. The story behind its construction, however, gives you a reason to understand fully the environment through which you are passing. Fifteen years before the hut the only shelter to be found on Mount Washington was at the summit in the Tip-Top House, the Summit House (both hotels) and a few other small buildings. The Appalachian Mountain Club held a 'Field Meeting' there in July 1900. The weather was rough on the opening day of the meeting and two club members, William B. Curtis and Alan Ormsbee, both of New York City, set out from Crawford Notch on the eight and a half mile Crawford Path apparently unaware of the dangers ahead. They met other hikers descending who warned of worse weather higher up, but the two pressed on into a blinding gale. They had no gear for these types of conditions and though they were very fit, the cold, wet and wind were too much for them. Curtis succumbed first, exhausted and likely hypothermic. Ormsbee pressed on in search of the summit and rescue before he too fell upon the trail. Their bodies were found two days later. Seeing a need for emergency shelter of some kind below the summit, a tiny shed was built near the Lakes of the Clouds in 1901. 

Today the hut is a large, weather-tight building perched on the edge of Ammonoosuc Ravine. It holds ninety guests plus the 'croo'. In the evening, lights glow warmly from the windows and the sounds of dinner conversation can be heard. I arrived early in the day and had time to shoot some photos and video footage, talk with the excellent fill-in croo (the usual croo was on a mid-summer days-off outing as a group), and witness an exceptional sunset. I made a few more sketches and notes in my journal. In the evening I talked about the hut's history to a small group and there was a fun session of mountain trivia led by a couple of the croo-in-residence. The hut was a hub of activity and warmth compared to the growing wind and clouds outside.

Becky and Ed at LakesMe and Ed at Lakes of the Clouds. Great to run into this guy!It was so exciting to bump into my friend Ed who was serving as fill-in 'croo' at the Lakes of the Clouds Hut! We awoke to a low cloud ceiling in the morning and I knew it would be another view-less day as I hiked to my final hut for the week at Madison Spring. It was another quiet day for me moving across the Presidential Range. I headed up the trail past the Lakes of the Clouds, skipped the summit of Washington and headed for the Gulfside Trail. As I came out onto the west side of the range the wind hit me and rain swept in. I wore a modern raincoat on top for the day, but I did stick to my 1915 outfit by wearing my wool knickers. Though they were progressively more soggy throughout the day they did keep me warm no matter how hard the wind blew. My wool hat faithfully shed the rain and its wide brim kept water from dripping down the back of my neck.

I met a few other parties out on the ridge that day, but mostly I just walked along and looked ahead for the next cairn emerging from the fog to help keep me on the trail. The scene was so different from the year before when the weather was pleasant. I had stopped to admire the view, lounge around, sketch the Great Gulf and eat snacks all day long that time. Not so on this day. I barely stopped to pull a LaraBar from my pocket now and then, and ate it on the move with gloved hands. By the time I reached the hut my bottom half was fairly well soaked. I stripped off all my wool gear and hung it to drip dry for the afternoon, pulling on some dry clothing from my pack and having a few cups of hot tea. All afternoon soggy hikers arrived and quietly set up camp in the bunkrooms where every hook was soon occupied by damp clothing. Dinner was again a cheerful event full of conversation, though I kept a close eye out the window of the hut. Rangeley the section hiker and Jenn had not arrived yet. Rangeley had told me she moved slowly, but I couldn't help wondering if something had happened. Finally I saw the pair emerging from the low trees and I got up to meet them at the door. Jenn had twisted her knee on the gnarly rocks of the Gulfside Trail and they had been forced to move even more slowly all day. They had some thinking to do about their route the next day: to carry on down the long, steep Osgood Trail or go out the shorter Valley Way and figure out how to get a ride to Pinkham Notch for the night. I had dinner with them and we talked in the morning, but I did not see them after leaving the hut. I hope they both made it out to the road in one piece! [December 2015 Update: They made it out to Pinkham and Rangeley continued on to Carter Notch! Next year she'll tackle the remainder of the Appalachian Trail]

A gorgeous morning between Mounts Madison and Adams, N.H.A gorgeous morning between Mounts Madison and Adams, N.H.What an amazing morning display! Luckily the morning had arrived with clearer skies and a magnificent bank of clouds covering the valley below. Blue mountain peaks poked up through them and the sun lit up the nearby slopes of Mount Adams. I walked up to tiny Star Lake just above the hut to see the cottongrass waving in the breeze, reflected in the crystalline water. All thoughts of the rain and chill of the previous day were forgotten over one last hut breakfast of eggs, bacon, coffee cake, and plenty of coffee. I donned my costume and pack once again and set out for the summit of Mount Madison.

Crowds of hikers were climbing up and down the trail on this beautiful morning. Aside from encountering a few groups I had met at the hut the night before, I was once again an anonymous anomaly in funny clothes. Leaving the huts it felt like I was leaving a little community that had come to know me and my crazy project. I filmed one final video message in costume before stashing my wool in favor of a pair of running shorts and a tank top. The hot weather had returned and I felt like descending the long steep Osgood Trail into the Great Gulf Wilderness in a slightly less cumbersome outfit. It felt good to move freely in shorts and a tank top. I have to admit I'm pretty happy with the clothing era we live in now. The clothing I would have worn in 1915 was versatile and with time I think I could have figured out more tricks for comfort, but of course the clothing I know now is familiar and therefore easier to manage. 

Later that day I emerged from the quiet eeriness of the Great Gulf Wilderness and crossed the Mount Washington Auto Road, feeling the typical shock of watching cars rush by. As I walked out the Old Jackson Road to Pinkham Notch Visitor Center I could hear traffic on the road below. I saw more and more day hikers and families. The Trading Post at Pinkham was abuzz with people coming and going. I sat on the porch and watched clouds roll in. More rain was in the forecast. Though I would have loved another week in the mountains, it was nice to be under cover in the threat of rain with no more miles to go that day. I'm sure even my 1915 self would have felt the same way, but what an extraordinary adventure! I can only imagine being a woman headed out on a hiking trip with other intrepid souls, off into mountains that still seemed somewhat new and unexplored. Though the clothing, gear, and travel to the mountains was so different then, the thrill of striking out into the forest, losing sight of the road, and feeling the enormity of the woods all around must be the same.

Epilogue: My hikes in the White Mountains have led to many paintings in the last few years. You can see the results of that side of my trips in the Hinterlands gallery of my website. Some of the original paintings are available through my online shop. You can follow along on my next adventures via Facebook and Instagram. Happy Trails!

Read The Full Story, Part I


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