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Second Sojourn


Second Sojourn

A Winter Trip to Carter Notch Hut in a Storm

Following my first successful winter sojourn into Carter Notch, I was approached by several people at work who wanted me to organize another weekend trip for a larger group. In December of 1986, in response to that urging, I arranged for another group to make a winter ascent into Carter Notch and spend two nights at Carter Notch Hut, one of the High Huts of the White Mountains, a hiker’s refuge staffed and managed by the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC).

Carter Notch Hut sits above two small lakes in the rugged notch between two mountains, Wildcat A and Carter Dome. The shortest and easiest approach was by the Nineteen Mile Brook Trail. Our group numbered nine at the outset; in addition to myself, there was Jerry, Sam, Frank, Peter, and Brock. Joining us were three women: Cindy, MB, and Helen. Another co-worker, Jim, planned to meet us up at the hut on the following day. We were not experienced winter campers or athletes, but the hut presented us a way to experience the White Mountains in winter. Carter Notch Hut offered a winter destination where a hiker could cook a hot meal and have a roof over their head, albeit an unheated one. If you had a change of clothes and took care, you could survive the hike and the weekend with only the discomfort of enduring a couple cold and miserable nights, especially if you did not possess a true winter sleeping bag.

We left Manchester, New Hampshire, right before dawn in a convoy of four vehicles loaded with packs, gear, and people. In about four hours, we reached the AMC facilities located in Pinkham Notch at the base of Mt Washington. We had coffee and checked on the latest weather forecast for the mountains. A winter storm was fast approaching and the wind would pick up substantially over the next two days, after discussing the weather and the challenges bad weather would present, we decided to continue as originally planned. We ate a mid-morning lunch in the comfort of the Pinkham Notch AMC building and afterwards we used and enjoyed the last warm bathroom that any of us would see for the long weekend ahead. Then we got back into our cars for the drive to the trailhead, ten minutes away to the north.

The trail began at an elevation below 1500' and started out heading gently to the east, giving everyone a chance to get loose and to warm up. Warming up is never a problem when you carry a heavy backpack and most people start a hike wearing too many clothes. You want to be lightly dressed while carrying a heavy load and have a wind parka or sweater attached to the outside of your pack that you can put on when you stop and take a break. You do not want everything you wear dampened from sweat.

On the trail, one early spot was a bit daunting; an icy traverse of a narrow rocky ledge right above the brook got everyone’s attention. The brook was running strong and partially frozen over, but the surface had many open spots free of ice that showed the water flowing below; the ice would not hold your weight in any event. If you fell and the water pulled you underneath the ice, the situation could be deadly; everyone was glad when we had safely passed that stretch.

We continued on the trail as the temperature fell and the intensity of the wind grew. Near the two-mile mark, we made two brook crossings on split-log bridges; beyond this point, the trail was much steeper. We plodded on through the snow as the time went by and the storm worsened, but we worked hard and made our way high up the ridge side. High up on the north side of the valley we turned on the flank of the slope and headed for the height of land in the notch. Wildcat Mountain was now looming above us to the south. We came upon a large stack of wood close to the trail. Nearby a sign fixed to a tree notified all that the hut master expected everyone staying at the hut to carry at least one piece of wood to the hut. A small request indeed, but some people were tired and at the end of their endurance. However, everyone sucked it up and either attached a small log to their packs or carried a piece of wood on their shoulders.

In e few more minutes, that seemed to take an hour, we reached the sign at the height of land in the center of Carter Notch, the highest point reached by the trail into the hut. Here, the Wildcat Ridge Trail came in from the right, down from the steep flank of Wildcat A high above us to the south. We had come about 3.5 miles and we were close to our goal. We had no more trail to climb, the path continued down through the pines on the other side of the rough and narrow ridge.

We headed down the far side of the ridge and in a minute, the trail discharged us out onto the surface of the frozen lake with the storm howling around us. Footprints led out across the lake and disappeared in the blowing snow; we followed them and made our way across the frozen space, now fully exposed to the storm. It was now late in the day; everyone was tired and spent. We reached the other side and followed the trail up through the trees. Finally the hut came into view; we had attained our goal.

I was bringing up the rear of the group and not knowing the drill, everyone waited for me at the door before walking into the hut. We entered into the common area and everyone had the opportunity to see for themselves what the place had to offer. We dropped the firewood we had carried down by the pile near the stove. I found the hut master, in this case hut masters, Tom and Gloria, and registered the group. They were half-surprised that we had come up in the storm; the weather was bad now and going to get much worse. Nevertheless, here we were, and after introducing everyone, we followed the trail up to the bunkhouses.

Carter Notch Hut is one of two huts to remain open throughout the year, the other being the hut at Zealand Notch. Carter Notch Hut sits at an elevation of almost 3300'. The hut consists of a common use area with a kitchen and dining room, and a small room located off the dining room in which the hut master stayed. The dining room consisted of three long picnic tables. You brought your own food, which you cooked in the kitchen area on a large gas-fed stove. The hut had a well set-up cooking area with plates, utensils, and every conceivable pan and pot. A small wood stove sat by a wall in the common area and this stove was off-limits except for the hut master under ‘pain of death’. He never lit the stove until after 3:00 pm, and the stove's purpose was not to keep the entire building warm. In the evening, as everyone took turns cooking and eating, the hut would feel very toasty indeed.

Each bunkhouse had four unheated and un-insulated rooms, 2 rooms that slept 6 and two rooms that slept 4. An outhouse for communal use sat off a small side-path between the common area and the bunkhouses. The toilet had a metal seat. Most people pissed in the snow and covered the mark with a sweep of a boot.

We were all staying in the bunkhouse on the left; this building faced directly east towards Wildcat River. We had the first two rooms. It was a bit of a shock for the uninitiated to come face to face with the unheated and sparse reality of the bunkrooms. While organizing the trip, I had handed out informational sheets on what the experience would be, and what each person needed to do and have. Now, each stood here in the reality of the situation, they were exhausted from the climb, soaked from sweat, the wind was now howling, and the temperature was around 20 degrees. While everyone looked around the room shivering and wondering what to do next, I dropped my pack on the bunk of my choosing and took dry polypro underwear out of it, quickly got the boots off, and then stripped off the sweat-soaked clothes from the climb until I was standing naked. New dry underwear, leggings, and a dry top felt like heaven. Fresh sock-liners and socks quickly followed, nylon shorts over the leggings were next, a dry polypro hat, and then a light jacket suitable for the hut. Almost in unison, everyone followed suit. This is not a place or a time for the bashful; in true European Hut style, all accommodations at the White Mountain Huts are unisex. If you are embarrassed, wait and shiver in the cold until everyone leaves and you can undress by yourself.

Even though it is a shock to get naked, the warmth supplied by dry clothing quickly becomes apparent. After everyone was ready, we grabbed our food bags and wet clothes and walked down to the huts. The wind and snow continued unabated, and the night was turning black. We went into the hut through the double-door entryway. A heavy steel grate lay over a hole on the floor between the two doors; people stomped their boots on the grate and the snow from their feet collected in the hole beneath. Following that, we walked through the second door into the well-lit and warm common room.

First, we claimed a picnic table by dropping our food bags on the top. Then we strung up the wet clothes. The hut had long boards with pegs on each side that hikers could hang wet clothes on; hikers then used ropes to pull these boards up high to hang in the relative warmth at the top of the common area.

The weekend nights at Carter Notch in winter are usually full, but because of the storm swirling outside, the weekend crowd would be limited, no crush cooking dinner tonight. Tom and Gloria expected no visitors. I knew that if we could make the hike up to the notch everyone in our group would appreciate the magic of the hut and its environs. We all pulled some kind of appetizer out of our food bags for sharing with the group: cheese and crackers, nuts, oysters and sardines. Plastic bottles with various liquors appeared on the table. This had been specified on the information sheets handed out to everyone weeks before. If you were going to drink, do not carry any glass bottles. In addition, liquor was better, as wine would freeze solid if left in the unheated bunkrooms. Liquor and cold temperature could be a dangerous mix, but this was an enjoyable adventure, not just a wilderness struggle. I made a pitcher of instant lemonade and poured myself a tall rum drink, enjoying the opportunity to relax. The conversations began to rise and become animated as the struggles of the climb gave way to the fellowship of the hut and the cocktail hour within.

After a while, I turned my attention to preparing dinner. The hut had no running water in the kitchen, large jugs filled from the lake supplied water as needed. The sinks drained into buckets that we emptied when required into a gray-water trap located outside. I opened up a tube of bread dough and put the loaf in the oven on a small cookie sheet to bake. For dinner, I had prepared back at home, some meatballs with fried peppers and onions; after cooking, I had frozen everything together with some pizza sauce in a Ziploc bag. I had some provolone cheese slices that I set on the counter, and I dropped the bag of frozen meatballs into a pot of boiling water to heat, dinner would be a hot meatball grinder with sauce, peppers, onions, and cheese. And cleanup would be minimal.

The group was taking care of making their dinners as well. Macaroni and cheese was always a favorite because a good pasta dinner is filling and delicious, and the meal is also light to carry; several in the group shared a large pot of macaroni and cheese with bread and butter. In thirty minutes, I removed finished dough from the oven, sliced open the loaf, and ladled the hot meatballs with onion and pepper sauce out of the bag and into the steaming bread. After covering the top with provolone cheese, I set my dinner back on the sheet and slid the tray into the oven to toast and melt the cheese. Soon, I was sitting at the table with a great sandwich, a bag of potato chips, and a tall fresh drink. Someone passed me a cold glass of white wine that I accepted gladly. Conversation lagged as people got down to the business of eating. Outside, the storm raged through the notch and howled through the trees close to the hut.

After dinner, we savored chocolate and port. Everyone was in a fine mood as we enjoyed the conviviality of the hut and the hours went by in a flash. We sang songs and played cards. Yawns began to appear as the warmth, food, and exertions of the day took their toll. The temperature was not that high in the hut; the hut masters prided themselves on how little wood they used during a winter season, and a competition existed in that regards with Zealand Hut. However, with cooking, baking, and a hot meal in everyone’s stomach, we all felt warm indeed.

Around nine, the hut’s ham radio barked to life with a message from Pinkham. They notified Tom and Gloria that someone was injured or having difficulty down in the dark on the trail. We wondered if it might be Jim trying to come up at night. Pinkham suggested Tom bring down the litter from the hut, while they would send responders up the trail to meet him. Tom set about getting ready to go down the trail; pack, gaiters, snowshoes, headlamp. Gloria helped him get the emergency litter outside and tied it behind him, then secured a first-aid kit to the litter. Outside it was cold and windy, the storm continued unabated and the snow began to accumulate on the trail and in drifts. Tom set out through the trees towing the litter behind him, quickly heading for the lake and the trail that led down to Rte 16, the small beam of light shining on the snow in front of him. We saw him reach the lake, and then the light was quickly lost to the dark and blowing snow.

We retreated to the warmth of the hut. I marveled at the dedication of those that would go out alone to help a stranger on a night like this. Soon, it was time to face the cold of the bunkrooms and see about some much needed sleep. Leaving Gloria to operate the radio and maintain her vigil for Tom, we left the warmth of the hut and walked back to our cold rooms through the blizzard and the wind.

I had a lower bunk in a room for six, three bunk beds. Each bunk had a thin army-style mattress. I lit my candle lantern and hung the cylinder on a nail above the bed. A candle lantern is a good light, it was a warm friendly light, and there were no batteries to run down in the cold. I had a good zero-degree rated large-sized mummy bag; I slept in my long underwear, fleece sweater, hat and gloves, and down booties; I would be fine. But I knew that others in the group were pushing the envelope in regards to the quality of their sleeping bags; perhaps some were using a thirty-degree bag they had camped with and slept in on past trips out in the “cold”. It is hard to explain to someone the difference in sleeping when the temperature is forty-five degrees, and then sleeping comfortably when the temperature is zero degrees, you have to experience it for yourself to understand. But the hut had extra wool blankets around and we enjoyed solid shelter from the wind and wet. In a real emergency, there was the common area and the first aid of the AMC hut masters; no one’s life would be in danger. Experience gained in the mountains is a dear teacher, indeed.

I slept with five in one room, and the other four slept next door in a room with two bunk beds. Falling off to sleep in a dry and secure bed, while listening to a storm rage outside, is one of the great pleasures of camping in the mountains. I love the sound of the wind roaring over the peaks, what an adventure and what fun. Having to pack in a winter tent, sleeping pad, food, stove and fuel, as well be able to set up and survive out in this weather, was far above and beyond the capabilities of this group, but tonight was just right. We had made our way into the hut before the worst of the storm struck and then enjoyed a fine hot dinner as we shared drinks and stories. Now, with the exhaustion that comes from a long day of driving and a long climb in the snow, as a winter storm howled and shook the building, I blew out the candle and fell into a deep sleep.

I awoke in the darkness and looked at my watch, 4:30 AM. I do not wear a watch normally, but when camping I want to know what time it is if I wake up in the night. The wind was still blowing, only not as forcefully. The air was cold and stuffy with the doors and windows shut tight and packed with blowing snow; the oxygen level was probably growing low from all the heavy and exhausted breathing. I decided to get up to take a pee and let some fresh air into the room. I climbed out of my bag into the cold shock of the room and, grabbing my small flashlight, walked to the door and opened it. The snowdrift on the outside against the screen door was four feet high! I let out a yell and a laugh. I grabbed the straw broom that sat in each room and, pushing on the screen door, began the process of sweeping the light drifting snow out from the doorway. In a minute, the screen door was open, and I made a small path to the railing where I urinated and covered the mark up with snow from a sweep of the broom. It was cold and dark, no stars were visible, and it was impossible to tell if the blowing snow in the light of the small flashlight was from the storm or just blowing around in the wind. The fresh air cleared my head. I came back inside and returned to the warmth of my bag.

In a few minutes, I heard a noise from the room next door as someone else rose to discover the drifted snow on the deck of the bunkhouse. When the sky turned to light gray from black, I got up, put on my boots, and made my way out the door to stand on the deck and inspect the scene. Snow now completely filled in the depressions where the trails once were and new snow was everywhere. I went back inside and put on my gaiters, grabbed my parka, and headed for the common room. I was the first person to make tracks in the new snow that now filled the existing depression that was the trail.

Entering the outer door I quietly stomped my feet on the grate and went inside through the inner portal to feel the relative warmth of the common area. The stove was out and the hut was much cooler now than last night when we left, but still much warmer than the plywood bunkhouse. I put on water to boil and got my food bag down from where I had left it on a shelf the night before. I removed a large insulated coffee mug with a snap on cover from the bag, my cone coffee dripper, a number 2 filter, and a Ziploc filled with dark and rich fresh ground Italian Roast. The coffee smelled sweet and luxurious. In a flash, the coffee was in the filter, the filter in the dripper, the dripper on the cup as I watched and waited for the water to boil. I made a quart of lemonade and got out two packages of flavored instant oatmeal that I opened and poured into a bowl. A blast of steam from the kettle showed that the water was ready; I was soon seated and enjoying a cold glass of juice with hot oatmeal and a good cup of coffee.

Soon, everyone was down cooking and eating, and the hut warmed up as well. MB and Frank asked about exploring the notch and the rock formations called the Ramparts; I said I was up for a little exploration. Tom and Gloria came out of their room and under the urging of everyone filled us in on the events of the previous night. Tom met the people from Pinkham about halfway down the trail. A hiking group had started up late in the day and they were soon floundering in the deep snow and the dark, making it to the halfway point. Someone pulled a muscle and after stopping, consumption of alcohol out in the storm while sweaty and tired was leading to hypothermia. Someone went back for help and drove to Pinkham. I guess Pinkham staff knew the people, and it had happened before. Pinkham staff took the injured man down on the litter and Tom returned to the hut, arriving back after 2:00 AM.

Most were content to stay in the common area and spend the day reading the hut journals and other memorabilia that was everywhere around the common room. You could choose between novels, games, and magazines as well. Others would explore the immediate area around the hut and the lakes. I made a small lunch of a bagel and peanut butter, a thermos of hot coffee and dark rum, and some chocolate break. The three of us then headed up to the bunkhouse and made up our daypacks.

We worked our way down to where the Wildcat River Trail plunged down the far side of the notch. From there we worked our way north through the jumbled rock of the Ramparts. Exploring was rough going. For all the snow that had fallen during the night, most of it had blown off of the exposed and ice covered rocks of the Ramparts. We worked our way up towards Carter Dome and explored various places that gave us shelter from the wind. The day was very cold and although it was no longer snowing, plenty of drifting snow was blowing around. The footing was treacherous and the progress was slow. From time to time, we got views of a tortured winter sky, Pulpit Rock, the peak of Wildcat A, and to the west, Carter Notch itself. We worked up a sweat and then took shelter, so we never spent too much time exposed to the boreal wind that tore through the notch. In the early afternoon, the sky cleared a bit and we could see back towards the bunkhouses.

We continued on our way up and around the notch until we emerged at the north end of the lake, enjoying the winter scene as the wind drove wisps of snow hither and yon across the frozen expanse of the mountain pond. We explored the frozen tarn and the shore, and finally started back to the hut in the early afternoon.

We walked in to find Jimmy sitting at a table partying with the rest of the group. So, he had come up alone to join us after all, just as he said he would. Other guests were present now as well, people who came up after the storm, but the hut was nowhere near the 40-hiker occupancy of most weekends in winter.

The new guests were good company, we shared with them and they returned the favor. The agenda was now set, a party of major proportions would occur as everyone at the hut prepared for dinner and the cocktail hour. We were heading back to reality tomorrow and saw no need to hold back, nor was there any reason to carry anything back down the trail that we could all share and enjoy tonight. Outside, the sky grew dark and the wind blew; inside the hut we settled into drinks and appetizers, experiencing the joy of the common room and a shared adventure as we celebrated being alive.

On Sunday morning, we performed the same routine, up at first light and head down to the common area for coffee and warmth. Sunday was leaving day, the weekend seemed to fly by. When one or two people are in the common room everyone is quiet, as others came down the room grew louder and came to life. I prepared a final breakfast that three of us had planned: I fried up an onion and a pepper in olive oil, added a can of corned beef hash, and finished the dish with a dash of barbecue sauce. MB made toast on the stovetop toaster, a circular piece of steel with perforations that sat on the flame, you rested the bread on a wire support to form a pyramid above the holes. This toasted one side at a time quickly and perfectly.

All of the hikers present enjoyed breakfast and a few cups of coffee. Then it was time for us to do the chores. We packed up and swept out each room. We took out the gray water from below the sinks and poured it down a chute outside that disappeared below ground, a chute built just for this one purpose in winter. At the outhouse, someone carried out a rather strange but needed ritual; because of the cold, a frozen pyramid of defecation and toilet paper would rise up from the depths. This pyramid needed to be toppled over occasionally with a stick that been selected for that purpose, the stick rested against the outside rear of the outhouse.

The hardest task was filling the water jugs. We brought the large plastic jugs out to the lake and set them near a pile of snow in which a shovel and pickaxe were embedded; this is where the hole was located. One had to shovel the snow out of the hole to reveal a square board in the ice that someone pried up and removed, we next used the pickaxe to clear and break the ice that had reformed in the hole over night. Then someone kneeled down at the edge, and while another stood behind and held their belt, they bent down into the hole and held a jug under water while it filled. Other hands reached down to help lift the full jugs up from below, Then the hand that had held it underwater was re-warmed in a mitten. That process was repeated, until all the jugs stood filled, then the piece of wood was fitted back into the hole and a convoy of people carried the jugs back to the hut.

The morning was partially clear and we had some fine views of sun on the new snow and ice that surrounded us. We saddled up our packs and made our goodbyes with our newfound friends, and then we moved out in a long line across the lake and began our trip back to civilization. The steep climb up to the height of land came as an arduous shock in the deep snow, but it was short. Crossing over that, we continued down the other side of Carter Notch and headed for Rte 16 and the cars, 2000’ below and 3.5 miles away.

Although the trail led downhill, the deep snow slowed the pace for some and our group quickly became strung out along Nineteen Mile Brook Trail. One girl in particular was having a tough time. There were reasons why. She had never slept; she had just shivered through two cold and sleepless nights. She had not eaten well. I had included on the hike’s informational sheet that everyone would need to consume 3000 to 4000 calories a day; this would ensure that one could maintain strength and stay warm in the cold environment of hiking and sleeping in the White Mountains in winter. This was not the first time, nor the last, that someone would decide on their own and in private, that by eating light, they might be able to work off a couple of pounds. She also had not been to the outhouse the entire trip, the last visit to one being three days ago in Pinkham. Whether it was the cold, no food, or whatever, she was a miserable and tired person.

MB and I took her sleeping bag and other items from her pack and tied them to ours. Then we walked down the trail encouraging her as best we could. We made slow progress. We crossed the split log bridges near the halfway mark and the trail became more level. We all found it harder to walk in the deep snow of the flat than it was coming downhill. But the others had broken a trail and we continued on. We reached the slippery and icy traverse above the brook and, after shuttling her pack across; we coaxed her over this last obstacle.

I had initially been upset that others did not stay with us at the rear of the column and because of this were not available to help us when we needed assistance. But when we got to the parking lot, we saw the amount of work that everyone had done to dig out the cars; the snowplows had just plowed the snow in the parking area right up to the tops of the cars and they had been totally buried. Everyone had been working and contributing.

So that is how the adventure ended. We split up into our groups for the ride home. Handshakes and hugs all around, for we had endured a magic three days in the mountains and the group had survived and all had come back in one piece. In a few hours, we would be back in our normal workaday worlds feeling the melancholy of all things completed.