“Were you in the clouds?”

Over the past two days I’ve been fortunate enough to hike a part of the Presidential Range in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Leaving from Crawford Notch with two friends, we followed the Appalachian Trail (AT) to the summit of Mount Washington, cutting down Tuckerman’s Ravine Trail to Pinkham Notch.

The original plan was to use the AT for the entire trip, but after having done the 100 Mile Wilderness last year, the pain of a 15 mile day is well known to all of us. Even though we had an average trek of 11 miles on the first day, there was a lot of downhill, not to mention 90+ degree, humid, sunny weather ahead, and that adds up to a whole lot. There’s the toll on the knees, the toll on hydration, and the toll on the mind. We took our chance to shortcut down Tuckerman’s when the opportunity presented itself.

One of the most interesting aspects of this hike was the presence of hostels. Throughout the 100 Mile Wilderness the best accommodations were lean-to’s, so it was strange to see such significant buildings so far from anywhere. And I don’t mean relatively significant. They were actually good sized for the base of a mountain. They had all the amenities, including bunks, tables, showers, and a kitchen.

Of course, in the exact opposite spirit of the AT, it costs $100 to stay in one of these hostels. Per night. Per person. It’s bullshit.

But there were two hostels and the first was just a bit stop. We trudged on, passing Mount Monroe, among others, to arrive at the hostel at which we planned on staying, just 1.5 miles from the summit of Mount Washington. And by “planned on staying”, I mean “hoped would have some place to stay for real hikers”.

We walked the hostel, Lakes of the Clouds Hut, to find a mess hall filled with about 65 surely wealthy, non-hikers. Of course, they all had their $2000 worth of equipment they just bought earlier in the week, complete with retractable walking sticks (we had left our forest-born walking sticks outside, unafraid they would be swiped), but most of them likely walked the 1.5 miles from Mount Washington after taking the train that leads to the summit (for $45). And if they did it this past Sunday or Monday, they had perfect weather. I personally find this fitting since good weather is the antithesis of Mount Washington – sort of like these people are the antithesis of hikers.

(To be fair, I heard rumor of thru-hikers staying at the hut. Those people – who put me to shame – get a pass. They’re actually doing it. They mean it.)

But back to the hostel. We had heard tell of a so-called “dungeon” that cost a mere $10 per person. No meal, no amenities, but it was right there and out of the wind. The crew member helping us out didn’t make mention of it at first (instead recommending an out-of-the-way treeline hike that would have added miles to our at-the-time planned 15 mile hike the following day), but when prompted he offered it. It’s meant as an emergency refuse for hikers, but it’s really just for the winter when no one is likely to be at the hut. (It even has a raised door so all the snowfall won’t prevent a stranded hiker from gaining access.)

It was a little dank, but I actually enjoyed it better than some lean-to’s. The bunks (with our sleeping pads) were relatively comfortable, plus we weren’t sharing our room with 10 strangers like everyone else. It wasn’t a bad night.

I was pretty happy the next morning watching all the non-hikers gather their gear in preparation for what had to be the wettest fog I’ve ever experienced. The forecast called for awesome conditions (though humid) – but at lower elevations. On top of Mount Washington it was dense fog with 55mph winds, gusts up to 68mph. I’m glad they had to experience that – but I hope for some of the more genuine members of the group it wasn’t a matter of having to experience it, but rather getting to experience it.

I’ve hiked to the top of a sunny Mount Washington in the past (I refuse to pay the excessive price to drive or take the train to the top), but this was far, far better. The wind was intense. Visibility was measured in feet. We almost couldn’t find the summit building. It was difficult finding the trail head to Tuckerman’s. It was just right.

But in this whole excursion the best experience came at a much lower elevation, several thousand feet below. As we passed under-prepared after under-prepared hiking groups filled with children, one kid stopped for a moment. He looked up, at this point well below all the fog its non-raining wetness, and asked:

Were you in the clouds?

Yes, we answered.

…cool.

And it was genuine. Whether this was a one-time summer camp sort of trip for this kid or if he was jumping at any opportunity to climb a mountain, he meant what he said, he meant what he was doing. He was a real hiker.

The Presidential Range

And for the next two days? I’ll take it.

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