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AT 2017: Day 145, Nauman Tentsite to Lakes of the Clouds Hut

I could be just around the corner from heaven or a mile from hell

Hike with Gravity

Navigating across the White Mountains can be tricky. This is made complicated by rough terrain, changeable and extreme weather conditions, and limitations on where to camp.

The last point is the one that isn’t as obvious as the other two. It’s understandable that a series of mountains more than 4,000 feet tall is going to have a rugged landscape and occasional stormy weather. Until you hike here, though, you might not know about the many regulations that limit your choice of campsites.

Camping is prohibited where the land is protected, usually for environmental reasons. This is especially true in the alpine zone, the area above treeline.

Where it isn’t regulated, pitching a tent still might not be possible. The ground is often too rocky, too steep, or too covered in a tangle of scrubby trees.

Date
Weather Clear and breezy, with a high temperature in the low 50s
Trail Conditions Ups and down over rocky terrain
Today's Miles 4.6 miles
Trip Miles 1,855.4 miles

These circumstances are what Ralph and I faced as we made plans to continue walking across the Presidential Range. Our options were narrow.

Leaving northbound from Nauman Tentsite, the next available camping spot on the trail is Osgood Tentsite. If we were to go to there we would have to walk 14.8 miles. That would include going over the summit of Mt. Washington (6,288 feet) and Mt. Madison (5,367 feet), while also traversing over or near the summits of six other mountains greater than 4,000 feet.

Walking that distance in the Whites can be done and many hikers do it, but it is beyond my physical limits when I’m carrying a full pack and walking on a swollen ankle. Ralph didn’t seem eager to go that far, either.

So for today, we elected to only go 4.6 miles to Lakes of the Clouds Hut. This will be a shorter section than we wanted to do, but it was the only choice if we wanted to stay on the trail. Otherwise, to find a campsite we’d have to drop down a few miles to below treeline, then make the climb back up to the trail in the morning.

We thought we would try to do another work-for-stay at Lakes of the Clouds, but there was no guarantee we could get it. Failing that, we could choose to pay $15 to sleep on the dining room floor. In other words, we would pay for the same accommodations we would get as work-for-stay, but without leftover food.

There were two other options. One was to pay nearly $150 for a bunk, and we weren’t inclined to do that, or pay $10 to stay in a room underneath the hut called The Dungeon. Even without seeing it, this didn’t sound like a pleasant option.

At least by making this a short day we would be able to walk at a more leisurely pace and we would give Stick time to catch up to us.

After a stop to refill our water bottles at the faucet in Mizpah Spring Hut, we began our first ascent of the day. The climb up Mt. Pierce was rocky as they usually are in the Whites, but not particularly difficult.

I went slowly up the mountain to minimize the risks of twisting my ankle again. When I reached the top I found Ralph stretched out on a rock and enjoying the first direct sunlight we’d had in a couple days.

This turned out to be a beautiful day for hiking.

As soon as we crested Mt. Pierce we could see the next series of mountains in the Presidential Range. In the distance we could see the peak of Mt. Washington, which was 5.4 trail miles away. The top was covered in white from rime ice.

It was breezy where we were, but not as gusty as yesterday.

Moving on, we got a better view of the next mountains the trail crosses, Mt. Eisenhower, Mt. Franklin and Mt. Monroe. The trail doesn’t crest the summit of these, but only skirts past them just below the peaks. Side trails are available for hikers who want bragging rights for reaching the summits.

You may have alertly caught that Benjamin Franklin was not a president, but a mountain named for him is in the Presidential Range. This is true, but the mountain is considered a secondary summit of Mt. Monroe, so is not included in the generally-accepted list of Presidential Range mountains.

The trail dropped below treeline in the saddle between Pierce and Eisenhower. After this, the rest of the day was spent above treeline.

Even without going up to the peak, we got outstanding views of the valley below Mt. Eisenhower. The large white Omni Mt. Washington Resort Hotel was particularly noticeable.

The hotel was constructed at the turn of the 20th Century. Today it is one of the last of several grand hotels that were constructed on or around these mountains. Most of them were unable to survive the Great Depression.

While still below treeline I met a SOBO hiker named Flying Fish. He told me he left Mt. Katahdin on August 5 and intended to go all the way to Georgia.

Just yesterday, Still Will told me he was the last SOBO hiker, yet just one day behind him was Flying Fish.

Once I was again above treeline, the trail continued to follow a mostly upward path. Though it didn’t go over Eisenhower’s summit, we were already higher than Pierce.

Likewise, the trail didn’t go over the top of Franklin or Monroe, but the elevation of the path was still higher.

This day was so enjoyable that I was glad I didn’t have to rush through it. Each step along the way was an opportunity to take in a new view, to see a mountain or a valley from a different angle.

At 2 p.m. we passed by the summit of Mt. Monroe and saw Mt. Washington standing straight ahead. By now the rime ice at the top was melted, the sun was shining brightly and the wind had died down. This would have been a wonderful time to keep going to the summit.

Maybe we should have kept going, at least as far as Madison Spring Hut, but Ralph and I stuck with our plan.

Just before reaching Lakes of the Clouds Hut, I passed a sign warning hikers to stay on the trail. I didn’t know at the time, but later learned the plant being protected here was called Potentilla robbinsiana, a variety of dwarf cinquefoil that had been on the brink of extinction.

One reason its fate became perilous was because collectors would harvest and sell specimens of the rare plant. The other reason was because in the 1970s the White Mountains became such a popular hiking spot the fragile plant was often inadvertently trampled.

Thanks to this protected area near Lakes of the Clouds Hut, where the trail was rerouted, Potentilla robbinsiana has recovered. It was delisted from the Endangered Species List in August 2002. Nevertheless, 99 percent of all the known plants of this variety are only found here on this mountain.

The trail made a short drop to Lakes of the Clouds Hut. Ralph and I looked around and discovered that this one was much larger than the other huts we had seen. In fact, calling it a hut seemed absurd.

It was originally constructed as an emergency hut after two members of the Appalachian Mountain Club were killed during a midsummer snowstorm in 1900. At the time, the hut would only hold six people and was only intended to be a safe place to go in a sudden storm.

When the AMC observed that hikers were using it regardless of the weather, the hut was enlarged in 1915 to hold up to 36 people.

The hut now can accommodate up to 90 guests.

Lakes of the Clouds Hut is situated just below the summit of Mt. Washington.

The mountain is large and imposing, but not particularly grand in appearance, or at least it wasn’t today. From here, it looked like a large pile of rocks with some ugly buildings and transmission towers perched on top.

Ralph and I talked to a croo member about doing a work-for-stay here. To consider the alternatives, the croo member told us where to find The Dungeon. We discovered it was aptly named.

We had to walk around to the back of the building, where we found a large, metal door under the main level of the hut. As we opened it, the door creaked, just as you would expect a dungeon door to sound.

Inside, there were wooden bunks with no mattresses. There was just enough room here for about eight people, if you didn’t mind being very close to one another. The room was dark, damp and musty, again as you would expect a dungeon to be.

Nope. That settled it. A work for stay would be great. “Sign us up,” we told the croo member when we returned to the upper level.

Still in the middle of the afternoon, we had some time to kill before our work-for-stay duties began. We were allowed to sit in the dining room until dinner time, but the weather was still nice, so I mostly stayed outside.

Then a croo member announced he was going to give a naturalist program before dinner. This didn’t seem to be limited to just paying guests, so I decided to tag along.

The croo member talked about efforts to monitor and protect the biome, climate and geology of the White Mountains. He explained how plots of Potentilla robbinsiana and other fragile plants are photographed continuously with a system to track changes over time. Similar systems are placed in other climate areas.

For the last 15 years, he explained, no evidence of seasonal changes has been detected in the tundra of the White Mountains that can be attributed to climate change. Monitoring at lower elevations, however, shows plants are making seasonal changes two weeks earlier than they did when monitoring was first begun.

The croo member took us to one of the two lakes near the hut. The lakes are the headwaters of the Ammonoosuc River, which is a tributary of the Connecticut River.

Stick arrived at the hut while I was on the walk with the naturalist croo member. He didn’t arrive in time to get one of the work-for-stay jobs, so he decided to pay $15 to sleep on the dining room, rather than $10 for The Dungeon.

After the naturalist finished his program, the paying guests went to dinner. The rest of us had to clear out of the dining room. We weren’t expected to sit outside, though, like we had been at Lonesome Lake. We clustered together at the entryway of the hut or went outside to get a mountainside view of the sunset.

After dinner, Ralph and I were given the job of washing dishes. It didn’t take long for us to finish. Soon after, the paying guests left the dining and we were able to go to bed.

There were many hikers sleeping in the dining room, some of whom I knew, like Uncle Puck and Dancing Bear. The room was so crowded a hiker named Dove was accidentally stepped on in the middle of the night when another hiker got up to use the restroom.

It seems the weather today was just a respite from the cold wind and rain. The forecast for tomorrow doesn’t look good.

We only have just over a mile to go to reach the top of Mt. Washington. Once we get there, who knows? We’ll have to make it up as we go along.

I’m getting used to that.

Well I spend my time at the bottom of a wishing well
And I can hear my dreams singing clear as a bell
I used to know where they ended and the world began
But now it's getting hard to tell
I could be just around the corner from heaven or a mile from hell

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