Earlier today, the Appalachian Mountain Club tweeted photos from their Huts, which set me reminiscing about my perception of the Huts over the last few years. I suppose, like many hikers, I have somewhat of a love-hate relationship with the Huts.
In fact, I think it’s fair to say that the existence of the AMC Huts in New Hampshire is one of the most contentious topics among thru-hikers. It ranks somewhere above whether it’s more important to shower or do laundry and somewhere below whether to bring a stove, use a pack cover, and sleep in a tent or hammock.
The High Huts serve as places to escape from the wind and cold of the White Mountains. They are often staffed by friendly croos, each of which is generally comprised of four young hikers, some of whom (like Sunbeam and Gluten Puff) have thru-hiked before. During the summer and fall, hikers can stop by the huts to purchase snacks or a hot meal or just to fill up water bottles or use the composting toilets before hiking onward. The Huts serve as examples of off-grid living, and they are beautiful (and set in beautiful places) to boot.
It seems that the High Huts are so strongly disliked because they conflict with the distrust of wealth and the all-but-ubiquitous libertarianism of the Appalachian Trail community. Lest the word “hut” bring to mind an image of a lean-to or crude shelter, I should explain that the High Huts are rather comfortable. Each building has several rooms: a kitchen, bunkrooms, a dining hall, and bathrooms. They’re not exactly luxe, but they’re not simple either. To stay in relative comfort and safety in the Whites costs around $100 during peak season.
The libertarianism of the AT community comes into conflict with the AMC Huts because of the location of the latter. Much of the Appalachian Trail in the White Mountains is above 4000 feet and/or in the alpine zone, which makes camping dangerous and/or prohibited. In this region, there are few tentsites or shelters where hikers can stay for free. Here’s where the work-for-stay program at the Huts comes in. While working for a spot on the floor of a Hut’s giant dining hall might be perceived as demeaning or ridiculous by some hikers, it is seen as generous and thoughtful by others; regardless of their opinion about the Huts, for convenience’s sake (because no hiker wants to hike a mile off the trail to get below treeline), most hikers end up staying at one or more Huts during their thru-hikes.
During my thru-hike, I stayed at two Huts. The first was Mizpah, which I stumbled into at 2:30 one day when I was battling a low-grade fever. (I spent a great deal of time toward the end of my thru-hike ill, and I can only assume that the culprit was Lyme.) While 2:30 is traditionally considered too early for Huts to allow hikers to sign up for the work-for-stay program, the croo didn’t make me beg too much before they agreed that I could stay. In fact, they invited me to stay without worrying about doing much working and sent me up to the library to nap (and read about the PCT). The 2012 croo at Mizpah happened to include Sunbeam, so they may have been more understanding and compassionate of my plight. In any case, I was extremely grateful and happily helped clean up after dinner once I’d rested.
My second work-for-stay was far less pleasant. On the day following my night at Mizpah, I felt well and did the Presidential Traverse. It was a banner day, and I loved every second of it. I actually called my mother near Pierce and, through tears, told her that I could end my thru-hike at that very moment because I’d hiked “home” to my favorite mountains and saw all I could possibly have dreamed of seeing. After an entire day spent above treeline, I was anxious to get a work-for-stay at Madison Springs, as I was not strong enough to hike up and over Madison before nightfall and knew that a storm would be blowing in that night.
Apparently, seven other hikers shared my anxieties, and we all showed up to Madison Springs Hut around the same time, after helping a disoriented day hiker find his way back to the shelter. The croo at Madison Springs treated us like we were insignificant beggars and made us wait outside as the storm front approached and the temperatures dropped, until their paying guests had gone to bed. Only then were we allowed to enter to clean up after them. And, the next morning, even though it was sleeting and the wind was gale force — making my ascent of Madison the most challenging of any of my ascents of the White Mountain 4000-footers — it was assumed that we should get on our way as soon as possible.
Nonetheless, over the years, the Huts have served as places of expected and unexpected meet-ups with old friends of mine, as restaurants and “hike-thrus,” and as shelters and refuges. While I’d probably prefer the White Mountains be home to shelters catering to backpackers than wealthy vacationers, I appreciate the history of the Huts and hope that they’ll continue to be relevant and hiker-friendly in the future.