PINKHAM NOTCH, N.H. -- A lone hiker from Scituate, Sean Wallis, paused a moment before continuing his ascent on the Nineteen-Mile Brook Trail to rugged and steep Carter Dome.
"Can you do me a favor?" said Wallis, a Boston municipal employee, as we descended the same path. "Take my picture. You are probably the only people I'm going to see all day."
Wallis might have been right, but there is a place in U-shaped Carter Notch where hikers and snowshoers can find someone -- even in the frozen heart of winter: the Appalachian Mountain Club's Carter Notch Hut.
The stone structure is the oldest AMC hut still in use. Built in 1914, the warming shelter and its two frosty bunkhouses are situated in a ruggedly beautiful mountain pass reachable only by trekking nearly four miles from a Route 16 trailhead in Pinkham Notch. The hut sits under a pair of jagged 4,000-foot mountains and alongside a pair of small lakes, which makes it a launching pad for hikers who want to cross some of the 48 New Hampshire peaks that top 4,000 feet off their to-do list.
It is also a destination for overnight visitors looking for the relative comfort provided by a kitchen with a six-burner stove, a wood stove for heat, outdoor toilets, potable water, and unheated sleeping quarters. The shelter is one of three AMC huts open for winter use in the White Mountains, along with Franconia Notch State Park's Lonesome Lake Hut and Zealand Hut by Crawford Notch.
A night at the hut was the goal as we left the trailhead at midmorning on a recent winter day with temperatures hovering near freezing. Our backpacks were loaded with cold-weather gear , including winter-rated sleeping bags, snowshoes, and food supplies.
Through the hardwood forest, the wind whistled, trees creaked, and water trickled as our footsteps crunched along the snowy trail that followed the brook's northeast bank. By a washed-out bridge about halfway into the journey, we met the first of five hikers we would see descending from the hut. They all told us winter was ahead. Included in the string of hikers was a caretaker on shift change who warned us not to venture onto the unsafe ice near the hut.
As we continued through a mix of spruce and fir, the snow depth increased and we encountered a few icy spots. At a junction about a quarter mile from the hut, the trail took a sharp turn down to the first of the two diminutive Carter lakes. The wind howled as we approached the lake's edge and we looked up to Wildcat Mountain's cliffs, fangs of ice, and leafless trees.
The trail crossed narrowly between the lakes and brought into view the massive, rounded peak of Carter Dome. On the ridge leading to the summit about a mile away, a large boulder named Pulpit Rock clung to the side of the mountain. One more pitch up and we reached the hut after our slow, four-hour hike. No one was home. The self-service kitchen had water ready to boil for some well-deserved hot chocolate to thaw us out.
A sign told us the wood stove would be lighted by the caretaker after dark. We hoped that would be soon. The temperature outside was 22 degrees compared with 44 inside. While we waited, we explored the mountain complex and the lake shores before returning to the rustic hut for a cold game of cribbage.
The arrival of caretaker and hut system manager Mike Kautz was a welcome sight. He fired up the wood stove and lighted the overhead gas lights , which provided warmth and illumination. As darkness fell, he checked in for a 5 p.m. radio chat with the AMC's Pinkham Notch Visitor Center. In the morning, he would use the radio for a daily weather report. We were the only two visitors that night.
"Saturday nights are usually busiest," he said.
Hut caretakers are a hearty bunch, commuting to their 10-day shifts on foot. Their duties vary from serving as tourist guides to taking part in mountain rescue missions. They also do light maintenance like shoveling snow and monitoring the solar panels that produce the hut's electricity. During down time, they read and write, but also keep the blood flowing by hiking, skiing, and snowshoeing.
As the temperature inside rose to a relatively balmy 58 degrees, we cooked up a quick dinner of lemon chicken and rice from our supplies . Oatmeal and chocolate chip cookies were dessert. Who says simple can't be good?
After a very active day, it was time for bed before 8 p.m. However, it was not easy to leave the warmth of the hut for the unheated bunkroom, where the temperature was 20 degrees and horizontal snow blew in our faces. The light from our headlamps lighted the snowy path to our sleeping quarters. Hot water bottles between the knees helped ease the journey to dreamland.
We awoke to about an inch of light snow and a temperature of 12 degrees. After a hearty breakfast of oatmeal and homemade sticky buns, we began the descent on snowshoes. The grip helped on icy stretches and we covered about two miles before taking them off.
Wallis was one of four hikers we met on our way down. He was working on his winter 4,000-foot list.
There are fewer people "and it is more challenging," he said about hiking in winter , something we had learned along the way to the Carter Notch Hut.
Contact Marty Basch, a freelance writer in New Hampshire, at email@example.com.