At Gray Knob, extremes in work and play

Email|Print| Text size + By Marty Basch
Globe Correspondent / February 19, 2006

RANDOLPH, N.H. -- The legend of Gray Knob would have temperatures at minus 30 and the punishing wind howling against the mountainside cabin. Visibility would be less than an arm's length as horizontal snow stung staggering hikers seeking respite from nature's rage.

Not so this relatively balmy late January day when the mercury dropped only to around 14 degrees. The brilliant blue sky was the ideal backdrop to the sparkling white of rime ice above treeline and the wind whispered by day. Inside the dark and minimalist shelter where cooking on portable stoves was done by headlamp, the temperature -- even when the wood stove burned -- was barely above freezing.

That's fine for those who revel in spartan backcountry comfort on a Mount Adams ridge at 4,375 feet in New Hampshire's northern Presidential Range. Since 1976, the 800-member northern New Hampshire Randolph Mountain Club has kept the two-level cabin just below treeline on the second highest White Mountain peak staffed year-round by caretakers. The nonprofit hiking organization oversees about 100 miles of trails in the northern Presidential and Crescent ranges around Randolph. Two winter caretakers are employed to oversee Gray Knob and other club cabins. Given the environmental extremes, it could be the coldest job around.

Though Mount Washington with its wicked winter reputation is less than a six-mile hike away, those who toil on that summit can retreat indoors to dorm-like comfort and continuous heat, electricity, and running water. Not so at Gray Knob. Due to a limited wood supply, the stove runs briefly when there are guests. There is no electricity, but a solar panel does recharge the battery-powered radio. Grill-sized propane cylinders are hiked up. And running water is from a spring about a quarter-mile away that needs to be chipped away at to prevent freezing.

Seven days on, seven off, the rotating caretakers make daily two-hour rounds by foot to other club cabins, keeping tabs on guests and making sure that the spring doesn't freeze. They could be called on to aid or report a search and rescue mission. Daily check-in with the club via radio is routine. So is listening to the 7 a.m. Mount Washington weather forecast so that it can be posted in the cabin. Outhouse duty is theirs, too.

The caretakers are hardy, quirky souls, usually in their early 20s. Many go on to other outdoor-oriented careers. One caretaker, who held the job in his 60s, was the late outdoors writer Guy Waterman. The story goes that Waterman named 26 points of the trail he took to the cabin from A to Z so he wouldn't get bored. Pay for a caretaker is $50 a day and all the leftovers you can eat.

On this day, RMC members Doug Mayer and Al Sochard, who hires the caretakers, accompanied me to Gray Knob along Lowe's Path from Randolph. Instead of a packed snow trail, the path was a thin layer of snow on ice. The brooks were running over brown ground. Crampons, those fangs for winter, were put on plastic, insulated mountaineering boots and pierced downed leaves and mud. It was more like late November than late January.

Lithe, young caretakers with loaded backpack make the 3.2-mile hike to the cabin in under two hours. A schlepper like me, stopping for lunch, did it in over three hours, slowing down considerably during the steep, ice-choked pitches.

Though the conditions were less than ideal, the blue sky and short evergreens told us treeline was near. At the Quay, a rock outlook near the cabin, the panorama was glorious with the Randolph Valley below and Vermont's peaks to the west, Mahoosucs to the east, the Kilkenny and Presidential ranges all out there. On the right day, life above treeline is dazzling and this was one of them.

Lowe's Path continues up Mount Adams, but we did not. Gray Knob was less than a minute away on Nowell Ridge, between deep King and Cascade ravines. In the shadows, it was lighter outside than inside the wooden cabin, first perched there in 1905 and then rebuilt in 1989 after falling to disrepair. Gray Knob is used largely by hikers who are continuing on to the summits of area peaks like Adams, Madison, and Jefferson. It operates within the White Mountain National Forest on a special use permit from the US Forest Service.

A pair of Quebec students coming down from Mount Madison were using the cabin as a lunch stop, one cooking away while the other found the house guitar and sang Cat Stevens and Beatles songs. Many use it as a base camp. Husband and wife Darrin Kelly and Megan Gahl of Gouldsboro, Maine, were planning on summiting Mount Adams at 5,799 feet the next day. At the cabin, they could rest and get an early start, lightening their load by leaving nonessential gear behind and retrieving it on the descent. The cabin sees its share of first-time winter hikers, seasoned veterans, groups, and those led by professional guides. And there are always stories.

Up on a day hike was Mike Miccuci who runs a Gorham sports shop. He recalled his winter as a caretaker in the late '70s. One day he was cooking soup when the propane ran out. He had to hike down the mountain in subzero temperatures, get a ride to the store, buy propane, find a lift back and trek to the cabin. ''That cup of soup took six hours to cook," he said.

Darkness and cold are frequent winter companions. Winter caretakers spend lots of time in sleeping bags, reading and drinking hot liquids. Some nights, the 15-person-capacity cabin is filled. It can also be days between guests, days and nights filled with solitude.

Ryan Harvey, 23, is one of the winter caretakers, the season extending from November to March. He's a bit of a backwoods ambassador, dispensing local weather, terrain, and snow conditions. Seventeen below was the coldest he recorded as of that day and he admitted that hikers try to coax him to keep that wood stove going longer. The wood, which is cut lower down on the mountain and hauled up during non-snow months by caretakers and the club's summer trail crew, is burned sparingly. ''You look at water and cooking differently," Harvey said. ''When things spill, they freeze instantly."

Warmth is different as well. Inside, hats and gloves are on. Multiple socks are worn. Dinner with down jackets is common. Streams of heat emanate from hikers just in off the trail. For many, bedding down for the night comes just after 8 p.m., a welcome break from winter's freezing breath.

Contact Marty Basch, a New Hampshire writer, at marty@martybasch.com.

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