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A family's peak portfolio

By Allan Fen
Globe Correspondent / October 19, 2008
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"Is this the Appalachian Trail or the North Pole?" Alexandra, 7, deadpanned as we were being battered by wind and freezing rain above the tree line on Franconia Ridge. We should have turned back earlier, but it was too late now. With his rain poncho whipping in the mist, Cam, 10, looked like a wraith from Mordor. I was getting worried, even a little desperate, on this, our first White Mountains hike.

We finally made it to Mount Lafayette and the trail down. An hour into our descent, the fog lifted and Greenleaf Hut magically appeared, not more than 100 feet away. The caretaker at the Appalachian Mountain Club facility gave us some hot soup as we dried out. Warmed and rested, we hiked down to the trailhead as darkness closed in. On the drive home, we excitedly recounted our adventure. We were hooked on hikes in "the Whites."

What started as a summer lark evolved into a quest to climb all 48 of New Hampshire's 4,000-foot peaks and earn the coveted AMC achievement patch.

Our memories are countless: creature encounters - fireflies, toads, yellow slugs, orange geckos, and a shy bear; and people - families, scouts, French-Canadians, and the August skier at Tuckerman's Ravine. Then there was the stark, otherworldly landscape high in the alpine zone of the Presidentials, and the many breathtaking views, once looking down from Lakes-of-the-Clouds Hut on the Fourth of July fireworks at the Mount Washington Hotel 3,000 feet below.

The first few summers, we stayed at the AMC's high mountain huts, which are great family destinations with basic bunkrooms, hearty meals, and staff who cook and even provide entertainment. One performed a hilarious skit with a "Star Wars" theme, featuring a rolling mop bucket as R2D2 that stole the show. There are eight AMC full-service huts and two base lodges in the White Mountains, about a day's hike apart (reservations recommended). We did several hut-to-hut trips, meeting a lot of other hikers and families at the long dinner tables and again on the trail. We also met quite a few through-hikers, tackling the 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine.

On our first night at Greenleaf Hut we were treated to a symphony of snores - the dull saw snores, the machine gun snores in short bursts, and the whistlers, right out of "Looney Tunes." The huts have no showers so the smell of wet socks can be pretty strong on a hot day, but that's part of the charm.

To reach some of the more distant peaks, such as the spectacular Bondcliff, we packed a tent and stove and hiked to the AMC backwoods campsites. Camping meant heavier backpacks and primitive facilities but the extreme beauty and isolation of the remote backcountry was awe-inspiring. But after five summers of huts and camping, and conquering 31 peaks, the children's enthusiasm was losing altitude. A summer off didn't rekindle it, so I resorted to bribery, which quickly did the trick. The next summer, we climbed nine more peaks in five days.

We descended Passaconaway and Whiteface and when we reached the trailhead it started to rain. As we drove along the wet road in the dark, toads came out of the woods by the thousands and carnage ensued. Some froze in the headlights, others jumped, making a gentle thud on the bumper. I don't know how many we squished but I do know that Alex shrieked every single time.

This past summer, with the end in sight, Cam and Alex needed no bribes. We did our victory lap over Fourth of July week, climbing the final eight peaks scattered across the White Mountains. Cam insisted on doing his 7-mile cross-country training runs before or after each hike, one night having swarms of fireflies light his path. After the 12-hour Owl's Head trip we savored holiday fireworks from our motel Jacuzzi in Lincoln.

With mixed emotions, we approached our final summit, Moosilauke. This is a moderate hike that rewards you with 360-degree views above the tree line. It was a very nice hike and a great way to finish our unforgettable eight-year family adventure.

Allan Fen can be reached at a.fen@comcast.com.

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