White Mountain Family Adventure: Cog to Hut to Hut

Last weekend, our family had a true adventure. Debbie and I planned a White Mountain trip on the anniversary of our last real White Mountain adventure. In 2011, we executed a one day Hut Traverse while our kids were back home with their grandparents.

This year, we opted for a full family trip that was less ambitious but turned out to be just as fulfilling. In 2009, we took our son on a three hut journey that proved to be very challenging, but very fun. He is now six, and it was time for him to traverse on his own legs, rather than being carried by one of his parents. Debbie was pregnant with our daughter in 2009, but this time, we had the added challenge of carrying her.

The trip could not have worked out better. It went exactly as planned, which is testament to Debbie’s efforts. After work last Friday, we made the drive to Crawford Notch, where we stayed at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Highland Lodge. Debbie and I are long time members of the AMC board of advisors and we are very loyal to our club’s assets. The huts are the jewel’s in AMC’s hospitality crown. The Highland Lodge is our club’s premier backcountry lodge and is an even better destination with the addition of an amazing new playscape.

On Saturday morning, we had to get going early. After breakfast, we packed the car and drove the rough and winding Mt. Clinton Road over to the Mt. Washington Cog Railway. Debbie drove the car back to the Highland Lodge, then ran the 5.5 mile Mt. Clinton Road back to the Cog to meet us. We explored the train museum while waiting for her. One of the most interesting things I learned this summer was the difference between a railroad and a railway. The brakeman informed us during our summit trip that the difference is the distance. A railway is less than 14 miles. A railroad is more.

Hiking to the top of Mt. Washington would be a challenge for any six-year old. I’m sure he could have done it, but rather than take the chance, we opted for this alternative. Without the kids, you would have had to pay me to take a train to the top of Mt. Washington. I didn’t feel as guilty because we watched the coal/steam engine go up the mountain, but rode on the more modern bio-diesel model. With a three and six-year old, the train part worked. They were thrilled and it made for a unique experience.

The gradient, up to 36%, was insanely steep and made for some fun moments when the passengers were encouraged to stand in the aisle of the cab, which is pushed by the engine. We only took the train one way because after spending time on the summit at Mt. Washington State Park, we hiked down to AMC’s Lakes of the Clouds Hut. The huts are an experience that I recommend to anyone who likes walking. There was a neat segment on NPR this week that featured an AMC Hut Croo. Our son said that he wants to work on 1) a Hut Croo or the 2) Trail Crew when he grows up.

Mt. Washington’s summit is bizarre. It was loaded with tourists taking in the view. The hearty hikers are mixed in with overweight smokers in flip-flops who drove up. It can be a weird place, but we survived lunch at the cafeteria, toured the Tip Top House, checked out the Mt. Washington Observatory museum, and then left the peak.

It was really cool that our son had his own goals for this trip. At the top of the list was his goal not to be carried. He knew that we packed an Ergobaby backpack carrier in the bottom of our main pack. Even though he is no 34 pounds, I could carry him in a pinch. This hike was much farther and more rugged than he had ever gone, so we needed a backup plan. Plus, White Mountain weather can be notoriously bad and dangerous. If we needed to move fast, I had to be able to haul him. Should I have to carry him, we didn’t have a real plan for our extra gear, but pondered ditching it, splitting it up, shuttling it, or stashing it for a return trip. Regardless, we figured we would cross that bridge if necessary. Thankfully, it wasn’t.

Debbie carried our 20 pound daughter in our Deuter pack that also has room for a little gear. Our system/plan worked out just fine and the weather cooperated. It was only foggy and drizzly for the first part of Sunday morning. Other than that, it was fantastic.  The trip from the summit to the first hut was 1.5 miles. Once settled at Lakes of the Clouds Hut, Deb and the kids wandered around while I went for an “alpine jog.” My 4 mile loop took me on the Tuckerman Ravine Crossover trail, across the top of the ravine to Lion Head, through the Alpine Garden, up over Nelson Crag, across the summit of Mt. Washington again, and back down the Crawford Path to the hut. I had some of the rarely used cross trails all to myself. My run paralleled and then crossed the Mt. Washington Auto Road. I’ve had some good times on that road, having done the Mt. Washington Road Race once and the Mt. Washington Bicycle Hill Climb four times. I want to return to the bike race soon.

We had a great meal and night at the hut. After breakfast on Sunday, we headed down the Crawford Path to Mizpah Spring Hut. It was 4.5 miles and took us about 7 hours with stops. The hardest part of the hike for all of us was the steep descent to Mizpah. Our son said it “was brutal.” He and I had some awesome bonding on this trip. Debbie had her battles with our daughter who insisted on walking on her own. She must have covered more than a mile on her little legs with her various stints outside of the pack.

Coming down to Mizpah, I had nightmares about last year’s hut traverse and the intense suffering. Still, I think I want another shot at it. I cracked hard after 15 hours on the trail, and spent the last four hours in total misery. I guess that is why I love the mountains. I told my son all about that trip and we agreed to do a hut traverse together some day. He also acquired a trail name: “Trail Monster” thanks to some of his antics.

Dinner at Mizpah was excellent and we had great conversations with our fellow hut guests. The Croo was very nice and put on a couple of great skits. After breakfast, we made the 2.8 mile hike back down the Crawford Path to Crawford Notch. At the Highland Center, we spent time on the new natural mountain playscape, which was far more extensive than I expected. It was the best playground our kids have ever been on and is another great reason for families to visit AMC’s premier backcountry lodge.

After washing up, we made our way home via Vermont, stopping in Northampton, Massachusetts for dinner at our favorite restaurant. We were back to work on Tuesday and have some great memories from this summer ending trip. Debbie and I have had many great mountain adventures over the years, but this one was really special. Now, we are looking forward to 2014 or 2015 when both of our kids can go the distance on their own two feet.

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