After Climbing Snowy Mountains, Happiness is a Warm Hut (Part I)

Phil Plouffe, left, and Steve Fagin cross Carter Notch Lake earlier this week en route to Carter Notch Hut.

Scrambling down from the snowy, 4,832-ft. summit of Carter Dome in New Hampshire's White Mountains the other day, with the temperature hovering in the single digits and wind kicking up, I pulled down the edge of my overmitts and slid my goggles up just far enough to peek at my watch.

Two-thirty: Perfect. I would arrive just in time.

Thickening clouds scudded over Wildcat Ridge to the west, and a parhilion, or sundog, briefly materialized, glowing like a rainbow before dissolving amid growing grayness.

Just under 90 minutes later, after tumbling a few times on icy stretches, I stomped up the steps to Carter Notch Hut and shook snow off my parka precisely as caretaker Chad LaFlamme was carrying kindling to the wood stove.

"You're back!" he declared.

"Like a bad penny," I replied.

By the time I removed my boots and changed into dry gear, the fire was crackling.

"Four o'clock," I said. "You're like a Swiss watch."

That's the hour the caretaker at the wood and stone shelter lights the stove – one of many reasons I enjoy holing up in winter at Carter and other huts operated by the Appalachian Mountain Club and similar organizations instead of pitching a tent in the snow or digging a snow cave.

"Where are your buddies?" Chad asked.

"They'll be along shortly," I said. "They took the long way back down Zeta Pass after we tagged Carter Dome, but I decided to retrace my steps."

"They" included my old hiking pal Phil Plouffe of Mystic, with whom I've traipsed countless miles over countless peaks, and Steve Kurczy, a friend and former newspaper colleague now working in Manhattan for Debtwire, an international online financial news organization.

Steve and I run and kayak together whenever he visits his family in Bozrah, and often talked about a winter hike. This would be our long-awaited first mountain trip together.

"What kind of gear will I need?" Steve emailed a few weeks earlier.

I replied with a half-jokingly long list of equipment suitable for an Everest expedition, including ice axe, crampons, double-insulated plastic mountaineering boots, a sleeping bag rated at least to 30-below and a "bivvy" or bivouac sack, but I should have realized Steve – who once bicycled solo across the United States, has traipsed through the Annapurna section of Nepal's Himalayas, and who last fall ran the Hartford Marathon in a blazingly fast 2 hours and 30 minutes – would take me seriously.

Actually, Steve would need many of those items, but Phil and I had enough extra equipment so we were able to outfit him and ourselves adequately for a three-day excursion.

Initially I planned to return to Gray Knob, a remote hut perched at 4,370 feet near Mount Adams considered the coldest, most difficult-to-reach winter shelter in the White Mountains because its principal access is via the relentlessly steep and icy Lowe's Path. I had spent a frigid mid-winter week there a few years ago as a replacement caretaker for the Randolph Mountain Club.

The forecast, though, called for bone-numbing temperatures and savage winds, so I elected to head instead for Carter Notch Hut, nestled at 3,288 in a cleft mostly sheltered by Carter Dome to the east and Wildcat Mountain to the west. Plus, the 3.8-mile hike in from Route 16 along the Nineteen Mile Brook Trail climbs steadily but not nearly as precipitously as Lowe's Path.

In spring, summer and fall Carter is a full-service hut, meaning the caretaker prepares breakfast and dinner for overnight guests who sleep in nearby bunkhouses. In winter, hikers pack in food and cook their own meals using the hut's propane stove and kitchen utensils. Though the 40 bunks have mattresses hikers must bring sleeping bags, clothes and whatever other gear they will need, depending on conditions and itineraries.

Light flurries fluttered through spruce boughs when we began hiking to the hut in mid-afternoon, adding about an inch to the several feet of packed snow already on the ground. The Nineteen Mile Brook Trail is a glorious footpath in all seasons, but I especially enjoy it in winter when the brook turns into a glittering, frozen cascade.

After ascending steeply at Height of Land, we dropped down to the ice-covered Carter Lakes, framed by towering peaks and a jagged jumble of boulders called the Ramparts.

"Not much farther," I said, and sure enough, in a few minutes, the wood and stone cabin appeared among dense evergreens. Though modest in size and design, in that setting it looked more appealing than the Palace of Versailles.

"Oh, wow!" Steve exclaimed.

Indeed it was a welcome sight – especially the smoke curling from the chimney.

"Home sweet home," I said.

Our reverie somewhat diminished when we opened the door and were greeted by the din of 21 Boy Scouts from Massachusetts who also would be spending the night.

I have nothing against Scouting but wish they'd travel in smaller packs and earned badges for something useful, such as silent contemplation. One youngster in particular maintained an endless soliloquy covering his entire childhood and adolescence, oblivious to all those around him, including one hapless leader who slumped over and buried his head in his hands.

Would it have killed him to tell the kid to try holding his breath for 30 seconds? But I quibble.

Before getting too comfortable in the cabin I suggested we find an empty bunkroom and unpack our sleeping bags, so we marched back outside with all our gear to the lodging quarters situated in two separate buildings about 50 yards uphill. Which one should we choose?

"Whichever is farther from those Scouts," Phil suggested.

"Good idea," Steve said.

Next week: Glorious views from two 4,000-foot mountains (and we finally get to enjoy some silent contemplation in the hut).

The Presidential Range opens up behind Steve Kurczy, standing near the summit of Carter Dome
The Presidential Range opens up behind Steve Kurczy, standing near the summit of Carter Dome
Left to right, Steve Fagin, Steve Kurczy and Phil Plouffe outside Carter Notch Hut.
Left to right, Steve Fagin, Steve Kurczy and Phil Plouffe outside Carter Notch Hut.

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