The mission: To get three childhood friends out of their comfort zone, into the White Mountains, avoid imminent thunderstorms, and return them safely to their vehicle.
The gear: Three backpacks, three sleeping bags. Three liters of wine and a flask of bourbon. Various fleece jackets, rain gear, trail mix, water bottles, first aid equipment, lots of socks and bandanas.
The accommodations: Mizpah Spring Hut, one of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s “high mountain huts,” located at 3,777 feet. Shared bunkrooms, composting toilets, and running cold water.
The meals: Dinner is served promptly at 6. Breakfast is at 7, just in case you were thinking about sleeping in.
What has typically been a “girls weekend” in Chocorua, N.H., suddenly morphed into a bucket-list adventure high on the mountaintops when a last-minute reservation became available at one of the AMC’s myriad hiking accommodation options. My friends, Kelly, Laura, and I decided to go for it. We borrowed hiking equipment from our kids, siblings, and neighbors, dug out ski clothes, running gear, and any other necessary equipment from our overstuffed garages and basements, and headed north.
On Saturday morning, we rose early, downed coffee, shouldered our packs, and laced our boots. None of us is a slacker. Between the three of us, we’ve ticked off a few marathons, triathlons, and even a half-IronMan. Two of us are moms, with nine kids between us, and all of us are hovering around the 50-year-old mark. But it’s been at least a decade since any of us had done any serious hiking, and I’d only been above 4,000 feet once. We met on our high school’s cross country team, and whatever endurance our coach drilled into us, some of it seems to have stuck.
We set off on a gorgeous fall morning. The trailhead indicated that it was about three miles to Mizpah Spring Hut. We hiked steadily, stepping from granite boulder to boulder for a few hours. There is no actual rock climbing required and the path is rarely very steep, but it is strenuous and we worked up a good sweat. Bring plenty of water.
There are beautiful views along the way, with undulating moss beds, a stunning waterfall, and plenty of forest vistas evocative of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. There were all types of folks on the trail – older couples with hiking poles, a Boy Scout troop, young women with big dogs, and more than a few shirtless trail running bros. We arrived at Mizpah around 2 p.m., and checked into our bunkhouse (four bunks, each with three wool blankets, a thin mattress, and a pillow.) After a quick lunch outside, we dropped our packs on our bunks to “claim” them and took only a few essentials for our last push toward the summit of Mount Pierce. This part was steep and strenuous, but in quintessential AMC style, most of the hairy parts had built-in stepladders or planks to make things a bit easier. Summiting Mount Pierce wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t too hard, either. The views on this stretch are stunning.
I don’t think I’m alone when I say that once you reach a summit, something shifts inside your brain. Everything seems to take on a different perspective. Worries seem fewer, possibilities seem endless. Perhaps that’s why, despite the dwindling daylight, we decided to press on and summit Mount Eisenhower as well. It was tauntingly close (reality check: 1.6 miles), so why not? Off we went, at a significantly more aggressive pace. None of us wanted to see the sunset from the peak, especially since we knew full well that dinner would be served at Mizpah at 6 p.m. The summit of Eisenhower is spectacular, with 360 degree views of nothing but black and blue mountain silhouettes along the horizon and the summit of Mount Washington in the foreground. We snapped a few pics and headed back down the mountain.
Did I mention we’re all old? At least our knees are. The climb down was a litany of aches and pains, but tough chicks don’t complain, so we laughed at one another and kept up what had now become a nearly breakneck pace. It’s amazing how the prospect of turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry, and gravy can motivate a group.
We were probably 50 yards from Mizpah when we heard the dinner bell. Like horses to the barn, we broke into a sprint and burst into the dining room at 6:01 p.m. Success! Dinner is served family style, and we squeezed onto the end of a picnic table with a group led by an REI guide. The meals are prepared by the hut “croo”, mostly 20 somethings who spend the season living and working in the huts, and served in a large dining room with large south-facing windows. Mizpah was at capacity that night, with 60 souls sharing a dining room, and later, the bunkrooms.
After dinner, we unpacked our cardboard-boxed wine and headed outside to see the moonrise over the mountains. Priceless. We met a group of brothers from Virginia who make the AMC huts an annual tradition. They preferred their flasks of bourbon to our wine, but they were willing to share, and were more than a bit impressed when Laura whipped out her flask of home-infused bourbon. What a hit! We all swapped hiking tales before wrapping it up and hitting the bunks.
I slept quite well, although I did hear the rain come pelting down around midnight from the small window next to my bunk. No thunderstorms, though, which was what we had feared might be on the menu for the hike down. Kelly reported lots of late-night noise from various sources, so earplugs might be another wise piece of gear. The next morning, we woke to the sounds of Bob Marley, as interpreted by a ukulele player. We dressed, enjoyed some oatmeal, scrambled eggs, blueberry bread, and coffee. Next, the croo gave the daily weather report, performed a goofy skit about proper blanket-folding technique, and sent us on our way back down the trail.
We all agreed that this is definitely something we would all do again. Enjoying a beautiful New England fall hike and getting meals, bedding, and shelter provided on the mountain is absolutely the way to go.
When to go: The huts are “full service” from June to mid-October. Three huts stay open year-round on a “self-serve” basis. Start planning for next year.
Cost: Depending on the hut and the date, the “full-service” rate is approximately $140 per person for members, $160 for nonmembers. This includes dinner, breakfast, a bunk, a pillow, and three wool blankets. The AMC runs several fall deals, including guided hike/stay combos and themed weekends. Visit www.outdoors.org to book a hut, a lodge, a cabin, or a campsite.
Moira Downes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.