Plan for White Mountains hut draws fire
ZEALAND FALLS, N.H. — The eight huts strung across 56 miles of the White Mountains are a high-elevation haven for weary climbers. They are places to rest for a few minutes or overnight. They are places to enjoy a freshly cooked meal. And they are places of alpine beauty that nourish the soul.
But plans by the Appalachian Mountain Club to add a ninth hut to its network of shelters have run into opposition from many of the hikers who depend on them.
“Enough is enough. Work with what you’ve got and be grateful,” said Whitney Silberblatt, a hiker from nearby North Conway, who stopped recently at the Zealand Falls hut during a marathon trek to all eight shelters in less than 24 hours.
To Silberblatt and hundreds of local climbers, one more hut is one more intrusion into a spectacular wilderness that already has plenty of access. And its target audience, they argue, is affluent out-of-staters who boost club revenue by paying overnight prices that reach well over $100 during peak season.
“The area should be left alone. It should be left to trees and trails — and not more ways for the AMC to gobble up money,” said Roderick Forsman, a 77-year-old from Intervale who has hiked the Appalachian Trail several times.
To leaders of the 127-year-old Appalachian Mountain Club, however, a new hut would help accommodate record numbers of visitors and be easily reached by novices, the elderly, and the very young.
“Our mission is to get folks outdoors,” said Paul Cunha, a vice president of the nonprofit club. “It’s been 50 years since we built our last hut.”
The hut system was developed to help climbers clamber across the White Mountains. The eight huts in place — from Carter Notch in the east to Lonesome Lake in the west — were designed to be about a day’s hike apart.
The proposed hut would split the 14 miles between Mizpah Spring and Zealand Falls, the longest hut-to-hut stretch in the chain, and be designed for year-round use off Route 302 in Crawford Notch State Park. Its estimated 3,500 square feet would accommodate 50 overnight visitors and eight staff.
Andrew Falender of Lincoln, Mass., a past president of the Appalachian Mountain Club, called the proposal an invaluable addition to the organization’s mission.
Such a facility “can attract not just hundreds, not just thousands, but tens of thousands of day and overnight visitors,” Falender wrote to the state. “Of greatest importance, so many of these visitors gain an experience that can have a lifelong impact.”
A helicopter landing zone, 200 feet in diameter, would be cut in the forest for emergency access. Parking for at least 20 cars would be provided nearby. And being close to the highway — a 1½-mile hike, Cunha said — visitors who cannot reach other huts would have a practical alternative.
“If you’re in your 20s, if your knees are still good, all power to you. But not all folks can do that,” Cunha said.
Using the huts for more than a short rest, however, often carries a significant bill. A Saturday night for nonmembers at Zealand Falls, for example, costs $156 plus tax for bunk bed, breakfast, and dinner. Club members pay $130 plus tax.
“I can’t afford to stay at those prices,” said Kyle van der Laan, a 39-year-old college professor from Lancaster. “It’s way too expensive for what you get, considering it’s like a hostel.”
The club is pricing out locals, said Forsman. Instead, he argued, the organization is catering to “people who have money, who drive up in their Lexuses and SUVs, wear lots of expensive clothing, and can preen at each other and say, ‘Look at how outdoorsy we are.’ ”
An online petition against the hut, begun by local climber Chris Magness, has garnered several hundred signatures.
The club needs the state’s blessing to build the hut, and the process is expected to be lengthy. Amy Bassett, spokeswoman for the state park system, said officials are reviewing 160 comments received through Aug. 15.
This is the first time that New Hampshire officials have been asked to approve a hut in state park land, she said, and the next step is uncertain. All but one of the other Appalachian Mountain Club huts — the first of which dates to 1888 — are in the White Mountain National Forest.
“We’re really taking our time to thoughtfully and carefully go through the comments,” Bassett said. “We didn’t come up with this idea.”
Cunha said he is listening to the feedback, but that he considers some of the criticism to be “loose rhetoric.” The average cost at a year-round hut such as Lonesome Lake, where winter lodging is self-service, is $60 per night, he said.
“In this modern world with this ease of communication, it doesn’t surprise me that it is easy to get people riled up,” Cunha said.
So far this year, more than 36,000 people have stayed at the huts. In August, the huts reached 91.1 percent of capacity for the entire month and 97.7 percent on Saturdays, according to the organization.
For every $1 in revenue from its huts and lodges, the club said, $1.25 is spent on overhead and mission costs such as trail maintenance, conservation, and school programs.
Janet Steinert, a retired school administrator, said hundreds of her pupils at the Whitefield public schools benefited from hikes to the huts. Not only would club guides lead fifth- through eighth-graders to the huts, she said, but staff there would teach them about the surrounding woods.
The critics, Steinert said, are not considering the full picture.
“If it wasn’t for the fees, the club wouldn’t be able to give these kids what they have,” said Steinert, 64, of Waterford, Vt., who has walked the entire Appalachian Trail. “As far as I’m concerned, the more opportunities for education like that, the better.”