Caretaker Journal
Winter '05/'06

Written by Chris Fithian

November 7-14, 2005

My first winter stint at Gray Knob. Nice to be back in the woods. My home for half of the next 4 months presented itself to me blanketed white with fresh snow. Started up Lowe's path around 1 or 2 pm. On my back was mostly food because I had carried up a bunch of clothes on Saturday night. Lowe's had a lot of blowdowns because of the windy and snowy October we've had here in Randolph. For some reason it sounded like a good idea to patrol on the way up. It took me over an hour to get to Whale rock, then I got tired of taking off the heavy pack to chop. I left the rest of the blowdowns for another day, but it still took me a long time to get up to the cabin. As the week went on, I was able to get back to Lowe's path and now it should be pretty clear for all you winter trekkers.

Awoke the next morning to snowy skies and decided that was a good reason to remain in my sleeping bag until 8:30 or so. A year ago I wouldn't have considered that sleeping in, but now I do. It is said that humans are creatures of habit. One of my favorite habits at Gray Knob is eating pancakes in the morning with REAL maple syrup. My life would not be complete without maple syrup, but unfortunately for a caretaker the jar is both heavy and expensive. You got to make sacrifices sometimes.

After pancakes, I spent some quality time with Laura Connoit and "The Exchange", a local NHPR production. Sometimes this show makes me want to throw the Grundig Dynamo Radio right off the Lower Crag, but that morning I was glued to the radio for almost the entire hour.

Once I finally got up the motivation to go outside, I didn't stay long because I got hungry again. It's the bane of the caretaker to have to eat almost all the time. Or maybe that's just my tapeworm talking. Luckily, most guests are happy to leave their uneaten goodies behind. Sometimes this consists of nothing more than a ramen, but this week I did make out with a ham steak and a sleeve of whole wheat crackers.

I did manage to get a little work done this week. Over the course of the week I roamed far and wide from Gray Knob with my ax. I finished up Lowe's Path on Wednesday. Cleaned down Spur and Hincks trail then up into King Ravine on Thursday. Friday I tackled Randolph Path between Pentadoi and Lowe's. That was by far the worst patrol of the week. Who walks that section anyway? Someone better use it this winter after all my hard work on such a nice day. I could have been sitting on top of Adams.

All in all it was a fairly busy week and the time passed rather quickly. I greeted a total of 50 guests, with most choosing to stay at Gray Knob. The weather was typical November. Snow, cold front, warfront, no snow. I for one am ready for LOTS of snow. I would prefer to do rounds to the camps on skis.

November 21-28, 2005

Good thing there are a pair of snowshoes at Gray Knob because I needed them this week. Started the stint off with 10" at the stake. When I came down Monday morning it was at 30". (I should mention however that the air temperature was in the 40's so it might not last.) Had a pretty quiet Monday, Tues, and Wed. Mostly just shuffled between the camps on the "slow-shoes" and shoveled snow.

Wednesday night arrived and so did my friend Jess after dark. All you weekend warriors can thank her for breaking out Lowe's Path after the snow. Enjoyed an afternoon Thanksgiving complete with a ham steak, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and squash. Passed a quiet Thanksgiving evening with all my warm clothes on...28 degrees inside. I was also graced with authentic turkey leftovers courtesy of Storm, Laura, and Matt on Friday. I guess they ate so much they had to hike it off.

Friday afternoon brought a flood of people up to the camps. I was happy to have a full house that night. Happy birthday to Arm, good luck on Aconcagua (sp?). Sherpa and Shizzmac, you guys better be back soon. I also hosted some wonderful Korean folks who stuffed me full of traditional Korean food. Think kimchee, pickled garlic, and spicy anchovy paste...yum. I met the first (and only) Korean I know who owns an Irish resturant and pub in Fort Lee, New Jersey. The name: O'Kim's.

Some other guests had the forethought to bring up some nice, dry oak to stock the wood stove. This generosity sparked a lively discussion on how the RMC should go about keeping Gray Knob dry and winter hikers warm. Listed below are some of our conclusions...

Would it be that hard for each winter guest to carry up one piece of wood? Those in attendance that night at GK came to the conclusion that a 2-3 pound chunk of nice, dry hardwood is a small addition to the already burdensome onus of a winter pack.

Your chances of convincing the caretaker to start a fire are much greater if you bring some of your own wood. GK has a limited wood supply that is carried up Lowe's Path to the cabin by the trail crew in the summer. Cutting wood from the forest around the camps is unsustainable and time consuming. If TC doesn't have to spend a week carrying wood, they have more time to work on improving and protecting RMC's paths for your enjoyment.

Theoretically, if I have a full house on a subzero night and everyone brings one chunk of wood, there will be 15 pieces of wood for the stove, more than enough for a fire for one night, with no net depletion of the GK woodshed.

Someone floated the idea of charging 10 bucks a night for those who bring wood and 11 bucks for those who don't. Any thoughts?

Saturday morning I was finally able to get out above treeline for the first time this winter. I reluctantly donned the slow-shoes because I knew there were some drifts because of the storm. Wandered up Lowe's, bushwacked over to Spur right below Adams 4, then up to Thunderstorm Junction to scope out the Sam Adams and Spur Trail snowfields. Picked out a rock in the Sam snowfield to build a kicker off of. I'm preparing for the first annual Gray Knob Big-Air Contest, coming to the Sam snowfield sometime this spring. Got to wait for more snow before the landing is soft enough. Tracked out the Spur trail down to Crag Camp. Was kicking myself for not having my skis up there. Saw lots of other folks wandering around on Adams and Madison. It was a good day for a walk. All in all, another excellent stint.

December 26, 2005

Christmas week at the Knob was everything I expected it to be. I had 31 guests this week, all arriving and departing between Monday and Christmas Eve. The snow stake is up to 25". For the first time in my tenure as a caretaker, I spent a Saturday night alone. Although I stayed up as late as possible, I never did see Santa's Sleigh on it's way to all the good little boys and girls in Randolph. I guess he couldn't fit down the Gray Knob stovepipe because when I awoke Christmas morning there were no presents for me in front of the wood stove. I think the fat guy in the red suit brought them to the post office in Gorham instead. I think he left a present in the outhouse though... I would have gladly forfeited any presents in lieu of some fresh snow, but that wish was not to be granted. We received 2-3 inches of wet snow on Sunday night, topped with a little freezing rain. It might as well have precipitated coal. Now that I am off the mountain for the week, the weather seems to be turning for the better. Let's hope it stays that way. If there was any redeeming quality to the weather this week it was that when I left GK this morning it was undercast. The valley was a sea of clouds with the white islands of Franconia, Pilot, and Pliny ranges poking through the tops.

Let's see, what else happened this week? Early in the week I declared war on Randolph Path with my ax. The way is now clear between Lowe's Path and the Perch. Not sure if anyone really cares, but it makes my rounds a whole lot easier.

I've been studying the two French textbooks we have at the Knob in order to try and remember some of what I learned in high school. (I've also read just about every other book in the library) I have found a little French can go a long way with our French Canadian guests. It makes them feel more at home, and also seems to prevent them from talking about me in front of my face if they suspect I understand them. So far, my caretaker welcome speech is limited to... Je m'appelle Christophe. Je suis le guardien des camps. Bienvenue a Gray Knob. Les fres pour la nuit sont dix dollars par personne. Si vouz voulez payer en argent canadienne, les fres sont quinze dollars.

This speech is adequate to greet guests, but it doesn't get me very far in engaging single canadian women in spirited wood stove-side conversation. I guess practice makes perfect.

Went up to Adams 4 on Christmas Eve, in some of the hairiest conditions I've even been up in. Visibility was about 25 feet and it was windy! My plan was to summit Adams with a guest who had never been up there before, but we decided it was a little too sketchy. We beat a retreat around the base on A-4 and headed down the Spur. The glissade down to Crag was worth getting battered around in the wind.

I will close this week's entry with a brief but random treatise about the beauty of the sliced ham. The ham is rapidly becoming a staple of my GK diet. It is truly a multipurpose food, consumable at breakfast, lunch, or dinner. It replaces my need for salami, bacon, or sausage AND it's fully cooked and doesn't spoil for at least a week. I realize that caretaking at GK in the winter is similar to living in a refrigerator, but I suspect the ham would keep a few days even without refrigeration. It is because of this remarkable quality that I restrain myself from reading the nutrition facts.

January 2-9, 2006

Although I was sad not to have rung in the actual New Year at the 'Knob, it was nice to start 2006 off with 73 guests. This is the first stint ever in my caretaking career where I have had people every night. Having guests is a welcome change from spending Monday-Thursday night alone. Luckily, the weather was highly cooperative this week as well. With four out of seven days of blue skies, light winds, and unseasonable temps, this past week saw a lot of good climbing above treeline.

I like it when we have lots of guests and good weather. As the caretaker, I have my choice of days to climb. If its blowing and low visibility, I just don't go out that much. A guest who is looking to make the most of their weekend does not have the same luxury. My guests on Monday night came all the way from Ontario! They drove all night, spent the night in a hotel in Gorham and climbed to Gray Knob the next day. They made the most of their excursion by spending a few nights, but I was still impressed by their dedication. They have a good friend and regular Gray Knob visitor who did not come on this trip because he was kidnapped while on a peace mission in Iraq. At this time his fate is unknown. They gave me a great fajita as soon as I arrived on Monday, and I shared my Jell-O No-Bake Cheesecake with them.

Was able to build another set of snow steps around the cabin, making it easier to get to the outhouse in the down booties, or up Gray Knob Trail laden with 5 gallons of water from the spring. The two previous times I've done this, the steps have melted on my weeks off. I think this time they will finally stay, although as I write this the weather man is talking about "January thaw". I left Monday morning in snow squalls, and the stake is up to 30".

Tuesday morning dawned clear and balmy, temp about 27 degrees with light winds. Everyone decided that this was the day to summit Jefferson. Gray Knob Trail received a good bit of use this week and is now packed out pretty well. After getting all my chores done before noon, I decided it was a good day to go hiking too. At Edmands Col I stopped to have a rest and a snack. I've never seen it so calm there in the winter where I was able to stretch out on the ground and relax. After lunch I climbed up to Thunderstorm Jct to do some swiss-bobbing in the snowfields.

For those unfamiliar with the Swiss-bob, this simple invention has revolutionized winter hiking for me. It's a small plastic sled, about the size of a phone book with indentations for your butt and handles for your hands. It's light and straps easily to your pack. You too can get one at EMS in a range of colors for only 25 bucks. One can turn and stop and generally maintain control while sliding once you get the hang of it. It goes really great above treeline or down on the trails that have been packed out by snowshoes.

On Wednesday morning I walked from the cabin to the top of Adams with my gloves hanging from the idiot cords around my wrists. Spent about a half-hour lounging on the summit. Swiss-bobbed around for the afternoon. Tried to go right from the summit of Adams but there wasn't quite enough snow. My 13 Ontarian, Ontarioans (How does one say that anyway? Canadians from Ontario?) went home.

On Thursday morning I made it from the cabin to the parking lot at Lowe's in just over 40 minutes on the Swiss-Bob. Beats walking any day. Went to the valley to get my skis. Looked at Spur brook and Chandler Fall on my way back up. There are still some thin spots but one good dump and it should be good to go. Had so much fun sliding around earlier in the week that I decided it was time to bust out the hippie-sticks. Did some great touring on Gray Knob Trail and found some good powder turns above the trail in upper Cascade Ravine. Gulfside snowfield is also in good shape from T-Storm down to the col. I've been eyeing the Jefferson snowfield a good bit lately...more on that in a later entry.

For a few hours I thought it was going to go quiet for the night, but then Gray Knob suddenly was in Quebec. French was the langue de choix cela soir. I practiced a little bit, but still felt out of my league. I do have one thing to say to those otherwise graceful visitors...

Merci pour des sous-vetements que vouz avez laisser dans la toilette!

Saturday morning I had a nice visit from Al, even though he only brought me a fig bar and a few squares of chocolate. Maybe someday he'll bring me something good, like a bag of wood chips. We strolled over to Crag and then back up Lowe's to Adams 4. It was a great, clear, blue day. We admired the view and tried to identify the peaks of the Mahoosuc Range. It was windy on the way down. Saturday night was relatively quiet compared to earlier this week. It got cold again too, down into single digits. Had only five people, one of whom elected to sleep outside, which I thought was admirable. I hope you will stay for the Grateful Dead hour next time Bruce.

Sunday morning was nice too and by late morning Gray Knob was completely quiet. I puttered around some, getting things ready for Ryan's week. Hit the cones, swept solar panels, chopped out the spring, got water, cleaned, did dishes, and slopped slop buckets. After chores I went for another ski. While back at the cabin for lunch, I had a visit from my first pair of day-hikers this season. Hopefully they will be back for an overnight. Before they left, College Week at Gray Knob began with 7 nice folks from Skidmore Outing Club. I wonder if Ryan is meeting those Towson Univ. folks of last winter who were willing to do outrageous things to get a fire lit. I needed no such encouragement from the SOC as it was about 24 degrees inside. We played this crazy game who's name I have forgotten. It's like Taboo, but played with a small electronic unit that supplies you with the word you must make your team guess and beeps at you incessantly. Good laughs for our group of eight. I shared a cheese fondue that I was given earlier. I wish you could get that stuff in the states 'cause boy it was good even though I had to get up in the middle of the night and go to the privy. It's too much to eat on your own.

College Week may also have brought a change in the weather, as I awoke to the wind and a grim sounding forecast from the Obs on Sunday. A very dynamic morning at the 'Knob, as the view from the sink window changed from sixty feet to sixty miles every few minutes. I tidied up, then packed my things. The SOC kids were going up and it was WINDY. The forecast called for WNW 60-90 mph. Probably was fun to go play in but I wouldn't want to go up too high. Hiked down in a beautiful snow squall. Took me an agonizing 1:20 without the swiss-bob.


January 30 - February 6, 2006

Made it up this week with a heavy load of foodstuffs for the cabin, including 4.4 pounds of vegetable shortening I obtained at an ethnic grocery store in New Jersey last week. Everyone this week enjoyed Doug's newest contribution to Gray Knob. A LARGE candle with three wicks is a much better present than a pumpkin that rots and you have to get rid of. Started off the week with two guests on a Monday night. I always arrive Monday nights mentally prepared to not see another human being until Friday afternoon, so it's always nice to have people early in the week.

For the beginning of February, it was quite warm this week. I only had to light the fire once this stint. Did a little skiing on Tuesday morning, but it wasn't as soft as I had hoped. After a lunch of multiple grilled cheeses I sat down for some quality time with NHPR. I was saddened to learn of Coretta Scott King's Death and Judge Samuel Alito's confirmation to the Supreme court.

Puttered around the rest of Tuesday doing chores. Got the cones in shape and organized the caretaker bunk storage space. After radio call I settled in my sleeping bag to listen to the State of the Union Address. I only made it through about half of it before sleep overcame me. It's probably for the best as I was spared any nightmares about Mr. Bush's schemes for world domination.

Wednesday dawned with winds and clouds and I stayed in my sleeping bag until well past 10. Got over to Crag after a late breakfast to reset some mousetraps over there and to cut some steps down to the privy. I realized during step construction that every time I've built steps this winter, the rain comes along and washes them away. If I stop building steps will the weather gods relent and bring Gray Knob some snow? Not this week.

Lunch was especially good today, I only ate two hash browns, two southwest flat bread grilled cheeses, an apple slathered with Nutella, many chocolate cookies, and an Almond Joy candy bar. After lunch I was sitting outside hoping the weather would clear off when I was surprised with a visit from the Pine Marten. I have heard rumors that this secretive creature has been sighted often around the Cabin, but up until now I had never seen it. It was dark brown from head to toe with a large bushy tail. The first thing I thought was that it looked like an oversized ferret. It didn't seem to be too concerned with my presence as it nosed around between the snowstake and and woodshed. Unfortunately it didn't want to pose long enough for me to run inside and get my camera. How rude!

After this exciting encounter my day was pretty much complete, but I decided to push my luck and go for a ski. Although the surface was very firm above treeline, I found that down in the woods the skiing was quite good. No details on the location here. I got to keep some secrets for myself.

Thursday was chore day, including a trip to the valley for camp supplies. Came back up with a little more weight than I planned on. Spent some time at Al's copying money forms and weather sheets and picking up fee envelopes. Successfully resisted the temptation to go to McDonald's while down in Gorham. (aahh, french fries) Al also had a new oven for the camps which came back up with me. I haven't tried it out yet but am excited by the possibility of baked goods at Gray Knob. Also picked up the Globe and the Berlin Daily Sun for the reading/crossword puzzle fix.

Friday I awoke to snow, which was a surprise. Spent the morning enjoying coffee and the Boston Globe. As soon as I motivated to go for a ski, the snow changed to rain and I got soaked outside. I should have gone skiing in the morning and read the paper in the afternoon instead. It was a pretty quiet Friday for visitors too, with only three at GK and a few down at Log Cabin. Not surprising considering how variable the weather was today.

Saturday dawned clear and warm, and I learned later that day that we set a record high temperature of 41 degrees. I learned my lesson from the previous day and got outside as soon as possible. Skinned up to Thunderstorm because I suspected that the Gulfside Snowfield would be softening up. My hunch was correct. It was spring conditions in early February! Did a lap there to warm up and then set my sights on the Jefferson Snowfield. With the same exposure as Gulfside Snowfield, I could hear the untracked corn calling my name. In a little less than an hour later, I was poised at the top of field. I could hear voices on the summit just above me. Jefferson's Knee and the Great Gulf were spread out before me. Did multiple runs over there, climbing and descending until the sun's strength began to wane behind some high clouds. A good day to be the caretaker.

I had some great guests this weekend. As usual, it was a mix of first-time visitors and RMC regulars. I had three gentlemen who spent 4 days over at Crag Camp celebrating 50 years since their first climb to the RMC camps. I enjoyed their abundance of good cheese, blackberry brandy, and spirited conversation. Their crampons were a lesson in the evolution of mountain climbing equipment over the last half century. Other notables included the caretaker from the '86 season and some other 20 year veterans of Gray Knob.

President's weekend is coming up quick! I hope to see you all up at the camps for the long weekend. Let's hope this Sun-Mon Nor'Easter gives us a real wallop!