Caretaker Journal
Winter 2008/2009

Written by Juliane Hudson.

March 23-30, 2009

Well, last week at Gray Knob and last hike up Lowe's path for this caretaker. Winter returned briefly and I found sub-zero temps and a cold GK when I got there. I arrived cold from the hike in and was slurring my words when I met Sam, my guest for the next three nights… oops, slightly hypothermic caretaker. I swear, I was sweating! And I can't stand being too warm when I hike. I layered up, unpacked, did rounds, built a fire and all was fine. The mountain warmed up slowly over the next several days until the sun shone and layers came off. I planned on mopping the floor and thawed the Murphy's Oil soap in the sun all day. But winter's cold and ice are still tucked away in some places and the mop was frozen fast to the ground. Oh well, with chores all done, what is a caretaker to do? Sit in the warm spring sun! And pretend that I DO NOT see the flies buzzing around already.

I spent one day chipping ice from around the privy doors. A less exciting sign of spring when the snow slowly melts and has no where to go, except to freeze around the doors. Just as fun as the terrifyingly steep and icy Lowe's path, the mono-rail and erratic post-holing in rotten spring snow. (This is how I'm trying to convince myself that I won't miss spring at GK). But! But! I won't see the chubby and cheerful dark-eyed juncos and the winter wrens with their impossibly intricate song all return and stake their claims. I don't get to return Jotul's love and warmth by cleaning and retiring it for the summer. I'll miss the slow reappearance of the rocky trails and won't be at the Quay when the sun starts setting behind my Mount Mansfield. I suppose I was lucky enough to experience all of that a year ago and someone else can have a turn.

One midweek night brought the first real spring rain of the season. We have already had rain, but this time it actually smelled like rain and really soaked the snow. Rain on a roof is one of the coziest sounds, even if it continues through the morning and means the next day will be nasty. Running water can be heard in the ravines, under snow, rocks and beneath GK. Meanwhile, the winter winds are slowing and the mountain's roar now comes up from the ravines.

Some great guests came during the weekend. Two friends who had a bit of an epic climb up King's Ravine… never again I'm guessing. But they told it as a funny story of two friends, one being "homicidal". There was also a group of four skiers at Crag who, when I stopped by, had had some whiskey and was discussing the meaning of life. A huge relief for me from the normal questions I've answered a billion times by now. I ended the week with a sweet group of locals which is a rare occurrence.

Sunday was a rainy day of lasts. I pretended that the mountains were sad and crying to see me go. I had my last trip to the Perch and Crag, last radio with Bill and then Sally which made me tear up. And one more night in the cozy, maybe smelly caretaker room with the glow-in-the-dark stars above. Finally, the last hike out in the morning with a heavy and awkward pack.

I have a lot of really wonderful memories from this winter at GK. To name a few: my moonlit hike up Adams, the three foot snowstorm, being caroled to over the radio, Obama winning the election and the day spent scraping windows while listening to the pre-inauguration concert with all the hope and joy attached. I've been spoiled, being surrounded by hikers who are generally the most down-to-earth, honest, real and friendly people you will find anywhere. I have loved meeting all these people who are doing something they enjoy and, sometimes, wait for all year. I also appreciate all the solitude that comes with the job. It can be lonely, but it is good. Lot's of quality thinking time; the better to understand and be comfortable with yourself so you can give more. The tiny, winter version of RMC is the most giving group of individuals I've ever worked for. Bill, with the evening radio calls that bring a little connection with the world during dark, lonely, winter nights. Al, the energetic and most giving person in the world. Sally and winter dog, Quid, who made many visits to GK and the alpine zone over the winter and gave much good advice. The Lowe's who were always a good welcome back to the valley when I got down. And of course, my co-caretaker, Mike, who did an excellent job. I'll certainly be back to GK at some point in some way, but it's on to other things for now. Always in the woods or on some mountain!

March 9-16, 2009

I hiked in Monday feeling sad without reason. But it didn't last long. Hiking solves everything.

Tuesday, the Obs. forecasted a beautiful day on the summits so I decided to go to Mt. Washington and visit my "elevational" neighbors. Connect some more faces to the voices I hear every morning over the radio. I was eating my yummy, yummy raspberry-walnut pancakes with REAL maple syrup when a day hiker walked in at 8 in the morning! Unusually early company for a Monday morning. He was up early to take advantage of the perfect day too.

It was a hot (34 F) hike up and over to Washington. The sun was suddenly wicked strong in the mountains and there was no wind. Go ahead and laugh, but I found myself thinking of the Southern Californian desert because of the conditions and the lack of shade. Just change the snow to sand, triple the temperature and I would be one miserable hiker. I much prefer winter in the Whites. But it is spring! There was a pair of playful fox tracks that I followed all over Jefferson and Clay. The snow buntings were back in their noisy and cheerful flocks, migrating through. A pair of ravens was flying around, probably missing the wind too. As I started up Washington's cone, a pointy, black jet shot up from behind Madison and aimed straight towards Washington. It then cut over the ridge and out of sight to the west. The trailing noise smacked the peaks after it left… terrifying.

I spent a bit time in the obs. but they were busy doing weather people stuff. So the crazy cat and I played the "run away from the scary caretaker" game. It is so strange to be in a building, on Washington, with all the comforts of the valley and technology scattered all over. I finally met my morning weather hero, the guy with the British accent. I don't think the observers realize what an important part of my day the morning weather is. I soon left them to do weather stuff and wandered back home. It was warm enough that the snow was balling up in my crampons (ugg) and I kinda started a slide on the stupid-steep snowfield on Jefferson. A small fracture line above and a layer of snow slid several inches, great. Got back with a bad sunburn that had me peeling all week and people pointing out that, yes, I had a burn. Time for sunscreen!

The wind and rain came Wednesday. Strange how the wind, its sound through the spruce/firs, has become my companion and I felt alone without it. Then the temperature dropped and it was around zero the next day. That night, the lovely Jrthl warmed Gray Knob, heart and soul. Friday the 13th (AGAIN!?) brought lots of guests including three AT '08 thru hikers. I was excited to have some fellow thru hikers even if not from the PCT. However, listening to them reminisce over their hike made me miss my beloved "slackpack" friends. What I wouldn't give to have them all up at GK with me! Has it really been two years? Sometimes it seems like everything relates to some pent-up, PCT story of mine. But I try not to inflict too many of them on non-thru hikers or uninterested people, and these three didn't seem to want to hear them.

Saturday brought the summit's spring equinox with 12 hour days!!! I aired out my nasty sleeping bag in the sun as a celebration. I also sewed a duct tape patch on one entire, busted seam of my "shell" pants (some poor caretaker fashion until I buy a new pair). Sally and Quid came up Sunday and we spent the day sitting in the sun outside GK. She brought me strawberries, good company and I was very happy. My last night was a busy one with 13 guests. Eight were from a college in Maryland, taking a mountaineering class. An absolutely wonderful group; enthusiastic, friendly and clean! I have to thank them again for giving me a ride all the way to Crawford Notch on Wednesday (a long story) and wish them the best.

February 23 - March 2, 2009

Mondays always seemed to be nice, sunny days, but this one brought a decent snowstorm. So I hiked in a day early to avoid breaking trail through all the snow the forecasters promised. Good thing I did! Gray Knob got roughly three feet of fluffy, new powder Sunday night and Monday. Mike, the other caretaker, and I had a little snowstorm party; eating and listening to NHPR's Folk Show while we were buried. It's an incredibly strange and rare occurrence to have both winter caretakers in GK at the same time, but there's no company like another caretaker's. The next day he stuck around and helped dig out. Gray Knob's front door couldn't open as there was enough snow to partially bury the first story windows. The Crag privy is becoming so buried that we passed shovels full of snow to get it out of the trench. When we headed back to GK it was still snowing so hard that the trail had to be broken again. Later he had an epic (I'm sure) hike/swim down Lowe's path for his week off.

I expected to have GK to myself for the next couple days but four people showed up Tuesday and there were at least two guests every night for the rest of the week. I took my time cleaning up from the storm. The Perch was almost completely buried. I dug down with a snowshoe and hit some crusty snow, thought it was the ground… except it wasn't, it was the edge of the roof! I crawled into the dark, little shelter to get the shovel and dug a tunnel for the entrance.

This week, the sun had a much stronger presence. It is most definitely spring! The sun now floods GK with light and is helping me with the battle against ice and frost in GK. I spent a lot of time sitting in the sun, soaking in all that warmth and vitamin D. Nothing is more beautiful than the bright, sunny, clear days that follow a big storm. The spruces and firs all held huge piles of snow, vivid against the blue sky. One morning I spent on Crag's porch watching the marten run around, looking a little skinnier than last fall. Wednesday night was girl's night at GK which was a relaxing and wonderful change in atmosphere for me. A nasty day of wind and rain followed by a drop in temperatures hardened the trails perfectly, but reduced our snow pack from 99 inches to 75 and I mourned the disappearance of that winter world.

The weekend brought lots of guests and a few familiar faces from last year. On his hike up in the rain, one guest got slightly hypothermic between the Quay and GK. At such a short distance, this scared me and reminded me how confusing hypothermia can really be. He told me that when he got in the door he couldn't even form the words to ask for help.

Great days to be above treeline! The summits on Sunday were dead calm and sunny. It was strange not to hear the wind running over the ridges and through the trees, like looking at a picture. The sunset was incredible as was the evening. Venus (I think) is the first point of light to shine between the horizon and the sliver of a moon. All the stars were brilliant with a darker night sky. Slowly, I'm learning how to pick out the constellations and watch them circle the north star. After a week of good company, Sunday night was all mine. I have gotten used to the four days alone during mid week and need some of that to organize my thoughts and myself. Another week done and only a few left. How did winter go by so fast?

February 9-16, 2009

Another week disappeared while I was up at Gray Knob. The Monday hike in was beautiful, like they always are. Carrying a brand, shiny new broom, stuff to replace the stove's gasket and, unfortunately, lots of oatmeal (yuck! yuck! yuck!). The Shaw's in Gorham is closing this month and already mostly empty. But they DID have oatmeal.

I found two guests when I reached GK. I was incredibly impressed with their sweeping skills! They could be caretakers. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that they work in a hospital and one cleans the ER.

Monday night was clear with a brilliant, full moon. The snowshoe hares were out dancing, as they do on these nights. I decided to join them after radio call and hiked up Adams to see the snowy peaks glow in the moonlight. I had a moment of great intelligence when I reached the summit…. choosing to put on another layer while in the full force of the wind. Then I ran down the mountain, crawled into my sleeping bag and it was like it never happened, a dream.

The middle of the week brought a messy thaw with a mix of rain and snow. GK defrosted! I spent some quality time with the privy, scraping the pile of poo down while I could, while it was slightly thawed. Boreal chickadees kept me company and snow fleas filled my tracks. The sun actually hits GK now and occasionally fills the place with light before setting north of Franconia Ridge. These are all signs that the dead-serious winter is over. We're in that time between winter and spring.

Soon it was Valentine's Day and Presidents' Day weekend. I got a morning page from Bill that two of my guests who had set out on a traverse to Eisenhower Wednesday, were missing. I worried about them all day. Wednesday hadn't seemed like a terrible day. But one night, temperatures had plummeted and anything wet froze fast… not good weather to be lost in! But they were found, safe, on Sunday.

Saturday brought some of my favorite people up. Sally, Quid and Matt came to visit. And so, for an hour, GK had 4 caretakers sitting inside! That evening caveman Bruce came, my favorite guest ever. Coming back from the Perch that evening, the Whites had a view of the best sunset I've seen this winter. The air was very clear with my snow-topped Mansfield standing out on the horizon. It was overcast with gauzy clouds hanging down, catching the red colors. The alpenglow was incredible! The best Valentine's present I've ever had.

The weekend wasn't as busy at GK as in the past, but the summits were relatively crowded. I used the semi-sunny day to get above treeline and hike after realizing that cleaning GK would not accomplish much. Sundays are usually a day to myself spent cleaning up after the weekend, but with a holiday on Monday I still had eight people that night. So I cleaned up best I could in the morning, before hiking out on another beautiful Monday.

January 26 - February 2, 2009

I hiked in on a perfectly packed trail with the sun shining through the trees. The beginning of a great week! Back to the silent and still knob.

A very exciting thing happened this week. We now have ten hour days! I remember saying good bye to 10 hours of sunlight around two months ago. But now the days are lengthening rapidly. Every day the sun rises a little earlier, climbs a little higher in the sky and sets a little later; making me feel like the luckiest caretaker in the world. I even saw the sun through one of the kitchen windows. Which means… it will soon be lighting up dark, old Gray Knob and hitting the solar panels once again. Part of me is sad though as I will miss doing rounds in the dark with snow sparkling under my headlamp and the occasional star-filled sky overhead.

This week was warmer and brought two small snow storms. The first brought around 12 inches of snow, wind-blasted into the earth on Wednesday, forming the most awesome drifts everywhere. The second mini and most gentle storm gave us a surprise 9 inches of powder Friday night. The Crag privy was buried to the roof under one huge drift. I spent my day building beautiful steps descending to its door with walls well above my head. The trail to the Perch was full of semi-solid drifts and the Perch is now mostly buried and looks like the coziest igloo. However, all this snow has raised the trails and put hiker heads up in the trees. The branch ends are losing their needles and everyone gets whacked in the face or snow dumped on them when they pass through.

All the new snow did not keep the crowds away this weekend. People started showing up Friday afternoon, breaking trail on a surprising variety of routes up. I was happy to have a group from last February and a familiar face from earlier this winter return. All those bodies warmed Gray Knob well above freezing, uncomfortably warm and humid! The ceiling was dripping and snow started melting on the floor… yuck! Oh, the benefits of living in a freezer. It's nice, not having to deal with the liquid form. Crag camp had some company when one group moved to avoid the snoring chorus upstairs. I even had two people staying at the Perch which is a rare treat.

Most everyone attempted to summit Mt. Adams but had to turn back because of poor visibility from blowing snow and the clouds. Also, the snow had not blown away and was unusually deep above treeline. Saturday night, an overdue hiker from Montreal showed up at Gray Knob after quite the ordeal. He had left Pinkham Tuesday and planned on traversing to Crag over three days. But with two broken snowshoes as well as deep and blowing snow, he lost the trail. Luckily he showed up tired, hungry and still carrying "Peter the blue bunny" on his pack. Another lesson that the White's can be dangerous, that things can easily go wrong and it's a bad idea to hike into a snow storm.

As usual, all the guests left Sunday and everything was quiet again. Sally and Quid came up to visit bringing great company and yummy, yummy brownies! I hiked out on a warm, sunny day, down to the valley where it was above freezing. I wanted a t-shirt! Winter has definitely rounded a corner. Chickadees were singing their spring song and the wind was warm.

January 12-19, 2009

No shorts for the hike in this week. I didn't even bring them or my rain gear up as it looked like a cold week. Which it was! The temperature fluctuated between -15 F to -25 F for most of this stint; the kind of cold that tries to bring everything down to its own temperature. The trees were creaking and moving stiffly in the wind. Gray Knob was snapping and cracking as the temperature dropped and the cold crept in, bringing it down to around 5-10 F. People/animals worked harder to form their own bubble of warmth. I stumbled around like a toddler in all my many layers. The GK privy mice (who I'm happy to report are still alive!) huddled together in their nest of used toilet paper. One brave boreal chickadee looked ridiculously fat with all its feather fluffed out, searching non-stop for insects to eat. I have huge respect for the animals that attempt to live through this every year and for all those arctic/Antarctic explorers I read about this week who dealt with much worse. So it wasn't terrible, I was getting used to it. If I got too cold I walked to Crag and back. Or I would run to the frigid Quay and try to stay long enough to see the view. When it got above -10 F, I was pretty content.

I spent all week scraping frost and ice off the windows in anticipation of a big drying fire. Every day I worked on the windows but there was so much moisture left over from the busy holidays that they were frosting up as I was scraping! It also took a lot of wood to get the temperature in GK back up into the 20s every evening. So I decided to wait for warmer weather to do the drying fire. Oh well, it made it easier for me to acclimate!

A couple things I noticed when GK gets this cold. Metal burns bare skin on contact. Everything is frozen and has been for a while, EXCEPT soy sauce! Pens don't work until you thaw them; licking the tip will make it stick to your tongue. When the weekend came, with a full house Friday, I watched as several guests tried to use the frozen dish soap (secret caretaker kicks).

I had a mini celebration when the temperatures went positive Sunday morning and told all my guests, several times. One of my last guests to leave reminded me why I love this job by noticing how my chores are controlled by weather. Something I take for granted now but wouldn't change for anything. I scraped windows (again) while listening to the 'We Are One' concert. Just incredibly happy that Obama will be president and that people all over are hopeful and inspired.

December 29, 2008 - January 5, 2009

I've been meaning to write about my weeks up at Gray Knob since I started, but time flies on a week on/off schedule and I procrastinate anything that feels remotely like homework. It's hard to put something coherent down on paper when my weeks of caretaking are made up of chores, hiking and stream-of-conscious thoughts. Apparently people enjoy reading the caretaker journals! So I suppose it's time to try.

I hiked up in shorts. Another amazingly warm, winter Monday… the kind I always get to start my week with. Luckily it was still cool enough to keep the snow frozen, trail solid and me from adding to the postholes. When I reached Gray Knob there were people! Unusual for a Monday, but not I suppose, for the holiday break. A few people from the night before and a group from New York City who ended up being great company the two nights they stayed. They made me appreciate what a great view of all the stars we have. Coming from NYC, the partly cloudy night was still a wonderful thing to see.

With Gray Knob fairly full, there is always the potential for a snoring chorus, people talking in their sleep and the constant trips out to pee with noisy plastic boots. One night this week Gray Knob had "screamers"! Not one but several, in a row. Someone woke up and said, "shut up!" and another, "what the…?" before everyone fell asleep again. GK is an interesting place for dreams; I've certainly had my share. But people screaming in their sleep!? Maybe it IS haunted…

New Year's Eve was looking to be a quiet night with three people and with good reason. The temperature dropped fast to -22F where it was going to stay until the following night and the winds were increasing to over 100 mph. It was the coldest, most brutal weather so far this winter. But after the sunset, finishing rounds and starting a fire two groups started trickling in. I admit they scared me. They were so spread out with the last person, on their first winter hike and an hour or two behind. They hadn't prepared for temperatures this low either and were a little disappointed to find their box of wine and beer were freezing with no chance of thawing. A few made it to midnight but most rung in the New Year around 9pm which is "hikers' midnight" and so, I think, completely justified.

Towards the end of my week I finally got above treeline. I reached Thunderstorm Junction and watched as clouds, promising snow, spilled over Franconia Ridge, creeping closer. So I cut my loop short, taking Israel Ridge Trail. On my way I was joined by a raven, stark black against all the white and winter blue, one of my few winter friends still above treeline. The clouds soon crashed into Jefferson and quickly obscured the entire ridge, bringing snow and wind. I lay in the cozy perch shelter until I was cold.

I returned to Gray Knob too soon where night's darkness comes before anywhere else and found it crowded. The wonderful, friendly Ontarians were there for a second night- the 70 year olds and their adopted Sherpa. Frequent flier Bruce also showed up and slept in his cave. A whole pile of new people were there as well and I didn't have them sorted in my mind until the next day came with daylight. No fire that night- 16 people heated the cabin better than any fire would have. I sat up on the caretaker counter space to be out of the way and to keep an eye on the entire area.

On Sunday, everyone left and the mountain was all mine once again. The sky cleared, the wind died, the temperature rose to a balmy 18F and the sun came out! I carried the rocking chair to the Quay to soak it all up. Undercast, with Franconia Ridge as an island. A simple sunset. A strong half moon casting moon shadows. I went out after radio call to see if the snowshoe hares were dancing in the moonlight yet (nope) and looked for constellations and shooting stars. A good end to a busy week.