Written by Juliane Hudson.
April 5-12, 2010
My final week caretaking at Gray Knob! Goodbyes started with the hike in. It felt just a little ridiculous switching from my crocs to mountaineering boots and then entirely awkward hiking on the rocky, muddy trail at the bottom. I was blown away by how much snow had melted during the last week. And it had just disappeared instead of turning into the usual, massive, spring ice flows. The Great Snowdrift against Gray Knob was gone and there was bare ground where warm sun and wind hits best. The time of an arctic world was quite clearly over.
The last stint of any caretaking season is always a strange one. I hike in with a mental list of things I haven't done that I had meant to, aware of the countdown of days and suddenly trying to fit it all in. Preventing regrets. This last stint was no different although the weather didn't completely cooperate. Monday through Friday blurred together into one long day of gray, misty and rainy weather with no visitors. I did take advantage of the one sunny morning to take care of all those branches that were broken by people and their backpacks, forcing their way through the treetops all March when we walked on 9 to 10 feet of snow. Amputating tree limbs and digits in a t-shirt, it was warm and the air smelled like firs and spruces. This was brushing for the trees' benefit (a clean cut at a "joint" is healthier than a torn or snapped branch) and not for hikers' comfort. Many of these branches were broken on purpose which is unfortunate as the vast majority of the time they are far above our heads. All it takes is a little patience and flexibility to push aside the branches that cross your path or to push through them. The trees and plants don't need the extra struggle to survive. The once protective blanket of snow is now frozen to the needled branches, consolidating and ripping branches off the trees on its way to the ground. It looks terrible. The torture rack for trees! And snowfields are creeping down slope, mowing buried trees down in slow motion. It must be a tough time of year for the unlucky, but summer is in sight.
That sunny afternoon, I wandered over to the Perch to update RMC on its findability. The trail is slowly emerging but the snow is still very deep over there. The Perch is also, still, extremely difficult to find, later proven by some guests who were delighted to end up at Gray Knob. I dug down to the stream in hopes of toting back liters and liters of that most delicious water, another goodbye and celebration. But after digging down several feet I could hear the... roar... of the once stream, then soon broke through and regretted it. I envisioned bad things happening; a small person could fall in and be swept down this steep mountainside under the snowpack, trapped. I was happy to step back and stay, solidly on this still-deep snow. Happy not to be there when it starts thinning and you posthole through. I didn't even bother filling my water bottles, it was snow melt anyways, not Perch water. Clouds sped in and took away all visibility, which left a dizzying world of white sky, ground and just my white tracks to follow. I walked back in a rain-sleet downpour that lasted just until I made it to GK, soaked.
Friday came around extra rainy and temperatures were expected to drop. So I spent the day inside, waiting for people to come. Looking for that first sign of movement, color and noise to come walking down the path. Those giddy, nervous moments between seeing/hearing someone and when the door opens. I was just about to give up, who would choose to hike up in the rain? But then two AMC shelters caretakers from last summer, Matt and Cuppa Joe, showed up! And then time sped way up. Cuppa Joe made the most yummy breakfast! Chess, scrabble, cards and Matt crushed me at checkers. I never would have expected it but it cleared completely Saturday afternoon. So, Matt and I walked up to Adams 4 surrounded by white rime and blue skies. Goodbye Adams.
Saturday night, co-caretaker Mike and Caitlin came up with good food and company. Caitlin is incredibly gifted at talking with caretakers who can be strange, quiet and sometimes grouchy. It was a caretaker party. And even though I was tired (it is hard switching from days of solitude to company) I absolutely loved it! So, so happy. I couldn't have asked for a better ending to the season, except to trade the rain for sunshine. Everyone slowly hiked out Sunday. They even helped hike out some of my accumulated stuff. Last round of chores and NHPR's Folk Show in front of Jotul. Final evening radio call with Sally on the working base radio thanks to Mike. I was a little sad that I couldn't say goodbye to Bill, the one constant voice every dark, solitary, cold evening. With his, "How's Gray Knob? Anybody around? I'm ready for weather. Have a good night." But it was a good night anyway.
I really can't believe another winter, another 5 months have already passed. I'm still not sure if it's 2009 or 2010. It's hard to leave and it will be so strange to not hike in next Monday or next November. I can't imagine finding another job or place I've enjoyed as much as this one. I'll have to find some other way to get my sunny, rime-covered fix next winter. I'll miss standing at the Quay, looking down at the town lights and up at the constellations. My favorite mug that goes "thunk", Jotul, Monday caretaker switches, the glow-in-the-dark stars above the caretaker bed and so much more. Wintery Gray Knob feels like my home and I'm already homesick. But it's melting away and spring has my feet itching to hike miles upon miles. Time for something different. Thanks RMC and happy 100th!
March 22-29, 2010
Well, another rainy hike in. It is spring now so I suppose that's acceptable. The week started off quiet and slow. Moving through the entire spectrum of precipitation forms. Rain, then freezing rain that left a layer of ice on everything, until it returned to rain and the ice fell from branches and slid off Gray Knob's roof in great, heavy sheets. I avoided going outside in the nasty rain. Heard something squeaking, squealing... outside? Maybe the marten had caught something? I looked outside, then inside... for a mouse? Nope, it was the ketchup bottle inhaling. Ha! Eventually, finally, the rain changed to snow and all was well again. A cold front came through and dropped the "unseasonably warm" temperatures from last week to "unusually cold" temperatures, bottoming out at just below zero. Luckily, while the temps dropped the sun also came out so it still felt springy and warmish. Just enough for each branch tip to grow an icicle. On sunny Crag's porch, I watched the new snow around me melt while plumes of snow swirled around and down the Great Gully. A dark-eyed junco showed up with his cheerful little noises! A sure sign of spring, Juncos are the most adorable, chubby birds. This one was a very handsome, dark little guy and he seemed to be staking out what he thought might turn into the best territory when the snow melts.
The other caretaker had forgotten a pint of Ben & Jerry's outside in the snow when we switched. Phish food. Of course it was completely melted, but I decided to wait and see if it would freeze again. Well, it never really did. At six degrees, one morning, I decided to open it up and see what happened. It was disgusting! The pint had expanded like a bad can of food and the top layer was all foam. The caramel and marshmallow had disappeared into the middle which was still liquidy with big ice crystals. The dead phishes lay on the bottom. Very interesting, I know, but I am getting tired of reading and listening to NPR.
Once again I headed over towards the Perch in hopes of finding it and digging it out. Which I managed to do by following the Perch water ravine down until I found a sign that is still above the snow. I'm pretty good at following obscure trails, and I've been to the Perch many times, but the ones surrounding the Perch are gone, just gone! From GK, the route is mostly an icy, steep hillside with few treetops surfacing. Nothing I will be doing without perfect visibility. It will probably be a while before anyone finds the shelter and spends the night. I miss my evening rounds! I miss achieving warm hands and feet by the time I got to the Perch and walking back, sometimes in alpenglow, carrying delicious Perch water for later. Then walking over to Crag and back as the light changed from that blue to darkness. And all the time in the dark, three or four hours until radio call. I loved sitting in front of Jotul the woodstove, watching the flames. I was able to have one fire this week; finally, it's been about a month! But it felt so, so wrong as it was still fully light out. It's like summer, there is so much daylight now. I will have to give up my 11 hours of sleep soon, time to end the semi-hibernation.
It seems like every week there is someone who has said they may hike in for a bit to keep me company. And every week I believe this and look forward to it so much, which is either really gullible or overly optimistic of me because it never happens. Especially lately, where sitting in the sun outside GK with a friend would be the greatest treat in the world. So Friday through Sunday I am reluctant to go anywhere for long, unwilling to miss a potential visit. Well, this week someone finally did! Justin, my Adirondack friend, and his new dog Colvin. I discovered this late on Sunday when there was a RESCUE going on! What!? Two things that I have been waiting for forever happened at once. This Sunday was possibly the most exciting evening of my caretaking life.
A hiker wearing micro spikes fell near Thunderstorm Junction and slid down the Great Gully. It was too icy and steep for his micro spikes. He was stuck and needed to be rescued. I was asked to check Crag Camp for his friend and then hike up Spur Trail to try and see where the hiker was in the ravine. No luck. After dark, former camps chair, Al made it up ahead of the Fish and Game for the search and rescue. So I hiked back up Spur with Al and Justin to potentially help the hiker climb back up to the rim. The conditions weren't great above treeline as weather was coming in and the winds were driving the icy snow in our faces. We headed back down, making a pretty good guess at finding the trail again in the snow and dark. It turned out that the hiker had slid 1500 feet down into the ravine and was just a little scraped up. Needless to say he was incredibly lucky he didn't hit a rock or tree as he slid down. A group of rescuers climbed up from the bottom and helped him out. I'm glad everything ended up well and now I can say I had such a good time! It also reinforced the fact that you DO need real crampons and an ice ax right now. It may seem silly as you hike up from the valley which has little snow. But GK still has 9 feet on the ground, the trails are not grown in, you are just hiking on that much snow! Conditions are icy and areas that are normally in the trees, like the hike to the Perch, are just smooth icy slopes that get steeper below you. So, one slip and you could be sliding and sliding... and potentially end up hurt. Usually I don't carry an ice ax but there are a few areas that I do now!
Well, another week at Gray Knob ends. I only have one left.
March 8-15, 2010
There are at least two parts to winter. The first is all about building up the snow pack, daylight is shortening and it is cold, cold and the bitter wind brings tears to your eyes. It's a beautiful time of year and everything sparkles. When the clouds move out, it seems more clear and pure. However, it feels a little hostile and you wonder how cold will it get and how long will it last? But now we are well into the second half of winter. We've been getting sunny days more than once a week which seems over the top, unnecessary, a luxury. The sun spends an increasing amount of time in the sky (it has already passed the 12 hour mark!) and arcs higher. Once again, it hits Gray Knob and the surrounding area, melting the tree's snow into icicles that hang off the bottoms and tips of branches. The wind is warmer and gentler. Spring, spring, spring. The sun is winning the yearly battle over the frost. No more scraping windows! In fact, it was above freezing inside GK all week! I'm reminding myself that snow does melt, spilled water doesn't always turn to ice and that it's all okay. All this warmth releases smells into the once sterile air. The balsam firs and spruces are relaxing and smell sweet, the privy is slowly releasing its powerful smell, meat and frozen veggies no longer keep indefinitely inside... and I hung my sleeping bag outside so for one night it smelled like sunshine.
People took advantage of this beautiful March weather with a few staying every night and the locals heading above tree line for the day. After tearing myself from Crag's dry, sunny porch, I hiked up Adams for the first time in forever. Stood on Adams 4 and watched the tiny people inch their way along the trails between Madison and Adams. Distance is strange on the summits; people seem far away but sound close at the same time. The sky was absolutely cloudless and foreign. The snow pack was perfect for swiss-bobbing. Ha, ha... I took it off my pack and sped down off Adams to Thunderstorm junction. Making turns and spraying snow into my face, enjoying the treeless freedom. Then several runs down Sam Adams, zigzagging my way back to Adams 4 where I made run after run down that steep slope. And finally, one long and bumpy ride down Lowe's path back to Gray Knob. All so much fun I did it all again the next day!
Of course I didn't just play. I also took advantage of the clear weather to search for the Perch. The other caretaker's tracks were mostly gone and I only noticed the faint line of them after struggling around in the trees, several hundred feet too high, for an hour. The Perch was mostly buried with just the tip of the roof's peak visible. I returned later with a shovel and cut some very nice steps down to the entrance of the shelter and privy. Works of art, really. And I prevented a disaster within the privy. Turns out the Perch had been fairly busy this winter and the frozen "cone" of poo had built up almost to the seat... not good. More shoveling snow and banging with a 2 by 4 and it's all fixed. The Perch was perfectly ready for anyone to find it, though Sunday's storm probably buried it all once again.
The change in weather also brings a change in the type of guests that show up. Younger, more first time guests and fewer of the experienced winter hikers who have been coming for years. It's a good time of year to see if you may like winter hiking. All good to see though I have a hard time, now, commiserating over how "cold" or "windy" it is. I can't help thinking and sometimes saying, if only they had seen it before! How lucky they are and that this sun really is something special. There also seemed to be a problem this week with groups smoking marijuana inside. By a "problem" I mean there were two groups, which is two more than I had all winter. I'm not sure why anyone would think that it's okay to smoke anything inside a public space. With an abundance of outdoor space, it's extremely disrespectful. If anyone shows up who doesn't like the smell, the secondhand smoke, is asthmatic, young, etc. they can't stay there! And that's exactly what happened. It all turned out fine. I'm just surprised I had to ask them to smoke outside.
A few things that brightened my week. Two women who stayed, a dad and his son and the marten that came by. There was also a peak bagger who stopped in with blood on his face from a collision with a tree. He impressed a few people as he blew by on his way to Jefferson saying, "It's not as bad as it looks!" The weekend guests had lots to boast about at home. Another storm blowing from the southeast arrived and tore down the mountain sides, hitting Gray Knob hard. People were knocked over at the Quay, their hike up Adams became a struggle and sleeping was difficult with the cabin shaking and the radio antenna vibrating like a guitar string. They all headed down before the snow started. Sunday snowed a wet, wind-packed 16ish inches. With no one else to break trail I had to leave my swiss-bob at GK and actually hike out.
February 22 - March 1, 2010
Monday was warm enough I hiked up in shorts. It felt so good! Lowe's path broke out above the clouds at the Quay and you could feel the sun's warmth. Everything was coated in snow and rime. That strange, winter world I love so much with all the crusty formations. It absolutely glowed in the sun with clouds slowly churning at my feet while I stood at the Quay. Like standing at an ocean shore. A half moon was directly above in the blue sky. I shared this with three other people that night who were lucky enough to enjoy that sole sunny day of the week. The day before a most epic and wild mountain storm!
First, the wind came from behind Adams and Jefferson, gusting down the mountain's side. Smooth clouds spilled over with this wind, closing in from the north and the southwest, slowly, slowly. So slowly I thought this "storm" was shaping up to be a disappointment. The next day, the beautiful coating of rime, snow and ice came crashing down in chunks as the wind whipped the trees around. From inside GK you could assume the sky was falling. The trees, no doubt, were thinking, "here we go again..." and strove to be flexible. New snow flew around in the air, casually accumulating wherever the wind would allow it. Going outside, even just to pee, was an unfortunate adventure. And after I ran out of indoor jobs to do, I gave in and read in my sleeping bag. That is, when I wasn't watching the snow accumulate, building up to GK's windows. Mid week storms can feel very lonely. Usually no one shows up and the wind erased my tracks to Crag right away. There was no outside evidence of my being there.
The storm crescendoed up to a night of shrieking winds that shook GK. A peak gust of 132 mph was recorded on Mt. Washington. The first story windows were mostly buried, darkening the inside. But that snow also felt cozy and those loud winds sounded further away. Three days of hiding in my sleeping bag until the storm settled enough to get three days of shoveling done. Just in time for some very surprised guests to show up.
Crag's privy is inevitably buried beneath a drift at some point each winter. Wind picks up snow from around Crag and King Ravine and then dumps it directly on the path leading down to the privy. This time, the roof wasn't even visible. There was a solid drift that I walked up on, standing at the level of Crag's roof. It was magnificent! A drift you could hollow out and live in comfortably. I had visions of a most spectacular tunnel leading to the privy's door. A tunnel so tall no one would need to duck or bend their backs. It would last well into spring. And I would have satisfied the dream of 7 year-old-me. I got to work quickly. But the caretaker-me quickly realized how unpractical that was. It would take several days and, well, people will actually need to use the privy. Instead, I dug a pit straight down past the roof, to the bottom of the door. That was no small feat, it bordered on impossible to toss the snow out and over the walls. But however inconvenient a 12 foot deep pit is to get in and out of, at least the door opened and guests could get in. The next day I dug the canyon leading down to the privy. This wind driven snow had to be chopped out in chunks. Heavy and solid, so steps formed nicely. The canyon was also very deep and I ended up shoveling these chunks up to the entrance. Completed, it is beautiful. At least I think so. I also dug a spiral staircase down to where I finally found the still running spring.
It snowed steadily over the weekend, leaving a layer of powder over everything and bringing the snow stake up to 113 inches! It seems all of my (our?) wishing for snow had built up over the weeks and months and just dumped it all on us at once. When I first walked out to Crag and the Quay after the storm slowed down, it felt like I was on stilts. To suddenly be so much higher in the trees, it was like I needed to balance or fall down to a more normal height. Our feet were where our heads used to be. Signs were at your toes, if visible. And the poor trailside trees will be getting a beating as hikers crash through their branches. It already showed after a very busy weekend. I had hoped to make it to the Perch to see if it still existed. But there was absolutely no sign of the Gray Knob trail. Just one steep, completely smooth and snow-filled hillside with tree tips poking through. Not wanting to get lost or prove that avalanches have and can occur there, I quickly gave up. Besides a few guests reported hearing rumblings when they went up Adams... avalanches? I suppose if there were to be any, now would be the time.
This week was very exciting and made me a very happy, if tired, winter caretaker. I have no idea if this was an unusual storm for Gray Knob. But it was for me. It's going to be hard to make that last hike out for the valley, where weather is boring in comparison. I just hope it all keeps for my next week! It won't stay too long. Spring is most definitely here. Spring doesn't start March 21st or when the last snow melts. If you wait until then to enjoy and notice the end of winter then you are too late, you've missed so much already. This felt like a warm, spring storm. The birds in the valley are singing their spring songs and the sun is so warm. We're already back up over 11 hour days and, very exciting, I spotted a chickadee up at Gray Knob.
February 8-15, 2010
Spring seems to be on the wind. Frost heaves are bubbling up on valley roads, Gray Knob's door is closing only with the most special of swings and the sun is hitting the solar panels once again. There were two mostly sunny days that melted snow on tree branches, leaving patches of coniferous green and icicles on branch tips. All the alpine plants, Balsam firs and Spruces are ready for these moments, all prepared to photosynthesize the moment sunshine can and does hit them. I should have gone hiking but was doing the same. Sitting in the warm sun, incapable of moving. Crag's porch gathers the heat and melts snow even during a day in the teens. GK's "front yard" is another good spot and the Quay, on those rare calm days, is the best. That was the treat of the week. Sitting in the rocking chair at the Quay, watching the sun set behind some clouds. For those that don't know what the Quay is, it's the first taste of getting above treeline on your way up Lowe's path. It is also a two minute walk from GK. On a perfect day you can look out over the towns of Jefferson and Randolph, all the way to the spine of the friendly, Green Mountains. You can see southwest to the ridges surrounding the Pemigewassett and nearby to Jefferson with its castellated ridge. During December and January the sun sets behind Franconia Ridge, seeming very far away, but now it is creeping up the Green's towards Mansfield where it will set in May. It's always good to walk to the Quay. If you are cold, walk to the Quay. If you're bored, looking at stars, going to bed, waking up, looking for the sunset and alpenglow, etc, walk to the Quay. Watch the weather change there, feel out the conditions for a hike up Adams, listen for people arriving, look at new rime ice... get frostbite. The Quay is never boring.
However, this week was kind of boring. Still no significant snow, just a dusting every day. I listened to NPR talk about the feet that the Mid Atlantic got and the snow that fell on the South. Actually I turned the radio off every time they started a story about the "blizzard", couldn't handle it. None of these places were really prepared or, I'm guessing, really wanted all this snow. But I do! New England needs it! That snow was ours and they should give it back! Ugh, El Nino. Maybe March will be a real lion and dump several feet on us.
I started to wonder if the normally busy President's Day weekend would come up short when I didn't see anyone until Saturday. But it didn't. With the warm weather, people absolutely filled the Perch and both camps had pretty good crowds through Monday. A few familiar faces showed up. A well prepared boy scout troop made it in late after getting lost, luckily they were fine. There were many people attempting to start a traverse of the Presidentials from GK, Crag or the Perch. Unfortunately the weather did not cooperate. The combination of snow blowing in the 60-80 mph winds and thick clouds limited visibility to roughly 50 feet up there. There were no emergencies that I know of, so either they all bailed or managed to make it. Everyone started clearing out Monday morning but I beat them down on my swiss-bob. Excellent conditions, I never crashed. A Happy Valentine's Day to the marten, Gray Knob, the Perch, the Quay and all people too!
January 25 - February 1, 2010
Well, the hike in to Gray Knob this week was a memorable, absolutely horrible one. I should have paid more attention to the forecast and hiked in Sunday. Oops. I waited as late as I could, watching the wind push the forest around and the rain fall in buckets before I finally started up in the afternoon. The hills were roaring in the wind and branches were down all over the road and trails. Snowshoes were necessary on the rotten snow and it was warm enough that I sacrificed the single, light layer I wore to the rain. Which worked well enough until the log cabin where the trail gets too steep to keep a warm, hiking pace going. The flexible balsam firs were swaying around impressively, though none fell. As I reached the Quay, the rain changed to sleet which hurt when it flew in my face with the 60 mph gusts. I've never been so happy to reach GK and shake off the slowing edge of hypothermia. Winter rain is the worst, especially with high winds. GK lost about 30 inches of snow and received over 3 inches of rain on Monday. Of course the temperature dropped that night and the rain soaked world froze solid like a rock, including my hiking clothes, pack and boots.
It didn't snow much, there weren't many chores to do and the weather wasn't good for hiking. All NPR wanted to talk about was the State of the Union address... guessing what Obama would say and criticizing it, then, later, what he did say and picking it apart. I resorted to talking to my inanimate friends the Quay, King Ravine, and the Perch. The temperature plummeted later in the week and I wondered if anyone would brave the sub-zero, windy weekend weather. Well, they did! A few excellent guests saved my sanity with stories and jokes. One who stayed at the Perch two weeks ago and, I'm happy to hear, understands the deliciousness of Perch water. A group of engineers showed up after dark, tired from an accidental bushwhack. Saturday was sunny, though cold, and they all left for various hiking plans. But the most amazing thing happened! The sun finally cleared the hill enough to come in GK's windows! After roughly 2 months of GK sitting in this hill's dark, cold shadow there were patches of sunlight inside. We have also reached 10 hour days again. Spring is not too far away. I think only another winter caretaker could fully appreciate this instead of finding it funny. I also took the rocking chair out to sit in the sun. With no wind and temperatures reaching zero again I could feel the sun warming my down layers. Snow melted on my pack boots! It felt warmer than the humid, dark 10 degrees inside GK. Later I followed the sun over to Crag's porch.
Saturday night everyone circled around the woodstove once I started the fire. The use of the stove is definitely the most hoped for, questioned and criticized part of GK. If it is above freezing and too warm to start a fire people are disappointed, some even resort to bribes. But when the temperature drops to 10 inside GK and a fire is more than justified, people suddenly think you are the "best caretaker ever" even if it doesn't make it up to 30 degrees. Besides being warm people seem to love seeing the glow through Jotul's windowed-door. I have to agree, I could spend every evening watching the orange-red glow. Usually, everyone gathers around the stove to be near the warmth and they start talking to each other instead of huddling in all their separate little groups. It's good to see and good to just sit and listen to.
Sunday was shockingly busy with 13 people. Several groups showed up planning to take advantage of a normal quiet Sunday. Former camps chair, Al, showed up with a few friends. Also, Will, the 2003 winter caretaker stayed with friends and Flemmings his expedition down suit that I am very jealous of. He shared many stories and the excitement of when sunlight first comes through GK's windows. Caretakers are always the best guests. Sally and happy, frost-covered Quid, hiked in for a visit before flying down the mountain on her swiss-bob.
I didn't really know what to do with this busy Sunday. Usually, I spend it cleaning and getting it all ready for the other caretaker. I just did the best I could, scraping ice and cleaning empty Crag. There was a dead mouse in Crag's gray water bucket in only a half inch of water, making me wonder if it drowned or froze first. Monday morning I said goodbye to everyone and slid down on my swiss-bob, trying not to fly out of control on the fast, icy trails.
January 11-18, 2010
This week is what we missed out on last winter up at Gray Knob; the January thaw that you can usually count on. The event that makes winter-haters very happy and some of us anxious and wondering how much snow will be left when the cold returns. Unfortunately, no amount of willing the snow not to melt or temperatures not to rise actually makes a difference. I've tried very hard, all my life. Well, it was actually a lovely thaw up on Mt. Adams since it never got above freezing. The temperature just settled in the 20s and the snow pack consolidated. The rime and snow from the last storm mostly stayed frozen to needles and branches. So the winter wonderland survives so far. On top of that we had three sunny days, two of them with winds low enough to enjoy the alpine zone! Such luxury! These are the days to live for.
Sunny day number one began with beautiful, sunrise alpine glow on surrounding peaks and the strange, spaceship clouds (lenticular?) that hovered over Jefferson and Franconia Ridge. A pink sky and smooth, orange clouds. I spent the day catching up on chores, like scraping windows. The frost builds and builds on itself until patterns appear. Sometimes it looks like fur, other times hexagonal shapes grow like a city of sky scrapers off the window surface. All of this is from the moisture of people breathing, sweating and cooking and needs to go outside before it gets a chance to melt, soak in and rot GK. But I took lots of breaks to run to the Quay and check on the wild changes in the sky. Watching as the sun hit the towering spires of snow-coated trees, making them glow against the blue. A dark, smooth cloud stayed over Jefferson contrasting the peak which glowed blue-white in its shadow. After rounds, I watched the lights of Berlin slowly blink on as the stars did the same. It was almost impossible to find constellations since they were drowned out by stars you don't normally see except for these very dark and clear nights.
Sunny day number two I hiked and had Adams and Madison to myself. After a very quiet week, I went out to chop wood on Saturday and 15 people showed up! Gray Knob was full, Crag was busy and the Perch even had a few staying in anticipation of a warm Sunday and sunny day number three. Some great company as well. The two from the Perch came over before the crowds arrived. They brought two gifts: chocolate and their sense of humor. It felt so good to laugh at someone besides myself. Later, we hung out on top of the Perch. Not many people stay at the Perch in the winter, but they are almost guaranteed to be interesting. Gray Knob was full of guests who I have met several times before. And there was a former RMC trail crew member staying at Crag. One of those kinds of people who are so excited about life that they pass it on to everyone around. He was also walking around eating dry oatmeal out of the packet...ew.
All these people, along with the weekend day hikers converged on Adams and Madison during that very sunny day. The summits were all in the clear and sparkling white while the undercast clouds crept north. Washington stalled them and the clouds crashed up on the mountain's side like waves against a steep, rocky shore, though in slow motion. The smooth layer swirled over and around the Carter-Moriah range, slowly filling in. As I headed down, the clouds had already crept up like the tide and I found Gray Knob back in the fog. I think, generally, the undercast layer is caused by a temperature inversion. This inversion also traps everything that normally rises into the atmosphere... like snowmobile exhaust. It is that time of year. Now, you can always hear the whining and revving snowmobile engines in the valley. I'm sure they are having a good time but I wonder if they realize how loud and smelly their fun is. The exhaust soaks into the snow and settles in the air. It's overpowering when you walk across their trails. As the undercast layer of clouds rose, it brought with it this smell all the way up the mountain. Disgusting.
Everyone left except four, the Langone's and Woodstien's (yes, they hoped to see their names written here). It's the third year I've seen them up at GK and they are always good for lots of stories. And they always leave me wanting to explore Baxter State Park and return to my home mountain, Mansfield. I can also count on them to act as assistant caretakers while I'm on rounds, answering questions, sweeping up snow and, last year, helping a hiker who came in and been lost for several days. We got a few inches of snow overnight, slightly covering the warm weather rime ice that was feathered so fine, light and airy. Perfect conditions for swiss-bobbing down Lowe's Path. I didn't even hit anything this time.
December 28, 2009 - January 4, 2010
This week was just a blur of people. It seems that the quiet period of early winter may be over with this holiday week! A very good thing for RMC, although I missed the massive amounts of solitude. On one hand, sub-zero days are much more enjoyable with company, but on the other, there is the loss of Jack London's crushing "White Silence" that I kind of enjoy. There were even guests on Monday. I caught up to a few on my hike in and had an extra speedy time to Gray Knob, determined not to be passed. Not used to having company my first night, I found myself doing a few chores to keep everything running well and everyone happy. The mix of snow and rain had left a thick, solid crust everywhere. Over at Crag Camp the door facing King Ravine was frozen shut. No amount of throwing myself against it would open the door. Rain had leaked in and frozen all over the floor. The snow had drifted against the privy about four feet deep and solid enough to need a mattock. (... And so it begins, the struggle to keep an entrance to Crag's privy). As it was getting dark I finished up a set of lovely, solid steps descending to the door and hiked back to GK. Snow sparkling where ever my headlamp hit.
The weather wasn't great for the first half of the week. Just the usual for winter in the Whites with high winds and cold temps. Rounds to the Perch were interesting with a layer of powder over the hard crust. My snowshoes normally have excellent grip but just weren't cutting it on the side slope. As I started up one steep section I kept getting part way up, then sliding down farther and farther into the trees, saying, "nooo!". I turned around and found I had an audience watching from the Quay. The moon was waxing to a blue moon on New Year's Eve and it shone through the clouds with such strength it was like the sun never really set completely. One clear night there was a perfect ring around the moon. I kept going outside, stomping back and forth between GK and the Quay, taking pictures and trying to burn the beautiful sight in my memory. Another evening, there was a group of French Canadians who could play the guitar and sing really, really, well! I mean REALLY well.
New Year's Eve turned out to be a good night. A few members of RMC's trail crew came up as well as another gifted guitar player and this past summer's GK caretaker. The "two fools" who stayed in Crag last year when it was -20 were back, though in GK this time. In all, there were 12 staying and most made a moonlit hike up or partway up Adams, keeping an eye on visibility with the thickening clouds and snow. It was so bright, the wind was extremely calm and warm at 20ish degrees. A perfect night to sit outside. Everyone stayed up way past hiker's midnight and were mostly in bed around 11. I gave up at 11:30, toasted the new year with some Perch water and went to sleep.
Over the weekend a storm dumped 29 inches of the lightest powder! The flakes coming down weren't the usual single plane. It looked like snowflake collisions had stuck together on their way through the sky creating a snowpack full of air. The hurricane force winds somehow missed us and the snow all stayed where it fell creating huge pillows in the trees and generally burying everything. The quay, normally windswept, had disappeared under the layer as well. I struggled my way around shoveling things clear to finish up chores for the week. The one guest at Crag had done all the shoveling already, which was very nice, but I was disappointed. I, um, love shoveling. All the floors, counters, doors and a few windows got one more scraping to free them of ice for the start of the next week. I finally found myself alone Sunday night listening to the snow settle (yes I could hear it!) as I went to sleep. The next day I broke trail down Lowe's Path, floating/skiing down the steep part, trying not to fall on my face whenever my snowshoes caught on something... rock, crust? And occasionally lifting my feet high to make sure snowshoes were still attached. Another great week up at Gray Knob gone by; always unique among the rest.
December 14-21, 2009
This week was a very simple week. There were not many guests and I didn't go on any great hikes, both probably because of the weather. There were high winds and frigid temperatures most of the week. At the start of this winter caretaking season I did worry a little that I would find myself bored with this area, stay in my sleeping bag, dread the cold and find myself a burnt out, bad caretaker. But there are no worries now! I am still finding the magic in Gray Knob and this strange winter life.
The Monday hike up Lowe's Path, I followed a pair of fox tracks the entire way. The snow was warm and just right for detailed prints. As usual, there were waddling spruce grouse tracks around the Log Cabin, including a perfect imprint of flight feathers where one burst from the ground. Fisher tracks with their long claws wandered around the woods and eventually gave way to softer marten tracks higher up the mountain. That night the temperatures dropped 30 degrees and so ended my tracking fun as animals found their places to wait out the cold.
This week brought two nights around -20 and the days nearly reached zero. In the evenings Jotul, Gray Knob's trusty woodstove, kept me company and brought the indoor temperature almost up to a very comfortable 30. I'm not normally obsessed with numbers but these become very important as it gets colder. A few degrees are very noticeable. There IS a difference between 20 and 25! Below freezing, I try to keep all batteries I use within my personal bubble of warmth. Oil solidifies. Once below 25, holding a pen or fork is uncomfortable on bare skin. Under 20 degrees, I transform into michelin girl! Piling on all layers, so many layers I can barely bend enough to sit and can't look down at my feet. It makes me laugh. The cold becomes very aggressive. You can soon feel it leaking into your cup of tea. Don't take too long drinking it as it will soon freeze. I have found nothing that keeps the cold from creeping through the soles of my boots into my feet. At ten degrees I can only force shavings off a block of cheese. When I run out of chores to keep me warm I walk back and forth between GK, the Quay and Crag Camp and pace circles around the stove, singing and feeling a little crazy. On one of the 5 minute, warming walks to the Quay I got frostbite on my face, oops! I suppose the Washington Observatory is serious about those wind chill warnings. I waddled quickly back to the refuge of an 8 degree GK. Ha, ha, what ridiculousness that an 8 degree cabin would be a place to warm up.
The night that the temperature slid for the week, GK kept me awake snapping and cracking as it froze deep. I thought about how my sleeping bag was possibly the only pod of warmth on the mountain besides any animals (how do they survive?). I dreaded getting up in the morning. But that day it finally happened! That moment of understanding, of knowing that despite the cold we have this amazing body that can keep itself warm! Just layer up, keep moving so warmed blood circulates and you can be comfortable at -20. I found, again, the confidence that once cold, I can warm myself. Happiness is attached to warmth.
When it's this cold, it is purely and brutally beautiful! The air is so clear and everything sparkles with frost. There is a deep sense of solitude as trees hardly move, animals are mostly hiding and most "sane" people don't venture out. The snow is dry and drifted over my tracks quickly. It can all be a little intimidating, like I don't even have my own company. The world is completely white as snow freezes to everything. There is nothing so beautiful as frozen, snowy firs against a blue sky. And oh, the light! There is so little of it this time of year, 9 hours and 3 minutes. But it is such precious, quality light. The sun rises late enough that on clear days I can catch the alpenglow on Jefferson, Franconia Ridge and the Pilot-Pliny range after the morning weather forecast. All this snow catches the sunlight and everything glows pure, blinding white or golden, buttery yellow depending. The sun sets and after those blazing colors, there is a wonderful blue period before the dark. If there IS darkness! When the moon is out it casts moon shadows that snowshoe hares and mice dance in when no one is looking. And on cloudless nights the stars shine. Maybe it is having less that makes it so beautiful, or maybe it is just plain beautiful.
I did get a little weekend company. Bill and the Randolph carolers sang "We Wish You a Merry Christmas " during evening radio call. Sally and Quid came up to hike and talk which always makes my day. A few guests stayed each night and fully appreciated the woodstove's warmth. I had the rare treat of the company of two Montreal women. It's true, there are women who enjoy hiking in winter, they do exist! Talking with them was certainly worth giving up my normal, relaxing Sunday evening of NHPR's Folk Show. On the first official day of winter I packed up and sped down to the valley on my Swiss-bob, the most amazing, if sometimes terrifying, invention ever! Why hike down when you can sled? I only hit a few trees I'm learning and am not very good at steering yet.
November 30 - December 7, 2009
The Monday hike in was not looking fun. It wasn't just raining, it was absolutely pouring. Pouring on the lovely pack of snow that had built up on my week off and turning it to slushy-nastiness. Normally I love hiking in the rain, but not when everything is guaranteed to freeze before reaching 4370 feet at Gray Knob. The arrival of winter weather at GK also meant it was time to pack snowshoes, crampons, gaiters and to wear my plastic boots. I was also moping because one of my university friends was sick and had to cancel her plans to meet me up there. While caretaking I get to meet a lot of wonderful people but I'm always craving the comfortable company of friends. So I had just crashed from the dizzying excitement of a friend visiting. Being so removed from friends and family is one of the downsides of this job that I love. I have a hard time imagining anything else, or living a life separate from the outdoors. I love having the seemingly endless time to think past, present and future through. It leaves me with a deeper understanding of everything and an ability to find entertainment in the tiniest little thing. I'm also given the time to think about everyone I know or have known. If I had a cell phone I would probably call them all and share the wonderful things I think of them. Maybe that's strange and a good thing I don't have one.
The hike in wasn't actually so terrible! The rain quickly changed to snow and I was overjoyed to find 30 inches up at my winter home. I snowshoed around with a grin, staring at all the snow-filled balsam firs and spruces. Snow is like a second source of light, a very valuable thing when there is so much darkness this time of year. The Quay sign was almost buried! A wintery heaven. The marten seemed to share my enthusiasm. His/her tracks zigzagged all over and even climbed up on a favorite view point of mine between the two camps.
A week off feels like such a long time to be away. I have to reorient myself and reacclimatize to the cold. Indoor temperature is 33, outside it is 20, tomorrow's weather looks like a hiking day, day light down to 9 hr 21 min, sunset at 4:12, read co-caretaker's note, look for any changes, unpack and I am home. This time of year is usually very quiet, so I settled in for a week of solitude and silence. But it was not so! There were one to three people all week despite the strange weather, all looking to escape from work pressures. First Mike and his dog, Charlotte, showed up, informing me of how prepared they were (in comparison to some previous guests he'd heard about). Look! I'm not wearing jeans or cotton. I have snowshoes. I turned my cell phone off. He even brought caretaker gifts: newspaper and fudge. His mini-story was night skiing with friends in the Tetons. Charlotte was a very happy dog with all the hiking. She even tried to sneak off, above treeline, with another hiker. Then Louis (??) from Montreal showed up on rainy, disgusting Thursday. Sloshing through streams turned to rivers with melt water and post holing through the disintegrating snow. Maybe it wasn't that bad, but it seemed to be that kind of day and I was shocked to see him. I got mini-stories from him about mountaineering and trekking in Mongolia. All "mini-stories" because, I'm sure, they are only tips of icebergs. Some of the most interesting people with great stories are modest and keep their mouths shut. They seem to prefer to listen. So it is like mining for gold. Finding ways to remind or encourage these people to share their adventures. Some have a talent for this mining; I'm working on it.
Saturday, I met many of the guests for the night as we crossed paths. I was hiking down Lowe's clearing blowdowns as I went. I felt a little ridiculous doing trail work in my new (that's right new! I bought something new!) shell pants and plastic boots. It seemed even stranger as the snow and ice gave way to muddy trails. I took out one more blowdown and one more and just one more until it was getting late and I had to hurry up the Randolph path to start rounds as daylight faded to blue snow, then gave way to darkness as I reached Crag Camp. It was a relatively busy night at both camps. But they all cleared out the next morning. It was the normal relaxing Sunday of cleaning camps and getting ready to hike down to the valley.
November 16-23, 2009
It seems like here in the Whites, October was just a big tease of an early winter and November took it back and has given us the summer we never had. Although I love winter and want lots and lots of snow right now, I really did enjoy this last stint at Gray Knob. For most of the week, there was quite the nighttime temperature inversion with Mt. Washington 20 degrees warmer than the valley and GK somewhere in between. This also meant that occasionally the view from the Quay showed an under cast world. A little ocean of clouds lapping at the shores of the Presidential, Pemigewasset and Pilot Pliny islands. I definitely reveled in the unusual idea that the valley was colder and in the clouds (ha, ha) and tried to forget that Washington, of all places, was warmer than GK. And it was absolutely clear and sunny for three whole days, in a row! And the night was incredibly dark with no moon, so every possible star was shining. Three perfect nights of stargazing. I found my constellation friends the big and little dipper, cassiopeia and draco. Then worked on learning the constellations that weren't out last winter and kept an eye out for shooting stars as the Leonid Meteor shower was at its peak. I only saw four. But who cares! I get to just sit and stare at stars. And I do! I do! These are the dark nights when I follow around the pool of light from my headlamp, forget, and then notice that there is a sky above filled with infinite points of light. Of course, this is not the normal GK night. Quite often we are in the clouds, or the wind and the cold burns through all your down and you are limited to however long you can take it. That is why these three nights were such a treat.
The sunny, warm weather meant the trails were mostly clear of ice, so I took the chance to hike a few that are otherwise too difficult. Well, first I hiked in the first propane refill of the season. Always a fun time . It's not the heaviest thing to carry up, maybe 45-50 pounds including the packboard. I love packboards, but not on my back. They have no hip belt (my strength is not in my shoulders) and you hold the bottom as you hike (no hiking poles). But it's done and the next one is co-caretaker Mike's.
So, my fall-time hiking adventure! I hiked over to the Madison Col, by Star Lake and took the Buttress Trail, which goes down into the Madison Gulf, behind Adams and into Jefferson Gulf. It seemed hot and dry on that side of the ridge, maybe because the sun hits it perfectly all morning. That soon won't be the case as the wind blows the ridge's snow on this side all winter. I then took the Six Husbands Trail up to Jefferson's Knees. All the good things I have heard about this trail were true! It was so much fun a crazy, steep trail with ladders, house-sized boulders to crawl around, over and under, and some difficult scrambles. I loved it. And Jefferson's Knee was as good a perch in the mountains as I imagined. As always, I picked up trash along the way. I was happy to find there wasn't much but I did find a pair of frozen jeans part way up Six Husbands. Then I followed the familiar route through Edmands Col and by the Perch to start wobbling my way through rounds.
The next day, despite sore feet, I headed above treeline to enjoy the last sunny day before Friday's rain. Being such a calm day, I sat around on Adams and then Jefferson. On both summits, I picked up a bunch of bar wrappers and peels from multiple oranges, some old and desiccated, others fresh and rotting (ew, welcome to being a caretaker). I'm sure I looked crazy, crawling around and looking in between all the summit boulders where trash hides, my hair that had escaped my braid whipping around in the wind. I stopped over at Monticello's Lawn to enjoy the sound of wind through the golden "lawn". It made me think about mammoths, saber-toothed tigers. Mare's tail clouds were blowing in, a prediction of Friday's rain. Then I danced back to Gray Knob via the Perch, from rock to rock, flailing and contorting to keep fluid balance on these none-to-stable rock tips.
It did rain Friday, all day, and I cleaned GK and Crag Camp. Saturday brought people, good company! Most people are still staying at Crag Camp. I suppose it is not yet cold enough to trade Crag's great views for GK's woodstove and cozy, darkness. A group from Boston kindly invited me to play scrabble so the night passed quickly. Bruce was back, though caveless with no snow. I spent Sunday brushing on the Randolph Path up by Ed. Col. Everything was covered in ice and an inch of rime, which absolutely glowed in the sun. That evening brought another familiar face from last New Year's Eve who was one of the few I did not worry about that frigid holiday. So ended one of my most perfect stints. Beautiful weather, good hiking and company. On my way out Monday morning, I got to clear a blowdown from the trail. Axes are fun.
November 2-9, 2009
Well, I'm back for another winter! Of all the places I've worked as a caretaker, Gray Knob is the one that stays interesting and feels most like home to me. There are so many options for hiking and what can be better than the northern Presidentials in winter? I'm excited for another chance to experience winter at 4,370 feet.
I made two trips in. One with my down and fluffy, warm layers, another with food and other gear. Hiked up Amphibrach, Spur and finally, Hincks to the lovely GK. My memories of this route were of difficult, snow covered and icy trails. It amazed me how much easier the hike up was on bare ground. Steep sections that I used to dread were unexpectedly easy! And GK was so warm thawing my frozen veggies. This first week was spent settling in and getting ready for the winter freeze. Looking for that lid that fits the cast iron pan so perfectly, the window scraper, still wondering where the cooler chest is . The lantern works as well as it did last year so evenings were dark until I heard that Crag had a new one. Moving poo around under the privy so there will be room for the inevitable frozen build up. I reintroduced myself to the privy mice; they've started a nest of used TP already. Split some wood and picked up tiny bits of trash where ever I went.
I was disappointed to find a mass of trash just off the trail between the two cabins. It looked like some people had camped there (illegal). The area was trampled and garbage was semi buried under moss and tucked behind boulders. This was beyond the usual dropped wrapper corner, apple sticker or (gross!) cigarette butt. There was even a full, sealed bag of food! I don't understand. Whether people burn or just leave their trash behind it is so light, and town is not far away! How hard is it to carry your own mess out with you? Don't they see how wrong it is not to? The good old "what if everyone did that?" applies to just about everything in the woods. And I know that this place is loved by so many. Loved for its beauty, wildness and history, old and yet to be made. So leaving behind trash like this is not only bad for the environment but insulting to other people too. Not everyone understands or accepts the (obvious to me) Leave-no-Trace ethics yet. This is one reason why there are caretakers. So I am happy to at least have this trash cleaned up before the snow temporarily hides it. And happy to remember the people I have met that do pack out their trash and other's that they find. It is only getting better as more people understand.
Just like a year ago, a moose came up Spur trail. Maybe the same one? There were also mice, snowshoe hare and marten tracks everywhere. I saw some tracks I've never seen before. They were too furry to clearly see any foot pads and fairly large. Whatever it was, it walked in a line like a dog, but not as straight. I followed them to try and find more clues to the mystery but had no luck. Hmmm could it possibly be some large cat passing through?
The entire week was quiet. It's that time between fall and the calendar winter when very few people come up. The Perch was busier than GK this week! I start holding my breath at every sound, wondering if that is someone's footsteps or distant voices. Of course people aren't as quiet as that. Steps are noisy, gear rubs against gear, poles click against rock and people talk loudly. Nevertheless, I listen as hard as I can and am sometimes aware enough to hear the marten playing outside. I don't actually mind being alone at all but I like to guess the feel of the day. Does it feel like someone will show up today? The moment feet jar the grate at the door there is always a mix of excitement and reluctance for me. Sad to lose my world of silence and solitude but also excited to have some company. This is exactly how Saturday was when 8 people trickled in for the beautiful weather this weekend. A few faces familiar from last year and two that I was shocked to find were going to the same university, same tiny campus as I did! Eight in GK and the warming temperatures brought the inside above freezing once again.
Sunday came and everyone left. Sally and Quid stopped in on their way up Adams and Mike hiked in load one of his gear. An unexpected, RMC caretaker reunion at the start of the season. When they hiked out the place was all mine once again. I did rounds in the late, warm sun that had melted the inch of snow built up over the week. A perfect way to end a week of caretaking.
Here's to the coming winter with big, crazy storms dumping lots and lots of snow, no major thaws and just enough clear, blue, sunny days. I hope. And back down to the valley I go, back to the blah of "stick season".