In the Clouds

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(HOST) Recently, commentator Willem Lange had his head in the clouds – quite literally.

(LANGE) On a June day in 1900 two young hikers were following the familiar Crawford Path to the summit of Mount Washington. As they ascended, the weather deteriorated; but they were quite fit and ignored the warnings of a party they met descending.

They never made it. The storm grew swiftly worse, sheathing the rocks with ice. One of the hikers died in the col near the tiny ponds known as Lakes of the Clouds, the other only a few hundred yards from shelter at the summit.

On a day like today, climbing through cold, blowing clouds that all but obscure the cairns marking the trail, it’s easy to see how such a thing could happen. Mount Washington has some of the world’s worst weather. If it weren’t for the patina worn on the boulders underfoot by almost 200 years of hikers’ boots, I’d stop at each cairn and try to make out the next one. The Lakes of the Clouds are perfectly named.

Shortly after the deaths of the two climbers, the Appalachian Mountain Club built a small wooden emergency shelter near where the first climber died. In 1915 it erected a stone cabin with bunks for 36 hikers, a kitchen, and a resident caretaker.

Over the years that refuge has morphed into a shelter that accommodates ninety people. It’s the largest of all the AMC huts, with a correspondingly large hut crew whose members take turns packing supplies to the hut. In every hut but this one, the supplies go up the mountain from the valley. Here, they’re driven to the top of Washington, then packed downhill a mile and a half and about 1200 vertical feet. Recyclables and trash are packed out, uphill; so hikers are expected to take with them whatever they’ve brought in.

My companions on this hike are both younger than I. Lucky for them, because they’re lugging a tripod and a video camera, both of them very unhandy loads on this steep trail of boulders. So much for the glamorous life of television Their mission is to film mountain panoramas, fellow hikers, alpine vegetation, and the lively scene at the hut.

The only panoramas so far have been fleeting glimpses through flying fog. They did get a few moments of sunset last evening before the clouds closed in again. They shot close-ups of tiny Arctic plants stranded here by the retreat of the last continental ice sheet. I felt sorry for the plants; they must sense, as we all do, that the temperate zone is climbing the mountainside, and that within a generation they may be extinct. We hobnobbed with other guests and a few Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, who bunk free in a cellar space beneath the hut. And in a few minutes, if the visibility doesn’t get too much worse and my artificial joints don’t fail me, we’ll be sipping coffee in the comfort of the Summit House cafeteria at the very top of New England.

This is Willem Lange up on Mount Washington. This is work?

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