Welcome to Galehead
A summer with the 2009 Galehead Hut croo.
By Marc Chalufour
AMC Outdoors, May/June 2010
Every summer an eclectic croo of young people serves up great food, green education, and mountain safety through AMC's huts, all while having a rollicking good time.
Last Fourth of July, with a heavy load of ham and fresh vegetables on her back and 4 miles left to climb to Galehead Hut, Katherine Siner heard someone screaming her name. The 22-year-old graduate of the University of Montana paused, listened, then continued up the trail. Must be the rain and thunder playing tricks, she thought. But it wasn't a trick. North Conway received a record 9.72 inches of rain last July; 4.5 inches were measured on the summit of Mount Washington in just 72 hours, ending with the Fourth of July. The downpour transformed the normally ankle-deep Gale River into a raging rapid. At the first crossing, the current swept Katherine's diminutive hutmate, Chelsea Alsofrom, 50 feet downstream. She hauled herself, 30-pound pack and all, onto a rock and yelled for help.
They’d been in the parking lot together just 30 minutes earlier, but Chelsea set off on the trail first. Now, cold and scared, she didn't know how far behind Katherine was. Still thinking clearly, Chelsea managed to scramble ashore and began sprinting up and down the trail to maintain body heat. That's how Katherine found her minutes later.
Three weeks earlier, when I meet Katherine for the first time, she's rifling through her car in search of cortisone cream, hoping to treat a case of poison ivy before packing 40 pounds of supplies up to the hut.
A four-year veteran of AMC's huts and hutmaster at Galehead for the summer, Katherine has a warm face, engaging manner, and a preference for hiking skirts and running shoes over shorts and boots. The itching and the prospect of a long hike don't dampen her spirits.
She's joined by assistant hutmaster Nick Anderson, a University of New Hampshire junior with a mop of dark hair, and Luke Teschner, a lanky, fresh-faced hut rookie. Together they're carrying 100 pounds of fresh vegetables, frozen berries, and ham to the hut. Prior to the season, 8 tons of food and supplies were airlifted to Galehead, and throughout the summer the hut's staff (called "croo," a word of undetermined origin unique to AMC huts) make twice-weekly trips to the trailhead to pick up fresh food.
Galehead Hut sits above the Pemigewasset Wilderness (Pemi, for short), 4.6 miles away and 2,200 feet above us. The trail crosses the Gale River twice, but the summer's intense rains haven't yet begun, so the croo members step from stone to stone, barely wetting their shoes. Less familiar with the footing—though also without a heavy load to balance—I slip and slide in the water, grasping for branches and boulders to stay upright. A final thigh-burning climb and a short stretch of the Appalachian Trail lead to the hut, more than two hours after we began.
The evening's guests gradually arrive, shedding damp boots and sweaty layers of clothing before stretching their limbs on Galehead’s broad front porch. Gazing down onto the Pemi, they let the pleasant exhaustion of the day's hike wash over them. Tonight's cook, Elizabeth Waste, began preparing dinner early this morning, and the tantalizing smells of Thanksgiving in June waft out of the kitchen.
Luke’s in charge of the hut store for the evening, which tends to involve more chatting than selling. When a guest asks about his experience so far—all two weeks of it—Luke, whose father worked in the huts 40 years ago, doesn't hesitate: "I love it," he says. "Easily the best job I've ever had."
A history of AMC's huts, published in 1988, was, quite properly, titled A Century of Hospitality in High Places. But that title omits other important parts of the job. Cooking, cleaning, composting, packing out recyclables and trash, entertaining, researching, and providing emergency medical care make up the complex responsibilities of AMC croos. They also serve as ambassadors for the region and for AMC, which hopes to foster a love for and understanding of natural places. The young men and women who manage the huts tend to have a remarkably developed appreciation for their surroundings, ideally suiting them for this task.
Katherine grew up in nearby Waterford, Vt., and visited the huts as a child. She's also stayed at huts in Austria, New Zealand, and Canada. "What stands out, compared to other huts in other places," she tells me, "is that we have this really large educational component." The croo is particularly sensitive to the needs of their younger visitors. "For children, their experience in the outdoors needs to be a good one because otherwise they won't come back," says Katherine, who holds a degree in environmental studies. "So I try to always make sure that kids are enjoying themselves, recognize what's around them, and how special this place is."
As hut naturalist, Elizabeth presents educational talks about the surrounding wilderness nearly every day. "I see what the crowd is like. If it's a group of young kids I'll cater to them," she says. "I like to get guests outside and take them for a little walk or something, show them stuff around the hut and get them really involved."
Fir waves stripe the northern rim of the Pemi adjacent to the hut. This phenomenon exhibits itself in bands of trees, each in a different stage of growth. The most exposed take the brunt of the wind and eventually perish, creating a slow-motion domino effect that moves across the landscape. With a young audience, Elizabeth sets up a reenactment of the waves, kids standing in—and falling over—for the trees.
On this evening, with Elizabeth cooking, Katherine leads a green tour. Perched atop a rock while guests gather on the porch, she explains the wind and solar systems powering the hut and the composting that takes place down a discreet path into the woods. She's not just spouting the company line here—her parents, impressed by the efficiency of the huts, have adopted many of these technologies for the new home they're building.
For the highlight of the tour, Katherine leads the group around to the side of the hut and opens a door. Inside are the large collecting basins for Galehead's composting toilets. They're a source of considerable curiosity among guests, who laugh uncomfortably at descriptions of how the contents must be stirred by the croo periodically. Later in the summer a group of mischievous Boy Scouts will lodge a pillow in a toilet, sending the croo down into the bowels of the hut to unclog the system.
Galehead, rebuilt in 1999-2000, is now the newest building in AMC’s hut system, and a century of knowledge was poured into the structure. Large windows, deep benches, and a high ceiling form an inviting dining room. Ample and easily accessed storage make the kitchen a pleasure to work in. Outside, an unexpected sight juts from the popular front porch: a ramp, keeping the hut in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and used by a few intrepid adventurers in wheelchairs over the years.