Behind the Scenes at Gala, AMC’s Annual Hut Training for Croo

May 29, 2019
hut training
(LEFT) Paula Champagne/(RIGHT) Jennifer BakosDuring their hut training, croo members learn to serve as caretakers for guests, as well as for AMC’s White Mountain huts.

 

“Welcome, to the annual Tri-Wizard Tournament!” 

I look up from the steaming cup of coffee I’ve been staring into to see a young woman wearing the head of a mop as though it were a wig, shouting into a whisk. She’s leaning out of the second-floor library loft that overlooks the dining room where myself and others are gathered.

“For his first challenge,” she continues, “Harry Potter will battle the Hungarian Horntail!” Suddenly, a guy runs out from the kitchen, holding a broomstick between his legs and waving a knife sharpener as a wand. There’s a small lightning bolt drawn on his forehead in marker. I can’t help but erupt into laughter.

More of my soon-to-be coworkers file out of the Mizpah Spring Hut kitchen, dressed in highly interpretive costumes and acting out an abridged narration of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. What they’re doing, I will soon learn, is called a “blanket folding demonstration,” meant to explain to hut guests how they can help tidy up the bunkrooms at the end of their stay. Over the course of the summer to follow, I will take part in dozens of these skits. 

It wasn’t what I was expecting when I applied to work in AMC’s White Mountain huts. But then, I had known very little about this job prior to arriving at Camp Dodge in New Hampshire’s Pinkham Notch four days before. 

“It feels sort of like a secret,” says Mackenzie Brewer-Little, now entering her fourth season—this year in Lakes of the Clouds Hut. “The first time you go there, you have no idea what’s ahead of you.” 

The whole hut thing had seemed rather hush-hush. It wasn’t, of course. It’s just that working for AMC’s huts is a niche gig. There are no other jobs quite like it in the world. The inherent remoteness, steeped in history and wrapped in tradition, makes it hard to get an exact idea of what you’ve signed up for until the day you arrive for training. 

This orientation—which might include a haphazard performance of Harry Potter defeating a dragon with a neatly folded blanket—is just as unique as the job itself: culinary demonstrations, hands-on breadmaking seminars, and rowdy games of White Mountain Jeopardy. The immersive weeklong experience has come to be known simply as “Gala.”

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AMC operates eight huts in the White Mountains, dating back to the construction of the original Madison Spring Hut in 1888. The huts are open to all hikers as places to rest, to fill up water bottles, and to refuel with baked goods or potato-dill soup. In the evenings, the huts act more like rustic bed and breakfasts, housing anywhere from 36 to 100 overnight guests apiece—also open to anyone, not just AMC members, although prebooking is required. 

Guests are served a multicourse dinner and breakfast. They can choose to partake in educational programs, play games, experiment with the hut telescope, or settle in and enjoy a book from the hut library. The young adults, mostly around college-age, who work and live in these huts during the fully staffed season (Memorial Day through late September for some huts, through mid-October for others) refer to themselves as “croo.”  

The croo is responsible for cooking those hearty meals every morning and evening. They provide entertainment; keep the huts clean; sell gear; answer hikers’ questions; and assist in search-and-rescue efforts for stranded, injured, and missing hikers. Perhaps the most celebrated duty of the hut croo, though, is keeping the huts’ pantries and fridges stocked through an activity known as “packing.” 

Packing entails strapping oversized cardboard boxes filled with fresh and frozen produce, AMC merchandise, important paperwork, and other miscellaneous items the hut might need (more silverware, serving platters) onto a large wooden frame, called a packboard. These packboards are worn like a backpack and hiked from the trailhead to the hut—a distance of anywhere from 1.5 to 4.8 miles, with as much as 3,400 feet in elevation gain. The weight of the packs differs greatly, from 40 to 80 pounds, depending on a hut’s needs that week, the number of people splitting the weight, and whether a croo member wants to attempt the notorious “century” pack, or carrying 100 pounds solo. 

Packing was just about the only thing I knew of hut croo going into my first season at Lakes of the Clouds Hut in 2017, when I was 22, and it terrified me. There is no way I am strong enough, I thought. This is a mistake. It’s not possible. 

Of course, it is possible. And while Gala couldn’t exactly take the fear out of my first pack-in—I mean, how could it?—it did foster an atmosphere of support and encouragement that would push me to succeed more than any logistical training ever could. 

According to James Wrigley, the manager of AMC’s hut system since 2012, the early days of hut croo involved little to no training. Most likely, applicants would have had a brief discussion with the infamous Joe Dodge, a larger-than-life figure who ran the huts from 1922 to 1959, before being sent up to a hut the following day.

While the huts are anchored in more than a century of tradition, a lot has changed over the years. Women weren’t allowed to work in the huts until the labor shortage during World War II. Now most hutmasters, or the leader of each hut’s croo, identify as women. A once hypermasculine culture has begun to soften its edges, becoming more inclusive and welcoming rather than competitive and braggadocious. Indoor plumbing and trash burning have been replaced by composting toilets and solar panels. Blanket folding demonstrations have become more outrageous, meals more elaborate, and environmental education more at the forefront of the operation. And at the center of all this evolution is Gala. 

“I’ve personally worked to change almost everything with the training,” Wrigley says. “In the past couple of years, we’ve made efforts to broaden the scope of training in conservation issues, naturalist education for all hut croo, and Leave No Trace training.” 

But even Wrigley knows instruction only goes so far. “I have great faith in our staff and their abilities,” he says. “The way for them to do the best job they can is to provide them with the skills [they need and for them] to challenge themselves.”

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I attend my inaugural Gala in May 2017. (I would go on to spend five seasons in the huts: four at Lakes of the Clouds and one at Lonesome Lake Hut.) But that first time, I arrive late—so unbelievably late—after confusing Joe Dodge Lodge, the AMC-run guesthouse that’s open to the public at the base of Mount Washington, with Camp Dodge, AMC’s trails department compound some 4 miles north up Route 16 and where I was supposed to be. Eventually, I burst through the screen door of the Camp Dodge mess hall and directly into day 1 of a wilderness first aid training in progress.

Every head in the room turns and stares.

From the corner of my eye, I see a hand waving. It belongs to a familiar 20-something with vibrant blonde hair and a warm smile. Her name is Holly, another first-year croo member. Relief floods my veins. We had communicated briefly in the days leading up to Gala, discussing the difficulties of cramming three months into one backpack. She would be on my croo at Lakes of the Clouds Hut, on the shoulder of Mount Washington. She waves me over while scooching down the picnic table bench to make room.

“Hi,” she says as I settled in next to her. “Amanda, right?” I nod. “This is Emma. She’s on our croo, too.” Holly motions to the dark-haired girl next to her who smiles and mouths hello as the instructor starts speaking again. 

The three of us become inseparable over the next two days. We eat meals together, sleep in the same bunkroom, and partner in all of our training scenarios. As Gala continues, we even befriend fellow hut croo together. (In 2019, as I prepare to go into my fifth season, at Lakes of the Clouds, Holly and Emma are still two of my closest friends.) This is one of the things that makes Gala so special—the connections you forge in unexpected and instantaneous ways. 

“The energy in the room you have from all the people coming back, who are super-excited to see old friends and be in this place they love, as well as the excitement and energy coming from the new staff who are so proud to be where they are, and so excited to be exploring this new world, I think [that] really makes it,” Wrigley says. “It’s kind of emblematic of the larger blessing we have in the huts: incredible, enthusiastic staff who love what they do. It really comes through during this training.” 

But along with that energy and excitement comes an atmosphere that can also overwhelm and fatigue. In less than one week, Gala packs in what feels like a lifetime of information. 

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Gala always begins with training in wilderness first aid (or WFA, pronounced “woof-ah”). About half the class is bright-eyed first-years, the other half returning croo in need of recertification, for a total of about 30 people. Hut croo must be as prepared as possible for any situation, since we’re some of the first folks called in to assist with backcountry search-and-rescue (SAR) efforts. A croo member could help with dozens of rescues during a single season, and the most important things we learn in WFA is how to assess a situation and how to get necessary help.

The real fun begins on day 3. A flood of energy enters the White Mountains as returning hut kid after hut kid (those who weren’t due for a first-aid refresh) arrives at Camp Dodge. As part of AMC’s permit from the U.S. Forest Service to operate huts in the White Mountains, each year’s croo meets people with whom we’ll be working closely: representatives from the White Mountain National Forest, New Hampshire Fish & Game, and more. During our meetings, we discuss everything from the basics of bear safety to the jurisdictional layout of the White Mountains. 

Partway through day 4, it’s time to change location. We’ll spend the next few days at Mizpah Spring Hut. Slowly and chaotically, all 60 of us hut kids pack up our things and pile into large white vans. We settle in for the hour-long drive around Mount Washington to Crawford Notch State Park, site of the Crawford Path trailhead up to Mizpah. 

It’s here we get our first real task as croo and the one I’ve been dreading: packing food. Turns out, my managers’ expectations are a lot less intimidating than my own. They assure us their focus is on our comfort and health. Yes, they encourage us to challenge ourselves and to work toward reasonable goals. But they say we shouldn’t be carrying more than two-thirds of our bodyweight—that if we’re about to put on a pack of 80 pounds, we should take a moment to consider if it’s something we really want to do.

For this first pack-in, we split up the supplies we’ll need for the next three days at Mizpah and add them to our packs—not packboards yet, just some bacon piled on top of our sleeping bags. Then, in a long line of ragged 20-somethings, we begin the mildly competitive, 2.6-mile climb up Mount Pierce. For many, it will be the first night they’ve ever spent in a hut.

On this hike, it begins to dawn on me that much of what I need to know about being on croo I’ll learn by being on croo. During our three days at Mizpah, we take turns cooking and serving meals, while fellow croo members play guests. Then we swap roles. We run the hut as though we are working it. We clean bathrooms, perform blanket folding demonstrations, and wake each other up with acoustic melodies in place of alarm clocks—a long-standing hut tradition.

In fact, I hear the light strumming of a guitar as I lay in bed that first morning in the hut. The voices of two strangers drift down the hallway, singing “Rivers and Roads” by the band The Head and the Heart. 

As the voices proceed down the hallway, the room begins to stir around me, sleeping bags rustling and bunks creaking, as though in harmony. The natural light streaming in through the hut windows illuminates each particle of dust in the air. One floor below me, I can hear the metallic clacking of tables being set for breakfast. 

Once downstairs, my nose and cheeks tinged pink by the chilly May air, I watch as my coworkers pour mugs of coffee for one another, carry bowls of oatmeal in droves, and converse as they find spots on the wooden benches. I hadn’t expected this instantaneous comfort, a sense of family that clicks in before I even realize it.

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There’s a common misconception that Gala is a time to bond with your own hut team, but it’s almost the exact opposite. “Gala fosters a community that goes beyond your hut croo,” Mackenzie Brewer-Little says. “Gala is the time to meet the people you’ll visit in the other huts.”

It may be difficult to imagine that eight huts spanning more than 50 miles of the Appalachian Trail can maintain a tight-knit community, but it’s true. When a croo member has a day off, you spend it at another hut. You always have a place to sleep and as much food as you can eat, plus you get to spend time with the friends you made during Gala. To nurture those nascent friendships as the season wears on, we even have a system of communicating between huts: small pieces of cardboard with messages written on them. We call these “truck notes,” because they’re carried between trailheads by our storehouse truck on resupply days. 

“[Gala] is the longest time that everyone is together, where you meet the people you’ll send truck notes to, where you make friends and plant the seeds for summer romance,” says Julian Cranberg, a former croo member and now the huts education coordinator. “It’s my favorite time of the year, for sure.” 

Between cooking and performing skits and playing music, we take part in round-robin-style trainings, moving from one 20-minute lesson to the next. We learn knife skills, bread kneading techniques, how to sear beef, and other kitchen basics. We’re taught the essentials of giving naturalist programs on local flora and weather patterns so we can pitch in when our hut naturalist has a day off. We cover filling out credit card slips and food request forms. 

We also get a walkthrough of all the hut systems. We learn how the solar power works and what to do if the fire alarm goes off. We’re shown how to rake human waste in the composting toilets so it degrades properly and how to tell if there’s a problem with the septic filtration system. 

“There is so much you need to know,” says Emma Brandt, who’ll be spending summer 2019, her third on croo, at Lakes of the Clouds Hut. “It’s a whirlwind of information. Gala sends us to our huts with the best possible outline of our job, and the hut leadership and the returners fill in the gaps. If you’re visiting a hut in the first weeks of the season, go easy on the first-years. They’re learning an unbelievable amount in very little time!” 

Gala does teach you a huge amount—and yes, some folks say it’s the most overwhelming few days they’ve experienced. Even so, it’s not possible to teach every response to every scenario. But Gala does begin to unveil the mystery of the huts: to help first-years understand the scope of the job and begin to get familiar with the hut setting, and to provide the returners with a much-needed refresher after a year away. Once you’re actually in your hut, you learn the quirks of that particular hut: where the water chlorinator or the backup generator is kept, for example, and how Gala’s training addresses your hut’s quirks. 

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Gala may be an avalanche of information, but it’s only a fraction of what you learn once you’re on the job. In other words, it’s a beginning, both for mastering skills and for a lot of productive and genuine discussion that continues as the hut season unfolds. While there have been many changes over the years, both in how croo is trained and in the operations of the huts themselves, there are still improvements to come. 

“I hope, in coming Galas, we continue [our discussions on diversity and inclusion],” Brandt says. “We want the huts to be as inclusive as possible, whether you’re croo, guest, day hiker, or thru-hiker, and being educated is the first step to effective inclusion, equity, and allyship.”

Wrigley also plans to focus on “encouraging hut croo to have a more holistic view” of the White Mountains. For him, that means providing more context on relevant issues, from the impacts of hiker traffic to invasive species to climate change, and how these issues play out in the huts. “We’re the premier hut system in the United States,” he says, “and I want the training we provide our staff to reflect that excellence we’re striving for.”

I couldn’t agree more. 


LEARN MORE: HOW TO TALK LIKE CROO

37 (pronounced “three, seven”): the collective term for 41the hut management team

BFD: blanket folding demonstration

Boning: cleaning surfaces with Comet (formerly Bon Ami)

Bull Cook: person working the front desk

Clive: composting toilets

Diving: washing the dishes

Eggies: powdered egg product

Gak: a large colander that collects food scraps from the pre-dive drain (see below)

Gorm: a colander that collects food scraps from guests’ plates

Moo: powdered milk product

Natty: Hut naturalist

O and F: cleaning the bathrooms

Packboard: external framepacks used for packing

Packing: carrying food up to the huts

Pre-dive: the slop sink where dirty dishes are given an initial rinse

Pron: an apron; also a cheer before taking o your apron for the night


LEARN MORE: TIPS FOR APPLYING TO CROO

“Diverse work experience shows you’ve been exposed to different environments, managers, clientele, and responsibilities. Highlight your accomplishments! Demonstrate interest and excitement about the position, beyond, ‘This is will be fun for me,’ or ‘It sounds cool.’ Everyone wants to get paid to live in the woods. What are you able to bring to the role?”

“Don’t worry about being a strong hiker/packer. I think there are some applications that devote too much space to trying to prove they’re strong, fast, or intense. We’re interested in hiring friendly, personable people who can provide a quality guest experience for hutgoers. With the right mindset, we trust anyone can pack in supplies.”

—Eric Gottard, former huts field supervisor, 2015 to 2019

“We are looking for folks with customer, guest, and/or food service experience and a strong desire to provide a positive experience for our guests. Commitment to conservation and AMC’s mission is a strong plus, as is experience living in a small group setting.”

—Whitney Brown, huts field supervisor, 2016 to present


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Amanda Keohane

Amanda Keohane is a senior at the University of Massachusetts Amherst where she is studying English, journalism, and communications. She is currently working on her honors thesis on the communication of climate change in Iceland.