Appalachia, Winter/Spring 2009
In 1984, Peter Benson was a rookie crew member at Lakes of the Clouds Hut, a mile below the summit of New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, when he saw The Presence. Late one August night, Peter, a light sleeper, was alert for nighttime visits by other huts’ workers who would want to raid several choice objects Lakes had. So he awoke quickly when he saw a bright bluish light in the crew room mirror. It was unlike the light given off by headlamps of that era. He left his bunk and followed the light as it headed through the dark, silent hut toward the dining room. “Can I help you?” he asked in the direction of the light. There was no reply. The light headed down the hut’s long hallway and through the door at the end. He ran down the hall, opened the door, and found nothing. No one else in the hut woke up, and the next morning at breakfast, other crew members said none of them had seen a light.
Other hut folks told Peter later that what he had seen was called The Presence, a ghostly phenomenon that for many years has appeared in varying manifestations to inhabitants of Mount Washington and its surroundings. “What was weird about it was that it didn’t freak me out, and it didn’t strike me as being odd,” said Peter, who said he grew up in a haunted house. “I believe in ghosts, absolutely,” he added. “There’s too much out there that’s not explainable to me.” Yet, he added, “High huts can be weird places.”
Weird indeed. Sightings of ghostly apparitions and other paranormal phenomena in the Appalachian Mountain Club huts—especially at Lakes of the Clouds and the area on and around Mount Washington—have been reported for decades by hut men and women, summit weather observers, transmitter station employees of the Portland, Maine–based WMTW-TV, and hikers and visitors. The Mount Washington Observatory reports 135 fatalities on and around Mount Washington since 1849. “With the relatively high number of deaths on and around Mount Washington over the years, it was easy to believe in ghosts of those lost souls,” said Doug Dodd, who himself experienced several hard-to-explain events at Lakes between 1968 and 1970.
One happened during a June rainstorm with high winds, when crew members were in their bunks, talking. Suddenly there was a tapping on a window. Doug shone his flashlight. “We saw a ghostlike nebulous figure outside the window,” he recalled in an email interview. “It moved into the wind and disappeared from view. I shone the light on the right window and that same ghost-like figure moved across the window into the 80-mph winds. Most of us saw it. We all hunkered under our blankets and decided we didn’t want anything else to do with that apparition.” Another time, while using the men’s room at Lakes, Doug heard the jiggling of a flush handle in a stall between him and the bathroom door. He spoke but got no answer, and checking under stalls saw no one in them. “Those types of experiences were always accompanied by a strong feeling of a presence of something that was not normal,” he said.
Joseph Citro, who writes about paranormal activity in New England, cites a long history of mountain climbers worldwide being terrified for no particular reason, such as two climbers who—60 years apart—felt a “malevolent presence” atop Scotland’s Ben MacDhui. Citro (whom The Boston Globe dubbed “the Bard of the bizarre”) wrote in Passing Strange: True Tales of New England Hauntings and Horrors (Chapters Publishing, 1996) that “this ‘mountain madness’ phenomenon was first identified in the Greek mountains thousands of years ago.” The 1996 International Festival of Mountaineering Literature had “Mountain Ghosts” as its theme. The Germans have their own word, berggeist, which means “mountain ghost.” Former park ranger Andrea Lankford, who prides herself on preferring “cold, hard facts over warm, fuzzy sentimentalities,” nonetheless wrote in Haunted Hikes: Spine-Tingling Tales and Trails from North America’s National Parks (Santa Monica Press, 2006) of 51 national parks across America that, according to reports, have ghosts, curses, hoaxes, unsolved mysteries, or paranormal events. And in Haunted Hikes of New Hampshire (PublishingWorks, 2008), author and self-described “paranormal agnostic” Marianne O’Connor writes about strange and inexplicable sightings in the state’s mountains and forests.
I suppose that technically I am a paranormal agnostic. I have never personally experienced a ghostly presence, even though I spent four summers in huts and a winter on Mount Washington. However, I strongly believe that on several occasions I have been guided by a benevolent hand out of danger’s way: on a winter hike up Mount Washington, when almost lost in Wyoming’s Teton Range, and when crossing a high, rickety footbridge on a New Zealand hiking trail. After hearing the stories of my fellow former crew, I also can’t help siding with author Nathaniel Hawthorne, who wrote, “There is something truer and more real than what we can see with the eyes and touch with the finger.”
Peggy Dillon worked at Pinkham Notch Camp and at AMC huts from 1979 to 1984. Dillon is currently a professor in the Department of Communications at Salem State College.
The full text of this story may be found in the Winter/Spring 2009 issue of Appalachia