This story was originally published in the Winter/Spring 2009 issue of Appalachia.
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.”
Not Quite Ready to Let Go of Life
References to ghosts have been found in almost all cultures and all historical periods, including the Bible, ancient writings of Greeks and Romans, and ancient Egyptians’ Book of the Dead. J. Allan Danelek, author of The Case for Ghosts: An Objective Look at the Paranormal (Llewellyn Publications, 2006), said a 2003 Harris poll revealed that more than half of adult Americans believe in ghosts. Ghosts, he wrote, “are simply those who have yet to recognize or trust the idea or who are not quite ready to let go of a physical life they can no longer experience or appreciate because of anger, sadness, fear, or an unwillingness to accept the inevitable.” He added that they “transcend time and culture like few phenomena can, and maintain a startling degree of consistency far beyond that which can be found in the near universal belief in God.” In Ghosts of New England (Wings Books, 1997), author and parapsychologist Hans Holzer describes ghosts as “people caught between two states of being,” in which “the events of their last moments in the physical world have never ceased and their solution continues to escape them.”
The question of whether or not ghosts “exist” has long been debated. Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Deborah Blum addressed this philosophical tension in her 2006 book Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death (Penguin Press), which examined efforts by a few intellectual on the cusp of the twentieth century to investigate psychic phenomena at a time when science was in its ascendancy over spirituality. Blum’s book explores the “still-combative relationship between empiricism and spiritualism, between a way of explaining the world that is grounded in the purely tangible, and a way that is grounded in a mixture of the evident and the invisible.”
Skeptic Michael White, author of Weird Science: An Expert Explains Ghosts, Voodoo, the UFO Conspiracy, and the Other Paranormal Phenomena (Avon Books, 1999), wrote, “There is no hard evidence to suggest any form of personality or soul survives the death of the brain. … Until physicists and biologists find a way to study the possibility that apparitions are replayed images from the past, we can only assume ghosts derive from the minds of those who see them, projections of our own fears and desires, and that they have no material form in the physical world.” Danelek, on the other hand, believes that ghosts are very real, and said ghosts represent “the disembodied energy of a deceased human being that appears not only self-aware, but quite capable of interacting within the linear world of time and space. These interactions may include making itself visible to the naked eye, being able to communicate (either audibly or telepathically), and even being capable of touching and, on rare occasions, of being touched by the living.”
What struck me about many of the stories from the hut men and women here was how strongly they stand by what they saw. Even avowed skeptics had no doubt that ghosts had visited them. One such person is former construction crew member Josh Alper. In spring 1969, following that winter’s record-setting snowfall, he and other construction crew workers packed down to Lakes in Limmer boots and crampons to tear out walls, ceilings, and floors as part of a hut renovation. Late one freezing moonlit night, lying in his bunk in the crew room, Josh happened to look out the window, “and saw a tall lean male figure in hiking knickers… and lightweight anorak; gloveless, hatless, and without pack or gear, walking to and fro outside the hut, standing ramrod straight in the teeth of a substantial winter wind,” as Josh wrote me via email. “He did not attempt to enter the hut … and there were no signs of an attempt to pitch a tent anywhere in the vicinity of the hut.”
“I’ve no explanation,” Josh said, “but I know what I saw.”
A Welcoming Squeeze
Chris Thayer literally felt the presence of something ghostly at Lakes just before the hut opened to summer guests in 1991. Now the Appalachian Mountain Club’s White Mountain facilities director, Chris was a second-year crew member who was in the men’s bathroom when he felt the weight of a hand on his shoulder. He thought crew member Tom Johnson or someone else was playing a trick on him. “I could feel the weight of a hand and a warm breath,” he said. “I thought, ‘Very funny.’” Chris turned around to find no one there, but the weight of the hand on his shoulder remained and even gave him a gentle squeeze, “kind of a ‘How are you?’” Chris believes the experience represented “a welcoming squeeze from the ghosts of past huts.”
“It was definitely something, and it was definitely comforting,” Chris said. “I don’t dwell on it, but it’s kind of a neat thing.”
Less comforting ghostly experiences have occurred on or near Mount Washington for well over a century. An 1881 New York Times article titled, “A White Mountain Ghost Story” described how visitors near the summit were hiking near a monument erected to Lizzie Bourne—who died at age 23 in a snowstorm there in September 1855—when they saw “a whitish figure rising up through the stones, just as if she was coming to the surface, borne upward by some mysterious stage mechanism. Then, as she got to the top, she assumed a definite shape, that of a pretty girl with a sad face and flowing robes and hair. She appeared to point her right hand toward the glimmering lights of the Tip Top House. Then, dropping to her knees she clasped her hands as if in prayer. In another instant, the cloud scudded away, the moon looked down as bright as ever, and the ghost or specter, or whatever it was, was gone.”
A more recent episode related to another summit monument on Mount Washington occurred one July day in 1974, after Lakes hutmaster Jack Tracy got a radio call. “It seems a hiker and son had been heading to spend the night at Lakes, and the wife was worried, as they were supposed to call her from the summit,” he wrote in an email. They had not made the call, nor had they arrived at the hut below. Jack agreed to run to the summit in the fog and wind, calling into the wind for the missing hikers as the ascended. When he approached the cross erected near where hikers Paul Zanet and Judy March had died in 1958, the clouds lifted momentarily. Suddenly, a “loud, desperate cry” rang out, and Jack stopped, thinking he was hearing the missing hikers. He called out and got no response, and with the clouds swirling back in and night approaching, he returned to the hut and discovered that the lost hikers he’d been looking for had never left the valley. He also learned that it was the anniversary of Paul and Judy’s death. Jack said that recalling that plaintive cry “brings a chill to me still.”
Joe Gill, on Jack’s crew that summer, also had an eerie experience near the “Paul and Judy” cross. Hoofing it to meet the truck that brought supplies, when Joe arrived at the cross, the fog opened up “like a little beam of sunshine.” As he walked into the beam, the shaft of sunlight hit him in the chest and knocked him down. Gill said he has no idea what caused the incident.
Mount Washington’s aura of mystery transcends even its harsh physical surroundings of high winds, low visibility, and extreme weather—traits called “the world’s worst weather.” The intrigue goes back hundreds of years to that Pennacook tribe members, who lived near the mountain they called Agiocochook, or “home of the Great Spirit.” Most of them refused to climb the summit for fear of being killed. That changed in 1642, when Darby Field became the first European to climb to the top of Mount Washington, and since then he’s been followed by tens of thousands of hikers.
According to Joe Citro, the same force or aura that kept native Americans away from Mount Washington manifests itself today in The Presence. Numerous residents of the summit, who spend alternate weeks on and and off the mountain, have made such sightings. They include the late Lee Vincent, former director of WMTW’s transmitter station, who in his book Instant Legends from the Rock Pile (New England History Press, 1975) wrote about seeing a cloud moving at right angles to the wind and then being absorbed through the walls of the summit hotel. “Panic gripped me,” Vincent wrote. Citro said that former weather observer Jon Lingel was alone one night in the summit Yankee Network building when he heard footsteps, heavy breathing, and sounds of a party—just like a scene from “The Shining.” But upon looking around and discovering that he was alone, Jon made a hasty exit from the building and vowed never to return.
Farther down the mountain, Larry Jenkins, while a purchasing agent at Pinkham during the early 1970s, once experienced what he called the presence of a “lost soul.” Larry joined a rescue party transporting a teenage skier who’d fallen in Tuckerman Ravine’s Left Gully and died. At the end of the rescue, Larry found himself alone near the snowcat in which the skier’s body lay, and was aware of this person who “just died and he’s lying under that blanket” on a litter a few feet away. That night, while having friends over to his apartment at Pinkham, Larry tried and failed to light a candle whose wick was embedded in wax. But in the middle of the night, he awoke to find that the candle was lit.
Larry said he shrugged off the incident until the next day when he spoke with Pinkham’s night watchman, who believed he had been accompanied by some sort of presence while doing rounds. Larry said he believes the spirit of the deceased hiker followed the watchman until he got to Larry’s room, and then stopped. “The way I tell this story is that the last ember of his spirit lit that candle as a sign that his spirit lived. My feeling was he was a lost soul, and he was trying to find his way,” Larry said. “You think about all the accidents that happen in the mountains, and the similarity is that they’re lost souls, lost spirits—and they have to be put to rest.”
SCARED YET? HERE ARE A FEW MORE STORIES.
The epicenter of Mount Washington is not the only place where hut crew members saw or felt things they couldn’t explain. In May 1980, Scott Macomber hiked up to Greenleaf Hut a mile below the summit of Mount Lafayette for three days as a fill-in floater caretaker. That night, he and another AMC employee slept on opposite sides of the crew sleeping quarters on a loft off the kitchen. For the next three nights, Scott awoke in the middle of the night to discover a male presence in the room. The presence was silent but rummaged through some boxes, and also leaned over and reached out for the other employee. Each night Scott called out to the person but got no response; when he turned on his headlamp, the person was not there. But, he recalled, “Every time it happened, I felt that there was a real person in the room.”
When Scott returned to Pinkham Notch Camp, he soon found out that the day before he had arrived at Greenleaf, hutman Ben Campbell had died while hiking in Scotland. Ben, hutmaster at Greenleaf the previous summer, had left some boxes of personal belongings at the hut, and was thought to be close to the other crew member. “The only thing that explains it is that it was the spirit of Ben coming back to a very familiar place,” Scott said. “A scientist by training, Scott noted that his experiences during those three nights fly in the face of his usual belief system. “If anybody ever asks me if I believe in ghosts, I say no. But I feel very strongly that what happened to me was very real, and I can’t explain it any other way.”
Then there is the story of the ghost of 16-year-old Betsy Roberts, who some people say haunts Mizpah Spring Hut. Earle Perkins and Bill Aughton tell this story in their book Last Climbs and Fatal Errors. Betsy died in August 1971 while trying to cross the rain-swollen Dry River during a family hike. The AMC rescuers found her body early the next morning. The litter party arrived at the hut around 5:30 A.M. and stopped at the hut briefly for food and rest, during which time they reportedly stored Betsy’s body in the basement. Ever since, numerous hutmen and hutwomen have reported seeing or feeling Betsy’s presence while in Mizpah’s basement. Another unverified story about Mizpah tells of a young girl’s voice heard calling for her mother and an apparition of that girl standing on the first floor of the hut.
A number of stories about ghost sightings in the huts cannot be verified. For years, people have talked of hearing footsteps at Galehead Hut (which is appropriately nicknamed Ghoul). Another story circulates about a construction crew worker at Lakes who, during the late 1960s or early 1970s, was found one morning cowering in the corner of the kitchen holding an axe in front of him.
One of the best-known stories about hut ghosts happened to Joe Gill while he was caretaking at Carter Notch Hut during the winter of 1975-76. Joe said one night the banging open of the hut front door and the crew room door woke him up. What was odd was that the doors, which opened in different directions, both banged open. Joe sat up to find the beam of a flashlight in his face. “I said hello twice,” he recalled. “No one answered.” Picking up his own flashlight, Joe shone it across the room and saw a flashlight lying on another bunk. He put out the other light, closed both doors, and went back to bed. At radio call the next morning, he found out that Milton “Red Mac” MacGregor—former hutman and the huts manager who had hired the legendary Joe Dodge—had died the night before. “I thought right away, ‘Oh that was it,” Joe said. “It seemed like the natural thing to think.”
Peggy Dillon worked at Pinkham Notch Camp and at AMC huts from 1979 to 1984 and at the Mount Washington Observatory the winter of 1984-85. Dillon is a professor in the Department of Communications at Salem State College.
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