Caretaking Harvard Cabin and Mount Washington

Hanging out above treeline is so much fun.
Last March, I wrote an entry about the Harvard Cabin, which has pretty quickly become one of my favorite places on the mountain.  The cabin was built in the early 1960s by the Harvard Mountaineering Club near Huntington Ravine, on the east side of Mount Washington.  It operates under a special use permit with the Forest Service, which mandates that the cabin be staffed by a caretaker and open to public use between December 1 and March 31 each year.  The cabin is one of two places to stay overnight on the east side of Mount Washington.  Typical guests are ice climbers, mountaineers, and skiers (in good snow years) – good people.  And the caretakers, Rich and Marcia – exceptional people.

Last week, I was asked to fill the caretaker role for a couple nights.  Fortunately, this worked well with my schedule down at the visitor center.  I wrapped up my International Dinner shift on Wednesday and – wait, international dinner?  What’s that?

AMC is in its 26th year of International Dinners.  These dinner series each feature cuisine from a specific country, followed by a presentation about an adventure in that country.  Wednesday featured soup, salad, bread, a main course, and dessert from South Africa.  These unique family-style dinners go for $21 a head – reservations recommended – and BYOB is welcome.  The presentations are free and open to the public, if you just can’t make it in time for dinner at 6.  There are two more International Dinners this year: Scotland (March 9) and France (March 16).

So back to my story.  I finished my Wednesday night shift, grabbed my bag, and walked outside.  Into the rain.  February in the mountains, 3 hours after sundown, 35 degrees and raining.  This winter is so sad.  I hoofed the 2 miles up to the cabin as quickly as I could.  Microspikes made it easier, as the Tuckerman Ravine Trail had a lot of slick and wet ice.  When I got to the cabin, I switched on the propane lamps, lit the wood stove, and watched the needle climb.  Even with nobody else in the cabin, it reached 70 degrees inside.  Super cozy.  I did some reading, had a couple cups of rooibos tea, and then made my way to the sleeping loft upstairs.  I rolled out my sleeping pad and bag and drifted away to the sound of the raging river behind the cabin.

I woke at 6:45 the next morning and made my way downstairs to take care of some cabin responsibilities.  I turned on the radio to transcribe the Mount Washington Observatory’s forecast for the summits and valley.  Once I had that posted on the door, I headed out to the snow study area.  I noted the current and extreme temperatures over the last 24 hours.  I then measured the snow depth and amount of snowfall since the previous morning.  It was no longer raining, but the board had…0 centimeters of snow.  This winter is so sad.  Shortly after that, Pat, one of the caretakers at the Hermit Lake Shelters, called me on the radio.  We planned to meet halfway on the Raymond Path so he could deliver me copies of the snow rangers’ avalanche forecast.

Flooded Fire Road.
As rain and thunderstorms had been in the forecast, Rich and Marcia had warned me about the Fire Road flooding.  They weren’t joking.  I wore a pair of calf-high muck boots from the cabin and still got one of my feet wet on the way to the Raymond Path.  I chatted with Pat for a bit and then returned to the cabin.  I changed my socks and made myself breakfast: oatmeal with peanut butter, dried fruit, brown sugar, cinnamon.  Earl grey tea.  It was still a comfortable temperature in the cabin, so I ended up hanging around and reading until late morning.  Finally, I convinced myself to head up to the summit.  I packed my bag with extra clothes and snacks and headed out the door again.

I took more care around the flooded sections, as I didn’t want wet feet 5 minutes into my adventure.  After a few minutes, I arrived at the junction with the Lion Head Winter Route.  There are a couple landmarks at the intersection.  There is an orange sign pointing to the Lion Head Trail – pretty high up on a tree – and a large brown first aid cache.  The cache looks like an oversized brown doghouse on the downhill side of the Fire Road.  I turned onto Lion Head and started uphill.  Before long, I got to a section that looked potentially too steep and icy for bare boots.  I paused to strap on my crampons, pulled out my mountaineering axe, and headed up without a hitch.

One of the steep parts of the Lion Head route.
Next up was that steep pitch.  There was no snow or ice cover at that spot because of the rain and warm temperatures, so it was just a wet, scrambly rock climb.  I found enough positive features to make it up without much trouble.  Beyond this pitch are some additional steep sections, but these were covered in a mix of snow and ice.  I played around with different crampon techniques: French technique (feet flat on the slope, all points engaged), German technique (toes pointed into the slope, front points engaged), and American technique (one foot flat, the other pointed into the slope).  These crampon techniques can be useful for both mountaineering and ice climbing.

The trees started to thin and I climbed into the clouds and the wind.  This has always been my favorite part of climbing mountains in the winter.  I love how there are such drastic changes – how quickly I can go from calm, protected, relatively mellow hiking to fantastic otherworldly environments with low visibility and stiff winds.  And so it was that day.  I found myself taking my time, picking my way up the trail – pockets of snow and ice between exposed rock.  Runoff from the rain trickling through the pockets and under the ice.  Alpine grasses and shrubs trying to stand their ground.  The clouds got thicker and darker.  By the time I was above Lion Head, I was pausing at each cairn to search for the next one.  I ducked behind a boulder to get out of the wind for a moment.  I added a couple layers to offset the windchill.  I put on my goggles on as well.  The wind would only get worse as I neared the summit.  

Headed up into the unknown.
I turned right onto the Tuckerman Ravine Trail to make the final push up the summit cone.  A few tenths of a mile put me at the summit.  The last couple turns of the Auto Road, the smattering of buildings, the Cog Railway.  I could see a vague outline of the Observatory tower.  The summit sign was bare.  No snow, no ice, no rime.  The wind was blowing harder, and I found myself leaning slightly for stability.  I wandered onto the observation deck and waved at the tower.  I wondered if anyone was watching.  I looked at my watch – 1:45 – and made my way back down the way I came.  Partway down the summit cone, a bird passed overhead.  Wings outspread, but making no forward progress and getting blown sideways by the wind.  I wondered what was going through the bird’s head.

Partway down the summit cone, the weather changed again.  All of a sudden, the winds abated and the clouds thinned and lightened.  The world turned from a dull gray to a bluish white.  Conditions at the summit weren’t bad, but this was downright comfortable.  I took a break where the Tuckerman Ravine Trail met the Lion Head Trail to munch on a granola bar and have some soup from my Thermos.  I looked from side to side, across the Alpine Garden and at the broad shoulders of Mount Washington.  What a cool place to have in my backyard.  I spread my arms to hug the world, shouldered my pack, and then continued down the trail.
The descent went pretty quickly.  I had kept my crampons on in anticipation of the steep area, and had my axe at the ready.  I got down most of the steep sections using French technique, though I turned to face the slope and downclimbed on front points in one section.  It had started to drizzle, so I reminded myself to focus, to be sure of foot placements, to stay calm, to not rush.  Downclimbing the rocky section was a fun exercise.  I moved slowly, hanging my axe on various ledges to keep it out of my way as I stepped my way down the wet rock.  No issues.  Back on solid snow, I wiped my hands dry.  I put on my rain shell and took off my crampons.  Soon after, I was back on the Fire Road and then back at the Harvard Cabin.  Didn’t see a single person on the trail the whole time.  I emptied my pack, hung my clothes out to dry, and fired up the wood stove at 4:00.

At 5:00, I checked in with the info desk at the visitor center – strange to be on the other side of the radio.  No guests expected for the night.  I poked at the fire for a bit and then started dinner.  I whipped up some rice, beans, and vegetables and made myself a pair of burritos.  I listened to NHPR while eating and then did some chores around the cabin.  I swept the floor, refilled the 5 gallon water buckets, did my dishes, and turned in for the night.  The next morning, I got up to take care of weather and snow work, and then headed down the hill for my shift at the desk, where I proceeded to rave about the hanging out above treeline and at the Harvard Cabin.

Seriously, the cabin is awesome...
Stop by the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center to snag your spot in the cabin!  We are here every day from 6:30 AM to 9:00 PM. We are also available by phone at (603) 466-2721 or by email at  To make reservations at AMC Lodges and Huts, please call (603) 466-2727 available Monday through Saturday 9am-5pm. 

See you outside!
AMC Backcountry Information Specialist


Labels: , , , , , , , , , , ,