“Dude, I’m this close to kicking you out,” Rich Palatino, the bearded caretaker of Harvard Cabin, warned. “I will, unless you stop acting like a douchebag. Well?”
It was New Year’s Day, 2017. Given that we were standing in the New Hampshire snow, 3,000 feet up the southern slope of Mt. Washington, the answer was “no,” we didn’t want to be evicted from the cabin and sent into the freezing cold at 10pm and miles away from the nearest road.
I looked at Joe, the accused douche who had allegedly spit chewing tobacco on the cabin’s front step, which had infuriated Rich’s wife Marcia and ignited the standoff. Joe was one of three people in my group, so I felt responsible for his behavior. He and Rich now stood chest to chest, each poised to throw a punch, when I stepped between them.
“Joe,” I said, “calm down, please.”
Joe looked at me and said, “Dude, I swear, I have no idea what this is all about.”
Considering Joe’s inebriated state, I believed him. I turned to Rich and said, “I think this is all just a misunderstanding.”
What a way to kick off 2017.
This was not what I had envisioned for New Year’s, although my adventures (misadventures?) in the White Mountains rarely unfold as planned. Exactly three years earlier, Jeff and I had brought four other New York City friends on a six-mile snowshoe trek to Zealand Falls Hut on the eve of 2014. Half the group threatened to turn back within the first mile.
But this was supposed to be different. While this was Joe’s first time on Mt. Washington in the winter, and so also his first time to Harvard Cabin, we knew what we were getting into. Together we had previously camped during winter on Mt. Marcy (tallest peak in the Adirondacks) and done a three-day winter trek through Harriman State Park in New York.
This trek began December 31, when Jeff and Joe took a 4am bus from New York City to Worcester, where I picked them up en route to Pinkham Notch. There at the AMC Visitor Center, we were disappointed to find no space remaining at Harvard Cabin, which can hold 16 people per night. The cabin is connected to the Harvard Mountaineering Club but unaffiliated with the AMC.
Our backup plan was to camp at the Hermit Lake Shelters, which are unheated lean-tos about 2.5 miles up the Tuckerman Ravine trail, and then sleep the following night 1.5-miles away at Harvard Cabin near Huntington Ravine. Caretakers Rich and Marcia live there four months of the year and expect a certain etiquette to be observed. At least, they don’t like people spitting tobacco on their front steps.
We arrived to Hermit Lake on New Year’s Eve at about 5:30pm, in the dark and with our headlamps lighting the way. Soon we were eating a hot dinner of instant noodles, cheese, pepperoni, and chocolate, all washed down with whiskey. By 9pm, with the temperature in our shelter at 20-degrees F, we had each retreated into our sleeping bags to stay warm. A chess match between Jeff and Joe ended when Jeff could no longer feel his fingertips.
Before falling asleep, I heard voices outside and saw the flashlights of another group just arriving. It seemed odd for people to be trekking into Hermit Lake so late on New Year’s Eve, but I didn’t think twice about it until the next day, when I learned that they had been kicked out of Harvard Cabin. Such would nearly be our fate, too.
The next morning — New Year’s Day — was blistery. Several inches of new snow had fallen and the wind had picked up, creating white-out conditions. While on a clear day we could have seen Tuckerman Ravine, today it was completely enveloped in snow. We packed up and tromped over to Harvard Cabin via the Raymond Path.
Entering the dark hut, I was greeted by people who were sitting at the kitchen table and shouting at me, “Close the door! Close the damn door!”
“What a warm welcome,” I said.
Minutes later, Jeff and Joe entered, greeted with the same shouts of “Close the door!”
Marcia asked where we were coming from.
“Hermit Lake,” I said.
“How was that?”
“Cold. We wanted to stay here last night but you were booked.”
“Actually, we had space,” Marcia said. “We kicked out a group of three guys who had broken the rules by signing up the night before. Kicked them out at like 9pm, think they went to Hermit Lake.”
“I think we saw their flashlights.”
“So did you guys already sign up to stay here?” Marcia asked.
“Well, actually, we signed up yesterday for today,” I said. “Is that OK?”
“Hmmm, that’s a tricky one. But I guess it’s OK, because you were on the trail and not going back to Pinkham Notch before coming here. The other guys had signed up, returned to North Conway, and then come back the next day to hike in. Can’t do that.”
Despite Marcia’s assurance that we were good to stay there for the night, our names were at some point erased from the sign-in sheet at Pinkham Notch, apparently because we’d signed up a day early. Luckily, there was plenty of space that night, but it could have gotten awkward if another large group had showed up. Harvard Cabin could resolve such confusion by creating an online reservation system, as is done with the AMC huts, but Rich and Marcia seem pretty committed to the more “rustic” approach.
Not longer after we arrived, Rich tromped inside in his ski boots. He tossed down his snowy backpack and declared, “It is raging out there. The wind is whipping up snow in Huntington Ravine.”
Me, Jeff and Joe looked at each other warily. We were suiting up to go back outside and attempt to summit Mt. Washington via the Lion Head Winter Trail, which would have us hiking above treeline for about 1.5 miles into the full force of the raging wind.
“It is scary out there,” Rich warned us. “You couldn’t pay me a million dollars to go up there right now.”
I nodded and said, “We’ll take it step by step.”
Soon we were ascending the super-steep Lion Head Winter Trail, where it was almost balmy while in the protection of the trees…
But as we peaked above treeline, the wind became ferocious, pushing us sideways. According to weather data from the Mt. Washington Observatory, the average temp that day was 10-degrees F while the windspeed averaged 62mph with a peak of 101mph, which is equivalent to a category 2 hurricane. Staying upright required all our effort and concentration.
At Lion Head, we rested in the lee of the rocks and decided to go just a bit further. All other hikers coming down the Lion Head Trail had said they had turned back here. One guide from IME who was with two clients told me sternly, “Even if I was alone, I wouldn’t have gone any further.”
The wind was quickly covering our tracks, raising concerns that if we lost the path (which we had already done once) we would be unable to retrace our steps and find our way safely back below treeline. Visibility was less than 40 feet.
We walked about 100 feet beyond Lion Head, at which point Jeff said his hands were freezing and Joe looked mightily concerned. We turned back, which didn’t disappoint me too much. At that moment, I was recalling another trek nearly four years earlier, when Jeff and I nearly died atop Mt. Jefferson because we’d pushed forward in similar conditions and then gotten lost in a confusing swirl of snow, wind and frigid temps.
Back at Harvard Cabin, we changed into dry clothes and broke out the belly-warming whiskey. Joe went outside to smoke. Jeff and Rich struck up a lively discussion about whether the cabin could be called “rustic,” a word that bristled at Rich, perhaps because it sounded too Pottery Barn.
Rich began calling us “the Brooklyn boys” with a mix of mockery and jest (even though, of the three of us, only Jeff lives in Brooklyn). Everything seemed relatively copacetic. But as the whiskey continued to flow, Rich began dropping hints that he wasn’t thrilled about people being inebriated in his cabin.
Then Joe allegedly spit tobacco on the front steps.
I was using the outhouse when it happened. As I trudged back through the snow, Joe stood outside, looking aggravated and confused. He saw me and asked, “Are you with the police, too? Everyone is out to get me!”
I walked past him to where Marcia was shoveling the cabin’s front steps and asked if I could help. The scene quickly devolved. Marcia yelled at Joe about spitting tobacco on the front step after she had pointedly told him to not spit where people would be walking. As she was yelling, a former member of the Canadian military came outside and also started yelling at Joe. Joe yelled at everyone to stop yelling at him.
Then Rich emerged.
“Do not yell at my wife,” Rich said, pushing Joe backward.
Joe swiped Rich’s arm and said, “Get your hands off me.”
They stood chest to chest. That’s when I stepped between them and said, “I think this is all a misunderstanding.”
“A what?!” screamed the Canadian military man. “He knows he spit on the steps! He fucking knows it!”
“Why are you instigating?” I asked the Canadian.
“Instigating?!” he yelled back.
Rich told the Canadian and Marcia to both go back inside. Before doing so, Marcia shoveled a scoop of snow and threw it at Joe.
“I am about to kick you out of the cabin,” Rich told Joe. “You have been negative all night long. You have been saying weird shit all night long. You’re drunk and you’re high. I will kick you out right now. Do you want to leave or are you going to calm down?”
“What does my drinking have to do with anything?” Joe asked.
“You should not be drunk on the mountain,” Rich said.
“Joe,” I said, “calm down. You did something to insult Rich’s wife, so he is being protective of her. You can appreciate that. Calm down. You don’t want to have to leave right now.”
“Rich,” I continued, “I’m sorry about all this. We’ll leave if you want us to.”
“You don’t have to leave. This guy just has to stop being a douche. It’s fucking cold out here. I’m going back inside.”
We all went back in. Half the cabin soon went to sleep in the upstairs loft. The rest of us sat at the downstairs table in awkward silence, with Joe still bewildered by why anyone was angry with him. Then in clear view of Rich, Joe reached for the bottle of whiskey and took another swig. I leaned toward him and said, “Considering what just happened, it’s probably best if you don’t drink any more.” Joe shrugged and took another swig. Rich either didn’t notice or bit his tongue. I went to bed, wondering where we’d find Joe in the morning.
The forecast for January 2 was clear skies and low winds, so we decided to try again for the summit. Joe was battling a horrible hangover but somehow still managed to pull himself together for an 8am departure. We again ascended the Lion Head Winter Trail.
When the day before we couldn’t see further than 40 feet, now we had a 130-mile-view to the Atlantic Ocean.
The light through the clouds and reflecting off the snowfields was amazing. It was like walking through an Ansel Adams photo.
As we climbed, Joe’s hangover wore off and he slowly recalled the fiasco of the night before.
On the way back down, we passed Rich, who was now hiking up with skis strapped to his back. Me and Joe both offered apologies for what had happened.
“We don’t need douchebags on the mountain,” Rich told Joe. “If you want to stay again at Harvard Cabin, you should strongly consider apologizing to Marcia.”
Back at Harvard Cabin, Joe also apologized to Marcia, who seemed to genuinely appreciate the gesture. She asked if we planned to come back, which seemed less like an invite and more like she was bracing for our potential return. “Probably not again this winter,” I said.