It's Never Too Late: An Introduction to Camping in the White Mountains

“It wouldn’t be a trail,” dad muttered between groans, “if there wasn’t a rock in the middle.”

I had explained in muted detail before we started that the trail was steep and rocky. By now, nine and a half hours into our second day of a hut-to-hut trip in the White Mountains and a mere 100 yards from our day’s final destination, he knew exactly what I meant.

My dad got himself into this mess months before. We’ve always found time for at least one day hike together each year. When I lived in Boston, we would make the straight-shot north into the Whites. Other years, we’d squeeze in a hike wherever we happened to meet up: the Catskills, the Adirondacks, the southern Appalachians, Florida, Colorado. We never pushed the envelope, but always had fun.

Courtesy: Brian Cooke
Courtesy: Brian Cooke

This year, I suggested something a little different, something a little out of his comfort zone. I sold him on a 15-mile three-day, two-night hike between two of the White Mountain Huts run by the Appalachian Mountain Club. It would be a step down in difficulty from any trip I’d ever planned for myself, lacking sleeping on the ground and dehydrated meals, but it would be a step up from dayhikes for him. We’d do shorter days, eat homemade food, sleep out of the elements on bunks, and share a few good laughs between just the two of us. I’d even reschedule if the weather soured. It was the perfect introduction to camping

Dad and I share a lot in common, but lifestyle isn’t one. He has hardly camped in his 63 years, and I travel full-time with my wife in a converted SUV. He chases summer weather, and I’m outside in any weather. His calendar is planned around rounds of golf, and my calendar is planned around backcountry trips. Regardless, he agreed to the trip and ended up at the foot of Gale River Trail on a sunny Sunday, ready to tackle the 4-plus miles up to Galehead Hut.

The last message that buzzed into my phone before I lost service was from my mom, “Hope you enjoy your hike with Dad! Don’t hurt him.”

Flat trails don’t last long in the Whites, and our route was no exception.

We ate sandwiches at the trailhead, packed bags, and talked gear. The whole thing seemed like we’d done it before. He came prepared and excited, so we set off at a quick clip, the trail flat and soft. This was the terrain dad was expecting.

Flat trails don’t last long in the Whites, and our route was no exception. Dry pine duff changed to mud then to boulder-hopping. By the time we crested the climb to the hut, dad’s quads were pumped and his shirt soaked through. We’d covered only half the distance we would need to cover tomorrow.

Rested and refueled, we started day two all smiles en-route to Greenleaf Hut. The topographic maps I’d consulted showed two bigger climbs, one up Garfield Mountain and one up Mount Lafayette. The rest, it seemed, was just an undulating ridge. The hiker guide at Galehead Hut was ominous, simply stating, “There is no easy way between Galehead and Greenleaf.” Had I set us up for failure? Will this be fun or just plain difficult? Had I overestimated his fitness or underestimated the terrain?

Credit: Brian Cooke
Credit: Brian Cooke

The first four hours were a success, save for a bloody shin. We made it to the top of 4,500-foot Garfield Mountain for lunch. Dad recounted his college years as a lift rat on the top of Loon Mountain, its grassy runs peaking over Owls Head and Mount Flume. Pressing on, our hiking speed dropped as quickly as the trail did down the mountain’s steep western slope before the long climb to Mount Lafayette. Our slowing pace lent itself to a feasting frenzy for black flies, with most latching onto dad.

In theory, backpacking is simple. Strap what you need to your back and walk. No special training necessary. But as I watched dad tackle the trail, it was clear that the extra weight of the backpack and the uneven trail challenged his balance and wore on his legs. A rocky section which took 30 seconds at the beginning of the day was taking a minute in the afternoon. There’s a difference, he admitted, between the circuit workouts he does at the gym and a relentless day in the mountains with a pack.

Up on Franconia Ridge, we were spared buffeting winds as we linked cairn to cairn up to 5,249 feet, but nothing could make the steep descent to Greenleaf Hut easier on the knees. As dad limped onto the hut’s porch just in time for dinner, I was sure this was our first and last backpacking trip together. We shared some bourbon as tonic and he watched the sun set out our bunk room window from the cramp-free, prone position.

The last message that buzzed into my phone before I lost service was from my mom, “Hope you enjoy your hike with Dad! Don’t hurt him.”

We tumbled down Old Bridle Path the next morning with as fresh of legs as we could muster. We rejoiced; he at the end of the trail, and me at not hurting dad as mom had requested. Spirits were high, much higher than I had imagined they would be all said and done.

For years, I’d avoided suggesting overnight hiking trips. They were off limits. My dad, I thought, wasn’t interested, didn’t have the skills, and didn’t have the gear. As I’ve gotten older, however, I’ve traded adventure defined by higher, steeper, harder, farther for adventure in the form of new experiences with new people.

Credit: Brian Cooke
Credit: Brian Cooke

All I had to do was ask if dad wanted to go backpacking. As much as he’s tied to his own lifestyle, he isn’t afraid to try something new, even if it turns out that he should be. He didn’t need to spend thousands on specialized gear or practice any sort of special skills to walk (and slip and slide).

As after any difficult trip, the pain and apprehension sifts out with time and what settles are the successes: peaks bagged, laughs had, advice shared, and a damn good workout. Just days later, dad pulled out pictures of the trail in an attempt to warn my wife who was headed up to Whites for a trip. Hours later, he was regaling my sister and brother-in-law with the story. His golf buddies weren’t sure the story they heard was true. Despite it all, he maintains that he would go on another trip. What was once torture morphed into an adventure, and what was a once in a lifetime trip became a seed for future outings.

It’s his choice of trip next year, but until then, dad joked with his golf buddies, “Back to country club life.”