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February 2001

Two Shades of White Mountains

Lines at backcountry outhouses. Hikers competing for tent sites. Is there any solitude left in New Hampshire's White Mountains? Lots of it, if you know where to go.

Like too many modern journeys, this one begins on the Web. I’m surfing for something or other, getting distracted by random e-waves, when chat room static about crowding in New Hampshire’s White Mountains catches my eye. Old song, new singer, I think to myself. I grew up in New England. I’ve hiked thousands of miles on the region’s trails and written a guidebook to the area. Folks probably have complained about crowds in New Hampshire’s signature mountains since English settler Darby Field first climbed Mt. Washington in 1642.

I moved from New Hampshire to Idaho only 2 years ago; things couldn’t have worsened that much in so little time. Nonetheless, always curious about what’s going on back in “my” peaks, I read on. And what I read shocks me:

  • Backpackers lament having to race to campsites that fill up quickly on summer and fall weekends.
  • Some endorse a reservation and permit system, an idea anathema in “live free or die” New Hampshire.
  • One writer reports, “Went hiking by the Guyot campsite and counted 20 tents. Looked like a Phish concert.”

I phone Roger and Janet Scholl, Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) trip leaders. When I ask Roger whether the Whites are more crowded, he says without hesitation, “Absolutely. There are a lot more people than even a few years ago.”

At the once-roomy Appalachia trailhead parking lot, cars now line the highway half a mile in either direction, Roger tells me. Last summer, at Garfield campsite, “We were packed in like sardines. There were probably 25 tents in the overflow area.” Even on the once-obscure Montalban Ridge, he says, he had to hike miles to find a tiny, unoccupied tent site.

Janet adds some disturbing advice: “You want solitude? Try November.”

But the most toxic evidence comes from the AMC’s field supervisor for White Mountains campsites and shelters, Kevin “Hawk” Metheny. To whit: The composting toilets at the AMC’s 14 backcountry campsites now require 10 tons of bark annually (users “flush” with a handful of bark). That tonnage is nearly double that needed before 1990. Though the increase is attributable partly to replacing some pit toilets with composters, it also reflects a nearly 50 percent leap in the number of campers since the early 1990s.

My mind buzzing with images of sewage streaming down my beloved boyhood trails, I have no choice. I must visit the Whites and see if I can find the forest among the people.

After a stiff, 2,500-foot uphill warm-up, Keith Ratner and I scramble up an improbable granite outcrop on the Bondcliff Trail and find ourselves suddenly above the treetops, gazing out over a sea of mountains that fade to blue in the distance. The scene dusts off memories of my first hikes here, when these thrones of ancient stone excited and intimidated me-when they still embodied wilderness in the mind of a young hiker who did not yet feel the closeness of surrounding towns or the claustrophobic press of other mountain travelers.

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