Stay Classy, but Not Too Classy, AMC

I have some notes and concerns about the AMC huts.

The “huts” in the White Mountains are operated by the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) in place of regular shelters. During the summer season the huts are fully staffed with the students and recent graduates of liberal arts colleges. Running Galehead were two recent Middlebury grads and three or four others from Yale, Colby, etc. One of the Midd students had been part of the college radio station at the same time as I, though we’d only met in passing.

Wealthier travelers/tourists/hikers pay upwards of $120 a night to stay in these huts, essentially laid out like bunk-room hostels with a dining service. The price tag means the guests are generally well-to-do  New Englanders or foreign tourists (an Argentinian mathematician, a retired anesthesiologist, etc.).

A long time ago the huts were noncommercial. In a place known for volatile and deadly weather conditions they served as havens for hikers and adventurers. At some point, as the Whites became a world destination, the huts expanded into the mountaintop fundraisers they are today. Thankfully they honor their original purpose by offering “work-for-stay” to a few thru-hikers every night. I did this twice. As a hiker you show up and do some odd jobs for an hour or two (I cleaned an ice chest, washed dishes, cleaned a stove) and they let you sleep on the floor of the dining room and provide leftovers (plentiful and good) from the guests’ dinner.

This situation can get a bit weird though. My first work-for-stay I had a good time, I was socially welcomed by the staff and felt appreciated. But at my second work-for-stay the staff didn’t so much as thank me; they set me to cleaning a stove and doing a mass of dishes entirely by myself. This was uncomfortable even for me, someone of the same age and background as the hut staffers. How much more uncomfortable could this be for someone very different from the staffers? I talked with several thru-hikers who felt used and unappreciated by the huts and their guests. Think of it this way: there are middle-aged adults, accomplished and proud at this hike they’re doing, showing up at a hut in the mountains to be asked by a bunch of rich kids to do their chores in return for scraps.

(The staffers being all white I would say there’s a potential race issue as well, however nearly all of the hikers also being white makes the race issue a matter of an entirely different scope.)

This is certainly not always the case, and most of the huts’ staff and guests are wonderful people. Most hikers love the opportunity to work for a good meal in the mountains. But after being in the great equalizer of nature for so many months I was unsettled by these social dynamics.

As a part of the Appalachian Trail there’s a responsibility to upholding the community spirit, the spirit of camaraderie, charity, and trust. I would hope that the AMC, being one of the primary caretakers of the trail, understood the importance of preserving the trail’s spirit, and that they would educate their hut staff as to where these thru-hikers stumbling into the huts are really coming from. Work-for-stay hikers will always want more food, but they don’t need more food; they’ve come this far and know how to ration. Many hikers want to work-for-stay to experience more of this wonderful community, whether at AMC huts or some other hostel. I think everyone has something to gain from AMC huts recognizing the potential discomfort caused by class differentiation and unappreciative staffers. Respected thru-hikers will be happy to work and will work well. The huts’ guests will appreciate the good vibes and inspiration. The staffers, encouraged to reach out to the community, will become a rewarded part of it.

Every year some forty-year-old gator wrestler with the scars and drawl to prove it will step into a hut of liberal arts grads, and everyone will be better for it; all it takes is some respect for this journey we share.

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Comments 12

  • Abbnvm : Oct 5th

    While I think that the AT is an extremely rewarding and potentially life-changing journey, I don’t think that it’s fair to say that everyone we interact with must be appreciative of what we are doing. The AMC and the hut system were in place long before the AT was ever a thing. Hut crews must make and serve dinner for up to 100 paying guests a night, as well as dealing with things such as search and rescues and packing food, and that is not easy to deal with in addition to any regular duties. Maybe some people who work in the huts are rude, but so are some thru-hikers.
    The people staying in the huts and eating the food are paying a lot of many to do so, and thru-hikers are not. We are hikers, who, like everyone staying in the huts, have hiked hard to get to where we end up. We have the added benefit of added endurance thanks to our goal of reaching Maine, but we must earn our stay. A crew member who does not thank you for work might simply see you as another, abet temporary, employee of a larger organization. Your dish scrubbing, or what have you, is simply your way of paying for your meal. I wish the huts were cheaper and more accessible to people of all income levels, but they are not. And while it is true that the hut system tends to hire from elite colleges, that is not always the case. If the hut crew seemed cliquish, a lot of that can be attributed to the fact that a group of five to ten people is spending three months living and working together in a very small space and that alone tends to breed a very insular mind-set. The huts also only clear about a 4% profit due to the costs of operating them; helicopter drops, maintenance, paying the hut crew (who make NH minimum wage), as well as installing any new green technologies that are viable and cost effective.
    I think, by the time hikers get to New Hampshire, they are used to everything on or around the trail to be thru hikers friendly. Due to the massive volume of visitors the White Mountains receive (upwards of 6 million visitors a year), thru-hikers make up a minuscule percentage of people that hike here. As a thru hiker, I met all sorts of non-thru hikers, I got a ride into Franklin from a gentleman who lived in the area for years but had no idea about anything involving the Appalachian Trail. The AMC is an organization whose main goals are education, conservation, and recreation. We as thru hikers want this trail to be available to all people who want to undertake this journey, sometimes it helps to help or at least understand those who charge for what others give away.
    Sorry for that rant. For reference, I thru-hiked in 2014 with my fiancé and I have worked for the AMC seasonally since 2012

    • David : Oct 7th

      Thanks for the statistics there. I didn’t know their margins were so small (though I do find it a bit circular, wouldn’t cost so much if they didn’t try to make into such a little vacation in the wilderness). I agree that we can’t expect everyone to be appreciative of what we are doing. But I do think it’s valuable to call attention to the negative situations that can arise from existing class structures. I’m not upset that I wasn’t thanked for cleaning dishes, but that the connotation of that situation can change so drastically depending who is not being thanked.

    • Frank : Oct 9th

      I am a long time AMC and ATC member. I would like to agree with the above well reasoned and well written response. The AMC and most of its huts far predate the AT. The trail took its course through the Whites to take advantage of the existing trail system, a trail system laid down through very rough terrain and cared for at great expense largely by the AMC. The primary task of the croo is to take care of the registered and paying guests and to respond to trail emergencies. For” young kids ” they do a great job. The larger numbers of people thru hiking is also causing problems. ( witness the problems at Baxter State Park ) when you have a full Hut and seven hikers show up at dark expecting to do work for stay someone is going to go away mad.
      Also The AMC maintains more than 300 miles of the AT in five states – not bad.
      One more note. I have noticed a change in the attitude some of thru hikers of late. It is a minority to be sure but trail magic has become an expectation ? Hike your hike but plan your hike – don’t expect to be able to yogi in every situation. Thin man

  • Frango Pizzoli : Oct 7th

    Hike your own hike….take what you get and quit whining. We are out here for the experience, not always the way we think it should be, but the way it is. If the journey was all the way we wanted it to be, then it wouldn’t be an adventure. I learned tolerance on my hike and it was a good thing.

  • Cathy63 : Oct 7th

    Imagine the difference of a thru hiker walking out of a hut in the morning feeling appreciated or with the feeling of being used and barely even recognized. It takes very little effort to show appreciation. Very little.

  • Connie : Oct 7th

    Why in the world would you bring up race?????

  • The Whites are White : Oct 7th

    It was very stressful to hike through the Whites. The trail was slow going and hard as hell, there was little water, resupply, and stealth camping. That experience was juxtaposed with the influx of the wealthy at huts feasting like Harry Potter at Hogwarts. The clique aspects of rich, white student workers also involved getting to choose who stays and who goes, so even if there is open space some are denied. I saw it happen, it did seem they choose the young, cool ones mostly. Those who are lucky to stay eat the left overs which at times are literally scraps, then they sleep out of sight of other guests (sleep when lights go down, be packed before breakfast). It does betray the structure of a class system. Thru hikers aren’t super heroes, they do need a stable sense of what to plan for each day for food and shelter, and to be safe when the weather is bad. If you have hiked the trail and didn’t notice there are hardly any people of color thru-hiking or staying in the huts, check your white privilege. The AT Conservancy has included getting people of color on the trail into their five year strategic plan because there are barriers to thru hiking like the racial/class issue of being able to afford gear and a 6 month trip, urban density of poor people of color, etc.. And not many families of color can spend $600 a night plus tips for a family of 5 to sleep in a bunk bed, that might be all they get for the month to live on.

    • Abbnvm : Oct 12th

      The AMC also has programs to help get people of color, urban, and at-risk youth outside. Revenue from the hut system can help fund these programs.

    • goldenshepard : Oct 18th

      Again why bring up race? It is n’t necessary and enough of this white privilege garbage.

  • Sunrise : Oct 9th

    When my friends and family ask how I enjoyed the Whites during my thru-hike last year, I usually describe my one hut experience like being in steerage class on the Titanic. It was a little degrading and disappointing, kind of like when I passed through Front Royal during my hike and stopped in a (nice) coffee shop for breakfast. A woman made the comment to her friend (while eyeing me sideways) that “they let all types in here.” What stood out to me in the Whites is that instead of being the one going into town, the town (a really wealthy one) comes to you. So I decided not to deal with huts from that point forward and had an amazing, incredible, rewarding experience in the Whites that included cowboy camping on Garfield, which I might not have done if the huts were more accommodating. On another note, despite the cliquish atmosphere of the hut croo, they were doing a pretty awesome (and challenging) job, that I only would have been envious of a few years earlier. I never witnessed race as an issue, only money. Also the croo definitely did not pick and choose between the “cool” and “less cool” hikers to work-for-stay. It was a first-come first-serve opportunity and you just had to be lucky enough to be there at the right time. (Not all thru-hikers are pleasant to be around either. I’m sure they’ve dealt with their fair share of jerks.) I’m sorry that David and others also had a disheartening experience, but in my opinion, if you don’t like it, don’t stay. The fresh air is outside!

  • Lorax of the Hut Croo : Oct 24th

    As someone who worked at the notoriously bad (as far as relationship with thru hikers) hut, Lakes, this summer, it seems as though both sides feel unappreciated and judged by the other side.
    Some hut kids are jerks, but so are some thru hikers. However, like most of life, if you get to know either the hut kids or thru hikers, they are really awesome people that just want to talk about their experience and deserve more respect!
    I promise if you get to know the croo on a more personal level you’ll love your experience in the Whites and at the huts!
    I’m genuinely sorry you had a bad experience at the huts. That’s never our goal. Hopefully both communities can come together to make it a better experience in the future!

  • Sean Grace : Dec 15th

    Great discussion. In the mid 80s into the mid 90s, I did quite a bit of backpacking on the AT. Staying in the huts in the Presidential Range was very memorable. Now that I have three Young teenagers I I thought that hut hopping through the presidential Range would be a great introduction to backpacking for them. I was flabbergasted to learn that the huts now cost many times what they did when I stayed there. Instead of charging what they can, they should charge what they must and ensure that they or not pricing out the average backpacker. Although it would not be my preference, it is bizarre to realize that we could spend a week at an island resort for less.


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