Lakes of the clouds hutmaster north conway’s emily leich heads up ‘croo’ at 100-year-old amc hut news gas bloating pain


"It’s not an easy job," acknowledged Emily, who although 5-foot-3 can pack in supplies weighing between 60 and 70 pounds. "It might terrify you at the beginning of the season, when you have to explain to your croo how much responsibility we do have up here." But usually, she said, "it all goes well."

Her dad, Jeff Leich, 66, executive director of the New England Ski Museum in Franconia, was introduced to the huts at age 16 as an end-of-season croo member at Mizpah Hut in 1965. He worked summers in the huts during his years at Dartmouth, working at Lakes in 1968 and ’69, and at Galehead in 1970 and ’71. His late father, Harold H. Leich, also a Dartmouth man, worked on the construction crew at Galehead for legendary AMC huts manager Joe Dodge in 1932. Dodge (1898-1973) was the AMC visionary who conceived the chain of huts, each located a day’s hike apart.

Emily’s brother Alex, 23 — a fellow Kennett and St. Lawrence graduate — is an avid mountain biker who was a ski coach at Colby College last winter and is pursuing his master’s in business administration from Thomas College in Waterville, Maine.

"When we were young, we thought it was the most natural thing in the world," Leich said. "But now, looking back, I think it is pretty amazing to have these mostly college students running essentially a back country hospital if need be, or providing mountain hospitality, miles from the nearest road."

"It’s a pretty heavy responsibility to take care of 90 people a night and making sure they are safe," added Leich. "Other than working as a lifeguard at a summer beach, there are not many summer jobs that young people of that age can have where they are given such responsibility."

Once the season begins, every Wednesday and Saturday, croo members hike to the top of the Mount Washington Auto Road, loading trash and recyclables onto wooden packboards and transferring them onto a truck that drives up from the AMC’s Pinkham Notch Visitor Center. They then load food onto their packboards and head down.

Asked if her anthropology degree has offered any insights into human nature, Emily said that some hikers are still surprised to see a woman hutmaster, or to see her packing heavy loads while male croo members do dishes or cook. But it’s all a matter of shared job responsibilities: Everybody does everything.

"It’s interesting to me to see how in general people in our culture interpret gender and what they expect of you," said Leich, who lived in a women’s resource-themed center in college and volunteered on advocacy programs to prevent sexual assault. "That’s most evident to me. Not among the croos but in how some people view us."

"It really is neat to pass on the tradition of the huts to the young croo members. We have so much of our own vocabulary. At the beginning," said Leich, "the new croo members have no idea of what we are talking about and at the end of a few weeks, they are up to speed. It’s kind of funny to see how it evolves."

As for being a hutmaster, Emily summed it up by saying, “I think it hit me last year when I was at Mizpah what it means to be a hutmaster: you’re the person who when you hear a scary noise in the middle of the night, you’re the one who has to go check it out. I like that.”

Each hut provides bunkroom accommodations, home-cooked meals and naturalist programs, allowing hikers of all abilities to travel relatively light and experience the beauty of the White Mountains above treeline or near a remote mountain pond or waterfall.

The AMC was founded in Boston in 1876. In 1888, it built the first mountain hut for hikers at Madison Spring. AMC’s eight “off-the-grid” mountain huts are fashioned after those in the Alps, each spaced a day’s hike apart along a 56-mile-long stretch of the Appalachian Trail.

“There are some aspects of the huts that evolved not only as places to sleep or places to have a great meal and get rest, but also as centers for learning and outdoor education,” he said, adding that today’s hut system also uses alternative energy and composting, assists in search and rescue operations, and plays a part in AMC’s alpine ecosystem research.

"Old Hutman Bob Daniel — who worked on the Manhattan Project during WWII — used to come back to the huts as a naturalist, and he used to say that Lakes is really like Labrador — its flora and geology were deposited by the Ice Age and its elevation’s foreshortened seasons meant everything happened faster, meaning time was speeded up," said Havely, who was in the huts in the mid-Sixties.

"We knew we were in a special place that was reinforced every time you hiked or packed the Crawford Path down from the summit to Lakes or walked around Monroe Flats or stood on the top of Monroe at sunset. ‘It doesn’t get any better than this,’ we used to say to ourselves or each other. And the geology constantly reminded you that it would be there way, way longer than you would be.

"Now, I tell my students those stories and let them see that for themselves who come to the huts for a course in sustainability in wilderness and backcountry areas," said Havely, who retired from a career in communications and is now an adjunct professor for graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

Reunions of hut croos "are filled with the same camaraderie and kinship for why were in the huts and continue to come back," Havely said. "It’s also why a lot of hutmen (and I mean both men and women) never leave. It’s just so fantastic and transforming. And if the AMC has a position caretaking in the fall or winter, many jump at it, Ivy League education and the thousands in tuition notwithstanding.