The Other Mountain Club
The Randolph Mountain Club, with its low-key, bare-bones approach to outdoorsmanship, keeps things real for hikers and has even been called New Hampshire’s best-kept secret.
It’s hard to miss the Appalachian Mountain Club’s presence in New Hampshire. From its magazines and frequent email newsletters to a wide selection of accommodations ranging from full-service lodges to primitive campsites — not to mention the 161 miles of the Appalachian Trail that stretch from Hanover to the unincorporated town of Success — the AMC provides enough offerings to make its 92,000 members happy while being in tune with modern, 2017 sensibilities.
But there’s another Granite State mountain club that you’ve probably never heard of, with a membership that maybe pushes 800. Despite its size, the group maintains an extensive network of 102 miles of trails in the northern Presidentials — including just over two miles of the Appalachian Trail — and four overnight shelters. Its members and the public at large can enjoy a variety of hiking opportunities and stunningly beautiful vistas that are just as majestic as anything under the AMC’s jurisdiction.
“The Randolph Mountain Club is New Hampshire’s best-kept secret,” says Carl Herz, who has worked as a shelter caretaker, a member of the trail crew, and today serves on the RMC board. “We try to keep it very genuine and bare-bones. We’re more about providing an authentic mountain experience and try not to let profit be our main gauge.”
The club doesn’t go out of its way to be low-profile; it’s just always been that way. With its hikes, social events and, most of all, the proclivities of its members, the club harkens back to an era that predates cell phones — by almost a century — and is naturally amnesiac about today’s maddening always-on lifestyles. If the AMC is lightning-fast broadband, the RMC is dial-up, or maybe even quill and inkwell, a low- (no-?) tech throwback to those bygone days when a phone capable of turning off the stove back home was just a Jetson-esque dream.
And that’s just what members love about it.
The Appalachian Mountain Club launched in 1876 with the aim of helping to preserve the White Mountains while simultaneously promoting their exploration; tourists responded by flocking to the southern Presidentials, most notably Mount Washington. As a result, there was significant spillover north into Randolph, as word spread about the town’s extensive trail network and visitors wanted to walk them for themselves. Indeed, some hikers were already AMC members and came to Randolph because they were dismayed by the larger crowds to the south. However, the trails around Randolph were not well-maintained, and the increased foot traffic didn’t help. So, in 1910, a group of summer residents decided to form the Randolph Mountain Club in order to formally address the issue. Work on the trails began in August of that year and has continued more or less ever since. Today, the club also helps maintain trails in the 10,000-acre Randolph Community Forest, which is the largest community forest in the state and one of the largest in the United States.
The club’s no-tech approach means it appeals to economy-minded hikers, whether they spend an afternoon exploring trails with names like White Cliffs and Ladderback or opt to stay a night or more at one of the club’s four shelters. A night at Crag Camp or Gray Knob will run just $15 ($20 for nonmembers), and you’ll have to bring your own bedding, food and camp stove. The Perch and Log Cabin, the club’s three-sided shelters, are just eight bucks a night, $10 for nonmembers. And it’s first come, first served: There’s no online reservation system on the club’s website. By contrast, you can reserve a stay online at the nearby AMC Madison Spring Hut — which includes breakfast, dinner and lodging — but the final bill can easily approach $1,000 for a family of four for a weekend.
“We provide an opportunity for people to dabble in hiking and camping without a huge initial investment,” says Jamie Maddock, current RMC president with a club history dating back to 1979 when he served as caretaker at Gray Knob. “You can just break out an old sleeping bag and pots and pans and get here, dump everything, and run up Mount Adams. It’s a way to see if you like being in the mountains without spending a couple hundred dollars on gear.”
From the beginning, it was clear that the people who gravitate to the more remote northern side of the Presidentials have been attracted to the club for more than the sheer love of the mountains: It was to congregate with others like themselves. The club has always laid claim to a membership that welcomes the quirky, the brainy and the musically inclined, along with a deep appreciation for history. The club’s social life, most of which is squeezed into a narrow six-week window between Independence Day and mid-August, naturally follows suit, from the twice-weekly group hikes to the annual charades and square dances, even the sherbet punch and lemon bars served at the July 4th Tea. Indeed, some might remark that if you were to close your eyes, little has changed since the club’s early years. It’s not an accident that more than one member has likened the club to a shimmering Brigadoon plunked down right in the middle of the White Mountains.
“When we first arrive in Randolph, we don’t necessarily go through a portal where we’re transported back a hundred years, but the club and town are a bit of a time machine,” says Brian Roberts, a professor at the University of Northern Iowa who has spent part of every summer in Randolph since stumbling upon the town and club with his wife, Barbara Cutter, in 2008. “Where the rest of the world revolves around productivity and functionality, Randolph has its own aesthetic, a slower human pace and activities that echo the history of the old grand hotels of the area. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Music in the Mountains
When the club first formed, one of the most popular pastimes for folks in Randolph (and elsewhere) was to gather around a piano and sing popular songs of the day; someone might join in with a violin or flute. Today, music remains a big part of the club’s tradition. Indeed, Betsy Rising, the RMC’s first female trail crew member and hut caretaker, brought her French horn with her to Crag Camp in 1977. As recounted in “Peaks & Paths: A Century of the Randolph Mountain Club,” by club historian Judith Maddock Hudson, it wasn’t unusual for hikers to hear the mellifluous notes of Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll” floating above the trails as they made their approach to Crag.
But what provides more of a shock to approaching hikers than a French horn is Crag’s pump organ, a musical tradition dating back to 1921 when the camp was privately owned. The first organ went missing sometime in the mid-1940s. This was a few years after the club took ownership of Crag, and the organ was lost to either firewood or mice (or both) — not an unusual thing at a time when the camps were not supervised year-round.
In 1957, a replacement was acquired and taken up to the camp by dividing the instrument into three loads of approximately 70 pounds each. They were then loaded onto wooden pack boards — aka “torture boards” — which three young club members hauled over 3 1/2 miles of trails, gaining 3,000 feet of altitude in the process. That organ met its end sometime in 1970, but with club members being such sticklers for tradition, member Mike Bromberg found a replacement in the summer of 1994. From that day on, he was forever known as the “organ donor.”
This brings us to another characteristic of RMC members: They love a good pun. If none exists, the nerdy wordsmiths that comprise the majority of the club will happily bend over backwards to create one, on everything from trail names to trailheads to annual reports.
Some trace these origins back to William H. Peek, a Londoner who landed in Randolph via Chicago in 1880 at the age of 60, and who proceeded to spend 25 summers in the town. Though he died five years before the club was founded, Peek was described as an “irrepressible punster” in the “Randolph Paths” guidebook. It’s clear that today’s members take their cues from the man, who christened Appalachia, a primary trailhead, after some local boys got sick after eating too many green apples not too far away — hence, Apple-ache-ia. As a side note, Peek was also an accomplished organist.
Another early trailmaker was Eugene Cook, who landed in Randolph in 1882 and favored a series of short, long, then short blazes to mark his paths. One of his trails was waggishly named Amphibrach after a form of Greek and Latin poetry where two short syllables of verse bookend a longer syllable. And, as is dryly pointed out in “Randolph Paths,” Muscanigra Fall “was perhaps named by someone tormented by black flies,” with musca and nigra the Latin equivalents.
But perhaps nowhere else is the affinity for puns in greater evidence than at the annual Charades, possibly the most highly anticipated club event of the year. After weeks of elaborate preparation, groups of amateur dramatists present their shows at Mossy Brook, a natural amphitheater. Performers provide the audience with clues against an often-deafening backdrop of cicadas and the rush of nearby Carleton Brook. Each charade falls somewhere between an earnest junior high skit and a Greek slapstick comedy. The first word in 1913 was porcupine (acted out as paw-queue-pine), and, exactly a century later, words included sequestration, locomotion, aggrandizement and inuksuk (!). Here, as with other club activities, solving the puzzle seems to be the least of the fun.
Membership in the club is almost equally split between year-rounders and summer residents. It’s a testament to the spirit of the club and to Randolph townspeople that, unlike many other summer-tourist meccas in New Hampshire and elsewhere, there’s no natural animosity between summer people and locals. The two groups seem to get along and, for the most part, genuinely enjoy each other’s company.
“You can go as an outsider and after a time feel welcomed into the community,” says Brian Roberts. “In fact, I know more people in New Hampshire than in Iowa.”
With that said, the club — as is the case with any nonprofit organization — is eager to build up its roster, particularly among younger hikers.
“The membership is aging,” admits Jamie Maddock. “Part of the problem is that some of the traditions are hard to keep going when people come up for only two weeks instead of the entire summer like they used to. Plus, some of the larger families prefer to hike with their families instead of going on the club hikes,” though he does point out that this is a mixed blessing. “On the one hand, we want to be able to offer group hikes, but because of ‘leave no trace’ policies, we want them to stay relatively small, under 10 people.”
In fact, questions about similar kinds of “mixed blessings” permeate the club, and members acknowledge there is a delicate balance between making the trails accessible and protecting the wilderness. “On the one hand, you don’t want to love it to death, but if nobody comes here, then there’s no support and there will be no one to appreciate it,” says Maddock. “So we try to lessen the impact, be a good steward and maintain the trails so people can enjoy them.”
And with three distinctly different types of people involved in the club — summer folk, year-rounders, and the caretakers and trail crew members who tend to skew younger — it’s sometimes difficult to keep them all facing in the same direction. But at the same time, no one at the club is much interested in herding the cats.
Indeed, as Roberts puts it, this unique brand of diversity serves as the club’s innate strength. “It’s not a club for leaders and followers,” he says. “Instead, we gather. On group hikes, we may start out with 10 people but end up with six when four decide to wander off for a swim or take another trail.”
But there are small signs that the club is inching its way into the 21st century. For one, the shelters began to accept credit cards for overnight stays in 2016, a far cry from Maddock’s caretaking days when he made weekly runs down to the valley to settle the books. “I’d bring the cash, count my salary out of it, hand over the rest to the president, and we were done,” he says.
That said, RMC members, volunteers and workers do acknowledge that technology has its place, in particular when it comes to rescues and other emergency calls. The club keeps in radio communication with the AMC, and since Gray Knob is the only shelter in the northern Presidentials close to treeline, its caretaker is typically one of the first responders. “The weather can turn truly nasty,” says Hannah Marshall, who has worked as a caretaker and on the trail crew. She has participated in several rescues along with other club members and local emergency personnel. “People don’t realize you can die just a couple of miles from the road.”
Maddock greets the question of whether cell phones are changing wilderness experiences for better or worse with a lengthy pause. “The good news is, if you bust an ankle and have a phone with you, we can start the rescue process a whole lot sooner and coordinate better,” he says. “The bad news is there are people who head off by themselves with just a phone and think they can just call and say ‘come get me’ when horrendous weather comes in, but many times we can’t because a lot of places are out of range.”
As is the case with most volunteer-run nonprofits — the only paid positions are trail crew and caretakers — money never ceases to be an issue at the RMC. Though the club relies on volunteers to help keep things running, the bulk of revenue comes from overnight shelter fees, grants from private and public sources, and membership dues, which run $30 for one person for a year, $60 for a family. The club publishes two newsletters each year, but if you’re expecting a glossy magazine or just a laminated membership card, you’re out of luck, because $29.50 of that 30 bucks goes into trail maintenance.
At least for the time being, the club will remain stuck in the last century, and that’s just fine with its members. Though Maddock says he’s toiled through the years trying to drag the club from the 1990s to the 2000s, he doesn’t stress too much about it. “We figure, if you really don’t like something, you’ll tell us,” he says.
Besides, for the people who keep coming back to Randolph year after year and generation after generation, the money is beside the point.
“There’s something really special about the Randolph Mountain Club that you don’t have at other places,” says Hannah Marshall. “First of all, it’s extraordinarily small. Next, unlike other places, I believe this place is really dedicated to stewardship of the landscape, and we do it in a way where we’re able to maintain a close relationship with each other and with the land.” And the more puns, the better.