(Whitey descends after an ice climb in Flume Gorge, NH. Photo by Ari Schneider/The Tufts Daily)
FRANCONIA, New Hampshire– Sitting in the backseat of an Audi station wagon on a balmy Saturday morning in mid-January, I can’t help but to think about the man driving the car.
I had met Whitey before, a few times. I remember my freshman year, coming into the Loj and seeing this older guy hanging out in the kitchen with a few other upperclassmen. It is such an odd sight, seeing someone that could be my grandpa talking with current TMCers. Someone that night pulled me aside and said to me that guy, Whitey, he’s a legend in the club. You should get to know him.
Now, alongside some other Tufts Mountain Club (TMC) members, we are going ice climbing at Flume Gorge, at the southern end of the Franconia Ridge.
The ice is pretty wet that day, on account of the warmer weather. We climbed all day, Whitey always eager to give someone a belay, or show up the younger crowd with his impeccable footwork and unquenchable desire to climb again and again and again. He is great about giving beta—or climbing tips—to us as we ascend the ice pillars that had formed alongside the frozen river on which we are standing. Whitey never gives up on you as a climber; he is always encouraging, pushing you to keep going. He has this uncanny youthful exuberance about him that you feel the moment you shake his hand.
After a full day of climbing, Whitey treats us all to a meal at the Woodstock Inn, a common stomping ground for TMC members after a trip. We joke around as he tells us stories of his days as a Tufts student, his pumpkining escapades and other pranks he pulled. You could see the twinkle in his eye when we spoke about our “sketchy” adventures and mishaps in our time at Tufts. Whitey always seemed to one up us with a story; he told us about the “Kids Day” event at school, where members of the Mountain Club were “approved to climb buildings. We would help kids rappel down what is now Barnum.” That is one of the things I like best about Whitey—he loves telling stories. He just has this daring personality, a desire to seek out the new and undiscovered.
Back at the Loj, I pull aside Whitey, along with Zephyr Ferok—a junior at Tufts and an active member of TMC—into the caretaker’s room. Whitey, with the silver streaks in his hair, is wearing his usual uniform of thick flannel. He takes a seat in a chair facing me. Zephyr, with his blonde hair and mischievous child-like smile, takes a seat on the couch with me.
John “Whitey” White, now 66, was born in Northern Maine. The oldest of two boys, Whitey was a very active child. He and his brother were “totally different” growing up. Whitey explains that his brother is now a professor at Boston University teaching civics.
Whitey says that his interest in the outdoors, to the extent of his passions today, do not come necessarily from his childhood, but from the Mountain Club.
“Hiking [for me] was a Mountain Club thing,” Whitey tells me.
He says that his outdoor adventures in the White Mountain National Forest began with the “bunny climbs” in the 1960s—he adds quickly that this was a completely politically correct phrase at the time—notably Lonesome Lake and Mt. Hale. When he first got involved in the club, he explains nostalgically, TMC was a “social club rather than something athletic.”
I am surprised to hear that Whitey didn’t come to the Loj, which at the time was the 2nd A-Frame Loj (the current building today is the 4th Loj), until his sophomore year at Tufts, in 1967. At this point, Whitey dives into the story of his first ride up to the Loj.
He says that he joined a friend of his on a dune buggy as the cruised up to New Hampshire. After running out of gas (the buggy didn’t have a gas gauge, he tells me) they arrive. What he comes upon is what he describes as a “pretty rustic” Loj. I soon realize that pretty rustic is quite the relative term. The A-Frame Loj had no insulation, and members huddled around a wood-burning stove in the center of the big room.
“[We] were really forced into a tight group; there were no corners in the A-Frame,” Whitey says. He thought that the Loj embodied the spirit and culture of the club at the time. Tasks, such as cleaning and meal times, were completed with a “military precision.” People constantly went on trips, because you would freeze sitting around in the Loj all day. At night, Whitey recounts sitting on rudimentary wooden benches around the fire, people sitting as close as they could to stay warm. Everyone would give each other back rubs, primarily to keep your blood flow going. “[Back rubs] seem kinda strange, but it was what you did to stay warm,” Whitey says.
Nowadays, he tells me, you can find certain sections in the Loj books—a primary documentation of different stories written down by TMCers over the years—entries from the days of the A-Frame Loj that begin with “You know it’s cold when….”
Whitey explains that this was part of what began this “mass” culture in TMC. Everyone did everything together. Even when I asked him about other extracurricular clubs and groups he was involved in at Tufts as a student, he simply says, “Everything was around the Mountain Club.”
He describes soccer games of “rough form” that he played with other TMC members on the athletic fields when the weather was warm, and in Cousens Gym when it became too cold. He recounts a year when members of the club participated in intramural league wrestling, and they won the championship.
He continues, telling me about his experiences with ROTC Navy—he was at Tufts via a scholarship from the ROTC. He explains that many members of the ROTC group were active TMC members.
Whitey can’t help but to tell me stories of adventures canoeing or kayaking down the Pemigewasset River, or of Tom Hanover (another alum) leading spelunking trips in the New Hampshire area.
“Wherever there was fun to be had, we were there,” Whitey says, smiling. At this point, I can really see the college sophomore embedded beneath the surface. The way he spoke with such enthusiasm about adventure.
I really want to know more about the culture of the Mountain Club at the time he was a student. When I ask him, Whitey tells me that “the group was very inclusive” as it is today. “The Mountain Club was very autonomous,” he says proudly, “there was very little affiliation with the school.”
He goes into detail about how he and other members of TMC provided much, if not all of the maintenance for the 3rd Loj, known as the Farmhouse—a former petting zoo and barn. Whitey tells me about the “work weekends” that they, the members of the club, took to fix up the Loj and keep it running efficiently. “That would’ve horrified the University,” Whitey jokes. They lay in a rudimentary stone road. He describes how they cut down trees with handsaws and axes to clear an area, to, of course, play soccer.
The result, Whitey says, is “kind of like a spa.” He points to the 3rd Loj as a turning point for the club’s culture. With the A-Frame, people were outdoors all of the time; “you had to do something,” he says. However, at the time of the Farmhouse, “you didn’t have to go out.” More students were coming up to lounge around all weekend. People would stay up late and play bridge and rock music. “It was self-serving then.”
“Well what about now,” I ask Whitey, “how do you feel that the culture has changed in the club? Where do you see differences in TMC’s culture today?”
Whitey takes a minute to ponder this question. “I’m impressed that you are a lot more technical.” He tells me that when he was a student, the club was not as accessible in terms of the equipment and gear that TMC boasts today. Whitey comments on the way in which TMC reaches out to new members today. “We didn’t go out of our way to recruit people” in the way the Mountain Club does now, Whitey remarks. He says we are providing these people with “a great opportunity. The Mountain Club is performing a service by showing people the outdoors.”
The conversation changes, and we talk about his life after Tufts. Whitey tells me that he was a mechanical engineering major at Tufts, with the hopes of working for Chrysler after graduation. “That didn’t quite pan out,” he laughs. Whitey says that worked as a mechanic for his entire career, “doing more of what I was doing behind Carmichael Hall, but getting paid,” he adds.
Whitey has three daughters, ages 37, 31, and 30, respectively. He tells me about how his oldest daughter lives right by his current home in Newburyport, MA. He loves babysitting his granddaughter, now that he is retired. He says that his middle child, Liz, is working as a research scientist out in California. His youngest daughter, Abigail, is a doctor of physical therapy. He excitedly tells me about how he has brought her to the Loj before to ice climb with him at VICEfest, a huge ice climbing festival founded by Tufts alum and TMC member Jeff Longcor, or as many know him, J-Lo.
He plunges into another story, this time about how J-Lo got him into ice climbing more recently. Whitey came to VICEfest a few years ago, and the day after the festival, he “went to Lahouts,” the big outdoor sporting goods store a few miles from the Loj, “and bought all the ice climbing gear he could.”
I am baffled that Whitey only started ice climbing a few years ago. He seems to constantly be challenging himself, looking for the next great endeavor at which to throw himself. Since retiring this past Labor Day 2014 (a coincidence that makes him very proud), Whitey has hiked 35 of the 48 mountains, dubbed the “4000 Footers”—a challenge that many New England outdoorsmen and women take upon themselves. During the winter months, Whitey has picked up snowboarding, taking advantage of the senior midweek discount at some of the local New Hampshire ski resorts.
On weekends, Whitey spends time at an alumni Loj that was built by many Tufts’ alums from the 1970s. He proudly declares that these folks are “hardcore, the A-Frame members.” These TMCers looked for a property in which they could enjoy the beauty of New Hampshire and all that they had experienced as Tufts students without infringing upon the current TMC members. Whitey tells me how they found a 70-acre property in Rumney, New Hampshire. They cleared the area, cutting down trees and other debris. He says that after they brought in a contractor to put in the foundation, the members took it upon themselves to build the Loj, finishing the process in four days. “And,” he added, “It had to have a dance floor.”
“I’m kinda winging it right now,” Whitey says.
I now turn to Zephyr, who has been intently listening, commenting now and then on stories Whitey tells me.
Zephyr has quite the impressive background for a TMC member: born in Alaska, his mother works for the Forest Service, his father used to be a bush pilot. He has been hiking, skiing, climbing, and hunting since he was a kid.
However, what he says he loves so much about the Mountain Club is that it “makes the outdoors here special.” Zephyr has quite a knack for teaching people, and takes pride in exposing TMCers to his passion for ice climbing and adventure. He firmly believes that the “memories you make will surpass anything you do in a class.” He encourages Mountain Club members to keep taking the initiative to get outside and explore nature.
Looking at the future, Zephyr hopes that TMC “just keeps going…offer more opportunities to more people, showing their true potential.”
“We’ll give you the idea that you can…and the tools to do it,” he says.
Whitey interjects at this point, and tells me that it is imperative that people in TMC “get out and do it.”
“I have to keep moving before I seize up,” Whitey explains to me. He is constantly itching for the next voyage, the next opportunity to discover something amazing about the outdoors, and subsequently about himself.
Just when I think we are wrapping up—it’s been quite a long day and I am sufficiently tired, Whitey has one more thing to tell me.
“Lily Glidden impressed me,” he says. “She was self-sufficient, and had a real adventurous spirit in a world that is so safe and sanitary.”
Lily graduated from Tufts a few years ago. I personally have never met her, but everyone only has great and admiring words to speak about her. I flashback to VICEfest my freshman year, watching older members cry as they detail Lily’s accident, researching elephants in Southeast Asia. Everyone loved Lily, I could see that immediately.
Whitey describes her as the embodiment of a TMC member.
Those are the things that he hopes Tufts students continue to demonstrate as they explore and adventure in the outdoors.