On Nicole Zussman’s backpack, a mosaic of patches present a passport of past hikes. From hut to huts in the White Mountains to day trips on Connecticut trails, many of the trails and experiences illustrated in the iron-on emblems are thanks to the Appalachian Mountain Club.

So when Zussman interviewed to be the next president of the nation’s oldest outdoor outing club, she couldn’t help hold her bag to the screen. Pre-pandemic, perhaps she would have presented it in person.

For years, outdoor activity – whether it’s cycling, hiking or alpine skiing – served as a way for Zussman to unwind from her daily corporate job.

She’d walk the trails in Stamford, Connecticut, with the self-proclaimed, “Stamford Hiking Club” – a group of friends with which Zussman frequently explores her hometown. In 2015, they did their first hut-to-hut in the White Mountains. And most recently, the group of friends climbed Mount Kilimanjaro together.

It was there, almost 20,000 feet above sea level, on the tallest peak in Africa, that she realized it was time for a career change.

After a life-changing experience on top of a mountain, it’s fitting her next endeavor provides opportunities for others to do the same. On Jan. 1, she began her new job as the Chief Executive Office and President of the Appalachian Mountain Club. She’s the first female to hold this position full-time.

Zussman previously worked for 30 years in human resources, with the latter half of her career serving as a chief people officer for large corporations. Day to day, she now sees connections between her prior roles.

July 11, 2010. AMC Greenleaf Hut, (Franconia Range), White Mountain National Forest, New Hampshire– Photo by Ty Wivell.

“It gives me the opportunity to take all of my skills and expertise in a corporate world and bring them to a mission-based organization,” she said. “Some of my background and skill set, which is being from human resources and bringing large groups of constituents together, really resonates in AMC.”

First created in 1876, the Appalachian Mountain Club was founded to help create and preserve the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire. Now, the outdoor club maintains trails from Maine to Maryland and has nearly 100,000 members across 12 states. There’s also an extensive volunteer network.

It’s a multifaceted organization with branches focused on conservation and recreation.

Take a hike up to the Greenleaf Hut in the shadows of Mt. Lafayette, and all of the pillars of the organization are on display. This summer, Zussman completed an overnight alongside Appalachian Mountain Club staff and media members, to learn more about restoration projects along the Old Bridle Path trail.

After receiving $1.1 million in federal funding from Sen. Jean Shaheen’s office, a five-year restoration project is underway. Dubbed “Restoring the Ridge,” Appalachian Mountain Club, United States Forest Service, White Mountains National Forest, and New Hampshire Parks and Recreation crews are working to repair the 8.6-mile Franconia Ridge traverse, which is one of the busiest trails in the area.

Following the Old Bridle Path, hikers are led to Greenleaf Hut, one of the eight backcountry sites the Appalachian Mountain Club maintains. During the summer months, the hut is open for overnight stays with three co-ed bunk rooms providing 48 beds about a mile from the summit of Mt. Lafayette.

Summertime crews greet overnight guests with a home-made meal at shared wooden tables in the cabin’s main room. After dinner, they also lead naturalist talks on the flora, fauna and wildlife that inhabit the trail area in the harsh alpine environment.

In the morning, a hot breakfast is served before guests are on their way.

From Greenleaf, summiting Mt. Lafayette leads hikers along the Franconia Ridge, crossing Mt. Lincoln and Little Haystack, before descending down the Falling Waters trail.

If hikers are going hut to hut, the Appalachian Mountain Club recommends their Galehead hut as the next destination – a 7.7-mile hike across the Greenleaf and Garfield Ridge trails.

It’s hard to summarize the feeling of waking up 4,000 feet above sea level, said Zussman. It’s a combination of luck, appreciation – for the views of the untouched forest and fresh air – and exhilaration of summiting each peak along the Presidential traverse.

These feelings are at the root of what she wants others to experience through the Appalachian Mountain Club.

“Most Americans don’t get to experience that,” she said. “For me, part of leading this organization is ensuring that thousands more people experience that same joy.”

Readers can become a member of AMC at outdoors.org/join.