Highs and Lows

Being on east end of time zone, Vermont still gets light fairly early even in October. Just eating a couple breakfast bars sped the morning process and I was rolling soon after first light; around 7:30. There was a four mile climb up to the nose of Mt Mansfield which, near the top was the “sketchiest” section of trail yet. Luckily the weather was dry and sunny and my shoes were doing well.

Cars can drive to a spot nearly at the top of Mansfield so it was somewhat a shock to the system when suddenly there were dozens of people on the trail. Talking with Green Mountain Club staff at the Visitor Center I asked if the way down was as rough as the climb. She suggested I take Profanity Trail. I dropped my pack at the intersection of that trail and headed up to the chin of Mansfield, the highest point in Vermont.

The summit of Mt Mansfield, looking north. (You’re looking north, I’m looking south)

It was a great feeling to make it to the highest point on the trail. With clear weather, the views were amazing. To the north, Jay Peak and even Mt Royal in Canada were visible. To west, Lake Champlain was obvious. Mt. Washington in New Hampshire was the highlight to the east. Another GMC staff member was stationed at the top greeting the many day hikers. He stated I was the first thru-hiker he’d seen in days and gave me a fortune cookie as trail magic. My fortune was to learn Chinese. That was a much better fortune than “You’ll shatter your femur before nightfall” would have been.

Profanity Trail was aptly named. Not sure how much worse the Long Trail could have been. It dropped straight down for a profanity filled half mile. I spent much of the time down climbing over nearly vertical boulders. After meeting back up with the Long Trail, I stopped for lunch at Taft Lodge.  Once the leftover summer sausage and cheese were consumed there was another steep 2 miles out to Route 108. Had my thumb out for maybe 10 minutes before I got a ride back towards Stowe, the Arbor Inn and my truck. From there it was about an hour’s drive to the Jay Peak (ski) Resort where a room was waiting.

Working through the GMC I had made arrangements with Pat to pick me up at Jay Peak the next morning and drive me back to where I had left off. Early that morning, I received a text from her stating that it was pouring and asked if I was sure about hiking that day. She was right about it pouring and the forecast was for continuing rain all day. Pat had a good point and was willing to drive me the next day, so I headed down to the desk to rent my room for another night.

If I needed to take a zero day, Jay Peak Resort was the place to do it. Being the off season, there was no crowd and the rooms were reasonably priced. I had multiple restaurants to choose from including an “all you can eat” brunch. A convenience store carried snacks and there was even an indoor water park had I thought to bring a swim suit.

By evening, the forecast was looking pretty good. It called for dry weather the next three days, though colder. Beyond that however, the long range guess was 4 days of rain, then two days of snow. My weather window was closing.

Pat was unable to give me a ride in the morning, but sent her husband, Jim in her stead to drive me down to Smugglers Notch. He was a very nice guy and he and Pat have driven hikers around the trail for years. Unfortunately, the trail turned out to be significantly less pleasant than Jim. The path started straight up out of the notch and rain the day before had left everything wet and slick. The rain had come through with a cold front and there was a heavy frost at higher elevations. The going was slow, but I’d started at 9:30 and figured there was plenty of time to cover 11 miles before it darkness fell around 6.

Some serious step work
Some serious step work

After a mile climb, the trail leveled out, on the map. In reality the trail was etched into the side of a steep mountainside and constantly climbed over boulders and tree roots.

Part of the flat section
Part of the flat section

After passing by the very pretty Sterling Pond, crowded with day hikers, I started climbing again through a ski resort.

Sterling Pond. The trees in the distance are all frost covered.
Sterling Pond. The trees in the distance are all frost covered.

After a short climb on a ski run, the trail reentered the woods and there were several climbs where it was hand over hand grabbing roots to climb. After a bit it was back onto the ski trail. Apparently just walking the ski trail wasn’t steep enough.

The down slopes were even tougher.  While the shoes gave good traction uphill, they were no match for the steep downslope rock slabs, especially since they were wet and often covered with freshly fallen wet leaves. Nothing could get traction on the wet roots, which became frozen roots at higher elevations. I often had to just throw my tracking poles down a slope, turn around and just climb down backwards. Quite often these slopes also multi-tasked as drainage swales so both hands and feet were soaked as I went.

Looking back at Mt. Mansfield
Looking back at Mt. Mansfield

In early afternoon, checking my progress, I realized I was going too slow to make the shelter I was shooting for. My other possibility was to stop early at Whiteface Shelter, 3,100 feet high on Whiteface Mountain. As cold as the day was, night there would be miserable and there was a good chance the wet trail would freeze overnight; trapping me there for much of the day. To avoid that scenario, the only option was to go faster, pushing as fast as possible without endangering myself more than the trail already was.

On another steep upslope, I scrambled to the top of a big boulder pile, turned right and immediately had to drop back down through a mass of roots. As I looked for the best way down, I noticed an obvious route around the whole mess. It looked like the trail was routed purposely to make it even tougher than it needed to be.

That’s when I lost it. I spent the next several minutes loudly cursing the trail designers and cursing myself for my decision to return. Why did I come back to this trail at all? Why come back when weather was forcing me to hurry, when conditions would be tougher and when I wouldn’t have enough daylight to cover the needed miles?

Of course there was no answer from the trees, the rocks or the trail. Nature doesn’t care if you’re having a bad day or a tough time. It was all on me. After a bit, I knew I had to quit wasting time feeling defeated. There was no option but to hurry and hope I didn’t get hurt. With that I put my head down and hiked. I’m sure there were several great views, but I didn’t stop or even glance at them. No snacks, no water, just keep moving.

The slope off Whiteface was as steep as any, but I just grabbed trees and hoped my feet stayed underneath. Luckily I stayed upright and trail finally leveled out a bit the last two miles to the shelter. I arrived with a half hour to spare. My feet were hurting because, with leaves on ground, couldn’t avoid sharp rocks on the trail. I was dead tired and thinking tomorrow had to be a better day as I needed to do 16 miles.

Alone in the dark of Bear Hollow Shelter is not a great spot when you feel down and beaten. It was cold enough that I slept with the water filter to keep it from freezing. Before sleep took over I laid there thinking, “This trail may be scenic, but the views aren’t worth the price of admission.” All I wanted to do at that point was to get back to my truck. It was actually a good thing it was parked 50 miles away, otherwise the hike would have been over right then and there. I had three more days of hiking to get back to civilization. Damn.