Oh, Canada!

I’d say what a difference a good night sleep can make, but that was not the case on this day. Woke up around 6 with my head spinning. Dizziness had bothered me some before on trails, but this was worse. I almost fell down stepping out of the shelter. Decided to get an early start to make the most of available daylight. After a quick granola breakfast I was hiking with a headlamp by 7. The trail stayed smooth and fairly level in the river valley which was a good thing as moving my head made the dizziness worse.

Easy stretch on old forest service road

Easy stretch on old forest service road

The balance problem had bothered me a bit on the JMT, but I just assumed it was altitude. The issue had disappeared when I was at home or even staying in a hotel. What was I missing on the trail? Besides Bud Light of course.

I began to think, Bud Light aside, that it might be dehydration so I forced down a couple extra  liters of water thru the day and the problem faded considerably. Would have to see what the next morning would bring.

The weather was cool, partly cloudy and dry. There’s a bit of confusingly (to me) marked road walking down towards the Lamoille River. There’s a short section on a bike trail, a road crossing then dirt tread once again along the river. The guide mentioned a ladder down to the river channel, but it’s missing (washed away?) and I strolled right by my turn. After losing the trail for a bit and a short backtrack I found the good sized bridge across.

Lamoille River

Lamoille River

Once I crossed the river, there was a subtle, but significant difference in the geography of the area. The mountain was not as steep as recent ones have been and it even held some topsoil. This meant the trail was mostly dirt rather than rock/roots. The recent rain had been absorbed and footing was dry and smoother. The trail was still steep in places, Gravity was still working the same, but everything was walkable. No climbing required. There were spots that even followed old forest roads and climbed or dropped gradually. It began turning into a great day! The distance was adding up as I had traveled over 7 miles by 10:30. Lunch was at the unusually designed Roundtop Shelter.

The trail also passed through a section of forest crisscrossed with plastic tubing. The plugged stiles in the big maple trees were already set to start producing that famous Vermont maple syrup next spring.

Ready to collect sap

Ready to collect sap

This stretch was definitely less steep. For the first time in a while, I passed an ancient looking rock wall in the forest. Somebody once thought this could be plowed farmland. IMG_2233 (2)

The climb up to Laraway Lookout was 1,400 feet over less than two miles, but again all walkable with no “climbing” needed. The view from Laraway was fantastic, but the map indicated a steep decline off the peak. There were no issues though as the steep slope was still holding soil and I cruised into Curless Camp at about 4 pm. Corless is a very snazzy cabin that I would have to myself. In fact, other than an occasional day hiker near a road crossing, I had the entire trail pretty much to myself since Stowe.

Curless Camp

Curless Camp

I was trying Pack It Gourmet freeze dried food on this stretch and was pretty happy with the results. Hamburger tortillas were on tap for dinner, with an extra helping of water. As the sun set, the temperature began dropping, but it remained warm enough that there was no need to cuddle with the water filter like the previous night.

There was even a pretty strong cell signal there. Checking the weather, it looked good for one more day, then started degrading badly. My window of opportunity was beginning to close. Regardless, there was good sleep to be had as the enclosed shelter was quiet and dark.

I awoke in the morning to a shaky world. The dizziness was better than the day before, but a long way from cured. The hike up Butternut Mountain had some short climbs but nothing I couldn’t handle despite my poor balance. Once again, the issue seemed to improve through the day. There was no view to be had on Butternut. Just a climb to the peak and then straight back down.

Water was never an issue

Water was never an issue

During the descent off the mountain, I stopped to filter water near Spruce Lodge. Strolling the other way was a backpacker; the first I had seen in a while. Jason was attempting a southbound thru-hike. Discussing trail conditions he warned me about significant muck past Mt. Belvedere. I wished him luck though I was thinking his weather window didn’t look good. It looked like it might be snowing in a few days and he still had the big mountains to get over.

After some ups and downs, the trail dropped into Devil’s Gulch, a small, boulder strewn narrow canyon. It actually wasn’t bad to pick through and was a pretty interesting spot.

Trail through Devil's Gulch

Trail through Devil’s Gulch

From there though, I faced an approximately 2,000 foot climb to top of Mt. Belvedere. My thighs began feeling really tired for first time since my return to the trail. The slope seemed to go on forever and then I just had to tack on a bit more distance to climb the fire tower at the peak. It was worth the effort since there was a clear sky and outrageous views. IMG_2848

View from the fire tower

View from the fire tower

Jason was right though. Dropping off Belvedere, the muck returned with a vengeance. It was hard to believe there was so much standing water and slop a full 3 days after the last rain. What is that stretch like when it’s been wet? Despite my attempts to keep to the higher ground, muck topped my shoes on several occasions. There would be fresh socks in the morning, need them or not.

Return of Vermud

Return of Vermud

Tollison Camp is a fully enclosed shelter that from the outside looks like a yard barn, but with an interesting drop down window that lets in some light and a great view. Despite being pretty high up at 2,500+ feet, there’s a nice brook nearby. I arrived there about 5:30 after a 15 mile day. The weather remained clear and warm through the evening. It had been warmer each night since needing to wear gloves and hat in the sleeping bag a couple nights before. Once again I had the place to myself. After the sun set, the wind picked up and howled all night. While this was partly due to the exposed location, I could also feel a change in the air.

View from Tollison Camp

View from Tollison Camp

In the morning I was greeted with continued dizziness. This was getting old. The wind continued blowing and low grey clouds were starting to blow in. I was hopeful the rain would hold off a while as I had 12 miles and five mountain peaks to cover before the trail returned me to Jay Peak. Throughout the morning the rain threatened as I traveled up and down Tillotson Peak, Haystack Mountain, Bruce Peak, Mt. Buchanan and Gilpin Mountain; not to mention Domey’s Dome.

Hazens Notch between mountains

Hazens Notch between mountains

In several spots it was back to pitching the hiking poles down the slope and down climbing the rocks. Despite the lowering clouds though, there were some nice views on some of the peaks. By early afternoon I was dropping down towards Jay Pass, Rt 242 and a road walk back to Jay Peak Resort. I met an older man hiking up. He said he wanted to get in one last hike before the weather turned miserable.

I was still dry as I began the 1 ¾ mile road walk to the resort. There was little traffic so I didn’t bother trying to hitch. With less than a mile to go it started to rain. With the resort in sight, one of the few cars on the road stopped and a former Long Trail thru-hiker asked if I needed a lift. Just as he asked, the rain picked up and I happily accepted a ride right to the door. The kindness of Vermonters near the trail was amazing. It was time for one last night at Jay Peak Resort.

Unfortunately the weather forecast for Jay was rain for the next 3 days with lows around or below freezing; then snow. The mountains, specifically Jay Peak at over 3,800 feet, would be significantly colder and likely covered in ice. It was looking bleak. There would be no waiting this out. The weather window had closed.

I parked my truck along the side of the road and started hiking into the woods toward Canada through a cold, driving rain. Jay Peak was completely enveloped in cloud. There would be no views. With my continued dizziness, the climb would be treacherous and I couldn’t expect any other hikers to be around if I needed assistance. I already felt like I had pushed my luck more on this hike than any I’d ever taken and didn’t see the point of pushing it any further. So what was I doing out in the storm? Hiking the Long Trail, of course.

While my minimal common sense dictated I not climb Jay Peak, the trail had another road crossing north of the mountain and that’s where I was. Even if I couldn’t walk every foot of the trail, I would walk as much as possible. And, unless I walked to the official “end” of the trail, I wouldn’t feel like I had completed my standard of a “thru-hike.”

The weather, if anything, worsened as I went. Even the toads and frogs I spotted looked like they wished they were inside. While not flat, the stretch crossed just one peak. Carleton Mountain was a 500 foot climb and from there it was generally downhill the final mile and a half.

After a brief stop at the sign indicating the northern terminus of the trail, I went looking for the nearby monument indicating the Canadian Border. There was no Mountie there to take my picture. In fact, the high wind and horizontal rain made even a “selfie” out of the question. There was nothing to do but turn around and head back to the truck.

End of the line.

End of the line.

As I walked the undulating trail back, I thought about what a challenge this trail had been. Did I actually “beat” the Long Trail? Just as that thought crossed my mind, I slipped and fell one final time, sliding down a slope of wet leaves and shist. No, I thought. What I had done was survive the Long Trail.

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.

Back on the (Long) Trail

Before I could consider returning to the Long Trail I had to get some hiking shoes better suited to stepping on piles of Schist and, oh yea, hike the John Muir Trail. While my existing trail runners scored high for traction in every review I found, I needed to find something significantly better before I would start planning my return. On the Vibram website I find a new (to me) option called Mega Grip.” the model is shown hiking upside down. The ad brags, “Megagrip: The new high performance rubber compound featuring unparalleled grip on wet and dry surfaces, rugged longevity and optimal ground adaptability.” On the Merrill website I saw their Capra hiking shoe has the Mega grip sole as well as a “stabilizing hoof-shaped outsole.” When was the last time you saw a mountain goat slip down a mountain? I bought a pair.

In the meantime, I had a date with the John Muir Trail and I wasn’t going to waste that hard to get permit. That’s right, part of the reason I had to leave the Long Trail was so I could get ready to hike the JMT. Well, instead of the LT serving as a training hike for the JMT, it had worn me out. Counterproductive to say the least. Now as the JMT is another story I’ll leave it at this. I was able to complete it and if it’s not already there, put the JMT on your bucket list. Here’s just a few visual reasons why.Yosemite Bear w cub A stream @McClure Meadow A lake reflection

The Merrills didn’t slip at all on California rocks and the stiffer sole even helped protect my feet from getting quite as beaten up. Once I returned home near the end of September and spent a week or so trying to regain lost weight I started watching the weather in Vermont. The hope was for a stretch of good days before the weather window closed for the season.

For several days things did not look good on the weather front. Hurricane Joaquin was churning in the Caribbean. The Category 4 storm was the biggest seen in the Atlantic in years and some of the forecast models had it drenching the northeast. If that were to happen, my assumption was I’d need to give up on the idea of hiking the entire trail in one year; the basic definition of a thru-hike. All I could do was gather what food I would need, make a tentative plan of how to resupply without using the mail and watch the weather.

It wasn’t until October 5 that I felt certain that the storm would stay far enough east to spare Vermont and the Long Trail. The forecast showed a few dry days in a row. While I was going to be flirting with winter weather before I could finish, I decided to take another shot. The next day I put my pack and a couple bags of food in the truck and started driving towards Stowe, Vermont.

A couple last minute calls got me a reservation at the Arbor House which turned out to be a great choice. The owner, Michael, allowed me to leave my truck on site for a couple days. He also did his best to make sure I wouldn’t be going hungry anytime soon. Breakfast was part of the room package; tasty and filling. When I turned down hash browns Michael told me I should eat them as I had a long hike ahead of me. He then handed me a fistful of energy bars to take along. As I was hiking “on the fly,” I decided to just use Stowe Cab for the shuttle back to the trail. The driver’s wife happened to be a bakery owner so the fare included a bag of freshly baked cookies. Sufficient calories would not be an issue on this stretch. And so on October 7th I was back on the Long Trail; hiking by about 9:30IMG_2184 (2)

The trail had recently been rerouted in the area. After many years of effort, a specific trail bridge had been completed across the Winooski River, eliminating an extensive road walk. After the bridge, the new route was pretty smooth with, low and behold, switchbacks. Not like the 100 off Mount Whitney, but not straight up either. After a few miles, the new route rejoined the old and the tread was back to its rocky, rooty self.IMG_2711 The going was a bit slow, but new shoes seem to grab better than the old ones. Vermont’s fall color was in full display, providing a beautiful diversion as I ground up Mt Bolton. It was quite a climb, but my legs and lungs felt good, especially since I was carrying a light pack to help speed my progress. I was going stoveless on this stretch. My camp shoes and some small items like a back up phone battery were also left behind. In a last minute decision, I did put the tent back in the pack. I was concerned I might need it if I had some bad luck and couldn’t make it to a shelter. Also, the pack looked empty and depressed without it.

A great day for hiking, cool and breezy all day with a bit of sun. Despite the light weight it took forever to peak out and the descent was steep including multiple ladders.IMG_2720 I was feeling much more confident with the mega grip shoes compared to my previous (lackadaisical grip) shoes, but the drop was still slow. No switchbacks, but many steps taller than my inseam. Despite the shoes holding on rocks, I did slip and fall on some mud, but no dramatic issues.

As I was moving along I noticed it was getting darker. It was 6 pm, the sun was setting and a map check showed I still had over ½ mile to go. Luckily, by that point the trail was pretty well off the cliffs and so I could pick up the pace. After some nervous hiking I arrived at Taylor Lodge with about 5 minutes of light to spare. Despite the darkening sky the view from the Lodge was outstanding. This would have been a rough place to hike by headlamp. The shorter amount of daylight would need to be a consideration from here on out.

After getting some water from a nearby stream in the dark, I ended up sharing the shelter with Maggie and Anna, two local section hikers on their last night out of a five day trip covering 50 miles. Dinner was trail mix, summer sausage and a few ounces of cheese. It didn’t seem like much of a reward for hiking 16 miles. I missed the stove already.