From Bad to Worse

(Day 11, August 14) No rain in the morning, but in the clouds everything is wet. Some very tough rock scrambles over damp granite, kinda sketchy. As Steam mentioned though, if it were easy, everyone would do it. Jen already heading back down. Said it’s clear at top and view was great. I suspect a lie.

Steam climbing up into the fog

Steam climbing up into the fog

Make it to top with Steam, can’t see more than 100 feet and misty, like in a cloud. A few more view spots during the morning, results were the same. I am low on food. Early Lunch is two tortillas and the end of my peanut butter. I mix up a protein drink and my food bag is completely and totally empty. Steam powered on as I ate. Trail is still very sloppy in spots from the recent rains.

When the trail starts to drop, it is as steep in places as I’ve seen, several spots have metal rungs driven into the rock to use as a ladder. On several other spots I wished for rungs as I lowered myself down using trees. As hungry and tired as I was, I started to worry getting hurt.

Rungs for the climb down

Rungs for the climb down

Eventually I finished a 10 mile day, made it to Appalachian Gap by midafternoon and started hitchhiking towards Waitsfield, where I had a room reserved. The very first car that came by picked me up. The driver is with search and rescue in Mt Mansfield area. Hope I don’t see him again.

When I walked into the Hydeaway Inn they gave me a Coke and some chips to hold me over to dinner. A hot shower, washed and folded my laundry, my resupply box had arrived in one piece, BBQ was the daily special and the sun broke out. Maybe the day wasn’t so bad after all.

As soon as the restaurant opened at 4:30 I was there ordering the pulled pork sandwich and cole slaw with fries. When 7:30 rolled around the order was for the salad and 2 hot dog meal, followed up with a bowl of chili and homemade cookies and ice cream for dessert. The room was very nice, in a little private hallway to a couple rooms. Is this section just for hikers? Considering how I smelled upon arrival it made sense. Even 2 showers couldn’t get my feet clean from the Vermuck. A complete cleaning would involve a scrub brush.  Luckily I’m not a sandal guy.

After a great night’s sleep, it would be a later start than usual. Breakfast started at 8 and the first shuttle back to the trail was shortly thereafter. Did go with shorts. Too warm and sunny for my long, anti-bug pants, ticks be damned. After spending the night on the air vent, my shoes were even somewhat dry; a real plus.

I shared the shuttle back up Sprinkles and No Key. They actually walked AT in 2012 and had hiked at times with Golden, who had hiked with me on the Colorado Trail. They love the trail though Sprinkles has been terrified on some of the slopes. I read once that the brains of people under 25 can’t fully comprehend death. Had lunch with them at Coles Cove Shelter. There was an ominous warning posted in the shelter that the next stretch of 4 miles can take 4-5 hours and was extremely dangerous when wet. Your reward for getting through that section was another warning that there have been bear problems at the next shelter.

Keep following those blazes

Keep following those blazes

View from the top

View from the top

The climb up to Burnt Rock Mountain was indeed tough with a lot of exposed rock. Views were incredible but with a thunderstorm threatening, I wanted to get off the peak while the rocks were still dry. Dropping down was tough with multiple, slick drops. The highlight, or lowlight depending upon how you want to look at it, was Ladder Ravine. At one point I had to use a knotted rope to lower myself to a ladder bolted to the stone wall. Mount Ethan Allen was even higher, but less exposed both up and down. It was still a tough traverse, often needing trees along the trail to pull up or lower down. Overall, I fell three times through the day, once while hanging on a tree and tweaking my shoulder. Sprinkles fell and ripped her pants. Up to this point I hadn’t realized backpacking could be an adrenaline sport.

After about 8 hours and only 11 miles, I called it a day at Montclair Glen Lodge, another four sided enclosed shelter. A caretaker, Melanie, was on site and emphasized no food could be in the lodge due to the problem bear in the area. Claw marks on the building reinforced her words.  A heavy, metal box was chained to a tree outside and, though it had been flipped over by the bear, was still safely holding any food.

Montclair Glen Lodge

Montclair Glen Lodge

Sam from New Hampshire rolled in a little later. A self-professed “peak-bagger,” he has climbed all 48 of the 4,000 foot peaks in that state. He stated that he had been on some tough hikes in the White Mountains, but nothing like he had today. Sam seemed a bit grim as he said he had been “on his ass a dozen times” and the LT has “a lot of effort without much reward.”

In the morning I would be climbing Camel’s Hump which is over 4,000 feet in elevation. This iconic mountain is the highest undeveloped peak in the state and an image of it was used for Vermont’s quarter. Looking at the guide, the climb and descent appeared to be as steep, or possibly steeper than anything to this point. As a thunderstorm passed through, removing any dry spots from the rocks, I spoke with Melanie about what to expect on the mountain. She stated that there was quite a bit of exposed rock on both the climb and descent, but it was mostly Gneiss going up and Schist on north side. A quick geology lesson. Gneiss is considered to be a coarse grained metamorphic rock. In contrast, metamorphic Schist has sheetlike grains in a somewhat parallel orientation. In layman’s terms, if you’ve been slipping on the Gneiss, the Schist will really hit the fan when you get to the descent. I got a poor night’s sleep.

Camels Hump with the peak hidden by clouds

Camels Hump with the peak hidden by clouds

There was no rain in the morning, but the entire peak was hidden in clouds. There would be no views and trail would be wet. The first mile and a half were tough, but doable with several hand over hand climbs. About 0.2 miles from the summit there is an optional bad weather bypass trail around the peak. As I stood at the intersection, studying my options on the map, No Key and Sprinkles showed up. No Key was bleeding and Sprinkles was adamant about taking the bypass. She talked No Key into it. Sam also arrived and went for the summit. At this point, we were in heavy fog and the rocks were wet. I decided that I was in “bad weather” and took the bypass. The trail dropped a little below the fog and I got some decent views wouldn’t have gotten from the top. Regardless, I fell twice even on bypass.

View from the bypass

View from the bypass

Once the bypass reunited with the LT, the trail began a precipitous drop into a world of Schist. I had started to think I was wearing the wrong shoes before, but at this point lost all semblance of traction. There were long stretches of wet sloped rock where I had trouble even standing, let alone walking. Working from tree to tree it took 8 exhausting hours to cover the 8 miles to the road crossing near Waterbury. It was very easy to picture myself alone on the trail with a broken femur. I ended up falling six times on the way down. There was no way I was going to get to my planned stop for the night; or any shelter for that matter. In addition, this meant I couldn’t reach Stowe and my resupply on schedule and would run short of food. At that point it began raining again so the upcoming climbs would be treacherous as well. Things were looking bleak.

Slick as all schist

Slick as all schist

I needed more food. Contrary to significant research, I needed different shoes. I needed a zero day and an overall slower schedule, but was running short of time. Like many, I had underestimated the difficulty of this trail. When I was younger, I probably would have pushed on despite the issues. However, as Muhammad Ali once said, “A man who views the world the same at fifty as he did at twenty has wasted thirty years of his life.”

My initial thought had been that this hike was to be a warm up for the John Muir Trail. Now it was looking like I’d have to rush out to California and start that trail exhausted and underweight. I decided not to push it. I’d head into town, find a way home and look to finish with different shoes when my schedule allowed.

As I stood in the parking lot attempting to reserve a room in Waterbury, a group of three Canadians finished their hike of the mountain.  They spoke mostly French, but they knew enough English to say, “That trail was fucked.” In addition, they offered me a beer and a ride to town. Things began to look up.

It was Friday night and both hotels in town were full, but I got the last camp spot at nearby Little River State Park. There I used interweb to arrange Amtrak/Greyhound tickets to get back to truck. Leaving the trail unfinished was disappointing as hell, but feel I was just fortunate not to have gotten hurt. It truly seemed stupid to push my luck on another wet mountain while running on little to no food. I didn’t know how it would work out, but I knew I’d be back.

Headed home.

Headed home.