August 4th 2014
I am always thankful when I get time to be in the backcountry. This time my wife and coworkers picked up the slack while I took several days for an overnight trip in Vermont's Green Mountains. In addition, I recieved logistical support from new friends in Burlington. All of my time both in the city of Burlington and the nearby backcountry was fantastic; a true vacation.
I started in Underhill State Park with my friend, Jim Anders, hiked up the Sunset Ridge Trail to "The Chin" of Mt. Mansfield, then South on the Long Trail. Jim turned off at "The Forehead" to hike down alone to his rental car and make a flight that night. I continued down Mansfield to the foot of Mt. Bolton where I camped that night. The next day I hiked to the summit of Bolton and then down to Bolton Notch Road where a friend, Peter, picked me up and returned me to civilization. All told I did at least 20 miles in 2 days. These were by far the toughest miles I've ever hiked.
The first mile or so of the Sunset Ridge trail was fairly deep in conifers. It was raining, but we felt almost nothing due to the thick needles overhead. Pretty quick the trail seemed tough. Over the three miles of Sunser Ridge we climbed 2600 feet. The trail was up and over lots of stones and roots; much of it was hand and foot rock climbing. This early in the hike we were fresh and having fun. Each turn rewarded us with another beautiful scene.
About half way up the trail we broke through the timberline. Mt. Mansfield is the highest point in Vermont. I'm told on a clear day you can see Montreal. It wasn't quite that clear, but we were rewarded with many beautiful views. I felt like we were hiking on the set of "Lord of the Rings". We were hiking directly up this rocky ridge line; sometimes hand and foot climbing. There was very little wildlife; not even birds singing or insects buzzing. It was still and quiet. After a while I commented to Jim, "It feels like we're the only people alive." Not five minutes later as we neared the summit we came across a father and son about to hike down the trail we had just come up.
It took us about three hours to make it up to The Chin. We were tired and I was soaking wet with sweat. Sadly, I had forgotten my wind/rain shell. It was pretty cool up on Mansfield, and I was getting uncomfortable without any protection. The cloud cover prevented us from having much of a view, so we didn't linger.
The hike to The Nose was also along the ridge of Mansfield. There's a toll road that leads right up to The Nose, so there were quite a few tourist. It's a pretty easy mile or two from the road to the summit with lots of rewarding views. It was a little funny that Jim and I were so tired from our trip up Sunset Ridge hiking right next to a Grandma and her two little grand kids.
Jim and I parted ways and I was sad to see him go. I enjoy the solitude of the backcountry, but I like to enjoy it with friends. Jim had been great for conversation and pacing. I've only done a few solo hikes and I was nervous about this one. I had a bit of trouble arranging my trip. My goal was to hike and camp a night in the mountains. Unfortunately, I didn't have my own transportation so I needed help getting off the trail. The most convienient location to be picked up was also a bit further than I was really capable of hiking. Luckily there was another exit that saved me 5 miles. I'm positive I could not have hiked those last 5 miles. It turns out there was another exit that might have saved me an additional couple miles, but I wasn't familiar enough with the area and didn't have detailed enough maps.
After Jim left, the challenge really began. The trail down Mansfield was very steep. Many times I was turning around and scooting over the edge of rocks. Most of the time I wasn't sure of my footing before I had to put my weight on it. I'll be honest, I wasn't moving very fast. I was worried about falling and trying to be doubly sure before I stepped off. Being solo I didn't want to risk injury.
I made it down to the valley between Mansfield and Bolton at the Taylor Lodge. My goal was to get almost all the way up Bolton to the Puffin shelter before night. That was not to be. I hiked about an hour beyond Taylor, but was too tired to continue. The mosquitoes were coming out and really bothering me. I was anxious to rest in my hammock and bug net. So I just hiked a bit off the trail and found a good place to hang. I thought I was all stealthy, but 30 minutes later I heard some hikers coming down the mountain, "What is that!?! Oh, it must be a hammock." I was a little sad I wasn't further off the trail.
That night I woke up with drops on my face and my quilt feeling damp. I hadn't hung my tarp because I thought the weather was clear. It was plenty dark by now, but I popped up quick as I could and strung my tarp. No sooner did I finish and get back in the hammock it really started pouring. Not my best pitch, but it kept me dry all night.
Overall I slept great. I should have gotten up early and started sooner. It was cool in the morning and I knew I didn't have any dry hiking clothes. Everything was drenched in sweat. So I laid in the hammock and enjoyed the warmth. Eventually I got up and made breakfast. By the time I broke camp it was 9am. I had a real moment when I left. Should I turn back and follow Jim's trail? That would be a much shorter hike. Probably only a total of five miles. But that would put my exit at a fairly tough place for my friend, Peter, pick me up. I felt like turning back for the shorter miles was a bit like quitting. Plus I didn't want to inconvenience Peter picking me up. To press on was to show grit and determination. So I continued south on the Long Trail.
I started off brisk enough, but my legs were tired from the day before. The climb up Bolton was much steeper than the climb up Mansfield. This one was largely lacking in big, open views. About noon I made it to what I thought was the top of Bolton; only it wasn't. It was Mt. Mayo. I could clearly see Bolton rising up before me. It seemed so far away and there was a pretty big valley between me and the next summit. Even with my early exit, I still had five miles after the summit on Bolton. I couldn't be sure, but I think I was doing about a mile an hour. It really had me doubting if I could make my pickup time.
I fixed lunch and coffee there on the summit. I was a little chilly in wet clothes in the wind while not moving, so I wrapped up in my space blanked. Not the first or the last on this trip I was wishing for my wind/rain jacket.
By 1:30 I made it to the Puffin shelter. That was my completely unrealistic goal for the night before. It took me four hours after a night's rest to make it. There was a lovely couple at the shelter enjoying the view. They were thru hiking the LT and had previously done the AT and PCT. We talked a little about nothing. They said this was day 19 for them on the LT and it was still hard for them. They hadn't quite yet broken in their trail legs and this was a very tough trail. I could have stayed and talked with them all afternoon, but had miles to hike. Shortly after I left them, I came across another pair of thru hikers. They also comforted me with how tough the trail was. One of them was all bunged up and bleeding down his shin from a fall he'd had.
I reached the summit of Bolton at 2:30. I'd been tring to text Peter to let him know where I was and how my plans had changed. I was getting very poor signal and no data at all. At the top of Bolton I got a text from him a thunderstorm was sweeping across Vermont and I should get off the mountain as soon as possible. I could hear the thunder clearly. I didn't have much more to go on; no weather maps and I couldn't get a call out either.
In my tired state I decided to race down Bolton as fast as I could. What I should have done was find a good spot to setup shelter. Instead I got caught on the trail in the rain. I panicked a bit but pulled out my tarp and tried to pitch it in the rain right across the trail. My location was terrible. The trail was a mud pit that became a river and my tarp included a big boulder. I didn't get the angles on the tarp right and instead of shedding water just collected water. I ended up with just enough space to sit on the ground out of the mud. I wrapped up in my space blanket and leaned against the boulder. What a storm! Lots of thunder and lightning; thankfully none too close. It did hail for a few minutes though. All in all, the storm cost me about an hour.
Now for the fun part. The trail was almost completely washed out: big puddles of standing water, big mud pits, the rocks and roots that covered all the non-soupy parts of the trail were slick with slime and wet moss. I had about 5 more miles to go and about three hours to do it. The "good news" was the trail was all down hill. The second pair of thru hikers had told me the trail was fairly easy on the other side of Bolton's peak. Tired and sore as I was, with as little to eat as I'd had, I just decided I was going to make it. I didn't really have a choice.
In the end, it took me about four hours to hike the five miles. I put the soreness in my legs behind me, focused on my breathing, and moved as fast as I could. Making it to my exit and seeing my Peter felt great. Knowing then what I know now, I certainly would have planned this trip better. Even still I'm thankful for the trip. There's something about pushing right up to and maybe just past the limits of what you can do. It humbles me and makes me proud. Out on the trail I felt like a weak, frail human; shown clearly my own limits. But even just a few minutes off the trail I felt proud of my accomplishment; eager to share with others. Maybe that's how it really works: to be truly humbled is also to be strengthened.
Editor's Note: I asked Jim if he'd recount his version of the trip. I've also included some of his photos. In his own words:
I had the privilege of ascending Mt. Mansfield in Vermont with Doug after a conference weekend. The night before we were to set out found me filled with a nervous anxiety, and sleep did not come easily. It had been quite some time since I had done anything of this magnitude, and I wasn't sure that my recently renewed interest in running had been training enough.
The morning found me awake, and not feeling terrible given the short night on sleep. Coffee and a quick breakfast got me through the 45 minute drive to Doug's campsite. The morning was slightly cool and there was still drizzle from the nights thunderstorms. We finished up our coffee while waiting out the rain before driving up to the state park.
We set out from the parking area around 0745 to hit the Sunset Ridge Trail, which came highly recommended by our new friends in Burlington. I won't lie, the first mile was possibly the toughest of the day. There wasn't a moment in that first mile that I didn't rethink my decision.
We made that first mile in about 20 minutes, despite the huffing, puffing, and leg burning that I was feeling. A quick breather, a pull of water, and a nip of beef jerkey perked me up and I was ready to continue. The next part of our hike was pure climb and in places quite technical. Despite being worn out, it was possibly the most I've felt alive in awhile.
With a couple of rest breaks and several hours of hiking, we finally made the summit of 'The Chin'. The views along the way had been spectcular, but to stand on the highest point in Vermont, and peer out as far as the cloud cover would allow was truly breathtaking. There were a few other hikers at the summit, and a few minutes of idle chit chat found us cold from the wind and wanting to get out of it.
Following our original plan, we hiked along the ridgeline making our way South towards 'The Nose'. We were warned about this being the 'touristy' part of the trail, and we were not led astray. We came across several families, all with young children whom had driven up the the visitor center at 'The Nose' and were hiking across to 'The Chin'. This made the going a little slow as the trails were narrow and we oft had to move out of the way to let them pass.
We finally made it to said visitor center, much to my disappointment. The disappointment came in that there was no running water, and I was running dangerously low. After a few minute break, we decided to press on South and after a short hike we made it to 'The Forehead'. At this point was my trail to head back to the parking area, a quick goodbye and Doug and I parted ways.
I chose to descend the Maple Ridge trail, which may or may not have been the best idea given my emergency water situation. At most points the trail was steep, and at some I would even call it dangerous. Knowing that I had a deadline to be back for my flight, and that my only known water source was at the parking area, I took the trail much faster than I should have.
The real danger was with every few hundred feet of descent the temperature continued to rise. With no water, rising temperatures, and the speed with which I was descending my fears of serious injury were greatly heightened. Despite these fears, I pressed on, having faith that I would come upon a water source or finally reach the car.
My saving grace came after about half a mile on the CCC Road. I heard it, long before I saw it. Water, fast moving water that promised to be nothing but sweet, cool and delicious. When I finally came upon it, I couldn't resist the urge to drink straight from the source. Not having with me any means of filtering the water, I didn't have much choice in it any way. I filled my water bladder and continued on with a renewed vigor, being only about a mile and a half from the parking area.
While I thoroughly enjoyed the hike, and the sheer beauty of the trail, I was completely unprepared for the trip. It is clear that if I want to continue that I need better gear. My current military gear is not suited for the types of trips that I will be planning to take. It is also clear that I need to learn to do better research about the trails I plan to hike, and to pack accordingly.