Everything I’d done in the past few weeks was a prelude to what I would push myself to do on the last few days. Mount Mansfield had been some of the most familiar territory for me during the year that I worked for the Green Mountain Club, but I had only ever hiked a few of the dozen or so trails on the mountain. In two short days I would see everything there was to see. And, though I didn’t realize it beforehand, I would be chewed up and spit out by the tallest mountain in Vermont. But I think I gave it a run for its money. Here’s how it went down.
I awoke very early in the Roundtop Shelter because of very early light coming in from the skylights, and then fell back asleep when I realized what time it was. Then a songbird landed inside the shelter and started singing. I’d never realized quite how loud those little suckers are when you’re up close, but they are very effective alarm clocks. I fell back asleep yet again, finally getting out of my sleeping bag around 7:30. I knew what I had to do today. I also knew that I needed to get a move on early. The forecast was for a record-breaking heat wave across the Northeast, which meant I would be climbing the highest peak in the state several times in temperatures that could be downright dangerous. Smart.
I made my way to Underhill State Park, where many of the trails up Mansfield originate. I had never hiked the west side of the mountain before, spending most of my time on the side nearest Stowe, but the State Park side seemed to be a very popular ascent, so how hard could it be, right? Well, by the time I hit the trail the sun was already out and burning up everything in its path. Eighty degrees by nine in the morning. Bad news.
I tried to start out easily, but when hiking up any of the trails to the top of Mansfield, there’s no way to go easily. They’re all ridiculously steep. I started on the Sunset Ridge Trail, with a slight detour to the Cantilever Rock for a break and some interesting views. The Sunset Ridge Trail was relatively relaxed for a short while, but eventually I climbed about 2000 feet to near the top of the Chin, Mansfield’s (and Vermont’s) highest point. Instead of going to the top, though, I descended the other side of the mountain on the Profanity Trail, which I can only assume is so named due to the steepness of the trail. That brought me down 600 feet in half a mile to Taft Lodge.
Taft usually has some nice views to the east, but the heat was becoming so oppressive, and the humidity so thick, that I could barely see down to Stowe. I sat in the lodge to get some shade, and took what amounted to my only substantial break of the day. Then I was off for more punishment.
The plan was to hike across the Hell Brook Cutoff, then up the remainder of the Hell Brook Trail, but I missed the cutoff trail and went up the Long Trail instead (another 750 foot gain in about half a mile) with a brief stopover on the Adam’s Apple. Once atop the Chin, I descended back to Underhill State Park via the Laura Cowles Trail, dropping 2000 feet again in just three short miles. By this time, the heat was in the upper eighties, and my knees were beginning to scream at me. Remember, it was just after noon by this point, and my day wasn’t quite halfway done.
At the bottom of the Laura Cowles trail, I stopped for a break at a very well-placed picnic table. I finished off one of my last Larabars, which were about all I could eat at this point since the heat was murdering my appetite, and downed most of the last of my Gatorade. It took every ounce of willpower I had to get up from that break and continue hiking.
And so I did. I took the CCC Road out to the Maple Ridge Trail, basically going to the south end of the Mansfield ridge, and climbing yet another steep trail up to one of the alpine zones on the mountain. Up Maple Ridge, another almost 2000 foot climb in less than two miles.
The next step was where the day went from insane to just stupid. I walked north along the ridge until I came to the Lakeview Trail, which I took and connected to the three sections of the Canyon Trail and the Subway Trail. Each of these trails are almost as much rock climbing as hiking, as they pass through notches, boulder piles, and caves. They also block the wind very effectively, but didn’t seem to block any of the sun. So I moved slowly through these stone ovens, quickly becoming dehydrated, and finishing the last of my drinks. Crap. I should have refilled down at the bottom of the Maple Ridge Trail, but I wasn’t thinking clearly at that point already.
Once finished with the Subway Trail, I crossed the ridge and dropped down to the Cliff Trail, which is basically the same as the Canyon Trail but on the other side of the mountain. Again, no wind and plenty of sun. Dehydration was setting in pretty badly, as the heat of the day peaked around 92 degrees. I stumbled along the Canyon Trail until I heard the gurgle of water. I had been on this trail before, but never remembered there being a spring on it. I happily filled a couple bottles and dropped in my Aqua Mira, excitedly marking the time and getting ready to pounce on those bottles once my twenty-minute wait was up. I’m starting to think a Steri-Pen would be a good investment.
I finished off the Cliff Trail and the Amherst Trail, then made my way to Frenchman’s Pile, where the Halfway House Trail descends back to Underhill. Before starting down the trail, though, I managed to down all of my water again, and then made my way back down yet another 2000 foot drop back to the park. My knees were very unhappy. My body was still dehydrated (I drank like a fish when I got back to the park, where there was plenty of drinking water). I thought I might burst into flames at any moment from the hellish heat.
I drove into the town of Underhill to get some dinner for the night. There was no way I was going to cook a hot dinner tonight, and besides, it was my last night of this hiking trip. I might as well splurge a little. I picked up a very nice sandwich at the Underhill Country Store, then tiredly made my way to the Butler Lodge Trail. Though it was only a two-mile hike, I had to stop for two breaks on the way up. I was just too exhausted to keep moving steadily.
When I finally arrived at Butler Lodge, another of my favorite places on the Long Trail, I found the two LT through-hikers I’d stayed with at Skyline Lodge already there with another through-hiker as well. “We were wondering when we might see you again,” one of them said. I was pretty happy to see them, especially as it was the last night of the trip. Very good timing.
The bunch of us had the very nice lodge to ourselves that night. We traded stories, enjoyed the hazy view toward Burlington and Lake Champlain from the front porch, and watched as the clouds gathered above. “There’s going to be a huge thunderstorm soon,” one of the hikers kept saying. His friend dismissed these claims as the clouds continued to roll overhead and do nothing.
There were thunderstorms, finally, starting after midnight and continuing until 4 AM. And what a bunch of thunderstorms they were. Wind howled outside, and lightning seemed to constantly light up the sky. Of course, I was more than half asleep through all of this, but just awake enough to notice that there was a heck of a storm going on. In the morning, the clouds were still thick in the sky, but they seemed to have rained themselves out. I sure love Butler Lodge, but I love it even more when it’s protecting me from a storm like that.
I parted ways with the through-hikers again, and started up the Forehead Bypass Trail, then coming back to the Forehead and going down the Wampahoofus Trail, the Rock Garden Trail, and the Frost Trail, essentially zig-zagging back down to where I had started the evening before. I got to my car, switched my overnight pack for a day pack, and ran the Nebraska Notch Trail out and back to finish the area. Now all I had left was the Sterling Pond Trail, the Hell Brook Trail, and the Haselton Trail.
I drove up into Smuggler’s Notch, enjoying the winding road up to the top, then ran again up and down the Sterling Pond Trail, another wickedly steep trail that put a hurting on my knees. Once back at the Notch, I walked down the road to the Hell Brook Trail, not realizing I could have parked there. Too late, anyway, once I started hiking.
The Hell Brook Trail has a reputation as being one of the steepest trails in Vermont, so I was a little nervous about this. I’d never been on the trail, and a light rain was beginning to fall. According to the guidebook, I would be ascending approximately 2200 feet in 1.5 miles. I started from the bottom in a major hurry, slowing down quickly as I realized I wasn’t going to make it up any faster at this pace. As steep as the trail was, it actually didn’t seem as bad as it probably should have. It was a steady climb, for sure, but as often happens I had psyched myself up for it because of the dire warnings about the trail.
By the time I was halfway up the trail, an occasional thunder had begun to grumble in the distance. I slowed down to a crawl, letting my body relax and hoping the clouds and thunder would disperse. No dice. As I approached the top, the drizzle had become a steady mist and the thunder, though distant, was almost constant. I decided that I wouldn’t be walking across the ridge line to get to the Haselton Trail, so instead I went up the Hell Brook Trail to where I had left it yesterday, then back down to the Cutoff Trail, and down the Long Trail. My knees and feet were plenty happy with that decision, at least.
At the road, I stuck out my thumb only a minute after arriving and got a ride from the first car coming up the road. That’s probably the best hitching luck I’ve ever had. It was a short ride to my car, and from there another short ride to my old coworker’s house in Stowe.
The next day was forecast to be mighty nice, so I could have gone up and down the Haselton Trail then, but I decided that this was it for this trip. I’d had a good time. I’d completed almost the entire Side-To-Side challenge. Now was a good time to relax and call it a day.