Before the ALDHA Gathering, my best friends from my 2007 Appalachian Trail hike came up from the south to visit. Kentucky Blue is planning on hiking the Long Trail next summer, and Cough Drop just finished his doctoral dissertation, so I planned a trip to Mansfield to give them a taste of Vermont’s highest peak and some of the most exciting hiking on the Long Trail.
|The steep trail up Mansfield also has plenty of good rock work.|
We got a late start on Thursday afternoon, after full tourist mode stopping at the Cabot Annex, Burlington, the new Outdoor Gear Exchange (one of my favorite gear stores, and physical home of GearX.com), and Smuggler’s Notch. I was a little disappointed to see the foliage already dulling to shades of yellow-brown, but the cold air and clear skies seemed to accentuate the colors and keep the views crystalline once above treeline. We didn’t arrive at Taft Lodge until a little later than I’d planned, and the distance to Butler was a bit longer as well. Oops. We pushed on to the summit of Mansfield as the shadows grew long.
This is where the fun began.
|Kentucky Blue braves the wind on Mansfield’s Chin for fine sunset views.|
From the Chin to the Forehead of Mount Mansfield is a nearly two-mile ridge line, almost entirely above tree line, and constantly blasted by a stiff wind from the Adirondacks and Lake Champlain. That wind happened to be below freezing, and the sun was about to dip below the prominent peak of Whiteface as we walked the ridge. The ridge always seems shorter on hot, sunny, summer days, but today it seemed to go on a little longer than usual. By the time we reached the top of the toll road, the sun had set and the day’s last light dwindled. We donned our headlamps and decided to take the Forehead Bypass trail in order to stay out of the wind and off the tricky descent of the Forehead.
|Happy campers at Butler Lodge.|
As often happens with bad-weather bypass routes on New England mountains, our detour turned out to be nearly as treacherous as the route we wanted to avoid. Though we missed being buffeted by wind, the Forehead Bypass turned out to be a slippery rock slab for much of its length, which we descended with only the light from our headlamps. This was one day I was very glad to have brought my Petzl Tikka XP2, the more powerful of my two headlamps. Of course, for every good decision I make I have to make a bad one– I had left my gloves at home, resulting in freezing fingertips throughout the evening.
|Cough Drop navigates the Needle’s Eye below Mansfield’s Forehead.|
We arrived at Butler Lodge just after 8 PM, and none too soon. Butler is one of my favorite shelters on the Long Trail– it’s so cozy, and so like a home. Walking in that door with a view of Burlington and Lake Champlain just gives you a sense of security like walking into your childhood home. It helped that Flying Squirrel, the caretaker, had just arrived as well after helping the Long Trail Patrol do some work on the Butler Lodge Trail. It was just the four of us, old friends reminiscing about our days on the Appalachian Trail and beyond. Hot dinner, hot cocoa, and whoopie pies completed the evening. We slept soundly with the wind held at bay by Butler’s fully enclosed walls.
|Atop the Forehead, with early morning sun and valley fog below.|
The weather was milder in the morning. Instead of the crack-of-dawn departure we’d planned, we sat around and enjoyed the view for a while, snapped some group pictures, and made more plans for some day in the future. Then we went up the Forehead on the Long Trail, realizing once again why the Bypass had been a good choice the night before. Ladders, hand-over-hand climbing, and passing through the Needle’s Eye would have been even hairier in the wind and dark, but in the morning with clear skies they were nothing but fun. We descended via the Haselton Trail to Stowe Ski Resort, then a short road walk brought us back to the car.
|Starting down the Haselton Trail with views of Smuggler’s Notch’s cliffs ahead.|
I may not get to northern Vermont too often, but it still feels like home when I visit. The next stop after Mansfield on this day, though, was way back down south for the ALDHA Gathering. The weekend was off to a good start, for sure.