Vermont

The first snowfall in the mountains every autumn always takes me by surprise. Even when I lived in Vermont, with the mountains right outside my window, the coating of white that appeared at the end of October didn’t convince me of the early winter up high. Last weekend, I ventured back to Vermont to visit some old friends and mountains, and was once again surprised by the early winter.

P1050980

Flying Squirrel and Early Bird, both field staff for the Green Mountain Club, are two of the most rugged hikers I know, but I rarely get to hike with them. On Saturday, we decided to try something a little crazy– hiking every trail in the Worcester Range. The Worcester Range is a massive line of mountains that separates Stowe and Waterbury from Montpelier and Worcester, and includes two of the most popular peaks in the area for day hikers (Hunger Mountain and Stowe Pinnacle). Beyond those two straightforward hikes, though, there are several more miles of trails connecting the length of the range to five trailheads.

P1050925

The day started with coffee and donuts in Waterbury, then a pre-dawn start from the trailhead in Worcester, climbing steeply to the northern peak of the trail system, Worcester Mountain. The trees had lost all their leaves by now, but stick season was far from dull. Within a short distance from the trailhead, the snow was already ankle deep. The ground cover never let up, and we spent the entire day in a cloud, so it was easy to forget it was only October.

P1050941

We walked through the powder along the ridgeline, feeling very wintery with the fluff-covered trees around us. The snow was just deep enough to hide the ankle-twisting rocks and roots below, but not deep enough to make them go away. Flakes continued to fall out of the sky, becoming just warm enough to stick to our rain shells and overwhelm the waterproofing. In wet fall weather, sometimes the only way to stay warm is either go home or keep walking. We chose the latter approach.

P1050965

We reached Hunger Mountain, and then continued to the shorter, nearby White Rocks. These two peaks were my home territory when I lived in Vermont, both towering just above my house. I climbed both so often that I could easily walk the trails at night, or maybe even in my sleep. The muddy spots between the two were still the same as I remembered, and the slippery rocks, and the tricky climbs. There were still no views through the clouds, but I felt right at home in my old stomping grounds.

P1050970

From White Rocks, the real foolishness began. To hike all of the trails in the range, we had to make some strange detours, first dropping 700 feet steeply down from White Rocks on the Bob Kemp Trail, then turning right back around on the Middlesex Trail to climb 1200 feet back to Mount Hunger. Once on Hunger Mountain for the second time, we did have some views down into the valley, where the green pastures were a strange contrast to the winter conditions up top.

P1050963

Back at my car by late afternoon at the base of Hunger Mountain, we had already hiked thirteen miles along the length of the range, but we still had two more trails to go. The next order of business was driving into Stowe to practically run up and down the Stowe Pinnacle Trail. That was the easy part, but from Stowe Pinnacle to the Skyline Trail (where we’d been earlier in the day) is a steep and arduous climb. By the time we got back to the car, it was just getting dark. We still had one trail to go.

P1050929

We drove to the Middlesex trailhead in the dark, but luckily the portion of the trail we hadn’t hiked already was relatively flat. We donned headlamps and cruised the last mile and a half in to the start of the Bob Kemp Trail, finishing the day’s 22 miles in the pitch black, much as we had started thirteen hours earlier. Even counting the hour and a half of driving between the start and finish, it’s clear that the summer days of steady, fast hiking on dry trails is over for the year. It’s time to break out the winter gear. Here’s hoping for some deep snow and cold weather in the coming months!

The mega-blizzard that coated New York up to Portland hit us in southern New Hampshire, too, but once everything was said and done, we weren’t so far from some great places to enjoy that snow. After a long day of shoveling and snow-blowing (and getting hooked on Downton Abbey) on Saturday, Yvonne and I took a pleasant, sunny drive to Ascutney, Vermont’s beautifully recognizable monadnock looming over Interstate 91 and the Connecticut River.

The beginning of the Windsor Trail, across a hay field with some chilly wind.

The beginning of the Windsor Trail, across a hay field with some chilly wind.

We weren’t sure the parking lot for the Windsor Trail would be plowed, but I had a hunch, this being Vermont and all. We were in luck– not only was the lot plowed, but someone had already been up the trail, probably yesterday afternoon, to break it out and save us a little bit of effort with the snowshoeing. The wind-blown snow had solidified into a styrofoam-like crust, obscuring the previous hiker’s tracks from time to time, but the trail was easy enough to follow. For the lower half, it follows what looks like an old logging road, and higher up it cuts through dense forest, making the route very obvious.

Freshly broken trail

Freshly broken trail

There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, much like the first time we’d been to Ascutney, on a calm, clear day after another destructive storm. This time, it was much colder, though the air temperature did just about break freezing. With so much sunlight, it even seemed much warmer whenever we stopped in a clearing. Of course, hiking uphill with snowshoes meant we had no trouble staying warm, even in the shade.

From Blood Rock, fine views to the Connecticut River Valley and Mount Cardigan.

From Blood Rock, fine views to the Connecticut River Valley and Mount Cardigan.

A short side trip to Blood Rock gave us even more of a workout, since that trail hadn’t been broken out. Even without the fine view from the cliff there, it would have been worth the side trip– trudging through fresh powder on snowshoes is a sublime experience. The silence of the winter forest, the scraping and whump of the snowshoes settling into the snow, the softness of the ground under your feet. I don’t often get to make fresh tracks in New Hampshire, so I relish the opportunity when it arises.

Okemo and Killington from the summit of Ascutney. Two very happy places today, I think.

Okemo and Killington from the summit of Ascutney. Two very happy places today, I think.

Up top, on the observation tower at the summit, we had some of the finest views we’ve had from Ascutney, even as far as Mount Washington, which stood glowing on the horizon. Monadnock was clearly silhouetted on the horizon, and much of the White Mountains up north. We also counted eight ski resorts, mostly in Vermont, all of which must be rejoicing for the bounty dumped on them in the past few days.

Yvonne posing with her mountain, Monadnock, in the background.

Yvonne posing with her mountain, Monadnock, in the background.

I’ll certainly hope this snow sticks around for a while– Yvonne and I spent some time the other day trying to remember what winters really looked like when we were younger. Looking back on snow storms from your youth, it always seems like two or three foot blizzards weren’t uncommon, but when you’re only six years old everything looks bigger. Also, living in central and western Maine, I probably did see a lot more snow than I do now, but when that area shuts down for a few days with a snow storm, it doesn’t make the news as much as when NYC gets hit.

The rest of this month would certainly be nice if the snow stays on the ground, so even with a forecast here of above freezing temperatures and clear skies, I’m looking forward to more cross country skiing and snowshoeing in the weeks ahead.

A zoomed-in photo toward the White Mountains. Didn't turn out as well as I'd hoped, but you can still make out some of the peaks.

A zoomed-in photo toward the White Mountains. Didn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped, but you can still make out some of the peaks.

On a brisk MLK Day morning, Yvonne, another friend, and I headed to the Stratton Pond area for some more time playing outdoors in the snow. This time, though, was something very different for Yvonne and me– Cross country skiing instead of snowshoeing. Yvonne had found a used pair earlier in the season, and I snagged my brother’s pair from my parents last week, so it seemed like a good time to test them out.

A clearing along the Grout Pond Road.

A clearing along the Grout Pond Road.

After several years of my only winter activity being on snowshoes, strapping a pair of long boards to my feet doesn’t feel the least bit natural, but I can see why people like them. Gliding over packed snow is effortless, once you learn how to balance without falling over. Of course, that takes plenty of time and practice in itself.

Yvonne practicing her moves on cross country skis.

Yvonne practicing her moves on cross country skis.

I’d never been to Grout Pond, mostly because Stratton Pond and Mountain are so close by and offer fine hiking opportunities. But this day it seemed like a good plan to head south from the Kelley Stand Road instead of north, going along a snowmobile/ski trail to the edge of the pond, then along the edge of the pond’s perimeter.

Skiing along the edge of Grout Pond was a lot harder than I'd anticipated. No grip on the ice with these things.

Skiing along the edge of Grout Pond was a lot harder than I’d anticipated. No grip on the ice with these things.

Cruising around the pond, we had some nice views up to Mount Snow and Stratton Mountain, despite the overcast. It’s funny to think about, but the area near Grout Pond is pretty similar to near Little Lyford Ponds, where I worked in northern Maine for a winter. There are a bunch of nice, tall mountains, remote ponds, and generally few visitors. Grout Pond certainly had more traffic on skis than northern Maine, and the sight of ski resort trails would have been out of place at Little Lyford, but there aren’t many places in Vermont with so many undeveloped bodies of water– Grout Pond, Stratton Pond, Bourn Pond, Branch Pond. You could have a hell of a time wandering around this remarkably flat area on skis for a few days.

Back into the woods for some more snow.

Back into the woods for some more snow.

The only gripe I had about the day was my new Panasonic Lumix TS4, a Christmas present that I just can’t get the hang of. The camera gets rave reviews all over the Internet, but most of my landscape shots have been turning out way too dark (see all pictures from this trip). Yvonne has the same problem with her Lumix DMC-ZS8 that she got last year. We both switched from using Canons for the past several years, so I wonder if it’s something that we got used to while using the Canon cameras and is fundamentally different in Panasonics. I know I always aim a little high with Canons to make sure the sky isn’t totally washed out. Any Panasonic users out there want to help me figure out what’s wrong with me?

Stratton Mountain about to get some more snow toward the end of the day.

Stratton Mountain about to get some more snow toward the end of the day. Looks a lot darker than last time I was there.

The day was relatively short– neither Yvonne nor I have totally developed the muscle sets for cross country skiing, so we started falling more and more as the day drew on. Looking at the map, though, I was super excited to come back for some more skiing. With the Catamount Trail running right by Grout Pond, and connecting it to Somerset Reservoir and Stratton Pond, along with plenty of snowmobile trails to make for easy skiing, I can imagine myself killing a whole lot of this winter getting used to the new mode of transportation.

A little over a week ago (January 5), I tramped up Stratton Mountain on a crystal-clear, chilly winter day, all excited to see my favorite southern Vermont peak in true winter conditions. I wasn’t going to write about it here, but I just realized it’s been a while since I’ve updated the blog (again– this is turning into the norm at this point). And with warmer temperatures bringing on the mid-January thaw this week, I need to look back at those snowy pictures to remind myself that it’s still a mighty fine winter this year.

I would guess two or three feet of snow, considering how easily I was brushing my head against the canopy.

I’ve been spending most of my time over the past few months diligently working away on my computer, getting ready to turn out next season’s version of my iPhone apps. Last year at this time, I was doing the same thing, but this year it’s more exciting than stressful. I feel more confident about what I’m doing, and the features I’m planning on adding should make the apps infinitely more useful and more fun to use. But there is still some stress involved. Quite a bit, in fact.

The other day I had a conversation with a well-known hiker about making a living as an outdoor adventurer, and it somewhat reaffirmed what I’d found out over the past few years– seasonal employment in outdoorsy jobs is not generally a sustainable career path. Something else is usually necessary to live that dream. That’s where my programming comes in, but even that seems like a gamble. More on this in a bit.

The walk up Stratton Mountain was much like the previous week’s hike on Okemo– chilly, with lovely, fluffy powder. The area near Kelley Stand Road, where the Long Trail crosses, is plowed with space for several cars to park, but it seemed more popular for snowmobiles than as a hiking destination. I guess that’s a good thing, considering how poor the winter sports were last year in general. I was happy to see so many snowmobilers, even if they’re kind of noisy.

Fluff balls!

As we trudged up the mountain, the trees became more heavily laden with snow, and the wind took on an icy bite. There really is nothing more beautiful to me than a New England mountain forest covered in thick snow– although wait until springtime and I’m sure I’ll say the same thing about early springtime forests, and then summer mountains, and… you get the idea. We arrived at the summit clearing to find several feet of snow and a peaceful winter wonderland. Oh, what beauty!

You might be able to see from the picture that the fire tower was a bit encrusted in rime ice. Climbing the tower was a little dicey, so my companions and I only went high enough to see over the trees before carefully making our way down to the ground. I doubt we could have made it all the way to the top– I had to kick holes into the crust on the stairs in order to have something to stand on– but it was a lovely view even from halfway up.

When I started the app programming thing, I had a modest goal of making enough money by selling apps that I could combine their income with a few NOLS courses, and otherwise just hike a lot through the summer and fall. That’s not exactly how it worked out. Let’s just say the programming is a labor of love at this point. If I were to calculate out the hourly wage I’ve made, it might be more than a dollar or two. But I still envision the programming turning into a real source of income– it’s just going to take a little more time than I initially thought.

Sometimes I think all the hiking I’ve done since college has ruined me for normal employment. After the taste of adventure that the Appalachian Trail provided (and then the Pacific Crest, the New England Trail, the few NOLS courses, and on and on), no career path has quite lived up to what I’d convinced myself I’m capable of. The best jobs have been enjoyable and provided another taste of greatness. The worst have felt like total dead ends. The Guthook’s Guides business may be the one that meets almost all the criteria of a dream job for me. Produces something that helps others? Check. Makes people happy? Check. Keeps me connected directly with the hiking community? Check. Makes me feel important? Check. Makes me rich? Well, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.

What AT or PCT hiker doesn’t dream of finding a way to turn hiking and the outdoors into a steady living? I learned through several years of leading trips, working on trails, and caretaking at backcountry lodges that those jobs’s rewards are almost entirely spiritual and mental. Once the job is done, the money doesn’t go far, but the experiences and the mind set have stayed with me in a big way. So here I am with the crazy idea that I can make a sustainable business. It’s not certain at all, but it’s kind of exciting.

The view about halfway up the tower.

Sometimes, like in the case of climbing an ice-crusted fire tower, hitting your original goal isn’t even necessary to have a great time and make the whole endeavor worthwhile. Heck, if I hadn’t even set foot on the fire tower the other day, it still would have been a great walk in the woods. I’ll still keep my hopes up for the business to do well, though.

No more doom and gloom here– Winter finally arrived in New England over the last week, and I’m determined to make up for how little snowshoeing I did last winter. Yvonne and I returned to Keene on the evening of January first, and gathered our equipment for the year’s first winter hike the next morning. Neither of us had ever been to Ludlow Mountain, home of the Okemo Ski Resort in Vermont, but it seemed like a good choice for our hike. Lots of snow (as Vermont mountains tend to have), new territory, not too far away. Good enough for me!

This isn’t a road for cars, fool!

Since neither of us had been to the trail before, there was some question as to whether the trail head would be accessible in winter. We turned onto the last road to access the trail, and just past the “Healdville Trail Parking 100 yards” sign, I got my car stuck in the snow. After half an hour or so of digging out underneath the car and showing off my car-extracting skills to Yvonne, I got the car unstuck, and backed up to near that sign. Apparently, the area just past the railroad tracks was plowed out as a parking area, but the actual parking lot and the road to it were a snowmobile trail. Sorry, snowmobilers. I tried not to damage the track too much.

Down low, there’s more snow than we had all last winter.

As soon as I parked, I looked back down the snowmobile trail in the opposite direction to see another car stuck in the snow. I think there was another access point to the trail head parking area in summer, but the road wasn’t plowed and became a snowmobile trail in winter. Whatever the case, the timing was just right. We spent the next hour helping a fellow hiker dig her car out of the rut she was in. Unfortunately, she was stuck much worse than we had been. She eventually decided to phone for help, just before a plow truck stopped to offer some assistance, so we bade her good luck and hit the trail a few hours later than intended. No foul, though. It was a fun adventure.

Up high, more reasons to love cold weather.

Once on the trail, I was excited just to have my snowshoes on again. There was a good trail broken out, but it wasn’t packed down to a solid highway. The sky was full of low clouds, and a biting wind chapped our faces. It’s been a while since I’ve been in sustained cold temperatures like that, and it was great!

Getting lost in the winter forest.

As we climbed higher up the 3300 foot mountain, the effects of the elevation were easy to see and hear. Trees, barely more than tall blobs of snow, creaked painfully in the wind. The trail became obscured in places where wind blew over previous snowshoe tracks, or where smaller trees had become weighed down by the snow. As we climbed into the clouds, the only way to tell when we were near the top was by the density of the snow clinging to the trees. There were no long views, even from the fire tower atop the mountain, but any good winter wonderland makes those views unnecessary.

The fire tower on Ludlow Mountain had a bit more rime ice than usual.

I later found that the high temperature for the day was a brisk 19 degrees, although I think that may have been at the base of the ski resort, which means it was probably closer to 10 on the mountain, minus wind chill. With that in mind, Yvonne and I didn’t stick around the summit for very long. We had our lunch, then rushed back down the mountain, gliding along on soft, powdery snow. It was a fine start to the real winter, although it also reminded me just how much more of this I need to do. By the time we arrived back home in Keene, my body was a bundle of soreness and aches– a hefty workout on the lower body, plus the unexpected one for the upper body, laid me out pretty well.

A fine view just as far as the Okemo chair lift.

Here’s hoping for a lot more playing in the snow over the next few months, and exploring many new places. See you on the trail.