vermont

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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.

The time between posts is getting longer and longer, just as the time between my hikes is getting longer and longer. It’s been an interesting autumn– I’m obsessing about something very different than usual, and it’s taking over much of the time that I would normally spend escaping into the mountains. It’s taken up a lot of my limited brain power, too, hence the lack of blogging.

Even from a distance, the people on Monadnock look like a milling mass.

A few days ago I awoke with my legs aching from lack of use, which struck me as a sign that I really need to get out a little before the busy time during the holiday season. I’ve also been thinking that I need to spend some more time on the “lesser” mountains closer to home. On Sunday, I hoofed it up Monadnock for only the third time since I’ve lived beneath it in Keene. This is a travesty– living twenty minutes from the most popular hiking destination in the US, and avoiding it for mountains three or six times as far away!

A small crowd, by Monadnock standards.

It was a fine hiking day for late autumn– brisk, sunny, and somewhere between warm and cold. Thermal regulation is way too difficult in these conditions. I was pretty chilled when I got out of the car, but sweating like mad within ten minutes, despite icy patches all the way up the mountain.

Yvonne and one of the regulars.

The crowds that are usually my excuse for avoiding the mountain were only slightly present. I passed a handful of hikers on the way up, and there were about twenty people spread out over the expansive summit. It was cold up top, but sunny enough to make hanging out a pleasant activity. Views were short, with a dense haze obscuring almost everything. I don’t know what it was from– there’s no humidity, and it’s cold enough to keep the air crisp. Could it be pollution? Someone out there must have a better explanation than I could come up with.

Yvonne was the summit steward for the weekend, getting some of the last days of the season for the job. I watched as she dispensed knowledge about the geology and trails of the mountain to curious hikers. She’s been on the summit dozens of times over the past year, mostly for work, but plenty often just for fun. Monadnock is definitely her mountain, more a home than I think I can ever make it. I don’t know if I can count any particular mountain as “home” right now, although there are plenty that I have very nostalgic connections to. I wonder if I’ll feel that way about Monadnock once we’ve moved away from here.

A bit quieter on Ascutney, looking west to Killington and Ludlow.

That got me thinking, as I walked down from the summit and missed a turn, sending me on a much longer hike than planned (although a very nice hike, so I had nothing to complain about). Monadnock, being such a popular mountain, is almost never empty of people. But all of the wilderness or hiking locations that I count as home, or to which I feel that connection, are places where I’ve had experiences alone or with small groups of friends. Hunger Mountain, near where I lived in Vermont, was my solitary refuge on so many occasions I lost count of how often I’d climbed it. At Stratton Pond, almost every one of my memories is of some very peaceful and nearly solitary moment. The Camden Hills were my refuge between most of the adventures of my early years after college, and always seemed to be empty of people when I wandered into them.

Monadnock, barely visible through the haze from Ascutney.

But that’s just memory. The times when my favorite mountains were crowded with people don’t stand out as much as the times I had them alone. I remember Camel’s Hump on the night when I hustled over just after sunset, saw an elusive rabbit chewing on the sedge, and hurried to Montclair Glen without seeing a single person within two miles of the summit. I don’t choose to remember Stratton Pond as when I hiked by on my Long Trail end-to-end this summer, when the shelter was packed full. I guess I don’t remember Monadnock the same way, because I’ve never had a quiet moment of my own there.

The hang-glider launch on Ascutney. Forgot my glider, so we had to walk down.

The next day, Yvonne and I took a trip to Ascutney, another monadnock, but a little further away from Keene. We had been there only once before, the day after Hurricane Irene hit Vermont. This day was much the same as Monadnock the day before– cold, sunny, and very hazy. We could just see Monadnock in the distance from the handful of ledges on the southeast side of Ascutney, but the views were still gorgeous without the distance. Even the dull brown of stick season didn’t hurt the views. There’s something so nice about the acres of farmland in the Connecticut River Valley.

A nice little ravine on the way up Ascutney’s south side.

We didn’t have the mountain to ourselves, but I started to crave more from this mountain in particular, like I felt some kind of attachment. We have to come back here a bunch this winter, I told Yvonne, and I made plans to come back in the spring, when I figured there would be some quiet days. Ascutney has something very appealing to me, even if there are lots of people there– the sheer variety of things to see on such a small mountain induced a sort of ecstasy. Bare ledges with views of the valleys below, ravines with cascading waterfalls, dark coniferous forests, rocky peaks– in only three short miles of trail, it seemed we saw what takes several more miles in other areas. It’s not my home mountain yet, but I can see it becoming that once I put in some more effort.

It’s been real nice getting back to a routine and life in New Hampshire in the past few weeks, but I quickly became a little overwhelmed with how much I need to do in order to get back on track. Even though I mentioned I’d be cutting down on my schedule of blog posts, I managed to let it go a little further than planned– with all the work on other projects, and avoiding the Internet time, my plate is feeling quite full.

The trail to Ethan Pond, with the Bonds far away in the distance.

Last weekend, I forced myself out of Keene for a few days. First, I went back up to the White Mountains with my pal, Clint (who seems to be my newest victim, I mean hiking partner, since our meeting on a Backpackinglight hike last year). We punished ourselves on a very cold couple of days in the Zealand valley and the Willey Range. Saturday night we ended up hiking late into the evening to find a campsite, having forgotten just how early the light now dwindles. Sunday morning was bitter cold– below 40, easily– but a crystal clear reminder of the coming autumn.

Walking alongside the Pemigewasset River.

The next day, I brought Yvonne up to Mounts Abraham and Ellen in Vermont to introduce her to the area. It was a much hotter day, with thick haze, and the leaves are starting to look like they might skip “bright” and go straight to “dull”, but it was a lovely hike anyway. Driving up Route 100 is beautiful enough without even the exciting drive up Lincoln Gap and the walk along the ridge. And to top it all off, we finished the day with baked goods at Sandy’s in Rochester (this place is effing amazing, especially considering it’s in a town that’s tiny and out of the way even by Vermont standards), then had a post-hike dinner at Fritz’s in Keene (one of Yvonne’s and my favorite places in town, with really tasty burgers, fries, and big fat salads).

Looking up the Whitewall Brook valley to Zealand Falls Hut.
Looking into the Pemigewasset Wilderness on a cold morning from Mount Tom.

Rather than a blow-by-blow report, I’ll just load you up with pictures from the weekend. And then I’ll get back to working on my other stuff. These books aren’t reading themselves, and there are some big changes coming in the world of Guthook’s Hiking Guide apps….

Bretton Woods and Mount Washington from Mount Field.
Mt Abraham and smiles.
Lincoln Peak, and not smiles!
From Mount Ellen, into the haze toward Camel’s Hump

After a one-day break from hiking, it was time to get back to work. I returned to the trail at Sherburne Pass, right outside the Inn at Long Trail for a long climb up Pico and Killington Peaks, opting for the old LT route as many Long Trail hikers do. At this point, the Appalachian Trail joined the Long Trail. I entered a different world.

Clarendon Gorge

A Different Group

It became clear as soon as I passed Jungle Junction (the junction of the old and new LT near Killington Peak) that I was in for a very different experience than I’d had in the past ten days. There were a lot of people on the trail now. A Green Mountain Club caretaker told me, “the AT crowd is like a mullet. Business in front, party in the back. We’re right at the bald spot.” Indeed, there were about equal numbers of the party hikers and serious hikers in the crowds I met. I passed so many northbound hikers that I began to lose track. One day, there were more than fifty– more people than I’d seen in my first week on the trail.

AT Through-hikers overlooking Manchester Center at Prospect Rock.

There was a major difference in mentality between the AT hikers, near the end of their journey, and that of the LT hikers further north. The AT hikers, though in superior shape from hiking for several months already, had an air of weariness about them. I’ve seen this among all the long-distance hikers I’ve met on both coasts. For the first month or so, everything is new and exciting. After the weeks start to pile up, though, the hike becomes a routine, rather than the escape it had been in the beginning. Most LT hikers aren’t on the trail long enough for that to happen. Only a handful of the AT hikers I met were still in the blissful haze that they must have started with, but their joy was contagious.

Ponds and Peaks

South of Killington, the second highest peak in the state, the Long Trail continues through lowlands near the towns of Shrewsbury and Clarendon. A significant section of the trail in this area had sustained serious damage in the hurricane last year, resulting in washed out bridges and eroded land. The Forest Service had closed the trail around the damage, but most hikers went in anyway, ignoring the detour and just crossing streams on fallen trees (of which there were plenty). I did the same, and everything was just fine. Soon enough, I was climbing back up into higher elevations at White Rocks Mountain and Little Rock Pond.

Where once there was a road bridge, now we have a hiker bridge.
Home of the forest gnomes.

The Long Trail’s northern and central sections are full of steep ups and downs between rocky mountains, but the southern end is a very different trail. There are plenty of mountains, and they are quite massive when viewed from afar, but few have natural views from the top. Fire towers and ski resorts help with that, but the real natural beauty in southern Vermont comes more from things below the treetops, not above.

One of the most reliable and serene sunsets in Vermont, at Stratton Pond.

Griffith Lake, Little Rock Pond, Stratton Pond, and several beaver bogs provided fine scenery day after day. A reliably gorgeous sunset at Stratton Pond, an abundance of wildlife in various bogs, a cooling dip in the cold mountain water at Griffith– these were fine shows of natural beauty. The views from Stratton and Glastenbury mountains are two of my favorites in Vermont, and those from Bromley and Baker are delightful, but it’s just as nice to sit by the edge of a pond for an hour and see no traces of humanity anywhere around.

The view at Bromley isn’t bad, and the seats are well-cushioned.

Even walking through the dense forest in the Lye Brook Wilderness, or the ridge near White Rocks, the simple peace of the woods was enough. For every time I’ve heard someone criticize a section of trail for being a green tunnel, or a mountain without a view, I’ve walked through a dozen such places and seen nothing to complain about. A fine pond might not clobber you over the head with its grandeur, but there’s just as much to see as from a mountaintop.

Heading to Georgia? Or just section hiking?

With so many AT hikers passing by, most everyone assumed I was a southbound AT through-hiker. Maybe it was because I carry an ultralight pack, and most people assume solo UL hikers are always through-hikers. Or maybe because I had a beard and smelled funny. Or maybe just because AT hikers so outnumbered LT hikers at this point. Whatever the reason, it no longer felt like I was hiking the Long Trail. I was hiking the AT now.

More lovely Vermont forest.

It might have been different if I’d come through in a different season, or just any time when there weren’t so many AT hikers. But it was a good way to be done with the hike. On the last full day, I sat down in a clearing just before the evening’s campsite, and chatted with a couple of very nice through-hikers who were still riding the AT high, still enjoying every minute. One even recognized me from this blog (that’s a first for me). We talked about the joy of long-distance backpacking, and of the hiking that lay ahead for them. It’s a good feeling to be around people who are so happy to be doing what they’re doing.

Beaver bogs would be a nice place to find moose in the morning, I think.

The next morning, I made it to the Massachusetts border pretty early, and sat down to sign the register there. I realized that this had been the most satisfying long-distance hike I’ve done– things went more or less according to plan, I met good people, and I wasn’t burnt out at the end. And then I looked at the first page of the register, and found an entry from nine months earlier– “…Missed my chance to thru-hike this year. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for next year. –Guthook”.

Ultralight nerd picture.

Looks like that worked out perfectly.