Sunday, July 26, 2015

VT's Long Trail in 9 1/2 Days

NOT an accurate depiction of Long Trail footing

I spent July 15-24 slogging through mud pits, dodging thunderstorms, and scrambling up and down slimy, slick roots and rock slabs. To what did I owe this particular version of fun? Vermont's Long Trail from Massachusetts to Canada! This was my fourth End to End and second Thru-Hike, the other 2 being Section Hikes. The last time I completed the LT was 5 years ago, when I went almost totally self-supported in about 9 days not including 3 zero days in the middle. This time around I completed the Trail in about the same amount of time with no days off; however, I did it fully supported wearing just a small Nathan pack--I am evidently getting smarter (?!) with age--as Chris agreed to crew me once again for which I am infinitely grateful. Upon hearing that I was "slackpacking" the entire Trail, the common refrain was "Wow, you have a nice husband!" to which I replied, "YES, I SURE DO!" Every day Chris got up early to make coffee and breakfast, crewed me at road crossings, set up camp, got the solar shower ready (high living this), and made dinner. I was completely spoiled. This was my second traverse of the State's length this year, the first being on skis via the Catamount Trail (see 3/18/15 post). While I am a more efficient hiker vs. skier, some days I yearned for those days of smooth kick-and-glide terrain on the CT!

Trail conditions proved challenging and slow this year due to the excessive amounts of rain that has fallen all summer. On the Long Trail that means mud... lots of mud... very large pits of mud... DEEP pits of mud. While the southern 100 miles coincides with the Appalachian Trail and seems somewhat better maintained, the northern one third of the LT could use approximately 184,000 rock steps or bog bridges. Many of the existing bog bridges are rotting and/or floating in soupy mud. A couple of sections are in need of a good haircut. I finished off 3 pairs of running shoes--Hokas, Montrail Hardrocks, and Salomon XAs--which were almost rotting off my feet by the time I pitched them. These were all old shoes--no way would I ruin a new pair on THIS trail! In attempts to mitigate somewhat the effects of constantly wet feet (e.g. trench foot), I would apply Desitin diaper rash cream to my feet in the mornings. By the end of the day my socks would reek of fish and blue cheese, such that many socks ended up being trashed. Somewhat incredulously I ended up with just one tiny blister the entire trip--in fact, my feet were the only body part that ever really got sore--but the bottoms of my feet now look and feel somewhat like old leather, and a pedicurist would certainly recoil in disgust at the condition of my toenails.

But enough whining. In the end this was my beloved, wild, gnarly Long Trail, Vermont's "footbath in the wilderness," and I knew what I'd signed up for: along with the mud, rugged peaks, pristine ponds, lakes and streams, moose droppings, early morning and late day birdsong--white throated sparrows, thrushes, veeries, barred owls, alpine flora, achingly beautiful hardwood forests blanketed in damp mosses, lichens and mushrooms, toads and newts gently moved off trail, glistening softwoods above 3000 ft., other weary but undeniably happy thru-hikers, the peaceful serenity of the woods on a misty day, and the incredible sunbeams piercing through the early morning forest, enough to make this agnostic actually sense a spiritual presence. For the most part, I was unplugged from the bad news of the day, the latest online Noise, and the everyday chores of home. Instead, I was happily lost in my own thoughts in that place in the world that I have always felt most comfortable, the Northern Forest.

Day #1 began at O'dark 30 on County Road in Stamford, Vermont. I walked the 6.2 miles to the Mass border and back by headlamp before continuing northward over the relatively easy terrain of southern Vermont. Near Sucker Pond there was a light rain shower lasting about 15 min., but it was actually rather refreshing. Chris met me at the Rt. 9 crossing--he brought me a Dunkin Donuts coffee!--and continued up the trail as far as Maple Hill. I saw lots of hikers in this section: thru-hikers, weekenders, and Boy Scouts, probably 50 between Rt. 9 and Kelley Stand Road, my destination for the day. The spring at Goddard was gushing--there is no shortage of water anywhere on the Trail this year!--and the view from Glastenbury Fire Tower was its usual spectacular. The afternoon miles dragged on a bit, but finally I made it to USFS 71, where Chris waited. Since there was still plenty of daylight and I wanted to make the next day a bit shorter, I decided to continue 2 more miles to Kelley Stand Road and, boy, am I happy I did. It was mud pit after mud pit in that newer section of trail (~late 1980s, when the LT/AT was relocated over Stratton Mtn.), and it would have been a miserable way to start the next day. Incidentally, this was the first spot where the Catamount and Long Trails cross, out of a total of 8. We camped that night at a primitive site on USFS 71 a mile or so down the road. 40 miles total for the day.

Day #2 commenced with the climb up Stratton Mountain, always a highlight of any LT/AT excursion since it is the "birthplace" of both trails. Today I dubbed "Goober Day" because I kept meeting goofy people on the trail starting with one guy, a thru-hiker, who decided it would be a good idea to bivy RIGHT ON THE TRAIL. I almost stepped on him! At Stratton Pond another guy announced that the trail was IMPASSABLE going north! What the...??!! A brief investigation revealed a short flagged relo due to the pond flooding the trail a bit. Another guy looked like he was dressed for a winter hike (it was maybe 60 degrees), and yet another, a southbounder, asked if I was headed north. "Umm... yeeeah." I took in the nice view of Manchester Center from Prospect Rock and shortly met Chris near Spruce Peak. More coffee at the Rt. 11/30 crossing resulted in a good pace up Bromley, and I arrived at the conveniently located composting privy exactly when it was needed. Mad Tom Notch provided another crewing spot, this time a grilled cheese sandwich from JJ Hapgood's Store in Peru. Yum! The next section is one of my favorites--over Styles, Peru and Baker Peaks as well as Peru Peak Shelter and Griffith Lake. Some day we need to get back there, spend a couple of days and do all the side trails... This day ended at USFS 10, and we set up camp right in the parking lot. 35 miles for the day.

Day #3: I always hike most energetically first thing in the morning so made quick work of the next section past lovely Little Rock Pond and White Rocks to Rt. 140. From Rts. 140 to 103 is probably my favorite section of the entire LT due to the fact that the Trail is so SMOOTH. After Clarendon Gorge at Rt. 103 Chris brought me another grilled cheese, this one from the Whistle Stop Restaurant which has become quite popular with thru-hikers of late. The climb up Clarendon Lookout is always an eye opener because for about 1/2 mile you feel like you're in the White Mtns. It is STEEP! The Trail crosses many roads over the next few miles; Chris met me at the last one, Upper Cold River Road before I finished the day with the final 12 miles up and over the Killington peaks. This area was devastated by Hurricane Irene and looks quite a bit different than on my last trek through here 5 years ago! The climb up Killington went well, and on the traverse to Jungle Junction I tried to keep up with “Gangrene,” a young AT thru-hiker, so the pace was pretty fast! Chris met me above Churchill Scott Shelter, and we marveled at all the downed, uprooted hardwoods about ½ mile before Rt. 4; apparently this wind event occurred in September 2014. It is stunning in its devastation! Chris had made the executive decision that we would celebrate the 100 mile mark by scoring a room at the iconic Inn at the Long Trail. The mattress, shower, real food, and beer were most appreciated! 32.2 miles for the day.

Day #4: Since Chris wanted to head over to the Vermont 100 Miler early to see some running friends, I was on the Trail by 5 am. It had rained in the wee hours of the morning, so we were happy to have stayed at the Inn and not have to pack up a wet tent. The stretch from Rt. 4 to Rt. 73 (Sherburne Pass to Brandon Gap) is 20 miles long and one that I have come to love. This day was wet, misty, and overcast, also very peaceful and contemplative. I enjoyed it very much. The AT split off just a mile into this section, so there were far less hikers from here on. Our plan had been to reunite at Rt. 125/Middlebury Gap, so imagine my surprise when I reached Brandon Gap and saw Chris sitting there in our car! He’d had enough of ultrarunners for a day by that point--haha. The next 10 miles seemed tougher, and there was always one more peak… Horrid… Cape Lookoff… Gillespie… Romance… Worth… FINALLY Chris met me atop Worth Mtn., and we headed down to Rt. 125 across some of the Middlebury Snow Bowl trails. Much of this section of trail was severely eroded, and my feet did not appreciate the steep descent. Magic Hat #9 never tasted so good as at the end of this day! We spent this night at a primitive campsite off USFS 67, which is also where the Catamount Trail passes through. It was quite a bit warmer than the last time we were here! 29.8 miles today.

Day #5: With the realization that I was just crossing the halfway mark, this day started off a bit of a grind over many peaks: Burnt Hill, Kirby, Boyce, Battell, Breadloaf, Wilson, Roosevelt, Cleveland, Grant, and many, many ups n downs in between. There were a fair amount of mud pits and the Trail was overgrown in many spots. There was also a pretty good rain shower going over Mt. Grant and the Trail’s getting ever rougher. I was happy to reach Lincoln Gap and take a good break. Due to bridge construction, Lincoln Gap Road from the east was closed, so Chris had to detour all the way around to the west side--aargh! This did result in far less day hikers than usual for a Sunday on Mt. Abraham, however. The rest of the day, across the southern end of the Monroe Skyline, went better, and I cracked up at the crazy descent between Starks Nest and Rt. 17/Appalachian Gap (OMG!). THIS is where the LT starts to get really gnarly! Chris scored a primo campsite near App Gap… or so we thought… 28.9 miles.

Day #6: Somewhere around 2-3 am, the Mother of all Storms blew through… and I mean BLEW. Unsure what the actual wind speeds were, but they were stronger than anything I experienced on Denali. The tent poles were exactly 1 mph away from snapping. It was… well… I won’t say “epic” because I hate that overused word, so I’ll say it was rather “extreme” for July in Vermont. At one point we sort of held up the tent with our hands for fear it would completely implode, and I questioned whether we’d even be able to make it to the car, about 1/3 football field’s length away. Thankfully the storm eventually abated, our Big Agnes pads kept us, er, afloat inside the tent, and we were able to get back to sleep. Amazing how beneficial extreme physical exertion can be. Incidentally, this was the same storm that produced devastating flooding in nearby Barre and Plainfield, Vermont. Chris had an appointment in Burlington this day, so he made Trader Joe’s and laundromat run as well. My morning was rather sporty with the gymnastics required to traverse Molly Stark, Burnt Rock, the Allens, and Ladder Ravine. There were even 3 rope assists in this section! What the…?! I don’t remember this! At Montclair Glen Lodge I met 4 other LT hikers “recovering” from what we’d all just traversed. Everyone was in good spirits, however, laughing and joking about the crazy, wet terrain we’d just navigated. Camels Hump was easy in contrast, and the summit crowded with many day hikers, I booked it over the top without pause. It is 6 miles from the summit down to Duxbury Road, and it is freaking endless, the upper mile or so basically a brook bed and extremely eroded. Chris hiked partway up the ridge and had quite the baggie full of blueberries by the time I reached him (all of which I promptly inhaled). I decided to do the 3-mile road walk to Bolton Notch Road and the NEW BRIDGE over the Winooski River before calling it a day. The bridge is awesome, and as I found out the next day, the new relocation rocks!! We spent this night at Little River State Park in Waterbury, the highlight being real showers! 21.7 miles today… my mileage is getting less and less--hah!

Day #7: I looked forward to this particular day because it meant traversing the newly opened 4.65 mile section of trail across the flanks of Stimson Mtn. An additional bonus to the relo: the mileage is now 1.2 road miles less according to the Green Mtn. Club! The relo eliminates the Jonesville-to-Bolton Notch Road section and, thus, no longer passes Duck Brook Shelter, but the old section of Trail is still open as a blue blaze. However, the new section is SO MUCH NICER: smooth trail, an easy climb, and *switchbacks* which are unheard of on the Long Trail! I enjoyed it immensely. Once atop Bolton Mtn. I experienced a mild thrill to know that I was extremely close to the Catamount Trail on the popular Bolton-to-Trapp’s section. Shortly I was sitting at Puffer Lodge downing a Snickers and chatting with thru-hiker Steve from WV. Chris met me near Mt. Clark, and we took a short break at Taylor Lodge at which point, I should note, the weather was sunny and warm. We bid adieu as he hiked back out via Lake Mansfield Trail and I continued on toward Vermont’s highest peak, Mt. Mansfield. We were aware that T-storms were predicted--about a 50% chance--for that afternoon, but wishful thinking… About 10 min. after leaving Taylor, the skies darkened ominously as the wind picked up. I walked faster and faster and ALMOST made it the 3+ miles to Butler Lodge before all hell broke loose. Ten minutes in the driving rain and I burst through the empty cabin door. Whew! I spent the next 90 min. drying out as best I could--fortunately there is an upstairs at Butler which was markedly warmer than the lower level. There was also a pad on which I could lie down and rest as the hard rain pummeled the cabin’s roof. Fortuitously, I had phone reception so Chris and I texted back n forth re what to do. Long story short… I waited for the rain, thunder and lightning to stop and took the Forehead Bypass up to the Visitor Center just beyond The Nose, and he drove up the Toll Road to rescue me! Of course, by then the winds had diminished and I could have continued across the ridge, but he had driven all the way up, so… (Kudos to the Toll Road attendant who was very nice and didn’t even charge Chris the normal $19 fee to drive up. We thanked him profusely for “saving my life” when we reached the toll gate.) So… I missed about 4 miles of Trail, but it is a section I have done many times so got over it pretty quickly. We spent the night at Smuggler’s Notch State Park. Chris got a lean-to this time since more rain was forecast… Only 18.4 miles today.

A typical dinner!

Day #8 started early, at 4 am, because my intent was to kill myself and get all the way to Rt. 118 (and thus finish in 8 ½ days). Halfway into the day I thought WTF am I doing this for? and opted to break the final miles into a more enjoyable 3 days. (Yay me!) From Rt. 108/Smuggler’s Notch to the descent off Whiteface Mtn., the Trail is extremely gnarly. Upon reaching a ski trail near Sterling Pond, I even lost the Trail for a bit due to sketchy blazing and had to backtrack. Chris hiked in past Bear Hollow, and we encountered the first of 5 large groups of teenagers from Camp Chateaugay over the next couple of days (between Rt. 108 and Hazen’s Notch). They were staying in the shelters apparently, which would have kind of sucked if you were a solo thru-hiker, just sayin’. At the Lamoille River I said goodbye to my trusty Montrail Hardrocks (am I the only freak who gets sentimental over trail shoes?), the soles ready to completely delaminate after Whiteface Mtn. The next few miles were pleasant, the weather beautiful. We discussed options at Codding Hollow Road and, since we were just over an hour from home and it was still early, decided to go sleep in our own beds for a change! Dean’s Beans Porter was most yummy this eve. 21.2 miles today.

Day #9: Rested and happy, I looked forward to another of my favorite sections of LT, Codding Hollow to Rt. 118. The trek over Laraway, Butternut, and Bowen Mtns. did not disappoint, and Devil’s Gulch was the same “primeval” fern-filled defile as ever. Chris enjoyed giving away some of our unwanted food to a fellow thru-hiker who we dubbed “Rabbi” (because he was studying to become one). The climb up Belvidere wasn’t too bad, but from that point to Hazen’s Notch was one of the most difficult of the entire LT for me. This section of Trail seems to have been abandoned (!). In fact, in reading the LT Guide it appears that there is no Club section responsible for it. The mud pits were intense, there were blowdowns, and the trail needed brushing. Before letting myself get too pissed off, remembering this was all self-imposed, I forced myself to SMILE and laugh in the face of adversity! Hah! Between Haystack and Tillotson Peak, I met another of the Camp Chateaugay groups headed for Tillotson Camp and am not sure they made it since some of them looked utterly exhausted. Unfortunately it was another rainy night so I hope they did make it… By the time I made Hazen’s Notch, I was SO ready to be DONE with the LT. 24.4 miles for the day.

Day #9.5: FINISH DAY!! Compared to the previous section, the walk from Hazen’s Notch to Jay Pass was a cakewalk (well, not really, but…). I took a good ½ hour at Jay Pass eating and drinking coffee before heading up to Jay Peak in the cold drizzle. SO thankful for grabbing my really good Patagucci rain jacket before heading up--it was *nasty* up there. I did not stop on the summit but doubt the cafĂ© was open in this weather. Spent some time reading the registers in the last 2 shelters, Laura Woodward and Shooting Star. The mud pits were many, but who cared at this point? Chris hiked in to meet me one last time, and we enjoyed one last crew stop at Rt. 105/North Jay Pass in the midst of a downpour. I huddled on the tailgate while he admonished me to not get too comfortable and git r done! Waiting a few minutes for the rain to stop while watching construction vehicles--all the asphalt was ripped up on Rt. 105--I split around 2 and was at the border a little after 3 pm. Mileage for the day was an even 20.

We celebrated at Parker Pie in West Glover with pizza and Allagash White, a very tasty brew. Total time was just about exactly 9 ½ days. Immediately after finishing I said this might have been my last LT hike, but 2 days later I’m thinking it would be nice to do in a dry year, in September, following the foliage south…


Olga said...

Wow, the conditions sound gnarly! We just recently watched Nikki's Long Trail record run, this trail surely is crazy without being all mud pit. You do have a very nice husband:) I make an example of him often, implying that I am leaning towards similar thing. As far as unplugged, this is one of the things I totally look forward to in 2 weeks on my TRT throughhike.

Steve Pero said...

Sue! Great to see you still at it up there, I imagine that someday I'll be reading of your hiking adventures when you're in your 70's ;-)
Funny, i don't remember you being a beer drinker...I'll have to get up there sometime for a visit and bring some of my home brew, which you are connected to because you introduced me to Mike Dobies in 2000 at MMT and he introduced me to brewing ;-)
If we can get time between my working and all the things around our farm, I'll come for a visit and bring some up. I'm actually going to the Whites for the first time since we moved back next weekend for MMD...and we've been here for 9 months!
Deb's still recovering from her knee surgery, I miss my training partner.
Well, our best to you and Chris and hope to get up there soon, we want to see your place before you move somewhere else ;-)

Anonymous said...

wow. impressive. I was just looking up some old ultra info and came across this site. I think I ran with/against you at the wild oak trail 50 miler in 1998, and perhaps at other races back in those late-90s northeast ultra days.

Aaron K said...

Totally digging reading about your adventures! Stay strong!