It's about 6:30 on Saturday morning and it's 32 degrees inside the shelter. I have a short 6 mile day so I don't need to run out of here. Everyone is going their separate ways today so the morning has a melancholy feel to it. Mountain Goat, having hiked the northern part of the trail over Labor Day, is finished and heading back to Burlington. Sarah is pushing on so that she can finish by Tuesday. It will be pretty strange not seeing Goat every day but it will be good for me to be alone for the final stretch. I've got 4 more days left on the trail; 234.4 miles walked and 38.3 to go. I need to write about my climbs over Camel's Hump and Mount Mansfield before the details slip away, but each of them will take more time than I have right now.
Camel's Hump (10/1)
I'm writing this based on my faulty memory because I was so cooked by the end of the day that I was barely functioning. Here we go... We left the Montclair Shelter in the rain and the climbing started quickly, about 1,000 feet in 2 miles, the last 200 in less than a mile. As we got toward the top it had been raining so hard and so often that the trails had become fast flowing streams. The temperature was in the 50's and as we got started the wind started blowing in the 40-60mph range. That's when the shivering started. Each of the big summits on the Long Trail have bad weather routes because they're so exposed that there's nothing to stop the wind from howling up and over them. I took off from Mountain Goat and Sarah, who wisely decided to take the bad weather route, and headed for the top. It was only 0.2 miles from the top so I cinched my pack to my back as tightly as it would go and started to climb. As I left tree line and started climbing the exposed rock the wind was crawling over the top of Camel's Hump. I was afraid I'd be blown off of one of the ledges I had to cross on my way to the summit. I can be stubborn and reckless but I turned around and headed back down without a seconds thought. As soon as the adrenaline wore off I noticed that no matter how fast I walked (downstream!) the shivering wouldn't stop. Having gotten hypothermia once while living in Colorado I remember the symptoms very clearly. I kept getting more and more anxious because I knew the next shelter we were heading to was a 3 sided one and not a lodge with 4 walls and a roof. I wouldn't be able to get away from the wind and rain and completely dry off and warm up. The only town that was within hitchhiking distance didn't have any accommodations so when I caught up with Mountain Goat she recommended that we have her daughter pick us up at the next road, which was 3-4 miles away, and take us to her house to thaw out, dry off, do laundry, and eat pizza. After the call was made we switched into the dry clothes we'd stashed in our dry bags and hauled ass to the road. It was such a relief to have someplace warm and dry to go to. It wasn't the last time that Mountain Goat would save me...
"Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves." Cheryl Strayed
Mount Mansfield (10/3)
Stepping out of the car after a night at Goat's I was kind of stoked to get back on the trail and also a little bit apprehensive. The rain wasn't supposed to start until later in the afternoon, but in what had become our standard hiking conditions, the wind and rain picked up just in time for our ascent of Mount Mansfield, the highest point in Vermont. The terrain and weather/trail conditions perfectly mirrored my day on Camel's Hump. The trails had become streams and there were sections that were so steep that you would throw your trekking poles up ahead of you, climb to them, and repeat until you got to a more civilized part of the trail. The higher you got the less frequent those were. My hand is cramping while I'm trying to write this; my hands feeling strangely like claws after holding on for dear life to trekking poles for the last 3 weeks so I'm going to try to speed this up... Mansfield has 2 summits, the Forehead and the Chin. The Forehead is the wicked climb I've been describing complete with ladders, wooden bridges with no railings perched over significant drops, and the section that tried to kill me. More on that later. Under dry conditions it would have been a hairy climb, with pouring rain, significant winds, and a 40 lb pack it was pretty friggin' scary, even for a lunatic like me. I remember one ledge we had to skirt that had no handholds and me trying to block out what it was I was doing. Now would be a good time to mention that I'm afraid of heights. As with most things in my life, I have a tendency to run toward what terrifies me because I love the rush. The series of wooden ladders were easy enough to handle, but were followed by the bridge without rails and the I Hate Tilt-A-Whirl climb. We crossed the wet and slippery bridge (which I actually had to do 3 times because I was looking for Sarah to tell her to turn around), and were faced with the largest obstacle of the trip. It was a section of rock that slanted down toward what would be a brutal, possibly lethal fall, with another slab of rock serving as an overhang. The overhang was so tight that it was impossible to squeeze up the crack with a pack without getting so close to the edge that you'd probably fall. In the past when we'd gotten to sections like this we would throw our packs up ahead of us and then climb. The distance was too great for this. While I sat there with a blank look on my face Mountain Goat came up with the idea to climb ahead, drop the rope that we hung our bear bags with down to me, tie the rope around the backpack, and then hoist each of the packs to the small but flat ledge she was sitting on. I pushed, she pulled while straddling the ledge, and we got the packs up without pitching them over the big drop. Mountain Goat=SUPERWOMAN!!! At this point we became really concerned about Sarah, who had been hiking about an hour behind us, trying to tackle this section. I decided I would scream her name down into the valley with the hope that she would hear me and take the bad weather route. I ended up crossing the butterflies in stomach inducing bridge 3 times but we never heard from her. I ended up leaving her a note held down by a rock at the top of the ladder because I was afraid that we'd been standing still long enough that hypothermia was again a possibility. It was my turn to climb up to Mountain Goat. I wedged myself as far into the overhang as I could and gently worked my way up and over the the top to the flat little section that Goat had been standing on. The rest of the climb, the summit of the Chin, was so spooky and dreamlike that it felt like we were walking on another planet. The fog was incredibly thick, the trees had all but disappeared, and the trail was a series of huge rocks and minute vegetation. The Chin summit was anti-climactic. There was a visitor center, a few bored volunteers standing and talking to each other, so we bailed quickly and began our descent down the backside of the mountain to Taft (????????????) Lodge. The climb down to Taft was murder; slick rock, flowing streams, a twisted up ankle and then, as had happened every time I started to circle the drain, we came upon a beautiful spacious, enclosed, warm, and dry shelter to spend the night. It was our safe haven. The shelter was so big we each had our own 2 person bunk, a table inside so that we could eat like human beings, and a really nice caretaker named Graham who kept the shelter and the surrounding trail in great shape. Being able to sit and eat at a table was something that we cherished on the trip. Meals were usual cooked/consumed sitting on the ground or rocks, logs, or with our feet hung over the edge of the shelter. To be able to sit and eat like a normal human being was a small gift. It was a reward that equalled the difficulties we'd faced all day and was made even better knowing that I'd be heading into town the following morning to stay at Nye's Green Valey Farm B&B.
"No matter how sophisticated you may be, a large granite mountain cannot be denied-it speaks in silence to the very core of your being". Ansel Adams