Jonny: “Hypothermia can kill you if you’re not careful”
Me: “That’s it! You heard it from a doctor. I always said this would happen and it just about did; I almost died out there today”
Sean: “Can’t deny that”
Jonny was quick to point out that I didn’t quite let him finish his comment about hypothermia: “But… probably, not in this case”. The melodrama was, however, totally in keeping with the atmosphere of the trip. And, truth be told, I probably was a little hypothermic: the first symptoms of hypothermia—clumsiness, lack of coordination, shivering, drowsiness—begin when the internal body temperature drops to 95°F. The hike to the top of Mt. Mansfield, the highest point in Vermont and on Long Trail, on our first day was cold and rainy from the start. There were occasionally breaks in the clouds, and we had good views, but it either rained or was overcast nearly the entire way up to and at the summit, and then all night and into the next day. And temps hovered somewhere between 40°and 50°F, well within the range in which hypothermia can set in, especially in wet, windy weather. Moreover, for this particular trip, I chose to hike in a kilt and compression shorts. I maintain to this day that this was a good decision: freedom of movement, maximum ventilation, ability to keep cool—perhaps, a little too cool. That being said, the coolness of the air combined with the moisture from both sweat and precipitation had certainly pulled enough heat out of my core that once I stopped hiking and my body was no longer producing an excess of heat, a mild case of hypothermia set in. Combine that with a very difficult hike, and there is the recipe for a bad trip. We had planned to hike something like fifteen miles the first day, from the base of Mt. Mansfield off of Stevensville Road, an elevation of roughly 1,400 feet, North over the summit, back down, across 108 and Smuggler’s Notch, then up again to Sterling Pond Shelter on Long Trail, another five miles from the base of the first descent. However, the trail up was so steep that by the time we hit the summit and started to descend, I was already gassed. I planned for almost everything, and planned well—food, gear, extra clothing, layers, water filtration—except for the terrain.
From the start it was uncertain how this trip was going to come together, or where, or even if. Sean and I had been going back and forth for a couple months on location and date, but I was never able to put nail anything to the wall, a long weekend, in which we could meet up and trek through the wilderness. John was not even certain of whether he would join us until we got pretty close to making a final decision. Finally, about two weeks before the hike, we came up with a plan—er, sort of. We would hike Long Trail in Vermont, from somewhere around the Winooski River Valley to Devil’s Gulch, or thereabouts. This would be about forty-five miles of hiking over three or four days—timeline, again, uncertain. Then, just days before our trip we had what we thought was a solid plan. Sean would drive up on a Wednesday evening or Thursday morning, hike up to Long Trail and camp at Twin Brooks Tenting Site. I would drive up later Thursday night, hike to the camping site and meet up with Sean, and John would meet up with us on trail the following morning. But even that didn’t come together cleanly. We were all coming from different parts of the eastern seaboard: me, from southeastern, MA: Jonathan from just north of New London, CT: and Sean from PA. In the end, John ended up convincing me to leave first thing Friday, around 4am, allowing us a good night’s sleep on Thursday and a full day of hiking Friday morning. We would meet Sean late morning or early afternoon near the top of Mt. Mansfield and all hike together to Sterling Pond. It became clear, however, on our descent from Mansfield’s summit, that this trip would not go to plan.
Despite my willingness/readiness to bare any degree of discomfort over these long hikes, I completely underestimated the difficulty of the terrain. Butler Lodge Trail, where my brother Jonathan and I chose to begin our hike, increased from 1,500 feet of elevation at the parking lot, to roughly 4,000 feet in under two miles. That’s an average gradient of nearly 25%. Just to give readers an idea of what that means, or looks and feels like: when contractors build a house, the preferred gradient of a set of stairs is between 25 and 35 degrees. The standard height for a step is just under eight inches. So climbing Butler Lodge Trail for two miles, is exactly like climbing stairs for that duration, with the exception that because you are climbing on uneven terrain you can never quite find a rhythm, and steps might be farther apart or closer together, perhaps two to three feet, taking up more or less energy with every step. In short, imagine being on a step machine in the gym, where the tension, difficulty and step height changes constantly. I was dead in the first hour!
The terrain is not only steep, but also treacherous. Butler Lodge Trail does not quit, right up until it joins Long Trail at 4,000 (or so) vertical feet; still, there were yet more difficult sections of trail that certainly qualify as class-five rock climbing, rather than difficult hiking. Short sections of trail, perhaps thirty or forty feet, where we had to take off our packs , toss them up the rock face to a ledge or landing, then climb to get them. This would have been less than ideal at night, in pitch dark—my original plan. On the other hand, starting this climb in the morning and then continuing our hike throughout the day meant that I was already tired by the time I reached the summit of Mansfield, and we still had miles of difficult hiking ahead of us. I tell people all the time who have never hiked in New England that the lack of true elevation in the Whites belies their ruggedness. The same, it appears, is true of Vermont and its Green Mountains. I need to start taking my own advice.
An activity such as backpacking poses inherent dangers. Hikers get lost all the time; they run out of food, water; lack of preparation and essential gear might mean being ill-equipped for encountering wildlife or weather—bears, coyotes, mountain lions, the wind, rain, cold, etc. Additionally, activities that require balance, focus and coordination become all the more perilous once one reaches exhaustion. I started mountain biking (mtb) in earnest this past year, and one thing I’ve noticed after a long climb, or a section of particularly technical trail, one in which I have to give everything to make it up, over or through that segment, is that when I’m gassed I tend to look straight down at my wheel, or the few feet of trail directly in front of me. This is dangerous. One rule of thumb when mountain biking is that you want to look as far down the trail as possible. This allows you to go fast, certainly, but this principle also takes into consideration that, ironically, speed is your friend; you need to see what’s coming down the trail to plan for roots, rocks, drops and other features that require proper technique or skill. Staying alert means staying safe; but the greater the exhaustion, the more difficult it is to maintain focus. This is also true of hiking or climbing technical sections of mountain paths. The more exhausted I became, the more I started thinking about getting off trail, which meant the less I was thinking about where I was placing my feet and poles. Not a good combination.
For these very reasons, the descent from Mt. Mansfield proved even more treacherous than the climb to the summit. It started raining in earnest, and one section of the descent forced us through a small chimney, where we (at least Sean and myself) had to slide on our butts, or wedge ourselves against the east and west wall—a technique known as stemming [insert pic]— while inching down to the landing some fifteen feet below. The possibility of a fall on slick rock was real; the results would be bad. We made it through just fine, in one piece. The rest of the way to our first stop as a group, at Taft Lodge, was mostly uneventful. We had completed perhaps five miles of hiking up to this point, on a trip where we were looking to average between ten and fifteen per day; it was becoming evident that this wasn’t going to happen. We debated spending the night at the lodge, but there were quite a few people there already, and this was right in the midst of the first wave of Covid-19. We decided to trudge on to Sterling Pond, or at least make the attempt.
Within the first mile of leaving Taft Lodge, it became evident that Sean and I were not going to make it to Sterling Pond. The rest and refuel at Taft Lodge did little to aid in our recovery. Jonathan is in great shape, and mostly hiked his own hike. Both Sean and I, however, were very sore and exhausted, and were moving at a clip of perhaps 1mph. That might be generous. Shortly after leaving the lodge, Sean had the first of what would become a series of falls. I was starting to slip and fall as well. After Sean’s final slip and fall, in which he went down at an unusually awkward angle, I wasn’t quite certain he was getting back up: at this point, we wouldn’t make it to the next camping site until very late into the evening. Cold, tired, hurt, drained of all enthusiasm, night coming on quickly, soaked from head to toe, this was not a situation in which to keep moving. After finally making it safely down to 108 in Stowe, we hitched into town where we were lucky to find a room, considering hotels were operating at or under 50% capacity due to the pandemic. We had little choice at this point. We ordered take-out—pizza and wings—had hot showers, warm beds, and, despite some mild hypothermia on my part, got a great night’s rest. Sometimes, “you gotta know when to fold ‘em”.
The weather remained an issue into the second morning. Patches of heavy rain, which proverbially hovered directly above where we were staying, and only where we were staying—we were, after all, in a valley—caused us to delay the start of our hike up to Sterling Pond. We thought we might make it as far as Whiteface shelter on the second day, roughly eight miles of hiking over what turned out to be similar terrain. Not quite as steep, admittedly, but we traded elevation for miles. As we walked back up 108 towards Smuggler’s Notch, where we would pick up Long Trail again, the weather began to clear and a pair of fellow travelers kindly stopped to offer us a ride the rest of the way to the trail head, saving us a little wear and tear on our feet. We gladly accepted their generosity.
Sterling Pond itself was very busy. Not only with day-trippers but also other through hikers. Jonathan had been having conversations with some of them about where they were heading, and a fair number of people had mentioned Whiteface Shelter, a three-walled lean-to, and therefore smaller than the cabin or lodge-style shelters on other parts of the trail. At the pace we were moving—slightly faster than the previous day, but still getting passed on the trail by lots of hikers—we were going to be the last to arrive and there might not be room. We weighed the option of hiking down to Beaver Meadow, where there was a lodge. What would be the likelihood of a bunch of thru-hikers getting off trail and hiking a mile down the mountain for shelter. We decided on the sure thing and went here. It turned out the next day that we totally would have had room at Whiteface, but the decision to camp at Beaver Meadow—there were neither beavers nor a meadow at this location—was a good move. We had the whole place to ourselves and rested somewhat easily inside the cabin.
Keeping spirits high helps to maintain sanity on the trail. One of the running jokes between me and Sean, one which John quickly tired of, was that the trail would eventually smooth out, and get much easier; it couldn’t be this hard the whole way, could it? “Don’t worry, it’s gonna flatten out right over that next climb”, “It’s all downhill from here”, “I think I see it levelling off just ahead”. For the most part, this was Sean and I trying to ignore the pain in our backs, feet, hips, and push through the discomfort. We found it hilarious, because, well, we had no choice, and this was a way of dealing with the grind. When a hiker’s body gets to the point that they strain for every step, when just putting one foot in from of the other becomes an effort, little choice remains: focus on the discomfort and be miserable, or find some way to try to ignore that discomfort, push through and enjoy yourself in the woods and the elements; otherwise, you’re just going to be uncomfortable in the woods and the elements.
It eventually did flatten out. And we eventually kept pace with John once we were moving at a more level pace. He thought he was such hot shit in the mountains. We had a good laugh in the car after, especially when Danielle picked us up to drive John home and myself and Sean back to our cars. A trilogy of double-digit days on trail, no shower, deodorant: we were ripe to say the least. Level II fun. In the end, it’s all worth it. Another adventure in the books; one more grind to add to the list;
Whatever we hope to achieve, having a plan and being informed ensures the best possible chance for success along the way. Backpacking, hiking, even, for me, mountain biking, are a moving meditation. And yet, I wouldn’t barrel down a steep, technical trail on my mtb without first stopping to pick a line, or note where the roughest part of that segment would be, or where the gnarliest obstacles lie. So why would I simply plan to hike through the pain without thinking about the actual terrain? Well, a lesson learned.
Next time I’ll pay much more attention to the terrain I’m climbing. At then end of the day though, I took a lot from this experience. I withdraw from the constructs of society and civilization to the world as we evolved to be in it. Disconnecting from “out there” allows me to connect with what’s “in here”. Recreational activities that test the mind and body also have their application to the “real world”. Nothing great was ever achieved by always being comfortable. Whether you want to change the world, or simply change your world, uncomfortable situations will help you achieve that. This will be different for everyone. For one person, discomfort comes in the form of physical privations; for another, perhaps someone suffering from some form of general or social anxiety, it might mean attending a social function with other humans; for yet another, it might mean peering over the ledge of a tall building or some other high place. One thing I know for sure, it’s hard to make change from the couch.
Get out there!