Bear Hollow Shelter to Taft Lodge
October 2, 2007
LT Miles – 12.6
Total LT Miles – 67.2
Extra Miles – 0
Papa Rose and I simultaneously wake and pack our things. Soon I’m buckled in to my backpack and ready to hit the trail.
“Whiteface, here I come!” I say in parting.
I feel good today, eager to stomp up Whiteface Mountain. It’s a steep hike, and the trail is muddy. I misstep at a switchback turn, sinking all the way up to my knee in mud!
I haven’t said much about the mud. The Long Trail is very, very muddy… even in autumn. Often wide pools of it need to be negotiated. The mud is a formidable obstacle, like blown-down trees.
Some hikers call the state “VERMUD” or “VERMUCK.” In one shelter register, a hiker referred to being an “expert on the load bearing capacity per square inch of Vermont mud.” Sometimes fallen leaves mask the mud-trap / quicksand-pit that awaits the unsuspecting hiker.
So I begin the day with muddy feet, but it doesn’t matter.
The morning air rustles my leaf-canopy ceiling. Every time there’s a strong breeze, it rains leaves. They take their time, fluttering their way to the forest floor.
Whiteface summit rewards me with my first clear, dramatic sighting of Mount Mansfield – the highest point in Vermont. It’s a stunning morning view.
I linger here for a while, watching the high clouds brush by the peak.
Madonna Peak is visible to the left, with the ski trail.
Whiteface Shelter sits a half mile below the summit, with an excellent view to the south. Here I meet three northbound thru-hikers – Ballpahk, Lonestar, and Moxie.
“Ballpahk!” I exclaim, “You were on the Appalachian Trail in 2002!” We met at the Trail Days Festival in Virginia in May of ’03.”
Immediately we’re firing off names of mutual friends – “Do you remember so-and-so? What ever happened to him?” “Last I heard, he was going to hike the Pacific Crest Trail in ’04,” and so on.
Some people and names I had forgotten, bringing a smile to my face – for instance “Smurf, the World Traveling Redneck.”
I fill my bottle from a trickle under a nearby rock, and gulp down the cool mountain water with my mid-morning snack. The others are here only for a brief snack too. Moxie and Lonestar continue north up the trail.
Ballpahk is the last to follow. As he fastens his shoulder straps, he says “Duct Tape, This trail is kicking my ass,” as though in confidence between former Appalachian Trail hikers.
The trail follows the ridge over Morse Mountain to Hagerman Overlook. It descends before heading up Madonna Peak, part of the Smuggler’s Notch Ski area. Several signs warn skiers of crossing boundary lines and entering the “wilderness.”
I nearly miss this aged sign, hidden several feet off the trail. I can only wonder how old it is – the man that nailed it to this tree is likely underground.
Vacant ski huts crown Madonna Peak, and I rest in the sun for a lunch break. On top of this mountain I look around and can’t help but think about how lucky I am to be here now on this October afternoon.
In an Appalachian Trail DVD, a friend of mine talks about how hikers have the fortune of eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner in three different locations every day. So true.
Mount Mansfield is visible as I descend Madonna Peak.
I come to Sterling Pond shelter, and follow the trail along the edge of the pond. There are several day hikers in the area. A young lady asks me to take her picture, “So my family believes I made it up here!”
The trail swings toward the top of another ski lift, and then turns down to the far side of the pond.
The day grows long as I follow a ridge to the narrow Smuggler’s Notch.
The sun is rapidly sinking behind the ridge. I know I’ll have to hustle to get to Taft Lodge without extensive night-hiking.
First I have to hike down into Smuggler’s Notch – the steepest, narrowest gap on the whole Long Trail. Not only that, but I’ll have to climb up and out of it… two miles straight up Mount Mansfield!
On the way down, I meet two northbound thru-hikers – one goes by the name of Sawmill. I bet he snores!
My knees aren’t too thrilled about the descent.
The sun has gone away for good by the time I begin the climb out of the notch. An evening adrenaline rush bursts forth, and I attack the climb as best I can. I challenge myself to see how long I can keep my legs moving up the countless rock steps and water bars without stopping to catch my breath.
The forest changes from hardwood to spruce and fir. Darkness falls. The climb becomes rockier, with roots and limbs necessary as hand and footholds. Finally I switch on my headlamp as night vision becomes inadequate.
All the trees shrink to approximately 15 feet high as I gain elevation – the Christmas tree forest. The wind kicks up, and darkness carries a chill that penetrates my sweaty clothes. An awareness sets in that I’m alone in the dark on the side of a mountain approaching treeline, on what will be a cold October night.
At last I reach Taft Lodge. It’s occupied by two young men reading paperback books by the light of their headlamps. One of them is the GMC caretaker, and the other is a southbound Long Trail end-to-ender… the first official southbounder I’ve met so far! His name is Rover.
I go back out into the cold mountainside air to gather water. The spring is cold, deep, and glorious – Mansfield’s sweet nectar.