A few nights ago, before embarking on a cross country road trip and going AWOL from the blogosphere for a couple days, I wrote about my unsuccessful attempts to summit Vermont’s high point, Mount Mansfield. Last Sunday, the Fates smiled upon me, and I reached the summit in one of my favorite day-hiking expeditions of all time.
I don’t know exactly what it was about last week’s hike that left me so high on life. The day wasn’t exactly an auspicious day for a hike: The sky was ominously cloudy, and the wind chills in the mountains were in the single digits above zero. As I was driving to the trailhead in Underhill State Park, the sky was spitting snow, and the road up to the trailhead was covered by a dusting of powder.
A Southerner who’d considered herself a fair weather hiker until this autumn, I seriously considered just heading home without trying to hike. However, when I got enough traction on Mountain Road to drive to the gate, I decided I’d give it a try, resolving to head back down the mountain after a short hike. Basically, I just wanted to try out the Kathoola microspikes the mountain had inspired me to purchase the day before.
I set off around 9:45 and soon, as I always do, found myself deeply content walking in the woods. The snow was falling gently around me, and the branches of the evergreens, blanketed by white powder, hung with heaviness.
Yet again, I took the Eagle Cut-off Trail up to Sunset Ridge Trail and signed in, still assuming that I’d only hike for a couple hours. Yet again, I crossed the footbridges near the trail head. Yet again, I climbed nearer the ridge line.
This time, however, when I came to the first of several wide swaths of icy terrain, I donned my microspikes. Sure, the contrast between them and my lightweight Salomon trail shoes was amusing, but it was love at first crunch. Instantly, ice was transformed from a beautiful but potentially hazardous trail decoration to a surface that was actually fun to walk on.
I marched onward toward the krummoltz and considered, for the first time since getting out of my car, to attempt the summit that day. Alone on the mountain, listening to the wind whistling through the trees and leaving the first footprints in the snow, I resolved to go as far as I felt comfortable and to turn around if following the trail, staying warm, or remaining upright became beyond reasonably difficult.
Happily, I never reached that threshold.
From the top of the treeline to the top of Mansfield’s Chin is roughly one mile. In the winter, what in the summer would be a great opportunity to catch a suntan becomes a bit more treacherous. However, I carefully followed the small mountaintop cairns and occasional blue blazes on rocks that the fierce wind had exposed. Some of the snowdrifts the winds created were nearly knee-deep; in other places, I walked on bare rock. Adding layers before I thought they were necessary, I never let myself become chilled, and only my eyes were exposed by the time I got to the summit. The few blonde hairs that had freed themselves from my hat and balaclava froze stiff from the cold.
Rounding the corner of the spur trail to the peak and climbing the final hundred yards to the summit felt incredible. Alone in a snow-covered wilderness, higher than any surrounding mountain, I seemed to be on top of the world. Up that high, I could discern a distant break in the clouds, and the low winter sunlight that shined through tinted the furthest reaches of the clouds pink. I spun around, taking in the panorama, awestruck.
And, then it was time to descend to the safety of treeline.