Monday is a holiday in the US and so I have a three day weekend here. I had considered a bike ride but then an idea popped in to my head. I haven’t been hiking in years. And so it is that I find myself riding back to Smuggler’s Notch and going back up the hill, this time in a car.
I park the car at the trailhead of the last hike I took in Vermont up Hell Brook Trail to the summit of Mount Mansfield, the highest mountain in the state. It is the steepest ascent but also really rewarding as it is also the shortest distance to the top of any trail.
The trail doesn’t hold back. Right away, you have to find your way across a stream using stepping stones. Then the ascent begins right away.
A trail this steep, can’t be made of dirt and so the climbs are all on rocks. The first two times I did this trail back in the late 80’s, it was late summer and the weather was very dry. The trail also was dry. Today, though, I’m not so lucky. In some places the trail is a stream. If I’m lucky it’s mud, if I’m not it’s slippery rock.
It isn’t long before I realize my relatively new trail running shoes are not up to the task. They’re great in mud and dirt but are like ice skates on the rock and even worse on wet, slippery rock. I didn’t anticipate this – last time I did this I wore sneakers.
My heart pounds as the pitch of the hill I’m climbing is like a steep staircase. In some cases it is so steep that you have to use your hands as well to pull yourself up. It’s climbing more than walking in many places.
This is the hardest hike I’ve done, and in many ways is harder than most rides I’ve done. I feel like I’ve worked as hard as I have on 100 kilometre rides. But it’s also really beautiful and peaceful. It’s completely worth the effort. Surprisingly, the further up I go, the easier it seems to get. But still I find myself having to really push myself to avoid taking too many breaks to “enjoy the view” (read: catch my breath). On a couple of stops, though, I do take a couple of videos.
Eventually at the last scramble above I meet a couple descending. One of them turns to me and says: “Just a warning: There’s quite a bit of snow up there. We turned back.” He tells me the snow isn’t so deep but it’s making it slippery and hiding holes that might break a leg. I’m pretty sure at this point I’m not going to make the summit today but I do really want to see the snow. And so I climb further up.
Soon I get to another sheer face. A group of hikers from Quebec scale it relatively quickly but I’m struggling to find any handholds or footholds that my shoes will stick to.
Finally I try the left side. It’s wet but maybe there’s enough traction to manage. I get up a couple of feet and then both shoes lose grip and I slide. Then I move closer to the middle where the other hikers went. I take a few steps up and am making some progress when suddenly both feet let go again. My right knee slams in to the granite face of the mountain and pain shoots up from my knee. My hand also takes a hit breaking my fall. And then I slide back down a good six feet. I stand there for a minute assessing the damage and deciding what the next steps will be.
In the end I decide that my next adventure will not be “Participate in a mountain rescue!”. I don’t know if my knee will get worse or how hard the route will be. Originally my plan was to descend a much gentler trail but now I would have to go backwards down a lot of these same small cliff faces. It is really time to go.
And so down I go. It is less taxing aerobically but definitely more effort in other ways. My mind has to think hard about where I place my feet. My small muscles in my legs that keep my ankle steady have to work harder when I land to avoid falling. Roots that were great handholds are now trip hazards or worse, could break a leg if I had good momentum and got a leg stuck in one. Even with all of the stress, pain, and exhaustion I am happy. The views are far and green, the sound of the waterfalls follow me wherever I go.
As I descend a few times I nearly fall but catch myself, sometimes by grabbing a tree with the spiky stump of a tiny branch piercing my hand. Finally, just a few hundred metres from the car I slip again. One leg is headed way down the mountain, the other is stuck under a root just as I was afraid of. I strain to stop and manage to do it. I also manage to smack my left knee on the granite. I wryly say “There, now they match.” to nobody at all.
By the time I get to the car I’m tired and my shoes and pants are wet and covered in mud. I put my jacket down on the seat before I get in to protect the rental car’s upholstery. When I sit down in the drivers seat my knees hurt. I look at my hands as I grab the steering wheel and notice that they’re filthy and scratched. Despite all that – or perhaps because of it, I have had the time of my life.