BackgroundWhen viewed from the east, the highest mountain in Vermont, along with its southern and northern ridgelines form the profile of a face looking ever upward into the clear blue sky of the Green Mountain State. The name of the actual highest point on Mansfield's slopes is called The Chin.
This area is home to the largest area of alpine tundra in the state of Vermont, and as one would expect, is a very delicate and well-guarded ecosystem. During the "mud-season" of late March through May, Mt. Mansfield is closed to hiker access in order to protect the rare plants that make their high home in Vermont. At other times during the year, hikers and climbers can follow the AT-like Long Trail up to Vermont's rocky summit.
Trip ReportMy entire day on Mt. Mansfield can be described in one word: cold.
Although I would love to oversimplify and call the trip report complete, I will oblige my adoring public (all twleve know who you are), and elabortate. I had spent the night in the Hampton Inn of White River Junction, VT after climbing Mt. Greylock, MA the day prior. I decided to spend the money on a room since the temperatures were expected to fall will below 0F during the night. It goes without saying, but since there is no Sun to warm you up during the dark hours, it can be very cold at that temperature.
When the Sun did choose to come up, it wasn't that much better. Not only did the forecast call for temps 10-20F below normal, there would be a ~20 mph windduring the morning hours. I considered that the weather forecasts are usually based on cities, which are much more tame than mountain ridgelines. This helped me to make the easy and intelligent decision to wait until 10:00AM EST, when the wind chill advisory expired to start the hour-long drive to Mt. Mansfield in the beautiful ski town of Stowe, VT.
As usual, I was a bit later than I had planned, due to what would turn out to be a wise decision of getting lunch on the way. After packing up all of the neccessary equipment, I hit the literal road just before noon; the standard Long Trail TH is a few tenths of a mile away from where the VT-108 highway is closed off during the winter.
Since the temperature at Stowe was a few degrees below 0F, I had dressed very warmly. However, since I am admittendly a "hot-body" and the Sun was out in force, I actually started to sweat! By the time I reached the register for the south-bound Long Trail, I had to strip down to just my Smartwool top with the sleeves rolled up. My hat, gloves, fleece and Gore-tex jacket all went back into my pack for later use.
By the way... Get you mind out of the gutter, of course I was wearing pants!
The trail was welcome on one hand, but definitely undesirable on the other two; it was very direct, which allowed for quick upward progress, though since the wind had died down in the lower forested slopes and the Long Trail was blazed with white marks that perfectly matched the color of snow, it was a sweaty and easy to lose route! (Does Daniel really have three hands?!?!)
While on the trail, I made good albeit hot progress. Since skiers had obviously been in the area, there were many intertwined paths through the snow that frequently led me astray. If I had to guess, I'm fairly certain that I spent almost 45 minutes and 500 vertical feet off of the true trail trying desperately to find where it meandered to next.
Though this section of the Long Trail, isn't true to its nomer based on distance, I found it more than accurate when considering the time it took to follow it upward.
After a while, the trail spat me out like two-day-old nacho (trust me, you'd want to get it out) onto one of the ski slopes at Stowe called Gondolier. Ecstatically relieved to be off the accursed trail, I stuck to the margins of the ski area boundary and quickly climbed up the icy paths to the gondola hut.
I will most certainly digress at this point, as a few years ago, when I was skiing in Vail, CO, I met a couple who called Vermont home. As we rode the lift together, we discussed the day's conditions and also convered about the differences between Eastern and Western skiing. Although I had heard that the East Coast was home to the iciest slopes in the country, they assured me that there was merely "eastern hardpack".
The slopes of Stowe actually required me to put on my crampons well before hitting the highest reaches of Mt. Mansfield. Though I was worried that I was in a place I shouldn't be, I waved to a ski patroller on a snowmobile who passed me on his way down, and was relieved to see him smile and wave back. I climbed at a much better rate up the icy slopes to the top of the gondola; the sound and feel of the steel spikes biting into the hardpack brought me a marked second-wind for the most difficult part of the climb.
I didn't waste any time at the lift house before starting my ascent up the deep and snowy "Mouth Couloir" leading to the summit ridge. Every other step seemed to fall onto either solid ice or meter-deep powder; to say the least my progress was slow and difficult. Seeing no trail whatsoever, I swam through the deep fluff for much to long to only count a few hundred feet of vertical progress. The left (southern) wall of the couloir provided some relief from the deep snow, so I hung as close to it as possible.
After a short but strenuous effort, I eventually arrived at the ridgline on Mt. Mansfield and saw Lake Champlain opening up to the west. Even though no Plesiosaur stuck hid or her head up to where I could see, I still enjoyed the scene of this massive lake as I climbed the remaining windswept rocks up to the summit of Vermont. The wind had picked up to ~20 mph by this point, which made for a very uncomfortable time; I had donned my down jacket and balaclava just before reaching the ridge, though neither of these helped me to keep my footing in such conditions. I reached this, my coldest summit to date, after three slow hours of climbing through the misleading trails and deeps snows of Mt. Mansfield.
I dropped my pack and noticing that my thermometer read -15F, quickly pulled my camera out of my pocket to take a picture of the benchmark I had just cleaned. Partially to my dismay, the camera would not open as the temperature had drained every bit of energy from the almost full battery. The Olympus I have is designed to work down to 32F, and I had even coerced it to operate at 0F on Mt. Greylock the previous day. I now know, however, that to operate at -15F, my trusty camera must be packed in a better place than my coat pocket!
In a way it was a blessing that I couldn't perform my usual 20 to 30 minute ritual of summit photos and calls, since as soon as I stopped moving, I grew very cold very quickly. I retraced my steps back to the Mouth Couloir as fast as I could. I was very happy to make quick progress plunge-stepping down the deep snow back to the warming hut.
Thanks to Stowe for unknowlingly letting me use the hut to warm myself and my electronics back up and for knowingly letting take the easy way down the mountain on the gondola! I should definitely mention that while I was getting ready to take the lift down, a few snowboarders were gearing up for their descent. I taled with one of them for a few minutes, and his questions led me to reveal that I was a psycho, glotton-for-punishment Texan who was willfully trying to freeze off his fingers and toes by climbing the state highpoints in winter. We wished each other well, and began our respective descents, with Otto having much more fun on his chose route, I'm sure.
At the bottom of the hill, I happened to run into Otto and his friends again, and talked with them a bit more. He and one friend, Mark, asked if I wanted them to take a picture of me since my camera had frozen higher up. I happily accepted the offer and got my most interesting "summit shot" in my Winter 50 career, since it was from the bottom of the ski area!
Happy to have completed my 30th winter highpoint, but sad to have missed the triumphant photo of Jacko, the mountain climbing frog, I was overall content to get back in my car and give my body a chance to thaw.
If Otto or Mark ever read this, thank you very much for the kind words and picture on Mt. Mansfield! If you're ever out West or if I'm ever out East, we should go rip down a mountain together (if you'll take a skier along). ;-)