Waking up at 7 AM is never fun when you work until 4 AM most nights. But, to successfully complete two 4 hour drives and a 5 hour hike necessitates sleep deprivation. After all, it adds to the challenge and makes for a great dinner table conversation. By 7:50, my best friend and hiking partner in crime, JS, hit the road, but not after I stuffed my face with cafeteria food, including strawberry yogurt, granola, eggs, and tater tots. There's nothing quite like a good pre-hike meal, especially when you know you're going to burn most of it off in the ensuing hours.
Despite being a few days into spring already, this was very much a winter hike, as the forecast called for highs in the low 30s at the base of the mountain, and in the teens at the top. Our destination: Mount Mansfield, the tallest mountain in the great state of Vermont. At a mere 4395 feet, its apex is, by New England standards, not that impressive, but given the fact that it is one of only six peaks in Vermont that eclipse 4000 feet, it is a hulking behemoth in its respective state—a concept which, for JS and I, was quite elusive, largely due to the dark gray clouds that encumbered the skies on our lengthy drive to Northern Vermont. Notwithstanding, there were scattered patches of the crispest, deepest shades of azure we'd ever seen in our lives in between the clouds once we arrived in Vermont. JS insisted that this was because Vermont, unlike our own state of Massachusetts, has nowhere near the same magnitude of pollution, and thus the skies and water bodies possessed a much cleaner image than we're used to. No matter the reason, we were awestruck by the sheer magnificence that a simple patch of blue could evoke, literally causing our jaws to drop for much of the time spent on I-89 that morning.
We arrived at Underhill State Park at roughly 11:30, the site of the trailhead for our desired path of ascension that afternoon, the Sunset Ridge Trail. Unfortunately for us, because there was still a quite thorough blanket of white on the road leading up to the park, we had to park our car about a mile short of our pre-planned spot, in a makeshift parking area where we were confronted by a handful of other vehicles. Shortly after parking, JS and I embarked upon our hike, fully decked out in winter gear—multiple layers, mountaineering boots, snowshoes, poles, and even an ice axe for kicks and giggles in the event of a catastrophic mishap on either of our parts.
The first mile was a cinch, with the only highlights being a few trail signs and a sign-in/out sheet for eager hikers to inform others of their intended route just in case they get lost. As we neared the actual ridge, I realized that I had misplaced my hat, something I surely wanted to have if the weather turned for the worse closer to the summit, a plausibility given the ominous clouds that loomed above us. But it was nowhere to be found, and I figured I must have dropped it somewhere along the trail. Oh well, I thought, it's just a hat after all.
Sunset Ridge Trail
And it didn't matter all that much in the end. We reached the ridge only an hour and a half after commencing the hike, a very good book time for a winter hike. The push to the summit, however, was quite the undertaking, what with the wind howling in our faces, the visibility close to nil, and JS falling into 50 inch holes of snow because he didn't have snowshoes on himself.
After having had a weekend of route finding on the Presidential Range just a month earlier, the prospect of finding our way to the summit wasn't quite as daunting as it would have been if we had no winter navigating experience. The trails are nearly impossible to navigate without using the aid of cairns once you reach ridgeline, and this notion became progressively apparent as we approached the pinnacle of the mountain. JS and I took a helter-skelter route to the top, which, we came to find out wasn't actually the top once the clouds started to sift and the true peak revealed itself for but a fleeting moment. But we pushed onward after stopping for a brief snack and freezing our hands off, and once we reached what we thought was the summit, we had to receive confirmation. We couldn't find a sign for the summit, and to this day still do not know whether or not there actually is one, but in lieu of this obstacle, I proceeded to download an altimeter on my phone, which surprisingly pointed to us being at exactly 4395 feet. Mission accomplished, and in a more efficient manner than I could have imagined. Let me tell you, I was not about to spend a half hour looking for a summit sign that may not even have existed.
The descent down was imposing, to say the least. Not only did we have to trudge through knee deep snow, but we were also graced with the first good views that we had all day. The skies began to open up, and we had a clear view of one of the slopes of Mansfield, along with a panoramic back drop of Lake Champlain in all of its glory, a truly spectacular site for two of the only people to travel the Laura Cowles Trail that day. We had decided to mix it up on the way down, not only because we wanted to make a loop out of the hike, but also because we didn't want to have to travel on the ridge again with such low visibility. Not that it mattered, because when we reached the bottom of the mountain, we looked behind us and were greeted by pristine blue, cloudless skies atop the summit. Just our luck. But at least we were able to snap a lot of pictures from the bottom and say with certainty that our 4 hour drive wasn't in vain. As we made our way toward my car, JS saw a purple object in the distance sitting on a tree branch. My hat. Luckily for me, the hikers behind us left it out in the open for us to see. All's well that end's well. So we packed the car back up, got a barbecue chicken pizza on the way home, and made it back around 830, for a total time of just over 12 hours between driving and hiking. A success, in my books.
Visit my website at www.jccrosscountry.com for more trip reports and blog posts about my upcoming cross country trip!
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