Advice: in your 50s, don’t try to keep up with an 18-year-old. I learned that last year, when I went on a day-long hike my son.
An 18-year-old outdoor enthusiast with leg muscles like steel springs and shoulders like mine used to be.
Up a mountain. Vermont’s highest peak, Mount Mansfield, from the bottom to the top —a vertical distance of over 1,000 metres.
There is a toll road that you can drive up (for $27 per vehicle!); you can also take a ski gondola most of the way up, and then the challenging Cliff Trail from there to the summit, Vermont’s highest point.
Super Nicolas would have none of that. No, we had to hike. Up. All the way.
Vermont’s Long Trail stretches from the Canadian border, over the top ridge of Mt. Mansfield, over several other Green Mountains, all the way to the Massachusetts border and connects with the Appalachian Trail system.
Our summer vacation in 2012 was to Stowe, Vermont, home of the nauseatingly famous Von Trapps, and nestled on the southern slopes of Mount Mansfield. From Stowe, the crest of this mountain looks like the elongated profile of a face, with a distinctive forehead, nose, chin (the summit) and Adam’s apple, plus two other rises that could be lips.
I park at the bottom of the gondolas, and then Super Nicolas and I take the Haselton Trail, which is rated D for difficult. It’s very pleasant, although quite steep as it parallels the ski runs. Most of the lower part is under trees, along hogs-back ridges or winding across the slope. At several places, it crosses little mountain streams, allowing pleasant places to rest.
The top half of the trail becomes ski runs in the winter, so they’re wide-open and exposed to the sun. However, because they’re around 3,000 feet above sea level, the conditions are breezy.
The Haselton Trail ends at the top of the Toll Road. We still have to hike up to the Visitor’s Center, which is at the base of the Nose. The Nose also has a number of antennae sticking up out of it.
Apparently, there used to be a luxury hotel here, and one of the guests’ favourite activities was to sit on the patio, sip coffee and watch crazy people scale the cliffs. But the hotel was torn down in the 50s. The Visitor’s Center today has only a few brochures and posters of wildlife. There’s no running water, and the only bathrooms are two por-to-lets.
From there, Super Nicolas and I take the Cliff Trail toward the summit. According to Wikipedia, the Cliff Trail is rated DDD. It must stand for “so Difficult, Don’t even try this, Dummy.”
The Cliff Trail presents challenges for the inexperienced climber. There are places where you have to turn around and climb up or down using your hands as well as feet. There are caves or tunnels that require you to take off your backpack and crawl on your hands and knees to get through. And there are three or four study ladders placed by the Green Mountains hiking club.
Watch out for all the moose poop. Sometimes it seems like the Cliff Trail should be called the Mooses’ Latrine.
The Cave of the Winds is near the northern end of the trail. It’s actually not a cave, but more of a place where a sheet of rock has split off from the main cliff face. There are bottomless holes that you have to jump over. When I went through, behind me was a family that got onto the last part of the Cliff Trail after riding up the ski gondola. I turned and pulled a 12-year-old boy over the last hole.
The last part of the Cliff Trail is a steep climb up rocks; the state or the hiking club or whoever maintains the trail has actually put iron loops into the rocks to help you climb over them.
When we finally get back to the Long Trail that winds more or less directly to the summit, I am panting and sweating. Thankfully, the Long Trail from here is easy: a slow, more or less steady climb up to the Chin.
Up this high, the trees are stunted. Signs advise you that the vegetation is delicate alpine/arctic tundra type, and urge visitors to “Take the Rock Walk” and stay off the plant life. The state has laid out string, looped around rocks, to guide your footsteps.
We walk up, and up, and up, toward what we both think is the peak. But when we get there, we realize it was an illusion: after a brief, shallow dip, the path rises again to the REAL summit.
I sit beside a woman in a pink hoodie. “Discouraging, isn’t it? I thought this was the top, too. Then I saw that.” she says, pointing to the trail that leads to the peak, a couple of hundred metres long.
I look at my watch. It is now 3:40, We had planned to ride the gondola down, but it closes at 4:30. “We’ve already come this far,” says Nicolas.
“Already,” I think. We started climbing the mountain before 11:00 a.m.
We make that last 200 metres or so fairly quickly and easily. Finally, we’re looking at a brass disk set into the rock, marking the highest point in Vermont. The view is stunning. Lake Champlain to the west, the Camel’s Hump to the south, green folds of Vermont to the east. Someone else at the top says that on a clear night, you can see the lights of Montreal in the north.
But we don’t have much time to admire the view if we want to take the gondola. After taking it in, we hitch up our packs and begin the long walk down.
The wind up here is frigid, but after the hard work of the climb up, it’s refreshing and we don’t bother putting on our long pants or sweat-shirts.
At the top of the Cliff Trail, we have to make a decision: do we attempt this strenuous climb down this DDD trail, back over the section with the loops driven into the smooth rocks and back through the Cave of Winds with its bottomless holes to jump over, to get to the gondola which closes in 19 minutes? If we miss the last gondola, our options down are:
- back the way we came originally, retracing the rest of the extremely difficult Cliff Trail, up the ladders, along the ledges and through the tunnels
- climb up through the Cave of Winds yet again, over the holes, hike up again over the smooth rocks and up the narrow steps back to the Long Trail, and then make a long slog down the Toll Road.
We elect not to take a chance on getting to the gondola in 19 minutes. It’s going to be long enough without having to double the Cliff Trail needlessly. The Long Trail to parking lot A at the Visitor’s Center is easy, and only takes a few minutes.
We must look tired when we get there — or at least, I must — because a family in a mini-van offers us a ride down. We accept.
The driver, Mike, explains that a friend has let him borrow his 1990 Honda Odyssey for the summer. The side doors don’t work anymore, so the whole family — his brother, sister-in-law, nephew and niece — climb in the front doors and over the seats to sit in the back. Nicolas and I follow, and sit on the floor, squeezed between coolers and backpacks. We can’t see very well.
The toll road is very long, with a lot of switchbacks, and it seems even longer when you cannot see. And the road is quite steep.
After a while, Mike’s brother, sitting behind me, advises him to use the brakes rather than low gear to go downhill “because it’s cheaper to replace brake pads than a transmission.” Soon, the stink of overheated transmission oil is replaced by the much worse smell of burning brake pads.
The smell gets worse as we try to distract ourselves by exchanging information about where we’re from, our vacations and other small talk. But about half-way down the mountain, Sandra, in the back of three rows of seats, tells Mike to pull over. “The fumes are really building up back here,” she says. “And we can’t open the back window.” I look back: one of the teenagers, sitting in the cargo area, looks like she’s about to faint.
Mike pulls over where the road is a little wider. We clamber out and suck in as much clean air as we can. I hold my hand 15 centimetres from the rear fender to feel the heat radiating from the overworked brakes.
The youngest teenager wobbles around for a minute, woozy from the fumes of burning brake pads, then twists her ankle. Fortunately, Sandra, her aunt, is a registered nurse. Eventually, with the fumes dissipated and the ankle wrapped, we climb back into the minivan for the remainder of the trip.
Fortunately, we’re not far from the bottom at this point, and the brakes and transmission have a much easier time. Mike drives us to the parking lot at the bottom of the chairlift where we left our car. We say thank you and wish our short-term companions well.
As we watch the minivan drive back down Mountain Road toward Stowe, I am surprised not to see smoke coming out of it.
“So, what was more adventurous?” I ask Super Nicolas. “The climb up, or the drive down in the burning minivan?”
Nic laughs. “The trip down was more dangerous.”