The plan was to hike the Long Trail from Appalachian Gap to Lincoln Gap, which is ambitious enough in winter at 11.6 miles (plus 1.9 miles of closed Lincoln Gap Road). It goes over two 4,000 footers plus four other peaks. Add in the 2 to 3 feet dump of snow we received this week, and it was very ambitious. I was still hoping we could start early, hike 1 MPH, and get it done. After all, I’d declared in December that I wanted to finish the Vermont 4,000 footers this winter. I had three to go then and so, of course, I waited until the last week of winter. I wanted to get Mount Ellen and Mount Abe done in one shot, and then grab Killington in the next day or two.
Jenn and Owen stayed at my house so we could get an early start. We woke up at 5:30AM Friday, saw that the forecast was looking better on Saturday, and decided to postpone. Friday’s summit forecast was snow and -8° with wind chill. Saturday’s was +12° with wind chill and sun. Every little bit helps on a big hike. I was also hoping that one more day would give the snow time to settle and compact a little more, and hey, maybe someone else would go hike in the meantime and break the trail for us. I can dream!
We woke up at 5:30AM again Saturday and got going, leaving one car on Lincoln Gap Road and driving back up to Appalachian Gap. We started hiking around 7:30, a little later than planned, but I was already thinking we wouldn’t be able to make it the whole way based on the reactions I’d received at work on Thursday. Indeed, if someone else had told me they were planning this hike right now, I would’ve told them they’re ridiculous and don’t do it. I have no problem with bailing on day hikes though. I do it all the time! So as much as I’d love to reach my goal, turning around is always an option.
There was one other car in the parking lot and once we were on trail, we soon met the guy coming back. He had only gone about a quarter mile in before turning around because he had no snowshoes. I don’t know how anyone could think they could get anywhere without snowshoes after this week’s storm but I’m glad he had the sense to bail quickly. We were postholing to our knees even with snowshoes on, and sometimes up to our hips.
The trail was not always obvious, as the white blazes were frequently covered with snow and also at unexpected heights – anywhere from knee to eye height depending on how deep the snow in that area was. We went off track a few times but usually not for long. We weren’t the only ones out there making tracks and saw plenty of snowshoe hare tracks too, very detailed in the fresh snow.
Owen did most of the trail breaking but I took a few turns too. It was exhausting. I’d frequently need to kick the step in multiple times before it could bear my weight without sliding back, and then the snow would fall in on top of my snowshoe and make it that much heavier to lift on the next step. In some places the tree branches were lower and had to be fought with while doing the trail breaking dance. I was happy any time we had a few yards of flattish ground.
We soon came upon a very steep part, which I knew must be the part of trail that has rebar on it to help you climb up the steep, slick rock slab like a ladder in the summer. No sign of the rebar now. It was at a minimum covered in snow, and most likely also encased in ice. Every step I took just slid right off the rock and shoved more snow out of the way. I finally had to crawl up the side while using the trees there as anchors to pull myself up along. It wasn’t pretty but it worked.
I had to do that in two more sections. On one of them, Owen and I had kicked off enough snow that Jenn actually found some rebar and was able to use it to help herself up. Shortly afterward, the trail flattened out and we were cruising, even more so when we got closer to the top of Mad River Glen and some skiers had been on the Long Trail already. The last quarter mile to the ski lift was packed down and easy.
We popped out of the woods to bright sun, blue skies, and tons of skiers congregating around the warming hut. We decided to go in and have a snack while we reevaluated how far we could make it. Our speed had only been half a mile an hour so far, not nearly fast enough to stick with the original plan.
The warming hut was great and we found out that they leave it open at night with the heater on low so people are allowed to camp out in there. We debated just staying for the night, although it was not quite lunch time. I wanted to at least play some cards since I knew we wouldn’t be hiking all day at that point. We ate our sandwiches and decided to go to Stark’s Nest, the next warming hut a mile further (where you can also camp out), and then make another decision.
We got back on the Long Trail and immediately turned off of the packed down ski tracks – back to climbing steeply through deep powder. The Theron Dean Shelter was only a third of a mile from the warming hut and we never made it. We were definitely on trail because we saw blazes, but we came to a snow ledge under a cave that we weren’t willing to cross. I was pretty sure the trail was under the heap of snow at the opening of the cave but there was a steep dropoff to the left and no matter how much snow we sheared off with our trekking poles, we couldn’t tell how far down the actual ground was. Once I know I’m not making my goal for the day, I’m generally happy to turn around at any point, so we were fine with heading back to the warming hut for some more sitting and eating with excellent views. The shelter was just around the corner from where we turned back so after all that time, we hadn’t quite made it 1.8 miles!
After soup and puzzles in the hut, we decided we’d better head back down the trail so we could get pizza in town. It was much easier going down, especially since we were going back over our previous tracks and didn’t sink nearly as much. We ran into another snowshoer who thanked us for packing down the trail.
I meant to take more pictures of the rebar sections on the way back, since I had been working too hard on the way up to get my camera out, but they were so much quicker on the way down that we were through them all before I even realized it. What had taken me several minutes to climb up took one second to slide down. There wasn’t much good glissading otherwise as the snow was too loose.
We stopped to grab a group photo and I set up the timer. When running back to get in the shot, I fell right into the loose snow on the side of the trail! Take 2 worked out better.
It was a beautiful day and I’m so glad were out, but the 3.6 miles we hiked did not even begin to approach the 13.5 we planned. That’s what happens in winter! It’s best to stay flexible and just enjoy the experience. I’ll finish my Vermont 4,000 footers next winter.