Total Miles: 163.8
Playing coy. That’s what they were doing. The promise of clear skies presaged by the light blue patches above our heads early this morning was, apparently, a tease. For awhile, at least. Perched as it is halfway up the climb to the summit of Mt. Abraham, we left Battell Shelter this morning with the hope that the freshening breeze would drive away the pesky clouds by the time we reached the top. It wasn’t meant to be, but it wouldn’t dampen our breakfast in the clouds on top of Vermont’s 5th tallest peak, with no one around but the three of us.
The flirtation between the mountains and clouds could only go on for so long, and within an hour it was clear that the clouds had given up the game, as the sun pressed them deeper into the surrounding valleys. And as they receded, the views we’d been looking forward to cautiously stepped out into the spotlight.
Known as the Monroe Skyline, this section of the Long Trail suddenly does what up until this point has been so unusual: after climbing above the clouds and briefly into the alpine zone, it stays there. From Lincoln Gap to Appalachian Gap, it traces a ridge that offers views both west over Lake Champlain into the Adirondacks as well as east to the White Mountains of New Hampshire. It was also the perfect stretch of trail to complete Jesse’s 4-day stint on the trail with us.
You can hardly throw a stone up here without hitting a chairlift, a ski trail, or a secret backcountry skiing plunge, so steeped is this stretch of trail in Vermont ski history. One after another, we found ourselves looking down the runs of Lincoln Peak, Castlerock, Mt. Ellen, and General Stark Mountain, collectively forming the ski areas of Sugarbush and Mad River Glen.
The sun finally chased away the last of the pesky clouds so that every view we had from atop each chairlift platform was unobstructed down to the Mad River Valley below. Everywhere I looked, I tried to imagine the chairlifts humming along as skiers glided through feet of snow among the gnarled evergreens hardy enough to live up here amid the relentless Vermont winter.
There’s no denying it: one place along this highlight reel of trail stands above the others. Having skied away my college years (sorry teachers!) and even having taught as a ski instructor there for two seasons, Mad River Glen holds a special place in my heart. In 2002, I’d spent a blissful evening on the deck of the Stark’s Nest—a warming hut perched at the top of Mad River—sipping whiskey and watching the sunset with my friend Ian and our fellow hikers-come-friends, Pat and Shari.
Countless times before, I’d slipped off the iconic single chair steps away from the Stark’s Nest on my way to some hardly-known labyrinth among the evergreens of Mad River’s legendary tree skiing. There are memories you doubt (rightfully), and those that are burned into your mind like the day you were married or the day your baby was born. This one is the latter.
When the last of Mad River’s chairlifts had slipped out of view, the forested tunnel of the trail wiping away the past, it was time for the kind of descent only the Long Trail could deliver. At times invoking the feel of a miniature via ferrata, we clambered our way down the equivalent of an adult sized jungle gym, complete with steep slabs of granite occasionally aided by helpful bits of rebar drilled into the rock.
At the end of the rainbow, was the thing we could hardly have dared to imagine just hours earlier: pavement. Four days and 60 miles removed from where we’d joined forces, we’d reached “App” (Appalachian) Gap and the end of our time on trail with our friend Jesse. It takes a special (read: crazy) kind of person to sign up for this, let alone for their very first backpacking trip, and to be a part of it alongside him was nothing short of incredible.
It’s one thing to experience trials and tribulations on trail for yourself, and quite another to watch them unfold for someone else right in front of you. Through rain and pain, mud, rock, and miles, Jesse had persevered—in style—in a way that was both inspiring and gratifying to have been alongside him for. More than anything, one truism has always held fast over all the years I’ve spent on trail: it’s not experience, nor preparedness, nor athletic prowess that governs success. It’s something far simpler: attitude.
Jesse may have stacked the deck in his favor by being physically and logistical prepared, but it was his unfailing willingness to soldier on into the unknown that was humbling to bear witness to up close. Who’s up next?