Note: I’m going against my OCD grain and posting this adventure out of order (gasp). Mostly because I’m way behind and I feel that this particular trip deserves to be written about sooner, in order to truly capture the raw emotions of the weekend. It took me a whole two weeks after writing this to finally decide to post it (out of order – *cringe*). I hope you enjoy.
As I sit down to write this, it has been about a week and a half since a backpacking trip on the Vermont Long Trail (the LT, for short), where our goal was to hike from the Appalachian Gap, over Camel’s Hump, and finishing at the Winooski River. After having a pleasant experience on my first backpacking trip (also on the Long Trail), I decided that it would be cool to “section hike” the entire Long Trail over the next few years. Section hiking is when you basically hike parts of a lengthy trail (such as the better known Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, etc.) over a longer period of time instead of “through hiking” the length of the trail in one go. Since I am not in a position to take extended periods of time off from work, section hiking was the way to go. However, after this experience, I’m still not sure that I’m cut out for this kind of thing. Just a quick disclaimer, this post will not be upbeat and happy, like most of my other posts. I’m still going to share this experience for a few reasons: (1) because I don’t believe in editing to give the illusion of all my experiences being rainbows and sunshine, and (2) I’m a little bitter that all of the outdoorsy social media accounts I follow rarely and/or never post about or discuss the challenges (mentally, physically, and emotionally) of the outdoors, which, as I found out first hand, cause people to set extremely unrealistic expectations. So here it is: my terrible experience on the Vermont Long Trail.
I’m still not entirely sure what went wrong on this hike. Perhaps it was a combination of things: getting to the trailhead later than anticipated Friday night and the downpour that ensued as soon as we started hiking that night, completely underestimating the section of trail we chose and overestimating our abilities, being out of shape, not being used to carrying a heavier pack, and most of all, my refusal to retire my favorite, beat up and worn out hiking boots that have been on countless hikes and trips to seven different countries, even though I had a brand new pair in the trunk of my car that fit well.
I went on this trip with a long time friend of mine. We’d both been hiking since we were young and had each been backpacking once before, and wanted to go again. Both of us like (or at least used to like) hiking and just being outdoors in general. We discussed potential hiking options (all on the Vermont Long Trail) and finally chose a route that would bring us from the Appalachian Gap on Rt. 17 to the Winooski River crossing (traveling north on the LT). Little did we know what we were getting ourselves into. Our plan was to drive up on Friday afternoon, park the first car at the parking lot where we would finish, and then drive to the start of the route and hike to the first shelter on Friday night (a little under 3 miles, totally doable, right?). The next day, we would hike about 8 miles to another shelter, and then on Sunday, we would hike another 8 miles over Camel’s Hump and finish at the first car that we parked. It sounded pretty reasonable to us at the time of planning. Both of us are careful planners, so how could this possibly go wrong? We discussed packing lists and the logistics of getting to the trail head at great lengths. We checked the weather everyday – seeing absolutely no rain in the forecast. We were feeling confident and excited.
Well, right off the bat, we got a bad start. We didn’t leave until 4 PM on Friday, and we still needed to stop for dinner. It was a three hour drive to the first parking lot at the far end of our route, and then another 40 minutes to get to the start. We didn’t arrive at the first lot until 7:30 PM. Instead of driving to the start of our planned route, we pulled out the map and found a shelter a few miles up the trail, going in the opposite direction (South) that we intended. We changed plans pretty quickly, and decided to hike to this shelter tonight, then hike back to the car in the morning and drive to the start of the original route. The minute that we hit the trail, it started pouring. We pulled out our rain jackets, covered our packs with rain covers and continued along the trail. We went one mile, in the pouring rain, still upbeat and chatty, happy to be hiking and hanging out with each other again. After this one mile, it was pitch black, still pouring, and we weren’t that close to the shelter we chose. So we decided to turn around and sleep in the car. As soon as we got back to the parking lot, the rain stopped. We hung our wet stuff up in my car and set up our sleeping pads and sleeping bags in the back of my friend’s Jeep Cherokee. Still smiling and happy, we chatted into the wee hours of the night. We don’t see each other very often and had a lot to catch up on! By the time we got to sleep, I didn’t even want to check my watch to find out how late it was.
Needless to say, sleeping in the car wasn’t the most comfortable or restful night of sleep that I’ve ever gotten. But we got up the next morning and drove to the start of our route. We had 10.6 miles ahead of us, which didn’t seem so bad before we started, but we were very, very wrong. We hit the trail at 8:45 AM, and were wholly unaware of the 10 hours of grueling hell that we had ahead of us.
The very start of the trail felt like it was straight up, and required scrambling over huge rocks that were still wet from last night’s rain, making them especially slippery. Not to mention that the tread on my boots was basically falling off in chunks, which just caused my footing to be even shakier. We stopped after a half mile (which took us absolutely forever, when forever equals a half hour) to make breakfast (instant oatmeal) and coffee (also instant). We confessed to each other later that day that when we stopped for breakfast, we were both considering asking the other if we wanted to turn around, scrap this hike and just go driving through the mountains. In hindsight, I wish we had actually done that. The first mile alone took us a full hour with an elevation gain of almost 700 feet (682 feet, according to my GPS watch). It was the slowest I had ever hiked in my life. And our pace wouldn’t get any faster the rest of the day.
We went down every single steep rock in the first mile on our butts, and not long after we started hiking, my friend’s bright red shorts were no longer bright red. The only word I can think of to describe this section of trail was “brutal”. We were quickly overtaken by two separate male backpackers, one with an adorable dog. They both said “hi” and blew past us. We envied their speed and the ease at which they could jump down the rocks that we were carefully and tentatively sliding down on our butts. It may have helped that they were much taller than the both of us and to them maybe it didn’t look quite so far down as it did to us.
A little over a mile in, we came to an overlook (Molly Stark’s Balcony, see picture above) and took a quick break to enjoy the view. At this point, I’m pretty sure we were both in shock and still didn’t realize what we had gotten ourselves into. We wouldn’t realize the gravity of our decisions until it was going to take longer for us to turn around and head back than to push forward.
It took us about two and a half hours to reach the first shelter along this section of the Long Trail, the one that we were originally planning on camping out at on Friday night. Once we got to this camp, the Birch Glen Camp, we laughed and said: there was absolutely no way we would have made it this far last night, in the pouring rain, in the dark. There had also been zero potential camping spots up to this point, so we basically would have been screwed. We patted ourselves on the back for making the decision to sleep in the car.
After getting a quick snack, we continued north on the LT. The next couple of miles were much more relaxed and we started back up with our cheerful chatter. This stretch was much flatter and there were no steep, slippery rocks to traverse. On this stretch, we were overtaken by two female through hikers (who were companions, but hiking a different paces, so they passed us separately), whom we would see a few more times over the weekend. They were both extremely nice and cheerful, and both of them asked us if we were through hikers, too. This gave us a slight boost in confidence since we gave the appearance that we knew what we were doing.
We thought we were in the clear at this point. Actually, we were by no means in the clear, and after these couple of miles, the trail would get far worse than the first two miles we hiked. This is also the point where we lost all concept of distance, even with my GPS watch. We were planning on stopping for lunch at the Huntington Gap, but we blew past this and wound up stopping at the Cowles Cove Shelter instead. This was all fine since we weren’t feeling desperately hopeless at this point. Plus we were over a mile and a half further than we thought we were. We stopped at the shelter, at which the two girls and the man with the dog were also eating lunch. We shed our packs and ate lunch, listening to the chatter of the other hikers, who sounded so much more experienced that us. We also had frequent visits from the curious dog who was probably hoping to get a piece of our lunch.
The trail really got difficult once we continued north from our lunch spot. Over the next 5.1 miles is where we really started to lose hope and doubt ourselves. This stretch of trail took us over three peaks, Burnt Rock Mountain, Mount Ira Allen, and Mount Ethan Allen. The trek up to the peak of Burnt Rock was particularly challenging and really drained us mentally. It was really steep terrain that required a lot of scrambling up and over rocks. We were also coming across quite a few day hikers, who were all pleasant and smiling, asking us if we were backpackers. We painfully smiled and answered “yes, we’re on a weekend backpacking trip”. It was pretty difficult to put on a happy face and pretend like this was fun. We probably weren’t fooling anyone. I’m pretty sure the only thing in my eyes was despair and misery, even if my face was smiling.
The rock scrambling to the top of Burnt Rock proved to be extremely difficult with packs that were heavier than we were used to. There were also shear drop offs on many of these rocks, so one wrong step and you would lose your balance and plummet a hundred feet down. It was extremely nerve racking and I didn’t know how to deal with it. I have done countless hikes that require scrambling, and in the past I had no problems with it. However, the conditions in which I was hiking were different than I was used to: no tread left on my boots, pack that was probably double the weight of what I usually carry, and much more cumbersome, and I was used to being in a generally good headspace while hiking.
I think the main reason for having such a hard time on this hike was my mental state. I was having a really hard time coping with what this trail had to throw at me. I wasn’t even that physically tired, sure my legs were not fresh, but it’s not like I was fatigued to the point of shaking muscles and knees giving out. It wasn’t my muscles making it difficult to put one foot in front of the other, it was my mental and emotional state, which was quickly deteriorating the further along this trail we went. If this sounds hopeless, it is because that is exactly how I felt. Once we summited Burnt Rock, we didn’t even really enjoy the view. We stopped basically to just collect ourselves and then continue onward. We had stopped talking. We had stopped smiling.
The way down the other side of Burnt Rock proved to be equally as difficult as the way up. As soon as we were below tree line, we had to use a rope bolted into a rock in order to descend it. It took us longer than it should have to get past this point. I descended first and my friend just stood at the top of the rock and said “I don’t want to come down”. I answered back, emotionless, “Well I’m not turning around so you have to come down”. We didn’t talk again for a long time. We hiked a short distance from one another, silent. At this point, I was trying so hard to not cry. Every time we got to yet another steep rock we needed to go down, I wanted to throw a tantrum like a two year old. Why had the people who blazed this trail picked such a difficult route? Wasn’t there any way that they could have gone around these rocks? Was getting genuinely angry with these people that are probably not even alive anymore. At this point, it was getting dangerous. I fell twice going down rocks like this. Luckily with no more injuries than a bruised butt, but it was just making me feel worse and more helpless. I thought that we would never get to our destination and that we would be hiking through hell for eternity. In an attempt to lighten the mood, I tried to make conversation, about how much further I thought we had left, and how we were “almost there”, but speaking made the tears well up to the surface, and I found it even more difficult to keep from crying. So I stopped talking again until we got to the ladder.
I stopped in my tracks and said “uh oh”. My friend, who was slightly behind, asked what it was. I told her it was a ladder that we would have to go down. She didn’t respond.
I threw my hiking poles down so that I could free my hands. This rock was still wet and slippery, so I slowly, carefully, stepped out until I could grab hold of the tree directly above the ladder. I bear hugged the tree and blindly stuck a foot out, searching for the top rung of the ladder. “Don’t look down”, I told myself. I looked down since I couldn’t find anything solid with my foot and immediately regretted it. I buried my emotions and continued down the ladder, with a death grip on each rung. My friend waited until I was safely at the bottom before stepping out onto the rock. She also threw her poles down and descended the ladder, equally as slow and silent as I did.
When we were both at the bottom, I noticed that my watch had died, a little over 7 miles and 5 hours and 46 minutes in. We still had almost three miles to hike and another peak to summit and descend until we made it to the shelter. This would take us another four hours, and what seemed like an eternity in hell. While the rest of the trail wasn’t quite as rocky and precarious, it felt like it went on forever. Every so often, it would level out and we would ask each other, do you think this is the summit? We kept telling each other, but mostly ourselves, “we’re almost there”. Each time we stopped, it was not in fact the summit, because a few minutes later we would start going up again. Every time we got to a really steep section, the person in front would loudly groan, causing the person behind to look up and answer in an equally loud and long groan. No words were exchanged. We had devolved into the grunting communication of our ancestors.
On the final steep stretch upwards, we passed two older women in their late 60s, who were also struggling along the trail. We stopped briefly to converse, or rather commiserate. They had also started at the Appalachian Gap, but on Friday afternoon, long before we were even in Vermont. They had been struggling all day on this trail and we agreed on how difficult it was. We told each other that our goal for today was to get to the Montclair Glen Lodge, but how none of us were sure if we could make it there. We wished each other luck and my friend and I pushed ahead. Not too much later after this encounter, my friend and I finally reached the top of Mt. Ethan Allen. The only reason we knew this was the summit was because of the sign nailed to a tree and the trees that were cut down to provide a view. Maybe they did this in order to give some sort of mental and emotional boost to hikers on this trail, who knows. We weren’t even happy. We kind of just started at each other. “How much further?”, my friend asked. “I think a half mile, but let’s check the map because I’m not sure”, I replied. Turns out, we were still a mile away from the lodge. And at our pace, this would take us over an hour.
We slowly trudged down the trail, still not talking, until we finally made it to the lodge at 6:45 PM, 10 hours after we had started our hike. It had felt more like forever. I wasn’t even relieved to get there. At this point I had no emotions left, except for the dread I felt when thinking about how I needed to wake up the next morning and continue hiking. The caretaker was sitting reading a book when we arrived, but quickly jumped up to welcome us and ask if we would be spending the night in the lodge. We said we would be and each payed the $5 fee. He asked us how the hike to the lodge was and my friend and I just looked at each other and gave a humorless laugh. The caretaker laughed (actually with humor) and told us that the section of the LT that we just hiked was were it “really starts to show it’s character”. That is one way of putting it. Everyone else at the lodge looked equally exhausted.
My friend and I didn’t even want to eat anything even though we hadn’t had anything since we stopped for lunch, but we forced ourselves to cook dinner. I had a freeze dried Shrimp Pad Thai To Go Meal, which in any other situation would have been delicious. I could barely force down half of the package. I put sealed the bag and put the remainder away in my odor proof food bag and put the whole thing in the bear box a little ways from the shelter. We then wiggled our way into two sleeping spots in the shelter, which was already pretty full at this point. We then changed into our sleeping clothes and putzed around aimlessly for about an hour before going to bed.
We slept terribly and/or not at all. There were two people in the shelter that snored extremely loud, to the point where I wasn’t even sure if they were breathing. Every time someone shifted their sleeping position, it was very loud and annoying. At one point, I’m pretty sure a mouse tried to crawl up my arm, but I flicked it (or something) away. I must have flicked it onto the person next to me because they jumped suddenly. I was too tired to care, and apparently so were they, because we rolled over and faced away from each other without a word. Somewhere in the fuzzy haze that is extremely tired but not sleeping, I was scared into full alertness by a group of seemingly young men that came tramping through the site at who knows what hour. They were conversing with each other (very loudly, might I add) about where they would stay that night. Clearly they were drunk, and some were very upset and yelling at the others in the group. They were counting the sets of hiking poles left outside and estimating how many people they thought were in the shelter. I was slightly concerned that they would come barging into the already full shelter, but they ended up eventually moving on to find a different spot. The next morning, we found the remnants of this obnoxious group, which consisted of food wrappers and Twisted Tea cans.
I think I finally fell asleep around the time when everyone else “woke up” and left the shelter to start their day. I finally woke up probably not even an hour later and realized that I was the only one left inside the shelter. I emerged to find my friend sitting at the picnic table looking disgusted at her breakfast. I didn’t even bother to eat breakfast that day. I changed into my clothes, grabbed my stuff from the bear box, filtered some water from the nearby stream into my empty hydration bladder, and began packing up my stuff. This all occurred at a very slow pace. I think I was subconsciously (or maybe consciously) avoiding putting my pack on and beginning to hike. By the time my friend and I were all packed up and ready to go, almost everyone else at the site had left. The only remaining hikers were the two older women we had met the day before. They had made it to the site a few hours after we did. They were also delaying getting started. Clearly they had just as bad of an experience as we did.
I pulled out my map and looked at our options, of which there were two that were remotely reasonable. The first option was to continue with our original plan and continue hiking on the LT north, over Camel’s Hump, and to the lot where we parked our first car. This route, from the elevation profile on the map, and information we had gathered by speaking with others at the shelter, was going to be extremely difficult. We weren’t sure if this route would be a good idea in the mental and physical state that we were in. The other option was to descend a side trail (meant for day hikers summiting Camel’s Hump) and walk back along the road for six miles to the car. Both routes were about the same distance-wise, however, we ended up choosing to bail off of the LT and take the route back to the car by walking along the road. The other pair of women also chose to take this route. This was probably the safest option, because we probably would have gotten hurt trying to get up and over Camel’s Hump. We told the older ladies that we were planning on dropping our packs at the trailhead before walking back along the road and then we would drive back to pick up the packs. If we saw them along the way, we would give them a ride. We wished each other luck and parted ways, headed in the same direction.
On our way down the side trail, we passed day hikers making there way up Camel’s Hump. Each one we passed smelled….clean. It was bizarre, I’ve never noticed how other people smelled unless they were wearing an obscene amount of perfume. On this day, every single person we passed we smelled. And boy did they smell good. We laughed about this for awhile, commenting on how weird it was, how we probably smelled awful, and wondering if they smelled us. We were much more talkative during this hike down, probably because we were so relieved that we had chosen the “easy way out”.
It wasn’t too long until we reached the side trail’s parking lot. We found a relatively hidden place to dump our packs, grabbed our water bottles and the map, and continued on down the road in the direction of our car. Walking on the road, with no pack, was so much easier, not to mention faster. We were in a much better mood, and joking about how miserable we were the day before. Although we did have some serious conversation about how we weren’t sure if we would ever go on another overnight trip. The pain and suffering were still too close (and still are, for me at least).
The walk back on the road still seemed to take forever, and it was hot since there was no tree cover. It took us a total of three hours and 20 minutes to make it from the shelter back to the car. When we finally got there, I was elated. We were FINALLY DONE. The misery was over. Our timing was perfect, because the two through hikers we had met the day before had just made it into the parking lot. They were trying to go 18 miles that day, and asked for a ride two miles down the road where the LT crossed the Winooski River. We happily obliged. On the short drive over, we chatted pleasantly, and they told us how it took them five hours to make it the first five miles over Camel’s Hump. This further solidified that we made the right decision, because if it took these two women, who were much faster than us, five hours, we would have been going even slower and it would have been a repeat, or worse, of the previous day on the trail. We dropped them off at the other trailhead and went back for our packs. On the way back, we came across the two older women hiking back on the road, this time with a dog in tow, causing us to almost not even recognize them. We stopped and offered them a ride. They happily accepted and when they tried to get in the car, the dog decided that he also wanted to go for a ride. He hopped in, getting mud and dirt all over my friend’s back seat. The women told us that he lived in the area and had been following them for a few miles now. He wanted to play and they made the mistake of throwing his stick in an effort to make him go away. He never found the stick, but he continued to follow them until they got into my friend’s car. We shoo’ed the dog out of the car, confident that he could find home when there were no distracting playmates around, and continued on down the road.
The two older women thanked us repeatedly during the drive to grab our packs and then back to the lot with their car. We all joked during the car ride how the stretch of trail we just did was terrible and how none of us every wanted anything to do with hiking every again. We talked about our plans later that day and my friend and I mentioned that we were planning on stopping by the Ben & Jerry’s factory up the road before heading home. The women, who were from the area, told us all about the factory and how it was really cool and a great place. We all shared our favorite Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor, which for most of us turned out to be Coffee Coffee, Buzz Buzz Buzz. When we dropped our newfound friends off at their car, they were so grateful that they offered to pay for our Ben & Jerry’s. We tried to decline, but they insisted, so we graciously accepted and continued on our way to the factory, still sweaty and stinky. We probably looked like we had been through hell, and we had. But it was ok, because we were on our way to ice cream.
This may sound like a happy ending, but in my eyes, it is far from it. The Ben & Jerry’s visit was the only good thing that happened that weekend. I still get upset when thinking about this hike, and I’m definitely not over this experience. We survived without any injuries to our bodies, minus a few bruises and bug bites. We made it back to the car without incident. But we both went through mental and emotional hell to get there. I’ve never been so rocked by any trail before this one. Sure, I’ve done strenuous hikes, but they were physically strenuous. I was able to push past the physical pain and remain mentally and emotionally strong. This time was different, and it was difficult to cope with. I would argue that I didn’t cope with it. I shut down to my surroundings and my only goal was survival, which meant getting the hell off that trail. I’m trying to view this as a learning experience. My friend and I agreed that this would be one of those “remember that time” experiences, and we would look back and have a good laugh at how stupid we were to think that this wouldn’t be as hard as it was. But that time hasn’t come yet, and I think it will take me awhile to get there.
For now, I’m retiring those boots and taking a brief reprieve from hiking. Hopefully in a few months I can get back out there and continue enjoying the outdoors, because one bad experience shouldn’t deter you from something that you enjoy doing.