Mount Mansfield 1/1/17
I had a small moment of panic, ever so brief and complete, chest deep in the snow, paddling more than swimming, moving my way slowly toward the rocky shore of rock. This wasn’t a good place to be, alone, weather turning poorly and stuck in the snow.
The climb up had been rock star good, movement had been fast and steady from the lower lot of Underhill State Park. Up the road, into the park entrance and then on to the Sunset Ridge trail. Climbing in darkness was made easy by good light and a well packed trail. I’d climbed the trail the day before and crested the ridge, only to be literal blown over in the strong wind coming from the southwest. My snowshoes acting like giant sails to help carry me over. Retreating from the ridge with another couple of teams had seemed the wisest choice. One of the joys of Vermont is being able to purchase an alpinist axe at 6 Pm on New Year’s Eve. Today, Today was different, alpinist axe in hand I’d been able quickly work through the minor technical areas. Breaking the tree line I found myself with the wind in the small of my back pushing me upward. “Up up, you go”
It would not be the bluebird morning I had hoped for, the greatest way to greet the new day and New Year. The clouds lay heavy around the peak, but the visibility was acceptable if not good. I could tell which way up was and it was the way I was going. This was good since the cairns quickly disappeared and the blazes were buried. The Chin was where I was going and it could be fixed. I made my way to its base and then skirted mountain goat style from rock to rock south and up twisting my way to summit. On the top of the mountain the wind picked up. As I reached the top of the ridge somewhere near the junction of the Laura Cowles trail I spotted a figure who’d come up from the East. I waved and shouted, but wind and snow drowned me out. Should have brought a whistle. He was only fifty yards away. I turned North, working my up over the Chin to the Adam’s Apple, and what I hoped was the peak. The cross between the two, a small saddle was akin to walking through a wind tunnel. The wind blew strong here, dropped my pack, sheltered in the lee of some rock, I drinking some coffee from a thermos (still piping hot) my exposed finger quickly freezing from the whipping wind. My chewy bar snack more bar then chewy.
The mysterious stranger I’d seen earlier appeared a tall apparition gliding and clicking in over the rocks on his skis. He’d skinned up from Stowe bases and was preparing for descent. We exchanged pleasantries, notes on our location and the weather. He took my picture.
The irony of any mountain ascent is that you work for hours to gain the peak, and once there, you leave, quickly. Hours of toil, a few minutes of rest and reflection.
It was 8 AM and I was descending back the way I’d come. My own track already blown away by the wind and snow. An ascent in poor visibility is rather straight forward, up. But coming down from a peak in which every direction is down, and the blazes and cairn are gone is another matter. With the wind blowing snow strong in my face, I was by now in full bushwhacking mode. From my vantage point just below the Chin I thought I could make out the trail, a one to two meter wide swath of snow moving from the trail junction above me to the Sunset Ridge. I’d descend to this and follow it till it took me to a cairns.
I scrambled off the rocks into what I thought would be a few inches of snow and packed ice. I soon found myself plunging foot fall after foot fall into deeper snow. Whatever this was it wasn’t a trail and it wasn’t a good place to be. I found myself armpit deep at one point, the top of a pine tree between my legs breathing hard and wonder aloud. “So this is what quicksand is like” This kind of stupid mistake was the kind that led to fatalities. I calmed my nerve, reoriented and moved toward the rocks. Half walking half swimming through the snow I made my way back. I turned and looked back at my progress, five meters, maybe. The irony of all this is that on the way up I’d been carrying a perfectly good pair of snow shoes, perfect for this sort of terrain. But I’d cached them at the third cairn, there excess bulk and loft being an annoyance. I imagined the accident report
“He had everything to survive, but was stupid”
This time I worked steadily across the hardscape until I was directly above the Sunset Ridge and descend. This wasn’t any easier than the snow below me. The rocks were icy, the wind exposure high, and the way precarious. But I figured that he who dared, won. Picking my way from rock to rock, using the ax to steady myself I made it along. Once above the ridge I descended directly. The ice flows, so easy to climb up, were now a tricky slide field. They were manageable though. I recovered my unused snow shoes with ease, right where I’d left them tied to the cairn.
The descent was quick and fast, down the well-trod trail, ground familiar is easily moved over. Back in the car by 11 AM.
Best way to start the New Year.