Facing My Fear on Mount Mansfield: Day Nine on the Long Trail
Dobby and I wake up in Taft Lodge, situated near the top of Mount Mansfield on the north slope. Though we anticipate an epic sunrise, the horizon is obscured by fog and clouds. You can’t win them all. I am resigned to a day that will be cold, wet, and slippery.
Mount Mansfield is the tallest mountain in Vermont. The profile of Mount Mansfield resembles a human face when viewed from the east. The Chin is the true summit and the lips, forehead, nose, and Adam’s apple represent other high points. Not only is the Chin the highest point, it is also the first climb when traveling southbound on the Long Trail. Mount Mansfield is also an alpine tundra, a delicate ecosystem that is a remnant of the Ice Ages.
Dobby and I could have elected to take the Profanity Trail bypass of the Chin, but I want to challenge myself to climb the highest point in Vermont.
We leave Jon and Sarah still in their sleeping bags at around 9 a.m. With only half a mile to the summit of the Chin, I figure no matter how steep it is we can make it to the top in less than an hour. Our ascent from Taft is steep but no worse than what we have previously faced.
Having done my usual amount of research on our route (which is none) I am unaware that the final climb up to the Chin is an actual rock climb. Too busy shaking and crying to take any photographs, I have none to share from this part of the trail. I am afraid of heights, and scaling rock walls with a full pack and my dog in a misting fog is just my kind of misery, leaving me incapable of rational thought.
The first climb we come to is a sort of slot in between two rocks where one is able to brace themselves between the two surfaces in order to find purchase and reach the next landing. I am OK as long as I don’t look at the precipice next to me.
Next we have to climb a rock face, perhaps ten feet high straight up. There are a few hand and footholds, small imperfections in the rock, but the mist makes everything slippery, and the drop to my right is straight down the mountain.
I ask Dobby to jump up, and once he does I give him a boost to the top. He waits for me there, whining slightly as I try to figure out how I’m going to get up without slipping or losing my grip. I try several handholds, but with the awkward weight of my pack on my back I don’t feel safe letting my feet leave the ground. Tears of frustration begin to fall down my cheeks. There is nowhere to go but up.
I decide on the least sketchy route up the rock and as my face reaches the top Dobby covers my face in puppy kisses. I think he can sense my fear.
We are now on the top of Mount Mansfield, the tallest mountain in Vermont. There is a plaque designating the summit point, but I am so afraid I barely stop to take a picture of it. I am alone up here, on a bald mountaintop where it seems I could slip off the side and never stop falling.
We walk along the exposed ridgeline and see very few people. I decide to take a trail labeled “Subway” because it looks like it goes down off the top of the mountain and around the side. I crave the safety of a green tunnel, of trees that would catch me if I fall.
At first the trail is what I hope for: enclosed and traveling along the side of Mansfield. Then the trail opens out on a cliff, and the trail follows this exposed ridge. We’re climbing over boulders and around trees, trying not to look at the drop beside us. I slice open my hands on the rough bark.
We come to a cave that Dobby and I can only get through by removing our packs. I carry Dobby and our packs through the cave. When we reach an additional cave that looks even more treacherous than the first, I admit to myself that we need to turn back. We passed a trail a few minutes before the second cave that would take us back up to the mountaintop, and we follow it up.
The last summit when traveling southbound is the Forehead. I know enough about the ladders involved in the climb that I take the Forehead Bypass Trail. Though I hope this trail will be easier, and I’m sure it is, the bypass is by no means a leisurely walk. The trail is comprised of wet, steep, smooth rock. While Dobby has little trouble with the terrain, the only way for me to take this trail is by holding on to the branches of trees and trying to find purchase in the dirt at their roots.
The Bypass Trail is about a mile and it takes us over an hour. Once we rejoin the Long Trail, I have no idea if Jon is ahead of or behind us. Hike your own hike. Either I’ll see him again or I won’t. Compared to our morning, the rest of the day is easy. I notice that anything involving heights scares me a little less now. Nothing we do can compare to the fear I felt climbing Mansfield, so perhaps there is a silver lining to that particular torture.
We arrive at Puffer Shelter just before sunset and I fully expect Jon to be there. Jon isn’t in the three-sided lean-to, but a northbounder named Karrie, aka Hobbit, is there already. He’s an ex-Army medic and nurse, taking his time exploring not only the Long Trail but the small towns along the way. I like his style. Mid-conversation Dobby begins to bark, indicating someone approaching, and Jon appears around the side of the shelter.
I had read on Guthook and heard from another hiker that because the shelter faces east, the wind can whip directly onto sleeping hikers, making for an extremely cold night. Some kind soul left a tarp in Puffer, and I have a few bungee cords. We rig the tarp and the rainfly from my tent up over the opening to stave off some of the gusts, falling asleep to the sounds of the nylon flapping in the wind.
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