Long Trail: A Tale of Mount Mansfield
It’s five days into my southbound Long Trail thru-hike. My body is talking, the terrain is insane, and the views are astounding. I’ve never experienced the type of sheer, vertical climbing this trail demands. Getting used to a slower pace (by literally 50%) has been tough, but it has also allowed me to take in the majesty of this trail in a way I haven’t before.
The Long Trail is lush, rugged, and expansive. Trail blazes can be sporadic in the north and I lost the trail more than a few times. During these times (in addition to observing small disturbances) I found that walking directly in the flowing creek or choosing to scramble straight up a rock face is usually the right choice. On day two, I hiked the three-mile path off Jay Peak that was literally a creek. The whole time.
Then, after miles and hours of exhaustive climbing and scrambling, the Long Trail opens up to the most awe-inspiring views imaginable. And all at once, I am brought back to why I am here. There is nothing quite like getting pummeled by a mountain and then rewarded by a view some will never see in their lifetime, to make you both humble and grateful. The mountains don’t care. We are all at their mercy.
Holy crap, the climbing. There are flat-faced rock scrambles and hand-over-foot rock climbs that stretch on for miles. And everything that goes up must come down, so I do a fair amount of butt-sliding, both intentionally and unintentionally. Nothing could have prepared me for the intensity of this elevation gain. And there are literally no words (or even pictures!) that can accurately capture it. These climbs are challenging by themselves; add a 25-pound pack to your back and they become really exciting.
Enter Mount Mansfield. It was day four and I had already gone about 15 miles. It was an emotional day with a lot of climbing already but I felt OK and it was pretty early, so I pushed on. The rock scrambling up the base of Mount Mansfield was more intense than anything I had done on the Long Trail thus far. I mean stow-your-trekking-poles-and-climb-with-your-hands type of scrambling, for miles. And then I hit the alpine zone and shit got real.
This is where rock faces give way to cliffs, and strong trees and roots alongside the trail give way to beautiful but fragile vegetation. On top of that, it started to rain as fog rolled in. Not only were the rock faces sheer and vertical with nothing to hold on to, but now they were wet. I made it very close to the top and then I met my match: a vertical, slippery climb situated on a small ledge on the side of the mountain, and my body froze in terror.
Do you know how your legs lock up when standing at the edge of something crazy high? That was me, but I still had to climb higher. My legs froze in fear on Summit Tower (I could only go up halfway) and I was in no danger of falling, surrounded by guard rails. This was actually dangerous. I was paralyzed in fear, equally afraid of continuing upward and also trying to climb back down.
The tears came fast and hot. I had cell reception so I texted my mentor. He responded right away but I was growing increasingly more hysterical so I called him. Just hearing a familiar voice was a comfort. But talking to someone who has thru-hiked and intimately knows both me and the challenges of thru-hiking was a blessing. His confidence in me supplemented the confidence I lacked in myself in that moment. I calmed down and climbed higher. At one point the blaze made it appear that the tail went straight off the edge of a cliff. While I climbed, my mentor got the Long Trail Guthook map and went to work.
He called me back to check in and to let me know he found a place for my mom to get me, just a mile away at the Mount Mansfield visitors center. One mile. That’s it. I had one more mile in me. Meanwhile, my mom was coordinating with my mentor and driving around Stowe asking anyone she saw how best to get to me since the toll road was closed.
On Top of Mount Mansfield
I finally reached the top where I was safely away from the cliff drops and I melted. My body was shaking from adrenaline and fear and my vision was blurry from tears. While stumbling across the top of Mount Mansfield, I ran into a northbound section hiker. He saw that I was rattled and just sat down and talked with me for a time. He made me laugh and offered to let me hike down the mountain with him and his hiking partner if I wanted some company (Thank you, Joe. I will always remember your kindness).
As I made my way across the summit, I was finally able to take in the view. I felt like I was on top of the world. There are zero words to describe how breathtaking that view was. I have one specific picture from that moment that I cannot post because it is so deeply personal. I will cherish that image and what it means to me, forever.
The Way Down
Because the toll road was closed when my mom got there, I walked the four and half miles down to her while she walked up to meet me. And I have never been happier to see my momma. Mount Mansfield was the hardest and scariest thing I have ever experienced. My mentor congratulated me on kicking Mansfield’s ass. While I don’t think I can quite say I kicked Mansfield’s ass, I certainly did overcome the biggest and scariest physical challenge of my entire life. And that’s something to be proud of.
So What Did I Learn?
I learned that I am truly blessed to have such wonderful, amazing people in my life and I love them dearly. Mount Mansfield showed me that life’s greatest challenges often lead to the most fulfilling rewards. And I learned that you just need to keep moving forward, slowly and with care, and eventually you will get to where you’re going (even when something feels insurmountable). I also learned that it’s OK to need help.
The Long Trail has pushed me to (and past) my limits. It’s showed me what’s most important in this life; namely loved ones, kindness, experiencing nature’s beauty, and adventure (to help keep it all in perspective). It’s taught me to be humble and to be flexible. And perhaps most importantly, it brought me to my knees in gratitude. Thank you for the lessons, Long Trail. Let’s see what else you have in store. Happy trails, my friend.
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