It’s not every day that you get to walk amongst arctic tundra, but in September my wife and I took a trip up to Underhill, Vermont to hike Mount Mansfield. We planned on hiking the mountain and then staying overnight at a camp site in Underhill State Park, located at the mountain’s base.
Fun Fact #1 about Mount Mansfield: Mount Mansfield is one of the most popular mountains to hike in Vermont—for good reason—and the parking overflowed way down the access road leading to the trail head. We pulled up behind a long line of cars on a steep hill. We looked at each other with a hint of panic. Would there be a camp site left?
Luckily there was a park ranger there with a walkie talkie who contacted the front office. They had one camp site left. “We’ll take it!” I said.
“You need to go up to the office to reserve it,” he replied
With a large crowd walking up the hill ahead of us, we yanked our pack out of the car and hustled to the modest log cabin full of chipper high school aged interns. We were cutting things close to sunset on our descent as it was, so when the guy in charge of check-in began going over the rules, we started inching toward the door. I think we waited until he was done before leaving—I just can’t remember.
As we set off on the steep Sunset Ridge trail on the West side of the mountain, we learned another fun fact about Mount Mansfield
Fun Fact #2 about Mount Mansfield: Almost everyone takes the Sunset Ridge Trail, which means the trail is every bit as crowded as the parking lot suggests. We continued to hustle past French Canadian tourists and young couples plodding along the trail. I looked on with envy as scores of hikers descended past us with a full head of steam, having passed through the tough part we were just beginning. I did my best to ignore them, hiking faster than normal for a person in my kind of shape.
Fun Fact #1 about Me: I don’t like hiking up mountains that much. Having said that, I really do enjoy the view, how I feel after I’m done, and going down. Overall, it’s a ton of fun, but the beginning of a hike up a mountain is extremely difficult for me. Recognizing this on the steep trek up Mansfield, I devised a strategy to ensure I made the most of things.
My strategy revolved around getting above tree line as fast as possible. My logic followed these lines: once we were above tree line we’d have excellent views and could stop as often as we like in order to enjoy the Champlain Valley and Adirondacks stretching out to the west. This meant I had to push myself extremely hard for the first half of the hike. As long as trees covered our view, I was scrambling over boulders, puffing up steps, and crawling over the steep, slick bedrock. My wife never saw me hike with such determination. Things changed once we hit tree line.
Fun Fact #2 about Me: I’m afraid of heights. As we approached Mansfield from the road I saw the exposed rock of the Sunset Ridge Trail from the road and thought to myself, “It looks like someone could fall off the mountain.” That thought stayed with me for the entire hike, even if it was devoid of logic. There was really only one place where falling off the mountain was even remotely possible. Being that I’ve never heard of anyone dying from a hike on Mansfield, I kept telling myself that I would have to try really hard to kill myself if it was going to happen. All the same, my first half hour above tree line was pretty nerve-racking.
We took more breaks, walked up the exposed rocks, and enjoyed the view. I eventually settled down, and even began paying more attention to my fellow hikers. Three young college guys casually gulped down beers as they meandered up the mountain. Two ladies stopped to admire them.
“Wow, you’re really adventurous—bringing beer onto Mansfield!”
“Yeah, we’ve been hiking up on our own trail.”
I didn’t see the connection between the two statements, but the guys didn’t want to miss a chance to impress someone.
“Where did you come from?” she asked.
“Like, somewhere off to the right, down in those trees. We just stumbled onto this trail. It was pretty awesome.”
“Wow, that’s amazing!”
I didn’t feel a need to stick around to hear this. We packed up our water and pushed on to the summit.
Fun Facts #3 about Mount Mansfield and me: I love the summit of Mount Mansfield. Thinking I was near the summit, I charged up a slick rock slope, while my wife, who is always in incredible shape, followed without missing a beat. As I reached the “top” I saw the ridgeline stretch on for another 300 feet or so. Deflated a bit, I trudged along until I was pretty darn sure I was at the real summit—the place where all of the people were standing around and enjoying the view—and kicked on the afterburners again.
The summit of Mansfield is one of the most exhilarating places I’ve ever been. Pike’s Peak would have been better, except I was dehydrated and passing out at the summit. Needless to say I didn’t enjoy the view back then. Mansfield was a different story. I could see endless, majestic mountains to the south, beautiful peaks immediately to the east, and a stunning view of Lake Champlain to the west with the Adirondacks barely visible in the background.
We enjoyed our late lunch, warmed by the sun while wind whipped through from every direction. A Green Mountain Club caretaker was ignored by a band of French Canadian children who would not be moved from their unauthorized location on the artic tundra, Julie took a little nap, and I hopped from rock to rock taking pictures. It was a wonderful time. I can’t remember having a better time on a mountain’s summit.
Fun Fact #4 about Mount Mansfield: The Laura Cowles Trail is pure evil.
Fun Fact #4 about me: I hate the Laura Cowles Trail.
Imagine an elevator shaft. Now imagine an elevator shaft at a 30 degree angle with steep, wet rocks. That is the Laura Cowles Trail. When you’re practically sliding down this hazardous trail you can’t help but think mean thoughts toward Laura Cowles. As my knees shook uncontrollably, I imagined Cowles was some kind of local killer who attacked people’s knees.
Well of course she’s probably some legendary hiker who could chug up her own trail with hardly a care in the world. She probably donated all kinds of money to the Green Mountain club, making it possible to preserve Mount Mansfield for us to enjoy. She probably paid to set up the camp site we were going to use that evening. She was probably one of the greatest hikers Vermont has ever seen.
What was her reward from the Green Mountain Club?
Having an inhumanely steep trail named after her. If I was her relative, I’d look into changing that.
As we began our knee-quaking descent, we ran into a crowd of college guys who were hot, sweaty, and a bit on the grumpy side. Actually, the first guy in line just seemed happy to see someone else on the trail. I encouraged them the best I could, “You’re almost at the top.”
“That’s the best news I’ve heard all day,” one of them quipped.
“You can go down a different way if you’re tired of this trail,” I added.
“I don’t ever want to see this trail again,” another guy replied under his breath.
Apparently my feelings toward the Laura Cowles Trail were shared by many.
Shaking knees aside, we made it down Mansfield in good shape and set up camp. I was on cloud nine for the rest of the evening as we huddled around our camp fire. It felt like we’d done something significant. Even if thousands of people summit Mansfield every year, I was still encouraged to have completed the hike. I began with a lot of fear and doubt, wondering how hard it would be for me, and then I set up Operation Tree Line, pacing myself all of the way to the summit.
Using that kind of planning to overcome doubt is a bit like starting with a writing project. Ther
e’s this steep, insurmountable blank page. Then I begin with a plan, dropping in a simple outline of ideas. Step by step, I fill it in. Before I realize it, I’m at the end.