This is how it all began: Peter and I had two weeks off for Christmas vacation. A lot of the Christmas gifts we received were backpacking-related items (trail maps, dry bags, dehydrated meals, chocolate ). The weather during the whole month of December, and especially during the week of Christmas, was incredibly mild. So all these things conspired together to get us thinking about doing a serious backpacking trip on the Long Trail during our second week of vacation. “Serious” as in 6-days-straight-serious.
We had never done more than 2 days on the trail in a row before, and those were actually more like 1.5 days, so we really had no idea what we were getting ourselves into, but we like to go big. We figured it’s better to try and fail than to not try at all! Unfortunately, as we meticulously planned out our daily mileage and agonized over packing large amounts of food and gear, we also watched the weather forecast become increasingly dire. It looked like winter was finally going to hit New England right at the precise moment that we planned to step foot on the trail.
I’m sure most of you understand how hard it is to scrap your plans after you’ve put a lot of time and effort into your preparations, and Peter and I are kind of “do or die” people, so even though it looked like it was going to be cold, and a little snowy, we decided it was still worth a shot.
We set out early Monday morning with 3 days worth of food and a plan with my parents to meet us on Wednesday night with a large pizza and our re-supply box. We hoped to average 20 miles a day, but we had lower-mileage options if that proved to be too ambitious.
It was still dark when we set out from the trailhead on Rt. 9 near Bennington, but within 15 minutes or so we were able to see without our headlamps. The morning was relatively balmy at around 30 degrees, and we were blissfully unaware of what lay in store for us.
Our packs weighed 15 pounds when we started, at least half of which was our food and water. Aside from that we each carried a sleeping bag, sleeping pad, emergency blanket, down jacket, rain jacket, fleece pants and shirt (to sleep in), an extra pair of wool socks, microspikes, a headlamp and extra batteries. Between the two of us we split the items we could share: cooking kit, first aid/safety kit, toiletry kit, camera and cell phone. Our packs were heavy, but we were still able to run on the downhills!
The first item on our agenda was the long, 10-mile climb up Glastenbury Mountain. It was very gradual, mostly easy hiking, and we thoroughly enjoyed our time in the Glastenbury Wilderness.
We learned early on that the Long Trail is very wet. Large portions of the trail are like walking along a creek bed. Bog bridges like this help in the worst areas, but we still ended up with soaking wet feet before very long.
As we started nearing the top of Glastenbury (3,748 ft.), the temperature plummeted. From that point on we had trouble with our water bottles icing up and had to chip ice away from the opening whenever we refilled them. It eventually got to the point where all our bottles were halfway full of solid ice, and we had to refill them often since they couldn’t hold as much liquid.
On the top of Glastenbury we climbed the fire tower, and as we emerged above the tree line we were blasted by an icy, gale-force wind. The tower used to have windows, but all the glass has been removed, so there was no protection from the cold. We took a few pictures as quickly as possible and got out of there just before we froze solid!
It was as beautiful as it was cold. I wish we could have stayed to enjoy the views, but as it was it took a long time for my numb fingers to thaw back out.
This is what the trail looked like on the north side of Glastenbury as we began our descent. Still more like a river than a trail, but now with a thin layer of ice on top. We did a lot of hopping from rock to rock and picking our way along the very edge of the trail.
We thought that as we made the 10-mile descent down the other side of Glastenbury that the temperature would gradually warm back up again, but this was not the case. A cold front had moved in, and as the afternoon progressed it just got colder and colder.
Frost fingers coming up out of the ground.
The descent from Glastenbury was easy, but by the time we bottomed out we had 20 miles on our legs, and our muscles were pretty tired from the extra weight we’d been carrying all day. We had planned ahead of time to bypass the next climb up and over Stratton because there was an alternate route to the Stratton Pond Shelter that only 5 miles instead of 10 (not to mention flat instead of up and down a mountain!). However, when we got to the trailhead for the Stratton Pond Trail, we were dismayed to see a sign warning that the trail was impassable due to blowdowns and heavy flooding. We couldn’t bear the thought of 10 more miles at this point, so after some debate, we decided to at least scout out the trail for a ways and see how it looked. Soon we came to some bog bridges where we were able to see footprints in the frost–footprints in only one direction and coming toward us, so we knew that someone had walked all the way through and the trail must be passable. We decided to continue on, and though we saw several places where fallen trees had been cut up and moved, we never saw any flooding. Too bad the sign wasn’t removed when the trail was cleaned up!
This was a whimsical old tree near Stratton Pond. We discovered that mushrooms grow on the trees everywhere along the trail because the environment is so wet. I couldn’t get enough of them, and if it had been warmer, I would have taken a lot more pictures of them!
After 25 miles and 9 hours, we reached our shelter for the night at Stratton Pond. It was pretty luxurious, as far as shelters go, with a picnic table, benches, sleeping platforms and a loft! Unfortunately by this point the temp was in the low teens, and it was too cold to do anything other than hike hard or bundle up in your sleeping bag. We quickly went about our camp chores–Peter built a fire to try to warm up and dry our soaked and frozen footwear (with very little success), while I boiled some water to make our dinner. As soon as that was ready, I climbed into my sleeping bag at 6 pm to wait out the night. Peter stayed up for a couple of hours to tend to the fire, but unfortunately, even under his watchful care we had several casualties–2 of our 4 water bottles melted, my insoles melted and one of my socks burned. We decided that we aren’t doing anymore winter overnights until we perfect the art of drying our things by a campfire.
Also, waterproof shoes and gaiters are a must!
I had texted my mom once we got to the shelter to let her know that we were safe and on schedule, and she immediately replied with a weather forecast. The area we were in was under a winter storm warning and instead of the 1-2 inches that were forecast when we left, it was now expected to be 5-7. In light of that, as well as the severe cold and the lack of appropriate footwear for the conditions, we decided it would be safest to bail out early. We made arrangements with my parents for an emergency extraction the next day at the Rt. 11 trailhead south of Bromley (a little over 10 miles away).
At 2:00 a.m. the storm hit, and we listened to howling winds and sleet pelting the roof for the rest of the night. In the morning we woke up to 5 inches of snow on the ground! We packed up and left without eating breakfast–too cold for luxuries like eating and drinking!
We took a few quick pics at Stratton Pond because it was super beautiful in the snow, but after that I had frozen hands, and I didn’t take my camera out for the rest of the day cause we were in full-blown survival mode.
It took us almost 5 hours to do the 10.5 miles in the snow, and it was utterly miserable. The sleet kept up the whole time, and the wind was FEROCIOUS. We weren’t able to carry any water in our bottles because it would freeze too fast, so we just drank out of every stream we crossed (thankfully you never lack for water on the Long Trail). Snow accumulated around the tops of our shoes and turned to ice, which we had to stop frequently to chip out. We didn’t realize it at the time, but we were dangerously close to getting frostbite from this. We both had white spots on our heels when we finished, which later blistered like a burn. We learned that this is frostnip, and we were lucky we got out when we did! We have never been more glad to return to civilization, and we now have an even healthier respect for winter weather. It is beautiful, and terrible, and not to be trifled with.
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Looking back now, it was an incredible adventure, and I wish that we’d been equipped to stay out longer. If we’d had waterproof shoes and gaiters, I think we could have safely stayed out for all 6 days. And if we’d also had snowshoes, softshell pants, balaclavas, warmer hats and gloves and warmer sleeping bags, I think we could have been relatively comfortable as well.
I don’t think we’ll be venturing back out this winter for anything more than a day hike, but at least now we know what winter backpacking is all about!