On My Way: The climb

Looking out from the summit of Mount Abraham.


The Battell trail was a climb from the start. Right away I was working. I was planting my poles and making steps. My blood was pumping. The trail wasted no time weaving upward. I had a way to go to my sought-after destination. Mount Abraham’s summit is 4,017 feet. I would have an elevation gain of about 2,500 feet.

The temperature was in the low thirties, with a nice chill in the air. The landscape was covered in snow. Some sun filtered down through the tall trees — oaks, maples, and birch, I would guess. I was in Vermont for a few days to visit my son, Peter, who is in college there. I love winter hiking. With no snow or mountains on the Island, it was a perfect opportunity. I did research on the trails, and emailed the Green Mountain Club for advice.

The drive is not too bad — about five hours from the boat. I-89 is an escape in itself. A wilderness of snow-covered mountains accompanies much of the drive North. I stayed at a lovely motel called the Brandon Motor Lodge in the town of Brandon. The morning before Mount Abraham, I hiked Snake Mountain, a dome of a hill 1,287 feet high. In the afternoon, Peter and I hiked part of the TAM (the trail around Middlebury). Mount Abe was my big hike.

I took a look at the trailhead before setting out. It had snowed a few days earlier, and I wanted to see its condition. It looked pretty packed, so I opted for my crampons over my snowshoes.

I did not think much — other than to be careful — as I began the hike. I listened to the squeak of my crampons and boots in the established trail. I felt the soothing cold. I stopped occasionally to catch my breath.

A fellow blew by me about 40 minutes into the hike. He was a good deal older than I was, and I was a little embarrassed. (I attribute his greater speed to the lack of mountains on the Island.) We hiked and chatted for about 75 yards, and then he disappeared into the trail ahead of me.

I warmed up, as one always does on a winter hike in the woods. My hat came off midway up Battell. Surprisingly, I never did take off my jacket. Partway up, I stopped to rest a moment, and I noticed the incredible peacefulness and beauty all around me. The woods were quiet other than the faint hum of the wind. Winter had brought a calm stillness to the forest. The snow had drifted in the landscape of the bare trees. The chirping of a bird added to the serenity.

A thick blanket of snow had the warmth and comfort of a patchwork quilt. The snow crystals lay perfectly. Not a single one of the infinite multitude was out of place. Where the sun broke through in small patches, the crystals twinkled like thousands of stars. I went at my own pace. The trail turned back and forth. It was not so steep that I needed handholds. Trees were fallen over in the woods, and a few were across the trail. After a hard and steady climb of nearly two hours, I reached the Battell Shelter. Here, I turned left onto the Long Trail (the Long Trail is the oldest long-distance hiking trail in the U.S. At 270 miles, it goes from the Vermont-Massachusetts border to the Vermont-Canada border.)

The trail leveled for a ways after the shelter. One could just enjoy the winter walk in the woods. The respite was short-lived. Soon again, the trail ascended at an arduous incline. A few scrambles required the aid of handholds on the side of the trail to pull oneself up. Short pines took the place of their taller ilk in the lower elevations. The summit seemed near. I was glad to have an established trail to follow. The pines grew over the trail in places, requiring one to push through or duck beneath the branches draped in heavy snow.

My feet began to push through the snow. I needed to change into my snowshoes. I decided to make the switch at the summit, which I thought was nearby. Unfortunately, the summit was always right around the corner. Finally, I came out of the treeline onto the bald, snow-covered head of the mountain. I took a moment to apprise myself of my situation. I had only a short climb to go. I started upward again. I felt the exhilaration of the final ascent.

Then, ahead, the fellow who passed me on the way up appeared on his way down. We chatted for a few minutes. He showed me the heel lifts on his snowshoes. And he told me what I would see at the summit. We did not idle too long. It was much colder out of the protection of the trees.

I made the final climb. The snow was white and windswept on the top of Mount Abraham. Little drifts had formed. Dwarfed pines were wrapped in snow. I felt the wind.

The view was mind-blowing. The day was sunny and blue, without a cloud in the sky. One could see as far as one could see in every direction. Far off to the East were the White Mountains, and to the West, a sliver of Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks. To the North, one could follow the ridgeline to the summit of Mount Ellen.

Originally, I had planned to hike about three miles further along the ridge to the summit of Mount Ellen. But when I looked, I could not find a trail already broken, and I decided it was not the day to learn my way around. I changed into my snowshoes, and with some disappointment, I began my descent. It was a good decision, though. I was not in shape for the longer hike.

One moves along when descending a snow-covered trail. The snow creates a level surface. There are no rocks to contend with. I slid on my butt where I had to scramble on the way up.

It was not long before I was back to the Battell Shelter. I took a look around. The half-camp shelter with one side open to the weather would provide the bare minimum of relief to weary hikers.

I passed a few other groups on their way up. My disappointment dissipated as I made my way down. I felt the fatigue in my legs. Mount Ellen could wait for another day. The scenery in the woods off the side of the trail was indescribable. One could imagine an ocean in the landscape of snow that lived on the forest floor and took up different forms and shapes amid the trees.

I zoned out and walked in a careful rhythm. My feet slid forward some in my boots. I did not think about how far I had to go. Out of nowhere, the Battell trailhead reappeared before me.

I was pretty beat as I stepped off the trail. I helped dig out a couple whose car was stuck in the parking area. With some relief, I climbed into the truck and sat for a minute. Mount Abe was enough for the day.



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