Monday, February 13, 2012

Mansfield Loop - Winter Edition 2012

The Mount Mansfield Loop with some extra twists and turns.

The Long Trail along the summit of Mt. Mansfield

The Mansfield Loop is a running route I created years ago linking many locations in the Vermont hills together to circle the highest peak in Vermont, Mt. Mansfield at 4395 feet in elevation.  It includes the Long Trail, the Trout Club, The Catamount Trail, Trapps Nordic Center, Mt. Mansfield Touring Center and The Toll Road at Stowe and of course the Chin at the top of Mt. Mansfield.  It's not as dramatic as the big mountains out west but it certainly can be a challenge because of the varied terrain and weather conditions.  The usual version is about 26 miles but there are other variations as well to make it longer or shorter if desired.  Total time on the trail can be 6-7 hours on average.  I've run this Loop numerous times in the spring, summer and fall but never in the winter.  Usually in the winter I’m skiing but with the lack of significant snow this year and getting extremely bored of running roads and icy trails I thought I would try something different.  Last weekend I did a run around Camel’s Hump and it was great fun.  So this weekend I thought I would venture out a bit longer.

Saturday, February 11, 2012.

I had a late start to the day as usual for me but never got in from running the night before until 6:30 PM.   I managed to get in a 20 miler at the end of the day on Friday and got caught in the dark without any reflective wear or headlamp.  I finally got home “safely” by running on the railroad tracks and across some frozen meadows to avoid any kind of vehicular traffic.  While having some dinner I made the decision to hit Mansfield Saturday morning and was trying to figure out what to pack for the run.  With 6 – 7 hours of being on the trail, one of the biggest challenges is to stay dry and warm.  With a lot of hills on this route it is common to get quite sweaty right from the start as the first 1½ miles is all up hill.  So in preparation, I packed another complete set of clothes along with 3 pair of mittens (my hands always freeze), 2 extra hats and 2 balaclavas of varying thickness.  I also brought my GU Brew but had to keep it deep in the pack at temps were looking like 15 degrees and below for the day.  And food, snacks to keep me going along with some GU gels for quick energy.  Finally I was on the trail by 10:30 AM.  The way I figured it, I would have 7 hours of daylight to complete the loop.  And if time were running out, I could bypass the summit.  I had my headlamp in the car but decided to not bring it as I wanted to be out of the woods by dark.

Nebraska Notch Trail
I started off on the Nebraska Notch Trail.  It was hard underneath and had a couple inches of snow pack on top which made for great footing and awesome grip with the Kahtoola Microspikes.  In case I ran into deeper snow and for added insulation I wore XC ski gaiters.  I figured it would only help keep snow out of the summer trail shoes.

The set up:  screw shoes with microspikes and gaiters.
The hike up to the Long Trail was up, up and up so I quickly stripped down to a couple of long sleeve techy shirts to stay cool.  It was quiet in the woods and I didn't see anyone all the way to Taylor Lodge.  I finally saw some signs of life as I went through the Trout Club on the other side of the mountain.  The microspikes were working just fine on the uphills and the downhills.  For a short section after the entrance to the Trout Club I was on thinly snow covered dirt roads for a mile or two so slipped off the microspikes.  I still had on screw shoes which worked fine for the occasional ice but before long I was on deeper snow and ice again cruising along the Catamount Trail heading up to Trapps.  Back on with the spikes.  Luckily they go on and off very easily.  Going through Trapps I was waiting for the trail police to pull me over.  Luckily it was Winter Carnival Weekend and a major XC race was going on so I think it kept them away.  They don't like us runners going through any time of the year which is too bad.  I saw lots of friends at Trapps skiing around including Tom, Binney, Bryce, Sheila, Pascal and some more.  The snow looked great for XC skiing.  Being higher up than most XC centers they seemed to have a lot more snow than the lower parts of the Valley.  On my way to the Mansfield Touring Center I ran into Karen at the crossover from Trapps and had some more social time.  So far the weather was perfect, cold but no wind with the occasional glimpse of sunshine to warm you up.  Time was still on my side even with all the socializing.

I finally arrived at the bottom of the Toll Road at Stowe.  I was feeling quite sweaty and usually do a clothing change but with only one change of clothes I decided to wait to have dry clothes to summit the Chin.  The Toll Road was busy as I tried to run/hike this 4 1/2 mile section.  Usually I complain about cars going up and down the Toll Road, but I will never complain about them again.  Skiers and especially out of control snowboarders are way worse!  I don’t know how many times I had to jump along the far side of the trail to get out of the way or be run over.  It was slow going.  I arrived at the top of the new quad lift and took a quick break at the Octagon to get on some dry clothes.  While there I ran into another friend, Deedle, who was skiing at Stowe that day.  I decided to put on my warmest mitts for the next leg and added hand warmers too as my hands were so frozen I could barely even open the hand warmer package.  My one little pinky was in a frozen curved position and was getting in the way when I tried to put my hands in the mitts so I thought the hand warmers would be a special treat.  So I was off to the summit, warm and dry, hydrated and some food in the belly, feeling good.  The next challenge would be to summit the Chin.  Coming up the Toll Road the wind was increasing and I could see the summit engulfed in a fog.  Usually that means cold and wind.  I planned on going to the Chin unless the winds were cranking.  Heading north on the Long Trail proved to be very placid… for the first ¼ mile.  Then the wind started to pick up from the Northwest, directly onto the left side of my face.  The temperature was probably near zero and within about 5 minutes the whole left side of my nose was numb even with pulling up my balaclava.  Out of desperation I thought I would try something new.  I found another great use of a hand warmer, a nose warmer!  I stuck the hand warmer inside the balaclava on the left side of my nostril and it was incredible!  Within a few minutes, that side of my face thawed out and I could breathe again from my left nostril.  They need to market these warmers as “Nose Warmers”.  They could sell so many more.  Anyway, from here to the summit I would continually rotate the warmers from my hands to my nose and it was wonderful!

A little frosty on the summit ridge of Mansfield
The Leg Breaking Crust was not so wonderful.  I quickly discovered that what looked like good firm snow to run on turned out to be hard breakable crust where I would sink up to my knee or shin and be stopped dead in my tracks so carefully I kept going forward.  I soon was in the middle of that cold, wind fog and it was cold and windy.  With only 1/2 mile to the summit I got lost and disorientated.  It looked familiar but was not the Chin.  I decided to head what I thought was in an easterly direction and finally came upon a sign barely visible, the West Chin.  It's not the first time I've been a little lost on the summit.  I've always managed to figure it out after a while.  Finally on the Chin, I stopped for a moment of peace and quiet, said my thanks and headed back down on the Long Trail.  Too cold and windy for pics.  About a mile down the trail the sun popped out, long enough for a quick picture.

The summit ridge line with the fog cloud up ahead.

Beyond the Nose the Long Trail South heads into the woods.  It immediately had a lot of ski tracks but then they veered off to the Tear Drop, a back country ski mecca.  The Long Trail had some old hiking tracks to begin with and some fresh snow on top.  But soon all tracks were gone.  Shortly I found myself lost trying to get to the Forehead and bushwhacked a bit in deep snow but knew the general direction and got there after following a ridge line that I thought would eventually get there and it did.  From the Forehead going south on the Long Trail was another adventure.  There were no tracks whatsoever and the trail steeply descends along a mostly open face.  No trail markers to be found.  Saw a couple of what could have been cairns but they just didn't make any sense in where they were or where they were going.  I followed along quite a ways but ran into numerous tree holes so deep that I sank up to my waist and had to swim out.  I continued descending for quite a ways hoping to find some kind of trail marking as the dense forest was coming up which included cliffs and dead ends.  The trail section ahead, if I found it, is one of the most challenging sections with chutes and ladders as we like to call it.  Finally looking at my watch I had to make a decision.  I had about an hour and a half of daylight remaining.  If I continued to wander around lost or got stuck on a cliff or in a big tree hole, I might be there for a considerable amount of time and maybe longer.  I was not very thrilled at the thought of spending the night.  And with no emergency blanket or even any winter clothes or a headlamp, I decided to backtrack and find another route out.  Back up to the Forehead, which was not easy either falling in more tree holes but it still beat the alternative.  Once on the Forehead I decided to head west on the Wampahootus Trail. No tracks either but I had to try and I knew there was an intersection down below.  What I remember most of this section is the incredibly steep descent for 2/10th of a mile before it merges with some other trails.  At this point I learned the limitations of the microspikes as I slid out of control down some sections.  I had to do a self arrest at one point as I was heading towards a steep downward cliff.  Luckily it worked.  Finally I found a trail that had some significant trail use.  From my observations I think most winter hikers are eliminating the Chutes and Ladders section of the Long Trail South and using this other trail as a bypass.  From there it was a quick trip to Butler Lodge where I refueled and noticed the nice orange colors through the trees, oh yea sunset.  I quickly got my butt out the door.  I still had almost 2 miles to go.  It was all downhill to the Stevensville Road parking lot where my journey began.  This section was very nice to run on but if you went off the trail at all, you would quickly sink in and drop to your knees or on your face which I did a few times.  In all, I managed to get out just as darkness was setting in.  Another day, another adventure, all good in the end :)

“Victory is sweetest when you've known defeat.”


Anonymous said...

my wife (Katie) and I (Jon) just moved to St Albans from Albany NY, and we just joined GMAA. (Our blog is listed up on the members page.) Seeing as how you seem to be in the know with the local trail runs, I was wondering if you knew of any trail half marathons coming up this year. Both of us love trails, and while there are lots of great road half's coming up (e.g., Rollin Irish) we would love to try our hand (feet, that is) off the roads.

Thanks for the help,
Jonathan Auyer

PS Love the blog! The descriptions and the pictures are great…and quite inspiring. Also, good luck with the "veg" lifestyle. Katie and I are both vegan, so we wish you all the best!

Unknown said...

Hi Jonathan,
To find a trail half marathon in this area is not an easy task. Some of the local trail races offered can be found at the Catamount Family Outdoor Center in Williston with weekly Tuesday night 5K trail races and the annual Bramble Scramble 15k or 30k race usually in August. From April through November not too far away is the Grand Tree Race Series in NH, MA & CT. These are trail races of all lengths beginning with the Northern Nipmuck 16 mile race on April 7th.
We do have a great network of trails in the area to run on including the trails built and maintained by the Fellowship of the Wheel. It's worth becoming a member to access these trails.
See you on the trails,