Day mileage: 20
AT total mileage: 1,690.9
Time: 7.5 hours
In a unparalleled feat of machine-like hiking, I led Santa, Legs, and Naila through the first five miles of trail in an hour and a half. We had departed the shelter shortly after 7, and after a quick descent from our shelter we began a 1,300' climb to the top of an unnamed peak. The climb included some switchbacks, but was still a strenuous one that had me soaked in sweat shortly after beginning. I'm not entirely sure why I felt the need to hike it so ferociously, but it felt amazing to do so, and neither of the two hiking with me complained, so on we trekked. We had decided before leaving that we would all stop at the first shelter we came to for a quick break, not realizing we would be there so quickly. Upon arrival we relaxed for quite a while, awaiting the appearance of Dorothy and Rocket Girl. Eating a second breakfast and reading my Everest book, we were there for almost an hour before heading on, off the bat climbing a 200' rise before beginning a long descent into a gap to cross VT 103 at Clarendon Gorge. Passing some day hikers, the trail made a remarkably abrupt change to its terrain with a 1/2 mile, 800' climb up an incredibly steep fallen rock field, before descending down to the next shelter. Since we were already 9 miles into the day at this point, having hiked quickly and in a very focused manner, we stopped for lunch. The shelter was also occupied by an older guy who was a bit on the odd side, making random comments about the trail and napping on and off during our time there. At one point he woke up and questioned our presence... he seemed to be completely sure he'd been there alone.
After each of us had arrived and eaten, we slowly became lazy in the heat and humidity of the early afternoon. I laid down on one of the shelter's lower bunks and closed my eyes for a little, resting my head on Naila's furry stomach. After a few minutes both Rocket and Dorothy did the same thing on other bunks, and Legs stretched out next to me and the dog. While Rocket and Dorothy slept, she and I talked for a long while, going through photos on my iPhone of the trip, my travels, and other random bits of my life. It's quite interesting to paint a picture of the backstory of my life for someone who's never even known me without a beard. You put into scale the fact that I've only known this group for 2 weeks, and there really is so much of my life they don't know about, yet it still can sometimes feel like I've known them forever. Again, as we've discussed, the power of the trail's great equalization. We probably relaxed there for two hours before anyone moved; at one point Legs said both Dorothy and Rocket's names out loud, and upon neither responding we decided it would be most responsible to wait until they woke up before packing our gear and hiking on. Around 1330hrs they started stirring, and we began begrudgingly packing up our gear to head out. There were only 10 miles left in the day, but those miles included an exceptionally steep climb up Beacon Hill, and later the 2,700 foot climb up to the summit of Vermont's famous Killington Peak. About half way through our relaxing break at the shelter, Santa grew restless and said goodbye to Legs and myself before hiking on. We'd planned to stay at the rickety cabin atop Killington, and would rendezvous there later in the day.
Leaving the lunch shelter and beginning the steep trudge to the top of Beacon Hill, I made it about halfway up before realizing that I'd forgotten my broken dSLR camera at the shelter. I dropped my pack and began running down the hill back to where I'd left it. Because I hike at a faster rate, it took me a minute or two before I crossed paths with the 3 others of my hiking group who stopped me, apparently having seen the camera and grabbed it before leaving. Thanking them profusely I turned around and trekked up the climb for a second time. I ended up passing them again to maintain a good clip across many of the miles the rest of the day would require. Emerging from the woods at a dirt road, I was confronted with an A.T. sign stating there was a detour due to a washed out bridge and lots of remaining trail damage from Hurricane Irene. I read the detour directions, then somewhat confused due to the lack of clarification in the writing, and hiked on in what I believed was the right direction down a dirt road. It took about half a mile for me to start doubting myself, at which point I turned around and went back to the sign. It was there that I met two southbounders who informed me that the trail was in fact passable, but it required forging a river or two and the terrain was in tough shape. By this point I had wasted enough time being confused that Legs, Rocket, and Dorothy showed up. Having settled the issue of the detour, we hiked on the normal A.T. trail despite the warning of potential challenges. It wasn't all that bad, but there's a lot of remaining evidence of the hurricane, as the riverbeds are strewn with fallen trees, trails washed out, and the obvious lack of bridges across rushing bodies of water. Luckily there was a fallen tree across the worst point of the river, which I delicately balanced across for 40' or so, crossing my fingers that I wouldn't be swimming in the river below me any time soon.
Climbing Killington was challenging and exciting. The mountain is the first in 900 miles, when the Trail climbed The Priest in Virginia, to cross over four thousand feet of elevation. Beginning gradually at the tree-littered riverbed, the trail cut sideways across the ridge leading up the mountain. Becoming obviously steeper and more challenging as the climb went on, the scenery and vegetation changed drastically to match the elevation. Abundant oak trees turned to thin pines, more obviously weathered by decades of severe storms, with roots jutting out of the ground like an obstacle course for my feet. Some sections of the ascent included hand over hand climbing over rocks, while others were more obviously traveled and had much more forgiving terrain. Noticing these changes caused me to really think about how many people have traveled this path. We can go hours, sometimes even days without seeing other hikers, but all the while might be just a few miles behind someone else trekking. It's impossible to know how many feet have traversed these woods. It ended up taking us two hours to reach the shelter on Killington. Arriving at what can only be described as a graffiti-ridden, rock constructed, ramshackle structure, undoubtedly home to many late nights of drinking and smoking by hikers and winter sport enthusiasts alike, the Cooper Lodge was immediately decided to a place we would not spend the night. Filling water at a pristine and frigidly cold natural spring, we began an extraordinarily strenuous 0.3 mile climb up a rocky face to the true summit of Killington. From the highest point, a rock slab carved out an unfathomable sum of years ago by receding glaciers, I turned to see panoramic views of the Green Mountains jaggedly defining the line between the sky and earth. We lingered as a group for a while, soaking in the sunlight and views before hiking another quarter mile down to the unique location where we would spend the night. Perched at the highest point of Killington's machinery-accessible terrain was a lodge, closed for the night, and the gondola loading and unloading deck. Three gondolas were on deck level, doors open, and begging for us to sleep in them. We set up sleeping bags on the benches, cooked dinner in the gusting wind, and returned to the rock face summit to watch the sun disappear for the night behind a wispy clouded horizon.
I'm literally sleeping in a Swiss-made gondola. How often do moments like this present themselves? If my natural sleep schedule holds true, I'll be awake to watch the sun rise again over the valley in front of me. The wind is howling, the gondola swaying on its cable line, and the vacation towns below are glowing against the dark and starry sky. Five friends, one dog, and the unmistakable sense of pride in having literally walked here for this moment and the many left to come.