Mileage: 10.6 (plus 3 off trail)
Long Trail Mileage: 104.5
Time: 8 hours
Day / Night Temp: 25 / 18 F
We've broken the 100 mile mark. Had it not been for the relatively packed trail on our north side descent of Killington, I'd be writing that the mountain whooped our asses around the block and back. For the first time on the trail I woke up the moment my alarm went off, making some kind of noise to wake Santa as well. We had business to tend to, town to get to, supplies to purchase, hot food to eat, and warm beds to sleep in; there was no time whatsoever to mess around.
We left the shelter at 0730 and began walking up the Forest Service road a quarter mile or so before the Appalachian Trail / Long Trail turned off the maintained terrain and up into the woods. The snow flurries continued on from the night before, and would for the rest of our day. The first mile or so was easy with light crunchy snow underfoot and a gradually climbing terrain. We covered that distance in about twenty five minutes, then began slowing from there. Killington's climb for a northbound hiker takes place over approximately 7 miles and gains just about 3,000 feet in elevation. The first three miles of that are moderate, and then the mountain kicks things into gear. The terrain turned more moderate, climbing upward at steeper angles as the snow became gradually deeper. It was strange how yesterday morning we hiked with no snow at all and now we were ankle deep in the stuff, no more than 7 miles as the crow flies from where there was none. We pushed on, our speed dropping as each lift of our legs became more strenuous, carrying on up a mountain with no switchbacks to be seen.
Halfway up we began being slowed down drastically by the snow. Under the evergreens was about 6" of snowfall with a thin but icy top layer crusted on from the warm temperatures and rain the day before. The real problems arose when we crossed areas with no tree cover, finding ourselves knee deep and eventually waist deep in snow drifts. The latter being the deepest snow we've experienced on trail thus far, it was exceptionally difficult to move in. I can only describe it like being waist deep in sand, pushing with every ounce of force in your body to lift/move/wiggle/force your leg forwards to make progress up the mountain. It is emotionally and physically draining, and we combatted this on and off for over a mile towards the summit, climbing vertically all the while. I switched to snowshoes from my light traction, possibly too late in the game, but Santa stayed with Microspikes as we neared in on the Cooper Lodge shelter on the back side of Killington's slopes. I'm not sure there was width in the trail, or honestly anywhere shallow enough, to have put them on earlier either way. We trudged on, me breaking trail with my now massive footprint as he followed behind. We finally arrived at Cooper Lodge at about 1140hrs, the world around us frosted in that beautifully iconic alpine New England frosty ice.
Lunch was quick, and we made conversation with a few skiers who stopped into the shelter to take a recreational smoke break from the slopes. It was at this point that someone asked "what [were our] plans for the blizzard." - the first we had heard of this storm moving in on New England, so I'm sure our responses were slightly worrying and slightly comical. We packed up, both donning snowshoes, and began the descent towards the town of Killington itself, located just over 6 miles down the trail. As it turned out, apparently the trail we would descend is infinitely more popular for hikers than the one we came up, packed down and traveled well enough that we stopped a quick mile later and traded the snowshoes for Microspikes. The 6 miles downhill went by infinitely faster than the 4 miles up, and as we wound our way down the mountain, following previous footprints through a sometimes confusing maze of switchbacks and poorly marked trail. We reached VT Route 4 at 1500hrs, turning east and walking over a mile up the highway to the Inn at the Long Trail where I had made us a reservation for the night.
Oakie, who I assume to be the manager, greeted us kindly and became even warmer to us when he found out we were hikers. He offered us town clothes, left here by others and recycled for hikers in summer months as they do laundry, and told us he upgraded our accommodations to a room with a gas fireplace. We thanked him, ran to our rooms to shed sweaty and soaked layers of clothing, and then began the 2 mile walk further down Route 4 to an outfitter where Santa had a care package mailed. I picked up some new compression shorts and gaiters (both that I began hiking with are falling apart already...) and the rep at Base Camp Outfitters was nice enough to give me a 10% discount and repeatedly encouraged our hike. We quickly visited the small market for yet another expensive New England resupply, then took the local commuter bus back up the hill to the hotel, the driver giving us the ride for free when he found out we were hiking this late in the year.
The rest of the night was comprised of a shower, laundry, cold pints at the Irish pub from Owen the bartender, hot lobster mac & cheese, and phone calls to loved ones now that we actually have service. We used the gas fireplace to dry sleeping bags, and I fell asleep to the glow of the flames dancing around the room. I don't think I've ever been so disinterested in the arrival of a tomorrow, or getting back on the trail. Today took a lot out of me, out of us, and I think the pessimistic thoughts are gaining on the optimistic.
We're aware of the weather. We've seen the reports, estimating 12-18" of heavy snow for this area over a 24 hour span tomorrow. We will be mindful of it, and safety will of course come first, especially over pride. At the end of the day though, a winter thru-hike attempt in New England wasn't going to happen without some kind of weather presenting itself.
Anyway, that's that.