Mileage: 11.2 (plus 1.4 off trail)
Long Trail Mileage: 115.3
Time: 8 hours
Day / Night Temp: 28 / 15 F
While the Inn wasn't home to the most comfortable bed in the world, the warmth of the wood stove was everything a cold hiker could ever have asked for. I woke around 0700, beginning to pack my new food supplies into my bag as Santa joined me by the fire to do the same. We were expecting snow for 1000hrs, and aimed to be on the trail at that exact time. Breakfast was held in the Inn's dining room, a delightful dish of homemade French toast with watermelon, bacon, hot chocolate, and orange juice. With the meals included in the room cost, the Inn turned out, I believe, to have been an excellent place to stay. We returned to our room to finish packing, checking out at 1000hrs on the dot and shouldering our bags just as the snow began to fall.
The day's plan was a rather simple elevation profile, a few climbs of 4-700 feet each, with what looked like some ridge walking in between. It took a 1.4 mile hike to get back to the Long Trail itself from the Inn, at which point we hiked until we came across the Maine Junction, the point where the Appalachian and Long trails split having had shared blazes, shelters, and exact trajectory for the last 105.5 miles since the Massachusetts border. We triple checked the signage, being sure to choose the right white blazes for our trip north (the Appalachian Trail splits east towards New Hampshire at this junction) and stepped foot into the Long Trail with our sights set towards Canada. Having hiked the AT in 2014, it was a near realization that from this point forward every step was on a trail I had never traveled before. I no longer knew what was around every corner, the tricks to each shelter, etc; it was a freeing feeling of sorts.
As we hiked the heavy snow of the nor'easter continued to fall. We had on our shell jackets, hats, gloves, and goggles to protect ourselves as the snow and wind blew in sideways and seemingly every other direction. We knew the Long Trail would be marked less, so we paid a lot of attention to keeping the right targets in scope, following the right indentations in the quickly falling snow, to stay on track. Had we not been previous thru-hikers, I don't know that we would be as good at following a difficultly marked trail in such heavy winter conditions. Climbing through the hills on the ascent out of Killington, we reached the Rolston Rest shelter around 1245hours, having made great time since leaving the inn, despite the weather conditions. We made the break short, knowing there were still 7.8 miles left in the day and hiked back into the snow having eaten a power bar kind of lunch. The terrain from the shelter climbed a good 500 feet, not the most difficult but not the easiest as we stopped every 100 or so paces to verify our existence on the trail itself. Whereas the Appalachian Trail is packed down from thousands of travelers, the LT has very little depression in the ground making it far less obvious to follow. Best we could tell, the last hikers through this section were our friends Mariposa and Violet who we met towards the end of our AT thrus, who had attempted to finish the Long Trail from Killington to Canada just over a month ago. We were on our own in finding the way.
As we climbed up it became apparent that the original LT is a completely different beast from its AT sharing section. The 'ridge' we anticipated walking on was actually an 18" wide path cut into the side of a 45 degree vertical slope with very low margins for error. As the heavy and wet snow continued to fall, each step was taken cautiously with an ankle rolled to match the pitch of the terrain and keep us upright. Downed trees were everywhere and we found ourselves climbing over or under them as they sprawled across the narrow trail, having no option to go around simple due to the angle of the terrain we were crossing. We gained and lost little bits of elevation here and there, continuing to walk sideways to the mountains, and eventually came out to a snowmobile trail crossing where the trail cut across after a few hundred feet of road walking.
The sign marking the Long Trail's reentrance into the woods was comedically propped up against a tree, pointing in directions that had no actual bearing on the trail itself. We were left to search out the 'trail', covered in 12+ inches of snow, from the forest of white frosted tree trunks that lay before us. We used the GPS to verify the coordinates after wasting a few precious minutes trying to find it on our own, and were eventually back underway, again carving into the steep hillside as Goretex shells began to look wet, a hint at just how much snow was falling (and melting) on them. The drive to make it to the David Logan shelter where we planned to stay the night became even greater. At one point as we hiked this narrow trail on the slope of the mountain, my left foot slipped on a snow covered patch of ice, sending me toppling off the trail and down the incline a few feet before catching my foot on a tree and self arresting. I came down hard on my already pained right knee, and Santa stood on the trail above me asking what he could do to help. We slowly got me back on the trail, cautiously carrying on with less momentum than before. Our speeds slowed dramatically with the weird terrain and increasingly bad weather. As sunset happened somewhere far behind the thick grey clouds that covered our landscape, we donned our headlamps as we do every night we hike. Dusk was upon us quickly, and with it we got more sideways snow in near white out conditions. The glow of the headlamps beam shone back at us in the reflective snow, and we trudged forward slowly with every step.
It was around 1645 hours as the woods became completely dark that we realized we had actually (finally?) lost the trail. Santa began searching for blazes as I referenced the GPS. With the infrequent appearance of our favorite white trail marking paint, we followed the breadcrumb path of the GPS further forward until our position and the 'trail' no longer stayed in sync. We spent nearly half an hour along a ridge trying to find the trail itself, getting colder and more wet in the process as wet snow abundantly continued to fall. We were exactly 1 mile of trail from the shelter, a warm(er) and covered place to spend the night. We debated hiking straight to it, but hesitated due to the topography and slopes of the surrounding area. Santa suggested returning to a blue blazed side trail and trying to approach the shelter from a parking lot at the base of the mountain. Standing there losing body heat and getting more uncomfortable by the minute, I told him we needed to set the tent and hunker down for what would be a long night of continued snowfall. Finding a 'flat' section of ground a hundred or so feet from the top of the ridge, we used our snowshoes to stomp down over a foot of fresh powder, working quickly to get the tent up and keep it dry inside.
We're hunkered down for the night waiting for daylight's arrival with hopes of reacquainting ourselves with the trail when we can see it without struggle. I won't go so far as to say it was dumb to be hiking at night in this weather, as it's something we've absolutely done before. I absolutely think we made the right decision to shelter in place instead of wearing ourselves out by continuing to search for a trail we had little hope of finding in the pitch black on a mountainside. There's little cross-breeze now which makes me nervous for precipitation inside the tent. All our gear is dry from the night at the Inn, and it will be unfortunate when it becomes damp from a night of confined space with little ventilation. I'd leave the door open, but snow continues to fall.
The tone here is pessimistic and moral low. I've never in my life felt unsafe in the woods until tonight, which put me a bit on edge and I think cemented my unwillingness to try and make it the ONE more mile to the shelter. I've carried the tent for 115 miles for this exact reason; to be our port in the storm.
We'll find the trail in the morning and will see how far we make it. Today was almost a 12 mile day and tomorrow is slated to be thirteen. We'll have to see how my knee is after that last fall, and how Santa is feeling about all this. We've seen exactly three hikers on trail since leaving Massachusetts; 157 remaining miles is still a very long way to go, especially if we're breaking 12-18" of newly fallen powder the entire way.