Sat Sept 26th, 2020, 0545-1730
Waterman Brook to Taft Lodge, SOBO LT mile 66
11.2 miles, plus about 2 miles walking around town, 5900 gain, 4500 loss
I was ready to go early but didn’t feel as well as the day before. It’s called a ‘Hiking Hangover,’ most often experienced after a previous big day. Of course, the rugged terrain from day 2 was also back. Whoa Nelly! was the climb to Whiteface Mountain steep! I was scrambling over slimy rock faces while grabbing onto roots and limbs…a lot of that in the light of my headlamp. I got to the top for a nice view of the sunrise through the valley haze. It was very humid but there was probably also smoke from the fires out west. It reminded me of the smoky sunrises I saw in Oregon and northern California on the PCT. Boo smoke, but it did make the sun fiery red and pretty to behold.
I could see Mt Mansfield (highpoint of VT) looming to the south, our planned destination for the day. A rough ridge to Madonna Peak and a steep descent to Smugglers Notch stood in the way. I was back to my 1.5 mph pace, despite going downhill from Whiteface.
All 9 miles to the road into town were tough. The mountain tops and ridges were composed of scraggly pines, rocks, roots, and bogs. It was such different terrain from out west. I marveled at how much of this ‘trail’ might be considered class 2 or 3 scrambling. I negotiated a slick rock face by foot-skiing down it….more of a controlled fall. There was a lot of potential for an ankle or knee injury but I manage to skid past it all. I got a break for a bit on a steep ski slope to the top of Madonna Peak. Now I felt like I was back in Montana, walking jeep trails on the divide.
I pondered how a woman ultra runner did this whole trail, 273 miles, in just over 5 days to set a new FKT. I didn’t know how one could run up and down such steep slopes, with so much slick rock and roots. I felt like I was going slower on the downhills than the climbs, many times.
We continue past Sterling Pond, which was like an alpine lake, surrounded by dense forest instead of rock. It was a beautiful fall Saturday, so tons of day hikers and weekend backpackers were out and about. I didn’t even try to count people encountered this day…probably close to 100 or more. Many had come from an array of side trails and certainly a few had taken a ski lift or gondola. We continued on the Long Trail all the way down into Smugglers Notch. Tom arranged for his cousin to meet us there, swapping out his shoes. He had less than 100 miles on the pair before starting this trail and already they were starting to blow out. This trail was hard on hikers and on shoes. Mine were looking rough too, but I’d been wearing them most of the summer, so they already had hundreds of miles on them.
Eric graciously gave us a ride to Stowe, which was a small resort town with an attached ski area. We went straight to a laundromat, which was about the only place in town where we could hang out and charge devices. The town was packed… a traffic jam lined main street. It was a weekend at peak leaf-peeping season in the most touristy town in Vermont, go figure. Everyone was even more antsy to get outside after isolating for COVID for months. The restaurants were all full and/or required reservations, and we didn’t even bother looking into lodging. Even if there was a room left, we imagined it would be quite expensive. We settled on getting greasy pizza at a gas station for lunch and were then just anxious to get out of town, away from the business and structure of society. It was all made even more bewildering by the COVID situation.
Having succeeded in our main goal of getting resupplies for a few more days, we walked the road for several miles, trying to escape the town traffic. We needed a hitch back to the trail but didn’t figure it will come easy. Luckily a truck gave us a ride in the back a few more miles out of town, where most of the traffic was going our way. We got another quick ride to the trailhead from a mountain biker. We wore masks inside his car but still, it was very generous of him during such weird times.
We were back on trail by 4 pm, with a short 2 miles to a shelter…all uphill and a couple thousand feet. The trail was pretty good but very steep. It was also unseasonably hot! I stopped at a creek to soak my shirt and buff in the refreshing water. The cooling effect gave me the boost I needed to make it the rest of the way.
I expected the shelter to be packed but was pleasantly surprised to initially find only 2 other hikers, one of which was Adam, a SOBO that we caught up to the day before. I was glad to have some time to get to know him a little better. He was a recent Standford graduate and a really interesting guy. We cooked our dinners outside on the porch, enjoying the beautiful weather and views.
This shelter was actually a proper lodge, fully enclosed with windows and a door that was hard to figure out how to open. The ancient latch was like trying to solve a puzzle, despite there being instructions posted. Taft Lodge was originally built in 1920 and was the largest and oldest structure along the LT. It had pretty interesting history that can be read here. I was a little leery about staying inside, but there were no nearby tenting sites. It wasn’t very full and we made sure to leave the windows open, to let the fresh air in. A few more people showed up after dark but everyone was pretty quiet and respectful. I planned to get a very early start the next morning to try to catch a mountaintop sunrise. Fingers crossed!