AT Day 81 – You’re Killing Me, Killington

White Rocks to Churchill Scott Shelter
Bad Corn Nuts Camp
to No Snow Sunset Camp
AT miles:
25.1
Total miles: 1711.6
Elevation change: 6493ft gain, 6460ft loss

For a couple of weeks now, there has been a growing concern in the back of my mind that last year’s snows might be lingering and waiting for me on the high peaks in the north. It is always a topic of conversation with the few hikers I meet, and we exchange the latest rumors about Quadzilla, the man leading the nobo charge. I heard he was post holing at 1mph. I heard that he picked up some snowshoes in The Whites. A couple of weeks ago, what Quadzilla was hiking through in Vermont and The Whites was of purely academic value. I refused, couldn’t, didn’t want to believe that I might encounter those same snows. He was far ahead, and there was no way that I had hiked fast enough to catch up with the final remains of winter. However, after seeing snow on Glastenbury, then Stratton, Bromley, and now Killington, I’m not so sure. I’m nervous. Giving into fearful rumors is a dangerous pastime during a thru-hike, and when I hiked the PCT, I learned to stand aloof of the fearmongering, which was all centered around forest fires back then. With the long awaited heat wave roasting New England in just the nick of time, I may very well miss significant snows in New Hampshire. That’s what I’m hoping for, at least. It’s the truth that I have been telling myself, and until I learn otherwise, it will be true until it is not.

Snow was far from my mind when my alarm snapped me from my restful slumber this morning. It was an hour too soon at least. Two hours too soon. I rolled from belly to back, trying to give waking up a shot, but not too hard. I kept my eyes closed as I wiggled my body to life and girded my mind for another day. It was all just stalling the inevitable, and I eventually cracked open a hazy gaze to the world outside.

Easy on the eyes and easy on the feet.

The sun was shining through the dense forest in slender beams, splashing across the trail haphazardly, when I started hiking. It was a beautiful scene, perfect for my tender, half-asleep state, and I appreciated the bouncy steps and quiet foot strikes on the deep, needled duff.

This trail was made for cruising.

After a mile of flat, the trail turned steeply, though not ungently, down into the blinding brightness of hardwoods. I made good time as I warmed up and woke up. Two passing day hikers excitedly told me that they’d seen a bear, but there was no sign of it that I could find. I crossed the rushing torrent of Bully Creek, then turned up Bear Mountain. The ascent was short, steep, and hot, and I was soon dripping and panting. However, I was happy to feel the heat that was hopefully melting snow by the foot further north. The walking from there was smooth and quick along a shallow valley of creeks and beaver ponds. I started to suck on Skittles one by one to keep my mouth closed in the heat and stretch my dwindling liter of water as far as I could.

The green and wobbly suspension bridge over Clarendon Gorge.

After filling up at the next shelter, which felt like a lumberyard amid piles and neat stacks of chopped wood, the trail guided me down to the roaring whitewater of Clarendon Gorge. I could hear it long before the flow came into view, at first struggling to hear it above the interruptions from a busy highway. But then the water’s roar grew to drown out even the noisiest trucks. A bouncing green suspension bridge carried me across the torrent and I stared down into the foam, wishing for a big stick to toss over the edge. Water, like the wind, is a force of nature that makes me uneasy when it reaches above a certain intensity, as it had here in Clarendon. It was too wild, powerful, and implacable. I watched the rapids with sick fascination before shivering and hiking on.

Does that look like a trail to you?

Holy moly, the climb up the other side was steep. Rocks, lots of rocks, jumbled in a narrow pile acted as an unrefined staircase for giants, and I struggled up step by step, feeling too hot and hungry for this kind of thing. A bundle of burgundy trillium gave me a welcome excuse to stop halfway up for a minute to catch my breath. Then even better, at the very top, on Beacon Hill I found two chairs waiting for me. I moved one of them to the shade, dropped my pack, and sat. It was time for lunch. I felt my sweat chill on my back, too cold at first, then just right, as I dug deep in my food bag.

I don’t know why the chair was there, or who carried it in. Thank you!

The uphill was not finished with me, but remained only gradual for the next few miles through an ever-changing forest. Beech to oak, oak to spruce, and back to beech again. Tiny white flowers littered the forest floor in the bright sunshine of the leafless portions, and green moss filled the shadows at the feet of the evergreens. I stopped one more time for water at the next shelter, then pushed on, ready for the big climb of the day.

An early season mess on Little Killington.

Not only was the trail up Little Killington steep, but it was also narrow and covered in downed limbs and trunks. The spruce forest was small and dense, closed in and dark. I was grateful for the shade as I worked my legs over large balls of exposed roots, and pumped my arms to give them all the support that they could offer. With no views to speak of through the wall of green, I couldn’t measure my progress except by the number of Skittles that I had eaten. It was a lot. I was climbing high.

Maybe you will posthole, maybe you won’t.

And then came the snow. It first appeared as it had before in small dirty patches hiding in the deep trough of the trail. But as I climbed higher, so did the drifts. Soon I was falling through the crust up to my ankles, then knees, then thighs. I followed the deep footprints of those ahead of me, Quadzilla, The Professor, and others, sometimes on top of the snow, sometimes in it. The trail flattened out just below 3,900ft and turned along the ridge to Killington, and when the snow persisted, I began to worry. Not for today, I would make it to camp sooner or later, but for The Whites maybe a week away. It was already going to be slow going through their rugged summits, and snow wasn’t going to help that one bit. C’mon heat wave. I returned my attention back to the present. The snow was deep and unstable, my feet were soaked, and the sun was getting low. With over four miles of flat ridge ahead before any significant elevation drop, I prepared my mind for a long evening.

Fortunately, the snow slowly diminished after passing the summit of Killington. I wasn’t sure why the change occured, but I didn’t dwell on it, and scooted as fast as I could along the dry trail. It was spring again, and spring felt good. When I reached the junction where I could choose to take either the old or new AT, I turned left away from the patches of snow lurking to the east. I had planned on going the other direction so that I could sleep on the ski slopes of Pico Mountain for an epic sunset and sunrise, but after all the snow on Killington, I went with the dryest route. Besides, if there was still snow beyond the ski slopes, then there would surely be plenty left in the place where humans like to have snow, right where I’d intended to camp. I wasn’t curious enough to find out, and gladly skipped down the dry western slope of Pico on the new AT.

It’s all worth it for a view like this one.

The golden yolk of the sun crashed through the branches of bare birch to the horizon of dusty ridgeline silhouettes. For the third evening in a row I was being treated to a golden farewell to the day, and I was grateful for that after an afternoon of sobering realizations. The white birch bark burned with the reflected glow of molten steel. Then the thin clouds above. I wandered over to the shelter, waiting empty for me under a sky of fire, and set up camp on the wooden floor after sweeping it clean. My ramen was already tender after an afternoon bath, but I started with my Oreos, finishing them off, finding comfort at bottom of the bag. The despair I had felt earlier when both of my knees were buried in the snow, was being painted over with optimism, which is perhaps my greatest asset. A mile of snow wasn’t so bad, and it was only hanging on because of the shady trees. The business peaks of The Whites are all above treeline, I’d heard, so maybe the snow up top was already gone. And that heat wave was coming too. That would melt it. And if it didn’t, and there was still snow, then I could handle it. Of course I could.

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