It’s 6 below zero when Tom and I set out from Forest Road 55 in Granville to find the Clark Brook Trail. I’ve got 5 layers on top, two hats, two hoods. In my pack are extra socks, extra mittens, one more hat, two more top layers, two thermoses of hot tea, a liter of water, a small bag of trail mix, microspikes, and a headlamp. Tom’s pack is twice as big as mine. I think he’s got a campstove and a couple of sleeping bags in there, plus all the extra layers and snacks, a firestarter, hand and toe warmers, extra batteries, and an emergency tarp. The plan is to snowshoe up the Clark Brook Trail to the Long Trail, then follow the LT south to the Middlebury Gap where we’ve left my car. It's a little more than 7 miles.* We figure once we get up to the LT it’ll be mostly flat and relatively easy going, even if we don’t have tracks to follow. But Clark Brook Trail is an unknown. We’ve never explored this area before.
I sign us in to the register and notice that the last sign in was on December 9th. Looks like we’ll be breaking trail. We’ve had over two feet of snow since then. This is going to be work. Even so, we’ve got between 5 and 6 hours of daylight. Should be plenty of time if all goes as planned.
A few minutes in we see a sign that indicates we are, indeed, on the Clark Brook Trail. Off to a good start. It also says “WATER CROSSING .5 MI” at which point I remember noticing at the trailhead a sign warning hikers that the bridge is out. Things are interesting already.
After the water crossing I take the lead. I’m cold and I need the extra work of breaking trail to warm up. My toes are starting to bark at me and I know it’s easier to stay warm than get warm, so I begin to set an aggressive pace. The air is cold and my face is cold, but my core is toasty and as soon as I take the lead my heart rate goes up. There is an enormous difference between setting your feet in already packed snow and breaking trail. It takes about ten minutes for the blood to return to my toes. Much better.
It’s really beautiful in these woods. There’s not much undergrowth. It’s primarily beech, maple, and birch with the occasional century-old white pine rising out of unbroken snow. The trail is pretty easy to follow thanks to intermittent blue blazes and a common sense fall line. We only lose it once, but Tom finds it again almost immediately.
As we climb the snow deepens and things get much more difficult. We cross into some new alpine zone and gradually the woods change. More evergreens, much closer together, pinching us in from both sides. We take turns breaking trail now, switching it up every ten minutes or so. It begins to feel like interval training: pushing hard, quads screaming, heart smashing, sweat forming, hold it here, keep pushing, go anaerobic, then drop behind and take a break. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
From the trailhead to the intersection where we pick up the Long Trail is only three miles. I check my watch. We are moving impossibly slow. This is taking much longer than we thought it would. Still, it’s early, we have plenty of time. I don’t give voice to this thought, but I'm thinking we just need to get ourselves to the Long Trail, heave ourselves up to the top of this dang ridge and then we can reassess. I don't like the idea of not finishing this whole hike. I hope if we push hard we can get ourselves back to the Middlebury Gap as planned. Even if it means hiking the last couple of miles in the dark. We have headlamps. We can do it.
The snow is now close to three feet deep and the elevation gain is suddenly intense. Our snowshoes are small and each step sinks a dozen or so inches. Holy hell this is hard. Every step is a Herculean effort and I am not suffering silently. Despite Tom’s offers to take a turn breaking trail for awhile, I am still in front. Grumbling and swearing, I chide myself loudly for my mule-like unwillingness to yield. This hike is kicking my ass. I can hear Tom right behind me, chuckling. I am convinced we are close to the top so I refuse to give it up. I am stubborn and competitive and I’ll be damned if I’m going to turn over the lead to Tom only to have him reach the intersection first.
This thought, naturally, cues the forces of the universe that lie in wait for prideful humans to forget their place in nature.
All at once, we are decidedly in serious moose country. Huge tracks everywhere. Moose have not only been through here, they hang out here. Pooping, peeing, chomping off the ends of pine boughs, lounging. The woods are incredibly dense. Tom and I agree that if we somehow come upon a moose we are absolutely without a doubt 100% fucked. No one is moving anywhere fast through this hip deep snow. Not that we could outrun a moose anyway. But we sure as shit couldn’t move out of its way if it decided to come at us. We start making a lot of noise, just in case Mr. Moose hasn’t heard us clomping up the hill from a mile away already.
It’s at about this point that Tom’s left calf goes twang.
We’ve been hiking nearly three hours and have covered less than three miles. The writing has been on the wall for awhile. I have already silently conceded that we are unlikely to complete this hike as planned. A new replacement plan is needed: get to the Long Trail, drink some hot tea, take in the view, and then head back. In light of this new development, abandoning both the original plan and now the new plan takes no thought at all. This is an easy decision. But it also fills my mouth with bitter disappointment.
The first few minutes of the hike down are a little unsettling. Now that we’re no longer climbing I’ve gone almost instantly from toasty warm and breathing hard to damn cold. And Tom can’t exactly limp at a keep-yourself-warm pace. I find myself jogging down the trail, then turning around and jogging back to him. How you doing? He's moving slow but looks cheery enough. Okay, I’ll be right back. I jog down the trail awhile, turn around, jog back. Still okay? Warm enough? He assures me he's doing fine. Off I go. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Back at the truck we struggle to make our fingers work. Snowshoe bindings won't budge. Can't unclip backpack straps. Zippers won't unzip. Fingers fumbling for keys. Can't unlock door. Must start engine. So cold, so cold, so cold. Trying to move faster makes things worse. Drop keys in snow. Can't do it with mittens on but fingers won't work to take mittens off. So cold, so cold, so cold. Whoa, I'm thinking, are we really going to freeze to death outside this truck right now? It takes four hands and 20 numb fingers working together to unlock the truck, fit the keys in the ignition and get the truck started. We climb in and sit on our hands and wait for the feeling to come back. The outdoor temperature reads -1. It's 3:30.
I know we are lucky to be back safe. But if I'm being completely honest, I'm frustrated about having to cut the journey short. I get a little quiet and kind of stew in our foiled attempt for a minute. I need to remember, though, that it was at the precise moment I was digging in my heels and holding fast to the stupid prideful course, nature reminded me that she is in charge, not me. Hmmm. Okay. I feel like I've been on the receiving end of this message before. Perhaps now the lesson is learned.
I run this "lesson learned" idea by Tom. He doesn't even pause. Yeah, but, you didn't. Learn the lesson, he means. He knows me so well.
*Footnote: Turns out the map figuring was a little off. We discover later that if we had completed the entire hike as planned it would have been more like 11+ miles. Woops. That overnight emergency equipment Tom insists on carrying everywhere might have come in handy after all.