This article was written by Keith Kimball. Keith is a passionate backpacker and winter climber. He is a multiple-time Long Trail hiker, completing two back-to-back end-to-ends in 1990, again in 1998, in addition to a fifth hike in winter 1995. He has also completed multiple end-to-end hikes of the Appalachian Trail (five), Pacific Crest Trail (three), John Muir Trail (four), and Colorado Trail (two). Some of his extensive winter climbs outside of Vermont include climbing trips of Mount Washington, NH, Mount Shasta, CA, Mount Lassen, CA, Mount Adams, WA, and Mount Saint Helens, WA. Keith currently lives in Chesapeake, VA, and recently retired as a Sergeant First Class after 20 years in the US Army. He plans to hike the Continental Divide Trail this year.
In 1993, my friend Steve first suggested a winter thru-hike of the Long Trail. Steve was from Vermont and also an accomplished thru-hiker. After returning from a 600-mile winter hiking trip from West Virginia to Manchester Center, Vermont, Steve suggested that a group of accomplished thru-hikers together could thru-hike the Long Trail in winter. The challenge was appealing to me, so the seed was planted.
It wasn’t until two years later, in January 1995, that I set out to winter thru-hike the LT. Just three months prior, I had completed my fourth hike of the entire Appalachian Trail. The year earlier, I had completed my first thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail. And in 1990, I completed a yo-yo of the Long Trail (hiking the entire trail to one end, then turning around and hiking it back to the beginning). I told myself a long time ago that when it comes to adventures, I could spend my life waiting for others or I could just do it. I had hoped several other hikers would join in if they saw me planning the winter LT hike. The cold has a way of persuading all but the most diehard hikers to remain inside.
Planning for a winter thru-hike of the LT was different than any of my previous backpacking excursions. Vermont’s winters presented several unique challenges: brutal temperatures, route finding, breaking trail through miles and miles of snow, a heavier backpack, dehydration, snow showers, and the complete isolation from nearly all civilization, to name just a few. In sub-zero temperatures, the last thing you want to do is spend extra time setting up or breaking down camp. Instead of focusing solely on pack weight, efficiency had to take priority. A large backpack is more weight to carry, but easier to pack up with frozen hands. A second cooking pot is extra weight, but offers greater flexibility when melting snow or ice for water or when preparing hot meals. Additional fuel, a second pair of gloves, extra food in case of bad weather – these are all a must in winter hiking.
My choice to head southbound came after learning that Vermont’s ski resorts were reporting low snow levels that season. Since the northern portion of the Long Trail is more rugged than the southern half, the farther south I could travel before a heavy snowfall, the greater my odds would be of success. A northbound thru-hike from the VT/MA border would result in traveling through several weeks of additional snow in the harder sections, or at least that was my reasoning.
So why would anyone leave a warm house only to put on a backpack and hike in fridge-like temperatures? It is a question that I have been asked many times. All I can say is, it felt good to be back in the Green Mountains, even during the winter wonderland. On a snowy January 3, 1995, my friend Dave gave me a ride to the Journey’s End Trail and the start of my adventure. It didn’t take long before I stood at the northern terminus of the LT.
On day one, I focused on getting acclimatized to winter trail life. Backpacking with snowshoes does take some adjustment – snowshoes require hiking with a wider than normal stride. The first couple of miles were fairly easy traveling over rolling terrain in a foot of untouched powder snow, and more snow accumulated throughout the day. I reached my destination for the night before dark fell.
On day two, snow continued to fall from the sky. The trail climbed up towards Burnt Mountain and over Jay Peak Resort’s gondola. Climbing up was a slow and difficult trek. Snow depths varied depending on where the wind blew. In some areas as little as a foot of snow was on the trail. In other places, multiple feet would create a steep drift to scramble up.
As I approached the top, the trail opened up to present a cloudy view looking down on Jay Peak Resort. But as I approached the view, the trail abruptly ended overlooking a cliff. There was no sign of the trail anywhere. What made it worse was there was also no way to get down! I retraced my steps only to walk fifty feet and see a white blaze. I was on the LT. I hiked back and forth multiple times desperately trying to figure out where the trail went, to no avail.
After several minutes, I dug out my map and compass to figure out which direction to head. As I stood there, it started to get COLD! The wind was also picking up as the sun was going down, and darkness was fast approaching. I had to take shelter, and fast! It was not ideal but several downed trees created a natural barricade, providing at least some protection from the high winds.
After setting up camp, I realized that my boots were frozen solid to my feet! No matter how hard I tried, I could not get my boots off! I tried pounding on my boots just to break the ice and still could not get them off. I used my stove to boil up hot water to dump right on my boots just to break the ice. My feet were ice cold at this point and I got in my sleeping bag to try to warm up while making more hot water. My feet were not in good shape. As soon as my hands touched my feet, my hands were instantly cold too. I created several hot water bottles that night to use to rewarm my feet gradually.
The high winds never stopped that night. The only thing I could do was stay put and hope for the best. At the base of Jay Peak, it was 25 below 0. On top, it was an insanely freezing night.
It was a rough night and morning could not come soon enough. At first light, I could see the Jay Peak ski gondola in the distance. The trail that I had hiked back and forth was a view trail. My map showed that was the direction I needed to head. After half a mile of going over, around, and under multiple blow-downs, I was able to find the trail again.
Above timberline, the wind had blown off most of the snow and ice. When I took two steps forward, the wind blew me one step back. I was finally able to make it over Jay Peak and down to the ski resort. Dave came to pick me up for a well-needed chance to warm up and take a rest day. With the rough start to my journey, it would have been easy to give up and go home, but that’s not who I am. There were still places I wanted to see and only one way to get there – one foot in front of the other. After a good night’s sleep, I returned to the trail and continued my trek southbound.
The lower elevations provided tree cover, which helped to block the wind, but also presented a different challenge. As I brushed through snow-covered trees, piles of snow would fall on top of me. I called it my snow shower. After multiple snow showers, even Gore-Tex would just freeze solid. During my first winter backpacking trip in Vermont, I had walked around like an iceman, so I later learned to wear a poncho. The snow slides right off the poncho without having a chance to freeze.
My first town stop was Stowe. By coincidence, while resupplying I ran into two hiking friends. Dave and Lettice were working at a nearby ski lodge over the winter. When they noticed a guy walking around town with a backpack, they decided to stop and investigate. It was a surprise to all three of us! I stayed with them for a few days, hiking small sections while staying with them at night when possible. I still carried full gear to spend the night out, in case I could not make it back to the lodge. After a long day of hiking in the snow, a chance to stay in a warm lodge felt like heaven.
The next town was Jonesville – the psychological half waypoint. Jonesville had no services to celebrate with except a Post Office, so to replenish my supplies, I traveled to Waterbury. It was a quick hitch in the morning and back out by noon. A longer stay would have risked being stranded in town with no place to stay. This was also the start of my longest stretch between resupply points. I only made it a couple of miles outside of town before having to make camp in the snow.
By this point, I had gotten into somewhat of a routine. Morning always seemed to come too soon, even after spending twelve to fourteen hours inside a sleeping bag. I started my day by melting up snow and ice for breakfast and enough water to hike until lunch. If I was inside a shelter, I would prepare a trash bag filled with snow the night before to limit my trips outside of my warm sleeping bag. Because daylight is very limited in the winter, I tried to get an early start the first chance I could see the trail.
My morning also started with trying to find out what the weather was going to do that day. On bad days, limited visibility made hiking nearly impossible. Any attempt would risk my getting lost or hiking in circles.
Packing up everything when the temperature is below 0 degrees is never easy. The faster I could pack up, the sooner I could warm up on the trail. Sleeping bag, stove, food, etc all had to be stored in my backpack. A cold second breakfast, lunch, and snacks were packed inside my jacket’s inner pocket to keep them from freezing. My stove was left for last to be packed on top, accessible to melt snow during the day.
Finally, I’d fasten on gators and snowshoes, remove extra layers of clothing, and start hiking for the day. The first couple of steps were always the hardest. Even in the extreme cold, hiking around in snowshoes, carrying a 35-45 pound backpack, and breaking trail with every step, it is very easy to overheat. A single mile hiked in winter feels the same to me as hiking four on a normal thru-hike. Every step is like doing the StairMaster – the farther I sank down into the snow meant I’d have to step that much higher on the next stride.
Just as important as eating is staying hydrated. Even when I was not thirsty, I still made sure I was drinking enough. Streams, springs, and lakes were almost always frozen. For lunch, I’d stop to make more water. I tried carrying enough water for a whole day of hiking initially, but found I was either not drinking enough or carrying too much water weight. Stopping to melt more water also provided a good way to break up the day.
After lunch, I headed for the closest shelter. Navigation is difficult in the snow in the daytime, but at night it’s even worse. Shelters provided protection from both the elements and deadfall. A real danger in winter hiking is falling trees and widowmakers. Widowmakers are large limbs hanging in the trees, ready to fall on anyone unfortunate enough to be below them. The high winter winds made the danger even worse. Although shelters didn’t offer complete protection from the snow, they did at least provide cover from widowmakers.
If a shelter was unavailable by nightfall, the largest blowdown I could find became my home for the night. It provided at least some protection from additional deadfall that might come down during the night. It wasn’t always an ideal campsite, but it did provide a certain charm as the snow lit up while preparing an evening meal. Fortunately, I never had a tree or limb fall on me.
At dark, my day was not over. I still had to cook dinner, melt snow for water, and prepare for the night. A big difference between winter and summer hiking is that boiling-hot water freezes to ice within only a few minutes. Instead of cooking a large dinner meal, I cooked the meal in two parts. While eating the first half of my dinner, I melted more snow for water to get ready for the second half, and for rehydrating. It was a better alternative than eating half a meal frozen.
The Home Stretch
My next stop would be where the Long Trail is joined with the Appalachian Trail, a section I knew very well. It was an incredible feeling, first seeing the AT/LT Junction sign and then the Long Trail Inn! I was now 100 miles from the terminus and only 50 miles away from completing the LT as a winter section hike!
Climbing up Killington gave me one of the few opportunities on this trek where someone else had already broken trail to the summit! Two former Appalachian Trail thru-hikers suffering from cabin fever had hiked up for the night. We met near the top of Killington and all of us were very surprised to see someone else hiking on the trail. After spending several minutes talking, I moved on to hike my longest day of the trip – 17 miles!
My next stop was Manchester Center. Manchester Center offered me a chance to warm up and call my friend Bob and his girlfriend Karine. Both Bob and Karine lived in the Manchester Center area, but I got into Manchester Center too early in the morning and Bob was surprised by my phone call. Reaching Manchester Center completed a winter section hike of the LT for me, and left only 50 miles to complete my thru-hike! That day I went from hiking in an icebox to soaking in a nice hot tub! It was just what I needed to recharge my batteries and mark the occasion.
After spending a few days with Bob and Karine, it was time to finish the last 50 miles. It was also time to start thinking about finding a way back home to Pennsylvania. Karine was doing daily drives south and could get me closer to getting home, so instead of hiking the last 50 miles southbound, Karine dropped me off near the Long Trail’s Massachusetts/Vermont border to finish the final stretch northbound.
This was my second-time winter hiking north to the tree-covered VT/MA border. I headed northbound from the sign marking the southern terminus of the Long Trail, through miles of snow shower after snow shower. More than any other place on the trail, the snow and high winds blasted everything in sight.
Seth Warner Shelter, the first shelter in Vermont, was an icebox. Several inches of snow already laid inside, and with the shelter opening facing the swirling winds, additional snow continued to blow in.
The next shelter was Congdon Shelter. In the past, I’d known Congdon Shelter as a four-sided cabin with a wood stove. On my cold journey, it was heartbreaking to see the cabin had been turned into a three-sided lean-to and the stove removed.
Hiking in snow limits what you actually know about the trail underneath all that powder. After hiking over Stratton Mountain, I came to Stratton Pond, but in the winter, a pond looks the same as any snow-covered open area. With all that snow on top, there is no way of knowing how frozen a pond is, or more importantly, how safe it is to walk on top of it. The trail around Stratton Pond was made up of bog bridges – logs split in half to provide a safe passage across muddy areas. That winter, the bog bridges were covered in snow and too narrow to walk across with snowshoes. I stayed as close to the edge of the pond as I could until I made it to safe ground.
A Final Storm
The next day, a cold front came in. The temperature dropped, the wind picked up, and the snow fell hard. Navigation was almost impossible. William B. Douglas Shelter was half a mile off the trail. It was not ideal to stop, but it was better than hiking around blind. It never did stop snowing that day, or the next day, or the next day. I found out later that an off-season hurricane had come in.
It snowed for the next three days and my tracks coming into William B. Douglas Shelter were completely gone. On the fourth day, I was low on supplies and completely out of fuel. No fuel meant no way of making water, so I had to get moving. It finally did stop snowing, but the high winds and fresh snow did not help navigation either. It was only 5 miles before reaching Manchester Center and the end of my journey, but it was the hardest 5 miles I ever hiked.
Getting to Route 11 & 30 could not come soon enough for me. My journey had come to an end. As soon as I reached the road, the third car stopped to offer me a ride. By luck, a couple from New Jersey was up on a ski trip. After the snowstorm that just came through, they could not have come at a better time for skiing. As for me, I was heading home!
In the end, there was no fanfare or even a party to celebrate. None of that mattered. I was home, exhausted, and finally able to sleep in a nice, warm bed!