This article previously appeared in the Winter 2019 Long Trail News.
We GMC staff members have heard mention of winter end-to-end Long Trail attempts for years. We thought there had to have been at least a couple of winter thru-hikers, but no one could name one. A Long Trail News archives search turned up former 1970s GMC President George Pearlstein, who has been called the first winter end-to-ender many times. However, further research revealed he did his hike in sections, not continuously. Other names also turned out to be section hikers; didn’t finish their winter trips; or didn’t hike on the Long Trail in winter at all. No dates of registered end-to-end hikes indicated winter thru-hikes of the Long Trail, either.
We asked Long Trail News readers to contact us if they knew of anyone who had thru-hiked the trail in winter and received two new names that did check out. We’d finally confirmed a successful winter Long Trail thru-hike—or more accurately, thru-ski.
What did it take? Apparently military mountaineer training and expert ski skills. Also, helicopter support.
In January of 1990, Sergeant First Class Pat Moriarty and Sergeant First Class Tom “Stony” Stone were “old men” in the Vermont National Guard at around age 40. Yet they were chosen for a recruiting mission on the Long Trail that winter.
Pat and Stony, senior instructors at the Army Mountain Warfare School in Jericho, routinely spent at least a week each month outside. Among other winter training, they had also gone through three weeks of mountaineering on Maine’s Mount Katahdin in winter with the entire cadre several years earlier. A Baxter State Park permit had required resumes and medivac capability. Climbs there depended on trust and guts. If your rope partner slipped off one side of the narrow and precipitous Knife Edge, your job was to jump off the other side to arrest the fall. Clearly, Pat and
Stony had what it took for the Long Trail in winter.
Recruitment along the Long Trail made sense because the trail passed through many ski areas where accomplished athletes—seen as potential recruits—could be found. The Guard arranged for Pat and Stony to ski down each mountain in the morning, get a few runs in, set up a table at the base lodge to meet people and hand out the recruiter’s cards, then take a lift back up to the trail. Good work if you can get it. Such a trip seems unimaginable these days.
Trust and Compatibility
Pat and Stony were already good friends, which would come in handy on an expedition of more than two months. “We called each other a lot of names, but it was all laughing and throwing snow and stuff at each other,” Pat said. “The bottom line is, when you’re doing something like this, you travel with somebody that if they say they’re on belay, you can forget about it—they’re on belay. And if they say they’re going to do something, they’re going to do it. Plus, skillset-wise we were fairly evenly matched.”
Pat insists no particular days were better or worse than others, and he tends to downplay any trouble at all. “Every day, sometimes every hour, every minute, there was a challenge of some sort or another.” They’d figure it out and continue on, no big deal.
A Supported Expedition
A winter thru-hike of the Long Trail is no mere hike, but an expedition. Once a week, a Huey helicopter found the adventurers and supplied food, fuel, radio batteries, and climbing skins, and removed trash, empty fuel canisters, and dead batteries. The Guard kept in touch with FM radios that worked via line of sight, with help from repeaters on Mansfield and Killington.
In especially cold weather, a windchill of -35 degrees F. or colder, a helicopter was sent to check on them every other day. With no planned meeting points, the pilot flew until their direction-finding radios’ signals intersected. A “jungle penetrator,” a heavy steel device pointed to pass through foliage without snagging and extract downed pilots in forested areas, lowered and lifted supplies and trash. Supplies descended in doubled duffle bags; trash rose the same way.
Pat and Stony spent most of their time on soft and wide 180 cm. Dynastar Yeti touring skis, and didn’t even take snowshoes (“We hated them!”). With Silvretta 401 bindings, Asolo winter mountaineering boots, and Leki adjustable ski poles, their setup worked well, except for their self-adhesive Silvretta mohair climbing skins, which repeatedly snapped under the strain. Pat and Stony went through around 150 pairs. It got so bad they sometimes had to improvise climbers with six meters of cordage tied in knots along the bottom of each ski.
Snowpack varied from boot top to knee depth on eighty percent of the trail. “If you’re used to mindlessly slogging along, it’s okay. If you are a true Nordic skier, you’d probably hate it. Probably one of the key things was we weren’t carrying that much weight on our backs. We would have had a hard time slogging through had we been carrying packs, but since we were dragging sleds, we had weight distribution which was better than a normal long-distance hiker might have.”
They pulled gear and supplies on Mountainsmith Armadillos, short hard-bottomed sleds with covers and long handles. For steep terrain they could fold the handles, converting the sleds to unwieldy backpacks. With a weekly load of fifty-five pounds, neither was eager to do that, though adjustments could balance weight over their hips. Instead, they used climbing ropes to surmount ledges or icy spots, then hauled the sleds up on ropes with z-pulleys anchored by trees. They resorted to that only about a dozen times, and only for short distances. They carried crampons and ice tools but used them only half a dozen times. “We tried to avoid the ice simply because of the factor of it’s tough on equipment and easy to get hurt on,” Pat recalled.
Staying on the Trail
As any winter LT hiker might wonder, how did they follow the trail? White blazes often disappear on snow-plastered trees, but Pat says there was still a “pretty discernible path even with snow on the ground,” although they did have trouble in the high-elevation spruce-fir zone. They used trail maps, National Geodetic Survey maps, Silva Ranger compasses, and Thommen altimeter-barometers so “not only could you take a shot at a hilltop” and triangulate, “you could also check with your altimeter-barometer and put you on the right contour line. … We never took a wrong turn. Massachusetts to Canada, we never, never got disoriented. Once again, we taught it for a living. I would have been more surprised had we been lost. Nobody in the military is ever lost; they are temporarily geographically embarrassed, but never lost.”
Warmth, Fuel, Hydration
They carried two North Face VE 25 tents, one a spare they never even unpacked. Said their boss at the time, “If you plan for emergencies, you’ll never have one.” Avoiding shelters, Pat and Stony set up their tent each night on any sunny flat spot, ideally with a natural windbreak. They packed down snow, set the tent, then dug a hole a foot and a half deep in the snow by the door. This let them sit comfortably to remove boots when entering, but more importantly, they could then crack the zipper along the floor so cold air would sink to the lower vestibule floor.
A space blanket hung on one side of the tent, and a lit candle lantern could raise the inside temperature from -10 degrees F. to 45 degrees F. in no time. “Many nights we’d sit for a couple hours and shoot the breeze in our underwear sitting on top of the sleeping bags.” Their -40 degree F. Wiggy’s sleeping bags had fast-drying and highly compressible Lamilite synthetic insulation, which had been tested for military use. Two sleeping pads, an Ensolite foam pad, and a self-inflating Therm-a-Rest rounded out their sleep systems.
They cooked supper daily on an MSR XGK multi-fuel stove with white gas, made more efficient by putting small square foil-covered foam pads under the stove and the fuel can, so they’d have
something warm in their stomachs at bedtime. Supper was usually the military cold weather oatmeal ration.
Dehydrated rations take a lot of water, but they were usually able to dig for water in brooks, and filtered it through Katadyn pumps for drinking. They seldom melted snow, which is time- and fuel-intensive and “lousy tasting.” The military had calculated that winter duty required 3,500 to 4,500 calories per day. Breakfast, lunch, and snacks were cold “pocket food” – nuts, trail mix, chocolate (“you never have too much chocolate”), small amounts of granola. They drank dried apple cider to avoid the diuretic effect of coffee. If the weather was really bad and they wanted a warm meal early, they stopped and made camp, cooking outdoors to reduce moisture in the tent. They found their food sufficient—neither man lost or gained weight, but it was redistributed,
mostly into their leg muscles.
Because Stony was a Special Forces Medic and Pat a registered EMT, they had “the emergency first aid kid from hell.” Fortunately, they didn’t need it much. They had no illnesses, and only minor injuries—rope burns, scratched faces from tree limbs, and the like. Pat rolled down some stone steps close to Mad River and banged up the back of his head. Stony twisted his knee at one point, but they “taped it all up, and he walked on like it never happened.”
“The military experience was probably good for us prior to going, because you’re used to working when you’re hurt, with sprains and strains, and tired,” Pat said. “Ranger school, you’re lucky if you got four hours of sleep a day for 68 days. You’re used to working when you’re nearly exhausted, and that helped on the Long Trail. And also recognizing some of the symptoms—when you start taking unnecessary risks or doing dumb stuff and not thinking through right, it’s time to pitch the tent. You need to get some sleep, get some food, and get your head screwed on straight so you don’t end up hurting yourself.”
Clothing and Hygiene
Both men had two sets of uniforms made of fast-drying ripstop nylon. Each had a very bulky Austrian Army issue wool sweater with a high collar— “We could stand outside at 50 below” in these. They wore fleece caps and gloves and mittens with detachable fleece inserts and carried both lightweight and expedition weight long underwear.
They applied extra dry antiperspirant to their feet beneath light polypropylene sock liners and extreme cold weather wool socks. “We could have two or three pairs of socks drying out inside our Gore-Tex while we were moving” using their pantyhose drying system. They put damp socks in the legs and feet of a pair of pantyhose and hung it around their necks under outer layers to dry by body heat, a trick learned from keeping IV bags warm.
Finally, each had a fleece pile “bear suit” that could really keep them warm—so much so, they almost never wore it. “The key, particularly in the wintertime, is not to overheat, so slow and steady with the minimal amount of clothing on for whatever the weather conditions are.”
Miscellaneous gear included candle lanterns (“We used the insert that burns fuel oil instead of candles—a much cleaner, smarter way to go and plus, you could go all night on one filling of fuel”), plastic sandwich bags (for cold feet, put a partial sandwich bag on your foot under your sock, just over your toes—this keeps in the heat while letting out perspiration), down-filled camp booties and a pair of Tingley rubber slip-ons for traction, and baby wipes—two per day.
They tried solar showers every few days for the first week or two, then said “the hell with it.” Still, the worst part of the trip for Pat was not being able to get clean. They always accepted happily when people they encountered invited them home to learn more about their trip. First they offered hot drinks, then hot showers. “People seem to be very gracious when you’re doing something nonintrusive, obviously putting some effort into it.” They never went to town but did stay in kind strangers’ homes about ten times. They met only a couple of dozen hikers away from ski areas.
“Planning ahead is key,” Pat said. “Once you’ve done all your planning, then go to somebody who hasn’t been in on any of the planning and ask them to shoot holes in it. The ‘what if ’ person. The other thing is: come to grips with some givens. You’re going to be tired, you’re going to get sick of walking, you’re going to get sick of setting up the tent, you’re going to have equipment failures, you’re going to have stuff to do, emergency repairs, you’re going to end up with minor injuries, you may or may not get sick while you’re on the trail.”
Pat’s and Stony’s matter-of-fact approach to a major adventure showed they were right for the mission. While especially noteworthy for the Green Mountain Club, for them their winter thru-hike of the Long Trail was just one of many adventures, solo and together.
Army Sergeant First Class Tom Stone was killed in Afghanistan in 2006 at age 52 in Operation Enduring Freedom, his third tour of duty in Afghanistan with the Vermont National Guard. He had previously set up small medical clinics for Afghan civilians that served thousands. While still based in the Upper Valley, where he grew up, Stony also spent 1992 through 2000 walking around the world—22,000 miles through 29 countries.
Master Sergeant Pat Moriarty retired in 2000, and still lives in the Mad River Valley where he grew up. He started teaching skiing at Sugarbush before retiring and continues to this day. He’s never done the whole Long Trail in the summer, but he might try it next year, now that he has a new right ankle.
Many thanks to GMC member Tom Aldrich, who informed us of this amazing journey and put us in touch with Pat.