STOWE, Vt. -- Sweat pours from my face as I squeeze through a narrow chasm of rock, looking for the next tree root to grasp and haul my body upward. My feet dangle helplessly as they try to find traction on the slippery surface. I finally make it to semi-level ground and look across at the sharp cliffs carved out of Smugglers' Notch. We're slowly making headway on the Hell Brook Trail.
It has been eight years since I last tackled Vermont's highest peak, Mount Mansfield. I remember it being a steep but steady ascent, a formidable challenge but certainly no rite-of-passage climb like mighty Katahdin in Maine or the highest ascent in New England, Mount Washington in New Hampshire. I had spent the summer of 1995 climbing many of the region's noteworthy peaks for a book I was writing. After a while, no climb fazed me. Hikes up 4,000-footers became as effortless as strolling Beacon Hill.
Fast forward to the present where I seem to be doing far more of my reporting from theme parks with my children, ages 7 and 5. Indeed, the weekend before climbing Mansfield, I was downing mounds of french fries at Six Flags. Obviously, my body is not nearly as fit as it was when working on that book. In fact, my ankle is still swollen from slipping into a pothole in Chicago with my daughter atop my shoulders; I really should have taken care of that partially torn meniscus cartilage some two years back after tripping over my shoelaces while running; and my lower back feels the discomfort of not having a new mattress since the last time I climbed Mansfield. (It is, however, a good kid trampoline.)
I needed a gut check. I had to head back to Mansfield and see if this body of mine could still cut it. I decide to up the ante a little to make it feel like a real challenge. I will go on the steepest ascent with a local extreme sports enthusiast, David Bradbury. The last time I met Bradbury, he was starting a polo club in nearby Burlington, where instead of horses they were using mountain bikes to play the game. He climbs Mansfield in the winter at sunrise to snowboard down Stowe Ski Area before the lifts are running.
"I like to make first tracks," he says.
For additional winter bliss, Bradbury snowshoes up other Green Mountain peaks like Mount Abraham and Lincoln and then speeds down them on a sled for 45 minutes straight. It's almost impossible to stop except by hurtling into a tree. Yep, this is the man I have to climb a mountain with if I want to test my mettle -- and never mind that we're both in our 30s.
There are many ways up Mansfield. You can try the Long Trail south from Route 108. Or take the Laura Cowles and Sunset Ridge trails from the backside at Underhill State Park, as I did the last time. You can even drive the toll road or hop in a gondola, which leave you on Long Trail a short distance from the summit. We would have none of that.
Hell Brook Trail starts from Route 108 at about 1,900 feet, and 1.3 miles later, you've hit the 4,000-foot mark. The unrelenting climb up a ridge is a favorite of locals, as evidenced by the number of Vermonters listed in the logbook at the trailhead. Just a scant few flatlanders (Vermonters' term for out-of-staters) are noted. On a Monday in mid-July we would see no other people until hitting the Long Trail up top.
Less than a hundred yards into the climb, I'm already huffing and puffing, wondering whether I should bail, maybe hit the nearby Ben & Jerry's factory for a dose of New York Super Fudge Chunk. But I'm too proud, so my legs continue to churn onward. Bradbury forces me to stop and take many breathers, reminding me often that "he doesn't want to peel me off the mountain and carry me out of here." Eventually I catch my breath, relax a bit, and start to savor the surroundings. Views of Smugglers' sheer face of rock keep us company throughout the climb. We can hear the high-pitched call of a peregrine falcon who nests in the notch during the summer.
Every so often the sinuous trail curves under overhanging boulders and then goes straight up slabs of rock, where you have no choice but to find an extended root or etching in the stone to dig your nails into and pull yourself up. After squeezing through one of these passages, I notice that my backpack is open and my camera is missing. Oh no, I think, I can't possibly slide down and do this all over again. Fortunately, Bradbury does exactly that, and soon comes bouncing back, camera in tow.
The day is humid and overcast, giving us glimpses of Spruce Peak and the uninterrupted forest across the way before clouding up. White birches lead to a coniferous forest that is lush green with slickened ferns and mosses. About 90 minutes into our climb or at the 1.3-mile mark, we reach the so-called Adam's Apple of the mountain. There's also the Forehead and Nose of Mansfield, but for some reason the Chin, at 4,393 feet, is the highest point.
"Must be one of those Yankee chins," says Bradbury.
Two-tenths of a mile later, we meet up with the Long Trail and head south for an above-tree-line jaunt to the summit. The wind is blustery and rain drizzles on us. As for those panoramic views, we're totally socked in. If my memory is correct, eight years ago in this same spot I could look out and see Lake Champlain and New York's Adirondack Mountains to the west, Jay Peak to the north, Mount Washington to the east, and the backbone of Green Mountain ridges that makes up the state-long Long Trail to the south.
Bradbury lets me enjoy my moment of glory and I gobble down a turkey sandwich before attempting the descent. For a person with a sore ankle and a knee on the mend, heading down a steep mountainous pass is about as much fun as going into the ring with Lennox Lewis. Each jump down is a little jab to the solar plexus that quickly exposes your body's weaknesses. We take the rock-littered Profanity Trail, an apt name for a slicing gully where I find myself spewing expletives as I gingerly make my line. Twice I slip and stop my fall by hugging the trunks of pine trees.
Thankfully at Taft Lodge, a rustic cabin built in 1920 for backpackers, we switch onto the much wider and more gradual Long Trail north. The next 1.7 miles are a thigh-burning exercise in stamina, yet knees and ankles pull though magnificently. The forest reverses in order from spruces to birches to maples.
I hobble out of the darkness back into the sunshine of Route 108, walking toward the car we left behind some five hours earlier. A smile is plastered on my face. Sure, my legs will be stiff for a week and I will be sucking down Advil like M & Ms, but I can still climb these peaks. No, I'm not quite ready to give up hiking, mountain biking, or any of my other silly pursuits and head to pasture. For an outdoors writer, that means moving on to fishing.
Newton-based writer Stephen Jermanok's latest book is "New England Seacoast Adventures" (Countryman).