Winter hike of Mt Mansfield via Hellbrook Trail

In the parking lot about to head up Route 108 Scenic to the trailhead for our ascent of Mt Mansfield
About to begin hiking Mt Mansfield, with Route 108 Scenic in the background, and Mt Mansfield behind that. L to R: Mark, Sebastien, Vince, Ryan

I recently embarked on my second winter hiking expedition: a tour of Mt Mansfield, the highest mountain in Vermont, via Hellbrook Trail. This post will focus on trail conditions and required footwear since this was the major challenge of the hike.  If you would like to learn more and be informed about other helpful gear and food preparations, you may find it useful to read an earlier blog post about Ryan’s first-ever winter hike – a lovely experience exploring Cascade and Porter Mountain in the Adirondacks.

Summary
Mountain hiked:
Mount Mansfield, Vermont, USA (via Hellbrook Trail)
Elevation reached: 1200m (3937 feet)
Hiking time: 8.5 hours (round-trip)
Hiking distance: 4.2km (2.6 miles)
Essential gear: Snowshoes, micro-spikes, trekking poles
Recommended gear: Crampons, gaiters

Background
This hike is the first in a series of three winter hikes I will undertake with three friends (Mark Tyrrell, Vince Purino, and Sebastien Bire) during January and February 2017. Mt Mansfield is the highest mountain in Vermont and an easy 3 hour drive from Montreal. It is part of the Green Mountains of Vermont, which is part of the larger range of Appalachian Mountains which extends across much of the East Coast of North America. There are 11 major mountains in the Green Mountains, and Mt Mansfield is the highest of these. Its peak, known in hiking circles as “The Chin”, sits at 1339m (4393 feet). We selected Mansfield in mid-November after reading a few blog posts and trip reports online and discovering that it could be an excellent first group climb in our three-mountain hiking adventure. Over the next four weeks we will also climb Mt Lafayette, followed by a third and goal of Mt Washington. Both of these are in New Hampshire’s “White Mountains” which is also part of the Appalachian Mountain chain.

Getting there
We set out on Friday evening January 13 from Montreal, crossing the US border, and stopping for an unremarkable steak dinner at a restaurant in Plattsburgh, New York. Following that we crossed Lake Champlain on a ferry boat, by the light of the full moon, and entered the state of Vermont. From there, it was another two-hour drive to reach the town of Stowe. Stowe is a lovely ski town very popular with Montrealers and New Englanders, as well as many Americans from further down the East Coast looking for a great place to ski.

Overnight Accommodation
We stayed the night at the Northern Lights Lodge and we can recommend it as an option if you’re looking for accommodation in the area. See Ryan’s review on Trip Advisor. All four of us stayed in the room, with two guys for each double bed. Our total bill was US$200 for the night, with buffet breakfast included, so the lodging was quite affordable on a per-person basis.

Long Trail Trailhead at Mt Mansfield
Long Trail Trailhead at Mt Mansfield

Trailhead:
On Saturday morning, we avoided a potential disaster: Ryan dropped his passport outside and a friendly American dude found us in the parking lot and returned it just before we were due to leave the hotel. (Apparently this is not the first time Ryan has had the good fortune of having his passport returned to him while losing it during his travels. Scatterbrain! :P) In any event, a short drive from the Northern Lights Long along Route 108 took us to a parking lot adjacent to Stowe Mountain Resort.  Here we found plentiful (and free) parking for the day, from which we could start our hike up Route 108 Scenic to find the trailhead.

Free parking, at the bottom of Route 108 Scenic, from which you can access the trailhead for Long Trail and Hellbrook Trail

Our plan was to hike up the Long Trail from here to the summit of Mt Mansfield. The Long Trail is the longest hiking trail within the State of New York and, at its southernmost point, it links to the Appalachian Trail, which is one of the longest hiking-only trails in the world and runs through 14 states in the eastern half of the United States.

We forecast that the hike would take us up to 6 hours. We knew the Long Trail would be steep and felt that being in an un-exposed location would protect us from the chill and bite of the wind. With the recent warm temperatures and rain we were unsure how this would affect the snow or ice on the trail. Thus we prepared accordingly – we left our windbreakers in our packs, and brought appropriate footwear and walking gear: extra socks, good winter boots, micro-spikes (or crampons), snowshoes, gaiters, and trekking poles.

But, as we set out from the parking lot, we missed the trailhead for the Long Trail as it wasn’t well signposted from the road. If your plan is to take the Long Trail from this point be careful you don’t miss it! It is about 0.25 miles from the parking lot. As it is, we ended up walking too far along Route 108 Scenic, a highway which is closed in winter to vehicle traffic.

After 30 minutes of walking along Route 108 Scenic and no sign of Long Trail, we spotted a sign for “Hellbrook Trail”. We consulted one of our maps and determined that Hellbrook Trail was a viable option to reach the summit known as “The Chin” and connect back to the Long Trail (refer to the cut-out of the map above).

The trailhead for Hellbrook Trail is on the western side of Route 108 Scenic. The trail begins relatively flat and then ascends rapidly up the mountain.
Hellbrook Trail – Trailhead / Mt Mansfield, Vermont, USA

Hellbrook Trail is described by SummitPost, a hiking and mountaineering site, as the “steepest and most technically difficult route to the summit“. Certainly a challenging hike! We were up for it. We felt it would also be a useful learning experience for our upcoming Mt Washington climb.

Trail conditions, environment, and weather:
At the outset, the going was relatively easy. We walked through stands of birch and other trees and the mainly deciduous forest was largely clear of foliage. We were fortunate with the weather – the sky was blue and clear, the sun was shining mightily and the air was a crisp -15 degrees Celsius.

There was ample snow in the forest and it seemed as if the warmer temperatures a few days prior had not melted most of the snow covered nor had they left a significant amount of ice. The trail was covered completely with hard-packed, crusted snow, and we left shallow footprints as we walked for the first 15-20 minutes. Ryan opted to go without snowshoes or micro-spikes for this part.

Shortly afterwards the trail began to steepen.  Within a few minutes it became clear we would need to put on our micro-spikes.

Moving up the steep terrain was a lot easier with the micro-spikes and Ryan was extremely grateful to have had these. Sebastien had brought crampons (lucky guy!) and they provided him with a much deeper and firmer grip on the snow and ice. He is also a more experienced winter hiker and he took the lead and moved quickly through the forest, giving us a heads-up on challenges ahead.

On Hellbrook Trail, we encounter rock overhands and boulders the size of large houses. Navigating these would be fun and challenging in the summertime but in frigid winter temperatures it seems treacherous. With micro-spikes or crampons we can get a firmer footing on the icy rock, but one slip or misstep would result in a hard landing and almost certain injury. Slow and easy does it.
On Hellbrook Trail, we encounter rock overhands and boulders the size of large houses. Navigating these would be fun and challenging in the summertime but in frigid winter temperatures it seems treacherous. With micro-spikes or crampons we can get a firmer footing on the icy rock, but one slip or misstep would result in a hard landing and almost certain injury. Slow and easy does it.

It wasn’t long before we arrived at terrain which was more “technical” in nature. It can be characterized as technical because it was very steep and icy and requires careful navigation to avoid falling and hurting oneself. It would not have been possible to climb it without spikes or crampons. In addition, we had to scramble up on our hands, and sometimes our knees. Staying close to the ground like this lowers your centre of gravity and can aid in shifting directions rapidly or looking for things to hold on to – cracks or edges in the ice, rocks, tree branches or roots. This improves your stability and your ability to negotiate the steep terrain and move upward safely. When scrambling up icy terrain, every move must be considered carefully as it is sometimes difficult to move backwards to find an alternate route.

View of the valley, looking out over Stowe and out to the Green Mountain Range

Halfway up Mt Mansfield we are rewarded with our first of the valley below. Looking across the valley to the the horizon we can see some of the other peaks of the Green Mountain Range. The ski resort town of Stowe lies within that valley. We have so far been blessed with a clear day but a light cloud cover is beginning to roll in from the west. Sign of an approaching storm? We hope not!

After four hours, we were still climbing, and getting close to the summit of Mt Mansfield (or so we though). The slopes were steep and required us to dig in our front toes to get the snowshoe crampons to bite the icy crust of the snow and get a grip. It was a little nerve-wracking wondering if it would hold. Our feet were getting cold.  The theory (unverified) is that as we moved up the mountain, we were moving slowly and the blood was draining from our toes, causing them to be more vulnerable to the cold. As a diabetic, this is particularly perilous for Ryan as neuropathy is one of the clinical symptoms of the progression of diabetes – meaning he might not feel the onset of frostbite as quickly. In order to keep our feet warm, we stopped frequently, wriggled our toes in our boots, and whenever possible, we would turn and face downhill to enjoy the view, but more to allow the blood to rush back into our toes.

At this point, we reached announcing “Hellbrook Cutoff Trail”. This is exciting as we know that this is a milestone, and an indicator that we are close to the summit.

However, Sebastien, the most experienced winter hiker in our group, has actually been hiking ahead of us for quite some time scouting out the trail.
He spent the previous 45 minutes searching for the continuation of the trail and has had no success.

He reports that the blue markings which we have been following for the last 4.5 hours seem to have ended. Without them we would need to rely on a compass and our map to reach the summit and connect back to the Long Trail (see map inset). We knew that we were less than 500m hike from the Long Trail which would connect us to The Chin. So close! But as we look at the time and realize that it is nearly 1:30pm and the sun is due to set around 4:30pm, we become a bit concerned that we will run out of time.

Still, determined as we were, we did spend 30 minutes to see if we could find the continuation of the trail. We trekked through powdered snow, in the thick of a forest, with no trail, on a steep
mountain slope. Experienced hikers reading this have likely predicted our next challenge – “spruce traps“! These are large pockets of air in between the branches of trees which are covered with powdered snow. As you walk over them the snow collapses under your weight and you fall into the hole. Ryan was the heaviest member of the group and was the most prone to falling into the spruce traps. Luckily he did not fall into the spruce trap headfirst or beyond his waist! Snowshoes are helpful but not always effective if the spruce trap is large enough. Be careful about spruce traps, especially if you are hiking alone because it can be very difficult to extract yourself without assistance, and they can even be deadly. These are no joke.

It was at this point that we decided we would turn back and head down the mountain, abandoning our attempt to reach The Chin. We would later read online that our approximately elevation was 1200m at this point, about 139m below the summit. While the group was understandably disappointed in the outcome, we took solace in the fact that we had hiked a very steep trail under extremely challenging winter conditions.

View from the top of Hellbrook Trail
View from the top of Hellbrook Trail

As one would expect with a trail of this sort, the descent was as treacherous if not more so, than the ascent. We carefully navigated our way back down the mountain and reached the trailhead at about 4:45pm, just after sundown. In retrospect, we made the decision to begin the descent at precisely the right time. If we had waited any longer, we would have to tackle some difficult spots in the dark. Good move!

Relaxing hot tub moment at end of hiking day – Northern Lights Lodge, Stowe Vermont

Post-hike surprise and meal:
After the hike, we decided to stop off at Northern Lights Lodge where we had stayed the previous night and asked if we could use the facilities to change and refresh. We related to the desk clerk our attempt at climbing Mansfield via Hellbrook Trail and he was astonished – saying that very few people attempt this trail under winter conditions. He was happy to allow us to to make use of the hotel sauna, pool, and Jacuzzi which we did not have time to try the night before. This was a great opportunity for us to freshen up after a tough hike.

Later, once we felt warmed up and relaxed, we stopped for margaritas and beer and a hearty Mexican dinner at the Cactus Cafe in Stowe.

[facebook url=”https://www.facebook.com/StoweCactusCafe/photos/a.10150261211436189.371056.116658966188/10155014764606189/?type=3&theater”]


Reflections

Vince Purino: “This hike was certainly a humbling experience for me.  I have done many summer hikes before and train on a regular basis, but nothing prepares you more than the real deal.  I was quite confident climbing the Hellbrook Trail until the incline of the climb necessitated skill and the proper equipment.  There were 2 major deficiencies in my equipment that made my climb very difficult.  My brand new $40 dollar hiking poles both snapped in the -15 degree cold and my Tubbs’ touring snowshoes had poor grip in the hard and icy snow.  The result was me hurtling down the trail on a free fall only to be saved by my snowshoe getting caught in a tree.  It was very unnerving, but a lessen well learned.  Bring the right equipment (don’t be cheap to invest in reliable equipment) and test it before hitting a technical climb. Nothing prepares you more for a technical climb than a technical climb.  Next up , Mt Lafayette!”

Our goal was to reach the summit of Mt Mansfield, and although we were unsuccessful in achieving that, we did have a challenging and humbling (and still enjoyable) hike through the trees to an altitude of 1200m,  and learned a lot about some of the treacherous conditions that can be encountered on snow-covered mountain slopes. This hike was a very good practice run for our gear, our endurance, and our winter mountaineering skills.  Under summertime conditions, Hellbrook is considered a Class 2 trail, which means that there is a need for the occasional use of hands to scramble your way up the trail. Under wintertime conditions, who knows? We are proud of ourselves!

Our next hiking adventure is the weekend of January 27-29 when we will tackle Mount Lafayette in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Stay tuned!

Questions or comments about this trip or want to share your own experience on Mt Mansfield? Please use the form below! :)

Click here to read more hiking stories on Live Passionately.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *