Another dip into the archives for a great pre-pandemic hike in Vermont!
The plan? Climb Equinox Mountain in southern Vermont – in the dead of winter. The forecast? Partly cloudy and 36°F.
Those were the stats on Thursday, January 22 before we left to drive north. Lisa had Friday meetings in New York, and I joined her so that we could continue on to Vermont to do some weekend hiking. It was less than four hours from The Big Apple to The Green Mountain State and winter hiking heaven. We checked in to a quaint motel in the middle of Manchester, Vermont, a charming New England village about 25 miles north of the Massachusetts border. Once settled, we flicked on the TV to check the weather. The forecast had changed. The projected high for the next day had dropped by 10° and the “partly cloudy” skies were now going to be discharging snow. The temperature was not an issue. The snow? That could make a significant difference in a 2,900-foot climb. We looked at each other and shrugged. We were 375 miles from home. What were we going to do? Not hike? Yeah, right.
We awoke early on Saturday morning, dressed and headed into Manchester Center to get some breakfast. We climbed the stairs to Up For Breakfast, a tiny but locally well-known breakfast joint. The place was small, but also warm and inviting. Soon, we were sipping steaming cups of coffee and perusing the menu.
Mini-Review: Up for Breakfast is a fantastic place to load up before climbing a mountain in the snow. I had a stack of blueberry pancakes smothered in butter and maple syrup. Blueberry pancakes are my hands-down favorite breakfast, so I fancy myself an expert. No disappointment here. They were everything a pancake should be: light, fluffy, and golden brown. Lisa had Eggs Benedict and was equally pleased. On the side was homemade corned beef hash and venison sausage. Both delicious. Up For Breakfast garners some less than stellar reviews on TripAdvisor for unpleasant service. Ours was perfectly delightful. Arrive early – they don’t take reservations.
Food: ★★★★½ Everything Else: ★★★★
At 8:55 AM. we were standing at a kiosk in the woods in southern Vermont, but we might as well have been inside a snow-globe. The woods were frosted with a glistening coat of new powder, and pristine flakes were tumbling steadily from an ashen sky. The scene was as perfect as that in any Christmas film from the 1940s, except we were not about to break into song or dance. We were about to slip on MICROspikes and push uphill through the fluff toward the summit of Mount Equinox. Not sure if that is song-worthy, but ….
We started upward.
A short ways beyond the kiosk was a blazed post. We had a choice – The Red Gate Trail or the Blue Summit. The Red Gate Trail veers south towards Equinox Pond, a serene tarn in the southeast corner of the 914 acre Equinox Preserve. We wanted the Blue Summit Trail – the only one that goes to the summit.
We reached another blazed post, turned right to stay on Blue Summit, and our path began to steepen. We were trudging through eight inches of powdery snow and frequent stops to rest. We only had three miles to go, so we were in no hurry. We found ourselves gaining on a hiker in a bright red jacket. He was moving slowly up the trail. Every hundred yards or so he would pull an orange plastic flag from his pack and plant it in the snow along the trail. His intention seemed clear: marking the trail so it could be found a few hours later on the descent. The rapidly falling snow was quickly obscuring footprints, and the trail was only marked at junctions. Lisa and I looked at each other. Were we foolish to have embarked on this climb without such measures? It’s always wise to be prepared, but, despite the falling snow, the trail was wide and clear. The woods were dense to either side and the mostly unbroken trail ahead was easy to follow. Throughout our trek, we saw several other hikers easily navigating without the use of flags. We soon overtook the flagman and struck up a conversation. Robert Hauptman may have been a little slower than us, but he was no slacker. At 73, he was climbing a mountain in a snowstorm. He was also no stranger to hiking and mountain climbing. During our conversation, we learned that he had co-authored three books on mountaineering, including one called The Mountain Encyclopedia. Nagging doubts about our flaglessness crept back into our minds.
What was not in doubt was Mr. Hauptman’s skill at conversation. He deftly juggled his trail work all while introducing a myriad of thought-provoking topics and soliciting our opinions. We hiked with Robert for the better part of a mile discussing all things hiking and mountain related. He was a fascinating man, and we were torn between wanting to move a little more rapidly and the engaging discussion. Eventually, we made our excuses and pushed ahead, leaving the author alone with his flags.
As we approached the summit, the flora began to change. A forest of hardwood was left behind and replaced with a marshmallow world of snow-laden evergreens. We entered a landscape that looked as if it had been drawn by Dr. Seuss. The snow hung off the pine boughs in great cartoonish dollops, weighing the branches down so they pointed toward earth instead of sky. The snow had temporarily stopped falling, and the scene appeared virtually black and white, so deep was the contrast between pine and snow. An extraordinarily palpable silence enveloped us in the a small clearing where we stood. Lisa was verklempt. I spoke to her. Her mouth moved in reply, but no sound came out. We looked around. No vestiges of the outside world invaded our sanctum. No movement. No sound, save the occasional soft thump as snow slipped off a branch and into the deep drifts below. It was some time before we moved on. When we did, it was with a new reverence, one that cannot be discovered without experiencing moments of solitude in nature’s cathedral.
The trail leveled out and wended through the trees before emerging into a clearing. We had reached the summit! Across an open field stood the Saint Bruno Scenic Viewing Center. The center was closed, but we sought refuge on the covered porch. There was no refuge. The wind was howling and the temperature at the summit was in the teens. We peered longingly through the windows. It looked dry and warm. My fingers were starting to go numb and I fished in my pack for some gloves.
Temperature drops relative to elevation. This drop can be calculated at a rate of approximately 3.5°F for every 1000’ of ascent. In our case that equation resulted in a 10.5° degree drop from our base temperature in Manchester. It was probably about 15°F at the summit.
Summitpost.org claims that, from the Saint Bruno Viewing Center “The view includes the rest of the Taconic Range, the Green Mountains, the Valley of Vermont, and the Adirondacks on a clear day.” We can confirm none of that. Through swirling snow and fog we could see the dark outline of a lesser peak to the north and the faded landscape of a western valley. There is a short spur to Lookout Rock, a promontory that boasts even more spectacular views but seemed like a fool’s errand under current conditions. Also, we never found the trail. I will begrudgingly note that the viewing center can be reached by car via Skyline Drive … but not in the winter.
The hike out was considerably easier. With every footfall, our boots slid an extra 3 or 4 inches down the mountain, while the deep snow provided stability and helped us maintain balance. The effect was a delightful, downward romp that felt like a combination of skiing and walking on the moon. We probably covered the 3-mile return trip in half the time of our ascent. Soon we were back at the kiosk and then at our car where we stripped off our spikes and gators before hopping in and heading back to town.
We’re sure Mount Equinox is a fantastic hike in the summer. We would have loved to gaze at the mountain ranges of Vermont and New York from Lookout Rock on a bright, sunny, warm afternoon. That said, don’t shy away from this route in the winter. For peace and quiet, solitude, and unparalleled winter woodland charm, this hike could not be beat. ♦
Robert Hauptman co-authored the following books on mountaineering:
Deadly Peaks: Mountaineering’s Greatest Triumphs and Tragedies
The Mountain Encyclopedia: An A to Z Compendium of Over 2,300 Terms, Concepts, Ideas, and People
Grasping for Heaven: Interviews With North American Mountaineers
Date: January 24, 2015
Location: Manchester, VT
Trailhead: 43.162227, -73.084395
Distance: 6.43 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,880 feet
Difficulty: Strenuous (based on conditions)
BIT|Hiker acknowledges the Indigenous peoples who are the original inhabitants of the lands on which we hike. Our research for this post indicated we were on ancestral lands of the Mohican and Abenaki.