October 31, 2011
EARLY WINTER ON MOUNT MANSFIELD
EAST MONTPELIER, VT – Five of us trudged northward on the Long Trail across the ridge of Mount Mansfield, about 4000 feet above sea level and about 1000 feet above the cloud ceiling. There were magnificent views all around us, but we could see at most perhaps 300 feet in any direction. A weather forecast of occasional showers and gradual clearing by afternoon had enticed us up onto the ridge – the camera crew had come all the way from Durham, New Hampshire, and spent the night near Stowe – but the forecast must have been for some other part of the globe. Fresh, semitransparent snow glazed the plank duckboards with a slippery jelly, and I found myself walking with tiny, stiff-legged steps, like Hercule Poirot.
I’ve discovered on long canoe trips that on a dodgy day, a little extra breeze always precedes and accompanies a fresh shower; and so it was up there. A brief spell of gently blowing fog (which always clouds my spectacle lens on the windward side) would give way to a fresh breeze bearing frozen rain and swirling flakes of snow. Beneath our feet, the trail was full of rain water up to the tops of the stepping stones. After a few vain attempts to keep our feet dry, we gave up and just let the chips, as it were, fall where they might. We were going to be wet for a while.
The mountain was a new one on me in some ways. Rising almost gently from the hills around it and unlike the ancient granite Adirondack Dome to the west or the plutonic White Mountain granites to the east, where I’ve long done most of my hiking, it’s always seemed rather beneath my alpinic dignity. Still, it was a part of our family’s consciousness; we could see it out our living room window all the years we lived near the west shore of Lake Champlain, and I’ve promised myself I’d get up it someday before it was too late. Today was not going to be that day.
Unlike the granite to the east and west of it, Mansfield is composed mainly of a metamorphic rock called green schist. (A bill introduced some years ago in the Vermont House sought to designate green schist the state rock, but concerns about the need to pronounce and spell it very carefully caused it to die in committee.) The schist of Mansfield was originally layers of siliceous clay, siltstone, and mudstone that formed the undersea continental shelf east of the Adirondacks, which were then the coast of what’s now New England. When the North African tectonic plate came calling and encountered the continental shelf, all those mineral-rich sediments were crumpled and thrust upward like the front end of a BMW in a crash test. Eons of erosion on the resulting high mountains, followed by fairly recent continental glaciation, have resulted in what we have today. When they were compressed, the layers arched upward in the area of the mountain. Where you walk the mountain near the top of the arch, the layers are fairly flat; when you drop off to either side, you find them to be down-sloping – which, I discovered, makes them a little treacherous on a wet or icy day.
The five of us in our group were gathered from here and there. Phil Vaughn, the producer, and Steve Giordani, the videographer, are both from southeastern New Hampshire. We’ve worked together for some years, which is saying something for them, as they put up with my idiosyncrasies – slow stumble of a walk, insistence on lunch within two hours of noon, and occasional grumpiness – with hardly a hint of dissatisfaction that I can see. Then there was Rick Paradis, who teaches at UVM and describes himself as a conservation biologist. He’s concerned with the impact of human activities on the natural world. He was also the only one of us who knew how to find the cave we were looking for that day. Last was Rodney Gonyea. He’s a respiratory therapist from Sunapee, New Hampshire, who wrote the TV station a letter a few weeks ago saying how our geriatric outdoor adventures had inspired him to get up and get going after open-heart valve-replacement surgery. He and his wife have already climbed several of the New Hampshire 4000-footers and others in the Adirondacks. So naturally Phil asked him along. He was a bit reluctant, but finally decided to try it; and I must say he managed to smile as the melted snow ran down his face inside the hood of his parka. He even said he wanted to join us on Mount Moosilauke New Year’s Day.
One of the most noticeable features of schist is that it foliates, or splits, fairly easily, into sheets or blocks. That’s what its name means in German. If you drive the interstates of Vermont, you can see that beautifully, where big chunks of rock have slid off cliffs into the ditch. The top of Mansfield is another perfect example of it. Over the years, weathering and the action of ice have split off tabular boulders that lie all over the bedrock, slowly dissolving. This dissolution has formed tiny pockets of inorganic soil in sheltered places. Some of the boulders show evidence of having been dislodged and moved by continental glaciers; there are gouges in the bedrock where they’ve been pushed along before being abandoned as the ice retreated thousands of years ago.
But we were seeking a king-sized exfoliation – a slab on the face of a cliff that had formed a vertical cave behind it when it broke away from the cliff long ago. Supposedly 120 feet deep, with ice at the bottom year-round, and difficult to penetrate very far, it seemed like a romantic goal. Which it might have been. The trail down to it, running with ice water, was certainly worthy of Indiana Jones, and the roof overhead was made of great boulders that had fallen into the crack and gotten jammed where it narrowed. More boulders that had fallen all the way to the floor prompted us to look nervously up as we edged in. But there was little romance to be had that day. Water dripped steadily off the cliff above, and the already dark day made the cave even gloomier. After a bit, we clambered back up to the ridge and retreated toward our waiting vehicles below. I made secret plans to return on a warm, sunny day; and an e-mail from Rodney that evening captured it all:
I really enjoyed my HOT Green Mountain Coffee on my trip home.