Before last weekend, I hadn't been out for over 2 months. Not good. Jay Peak burned me up, and with no views today, I figured a 6 mile RT (7 as it turned out...) to Stewarts Peak with 1400' of gain (1750' as it turned out) would be ideal (it wasn't), coming in from the north along the Mink Hills ridge walking up from my house. I'd done this in 2004, but the itinerary was right and it was time for a re-visit.
I used the old driveway to hook up with the White Trail. The snow was crusty, and I was sinking in 4” at the start. Not bad, but more effort than I cared for. I knew with temps in the 40's forecast today, it would be worse later. I moved slow and deliberately, and quickly came to the trail, which some days seems to take forever. From there the 500' or so of gain on the White Trail likewise went quickly. Many days the steep stretches of this seem to drain me, but maybe it was the purposefully slow pace and rest stops that made the difference today. On the way I saw lots of deer tracks, and found under heavy softwood cover, the surface was supportive.
Next up, the Cross Minks Trail left right, heading along the ridge a bit before diverting right at its height of land. From there I went in just below as soon as the woods opened. First up was to get up to the highpoint of the ridge, keeping right to stay in good woods and avoid the steepest parts. I saw flagging, and my first thought after seeing so often in the Whites was some bushwhacking yahoo.
This annoyed me, moreso because I tried to avoid it to have some sense of solitude, but the route was just where I wanted to go. Hmmm. This doesn't appear to be any yahoo, this appears to be laid out quite well. I started to wonder if the plan was a trail to the summit of Stewarts. I plodded up the ridge, reminding myself this was the last of the major climb. Occasionally, I'd hit pockets of moderate woods, but as you'd expect at this low elevation, it didn't last more than 30 feet before open woods presented itself again.
This was more typical of what I found all day.
Last time I came up, I wasn't much of a bushwhacker and found thicker woods. Guess my woods avoidance skills were much worse then. I happily made the ridge and found an almost view. I had a lot of almost views all day. I had skipped the known views, and there was another possible one further along, but my only goal today was to make the peak. It would be enough of a workout.
I kept aiming for softwood cover where the branches weren't in the way to keep from sinking, and it was maybe 50/50 for that. Little groves occasionally showed up, to my pleasure.
The ridge was full of ups and downs, and the cols always seemed to end with a steep north face that I kept angling around.
I kept running into the flagging, always on a good route. I trudged along, now feeling the distance and the climb, and came to the summit, looking much different than I remember, though that was in summer.
What I noticed was the flagging continued south, which further bolstered my suspicions of a future trail, although it seemed certain it would have to run across private land at the very end. I spent some time on the summit relaxing, thinking that was tough, but not grueling. That felt satisfying.
Well, mostly downhill from here. Time to head down, and that's where “not grueling” changed. The crust was softening, and now my freaking snowshoes kept getting caught in it when I lifted my feet. That and every little bump along the ridge was sapping me. My “up” legs were all but gone. I finally tripped on the crust, cursing. I just kept focusing on the end of the ridge. End of the ridge. End of the ridge, following my tracks as much as possible. At one point coming off a PUD, I picked up some speed and tripped again, falling hard this time, this time having the crust slam against my upper thigh. Massive pain hit me, and I yelled something or other. Crap, I might be in trouble here was the immediate thought, but after a few seconds, I realized it wasn't that bad. Sore as hell, but do-able. I gingerly got up, took a few steps, and only had real pain issues going uphill.
Finally got to the end of the ridge. Yahoo, all downhill from here (ha ha ha). I headed down, carefully this time, now focusing on getting to the trail. Small chunks at a time. I was beat, and still had a ways to go. Back at the trail, I forgot I still had to go uphill to the height of land. Ha ha ha. I also forgot about some more bumps. Grunt. Now just get to the junction. I KNOW it's all downhill there. Each leg seemed to take forever, and I was taking lots of rests. Junction came, not without a third fall, and I went slowly down the steeps. I was sinking in a lot more now, and plunk, plunk, plunked along. I arrived back at the house, looking and feeling like a dead man walking. A beer was followed by a nap. Getting back into hiking shape sucks. Sigh, I should end on a positive note. It was good to get out and re-visit my local peak, OK?