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Long Trail Unsupported Attempt - August 2010
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will sawyer
(wjsawyer) - F

Locale: Connecticut
Long Trail Unsupported Attempt - August 2010 on 11/30/2010 08:40:15 MST Print View

Disclaimer: This trip report is very incomplete, not only because I didn't finish the trip. I didn't bring a camera, and my memory is not that clear after about 3 months. Most of what I remember are moments, flashbacks, but no timeline or reconstruction of the entire trip. I intended to take notes of what time I hit locations, and was very good about it for the first day, and then the notes begin to taper off....

The planting of the seed:

Since I was 8 I attended a sleep-away camp in Maine, going from spending three and a half weeks as a camper to wilderness trips of the same length and longer. As a 'tripper' I hiked part of the Maine AT, canoed in the Penobscot, Paddled the DePas and George Rivers in Quebec, and ultimately hiked the Long Trail in Vermont at the tender age of 15. One day while on the trail, I discussed the idea of trying to do the trail in 9 days with someone. It seemed straight forward. 30 miles per day, to us traditionalists, traveling light with nine days of food would equal a normal pack weight.

This past summer, now 16, I took a NOLS backpacking trip in the Yukon Territory. It was 30 days of heavy packs, low milage, amazing scenery, learning, and exploring. I was never really 'pushed' however, traveling with a group (grizzly country!) of people means traveling slower, even if they are all equally capable, which they were not….The trip was amazing, but not the escape from society that I was hoping for. It was an escape from my society at home, but also the creation of another society with the same issues and problems. On the return home I realized that I was not so much looking for nature, but looking for solitude. The destination mattered less than the act of leaving. I wanted to do something alone, push myself and discover a limit. I've never felt that I had truly discovered a personal limit, I always feel I could do better if I tried again, and I wanted to change that.

The planning stages:

I returned home mid-August with plans to seek permission to attempt to hike the Long Trail. Because of the not-short drive to Vermont, my desire to include my parents, and my lack of self-traveling capabilities, I worked out with them that my mother would drive up with me, we would hike in to the terminus, camp there, and I would start the next day, and she would return. My dad would meet me at the end and we would spend the night before driving home. Their schedules gave me an 8 day timeframe for my hike.

I was fairly confident of my physical and mental fitness after my NOLS trip, and my spirit was gnawing at its chains, so I felt that I was prepared, which for the most part was correct. Food and gear had to be thought out, as well as getting my parents behind the idea.

Food: I brought lots. tons. Way too much. It made my mother happy knowing I wouldn't stave though. I planned this extensively and made a google docs sheet to help me calculate things. for a look at the sheet, which may be confusing. it also has my planned milage for the trip and shelters for each night. here is the link:

To summarize food, I had granola with an interesting addition for a cold in camp breakfast, quite a lot of trail mix for hiking snacks and lunch, and a dinner of egg noodles, parm cheese, and pepperoni. I also packed a snickers or Kind bar for each day. I also packed a 100gram chocolate bar and bag of instant cheese cake for my birthday which would be happening while out. I had 4700 calories per day, plus the bar. About 2.25 or more pounds. I ate it all, but didn't need to.

Gear: I slept in a Nunatak 20* quilt on a z-lite. My pack was a heavy mammut 35L (2lb 14oz!) but it was comfortable with the weight I was carrying, and I didn't have time to buy anything. I cooked on a vargo triad with a 1 Liter pot. To make my pasta I had to use the whole liter. I think the instructions for that amount of pasta were to put it in one gallon. I don't have a complete list, but I'll try to rattle off as much as I remember:

nunatak quilt
favorite stuff sack for quilt, lost bear-baggin the first night
bear bag biner and cord
16lbs of food
two stuff sacks for hanging the food
sea to summit 35L dry sack as pack liner
35L mammut pack
overkill mora knife
vargo triad alky stove
pot from msr soloist kit
contact solution bottle for alky storage
a-sym tarp from my H
a film canister packed with:
duct tape
athletic tape
safety pins

Clothing worn:
inov-8 x-talon 212
sock liners
track shorts with liner
synthetic shirt
trekking poles

100wt fleece

Likely a few more things, but I think that should be the most interesting stuff. You already know I've got a lighter and toothbrush, etc.

Now for the story:
21st: Mother and I left home, fashionably late, with both our packs, mine for the next 9 nights and heres for just one. they weighted about the same, but to be fair she was carrying a tent for the two of us and our food for the night and morning. We made it to the terminus sign around dusk, set up camp and ate our dinner. In the dark i got my bear-bag line stuck, while i had been using my sleeping bag stuff sack with a rock for a weight. I ended up cutting the line as high as I could and we hung the food from the middle of the terminus sign. We hung our fresh breakfast and evenings trash in an easier location to tempt any critters. Sleep was sporadic, the woods were very alive, I was nervous, my mom likely also, and the dog a bit jittery.

22nd: I awoke at 4:00, according to plan, based off my sunrise/sunset times, but it was pitch dark. and hour later I got up and we broke camp quickly, ate, and walked over to the terminus sign. At 5:46 we parted ways, my mother with the dog heading south to the car, and me heading north to the unknown. I quickly took off my wind jacket and settled into a moderate pace. At 8:00 I made it to Roaring Branch, 5.8 miles for the day, hit Congdon Shelter at 9:15, which was the ten mile marker. These first few miles were incredible. It was cool, overcast, the world was asleep and I was feeling great. These were some of my favorite miles. The first time I had done the LT we spent our second night at Congdon, and now I had gotten there at 9:15. I felt elated. At 11:35 I rolled into Melville Nauheim at 15.9 miles in. i reached Goddard at 2:50. Throughout the morning the sky worsened and began to drizzle, turning into a heavy rain. by the time I reached goddard the air was a swamp, the shelter was full of people taking an impromptu zero day or stopping early. I chatted briefly and then headed out for the last 8.9 miles. the rain worsened, turning into sheets. I hadn't brought a rain jacket, and was just hiking in a soaked shirt and shorts, exertion and the mild temperature keeping me warm enough. I stopped at the spur leading towards Kid Gore shelter for a drink and snack, but didn't want to go the extra .2 round trip to reach the shelter. I continued on towards Story Spring, my final destination. I reached Story Spring around 6:00 and was lucky enough to have the last spot in the shelter all to myself. I was also lucky that the rain eased off, turning into a light mist. I cooked dinner but elected to leave out the pepperoni, I was too tired to deal with the hassle of cutting it up. I had agreed with my parents that each day I would send them a text message to let them know I was doing alright, and I had planned to do that once I reached the shelter and was done hiking, to give them the most peace of mind. The plan backfired when I couldn't get a message out. I had planned to use the count-down timer on my watch as an alarm, set it for the hours of sleep i wanted and it would wake me up. I purposely neglected to do this, feeling so wet and beaten that I needed my rest. I was already showing signs of surrender.

23rd: I was up at 9:15, still the first to leave the shelter. My only objective was to get off a message to my parents, and then evaluate what I was capable of doing. I had planned on a 40.6 mile day to Lula Tye shelter, but given the previous day's experience, I didn't think there were enough hours of daylight to get there. Especially if i woke up late. I got up Stratton mountain, doing the 3.8 miles and 1700 feet of gain in less than an hour. The weather was once again misty with occasional bursts of large, heavy raindrops. I remember the beginning of the hike as having relatively nice weather, but the second ha being relatively wet. I climbed the fire tower and took shelter in the small enclosed space, sent off a message to my parents, and got the heck out before the tower was blown off the mountain. I began to feel good as I started my decent, having about 12 miles of gentle decent before Bromley Mountain. I reached Stratton pond, a lovely and wet area at 1:11. By 5:40 I had made it to Bromley Shelter, 12.6 miles later and 23.1 miles into the day. here I met a large college group that was trying to build a fire and would be spending the night. I got water, had a snack, and was on my way, hoping to make the summit of Bromley, and the ridge walk to Styles Peak and Peru Peak before reaching Peru Peak Shelter, 7.1 miles away. The wind began to howl as I began the climb, and the darkness began to set in. The misting continued, with more frequent bouts of heavy rain. I donned my headlamp but it was more than useless, It illuminated a bright patch of fog right in front of my eyes, reducing my night vision, and making it very difficult to see the trail. I remember this ridge walk vividly, time slowed and ever few steps I feared I was wandering off the trail along a drainage. At one point I was spooked by a pair of large birds who were evidently spooked by my passage, and lit off their perch by the trail. It was the scariest thing that has ever happened to me. I was reduced to scouting for a blaze, rushing to it, and hanging on to it like an island as I scanned the sea aead for the next one. I made it to Peru Peak Shelter a hair before 9:00, there were three people fast asleep within, so I quietly finished my snacks from the day, neglected to cook dinner because I wasn't hungry. Again, no alarm set, the hope and liveliness I had felt before were gone. Aches were overtaking my legs, my feet were soaked and battered. 31.2 miles had been covered, or more accurately, 2 feet had been covered by 31.2 miles of mud.

24th: I awoke to a startled companion, trying to figure out how an extra body ended up in the shelter. He was a thru-hiker, very kind. the two others were our for a shorter time, section hiking and enjoying themselves. I waited until they all left, contemplating my next moves. I decided to call it quits, I still don't know if that was a good or bad decision, evidence points to the latter. The sky was mostly blue, I greeted my shadow like a relative rarely seen, and stiffly walked into the woods. There was a downed bridge of some sort, and a posted bypass for it, the bypass added about 3 miles and was on forest service roads. many hikes said they had no problem fording the river, but I didn't want to take the risk and took the bypass. What I realized as I went down the FS road was that I was also bypassing the closest peak where I might get reception; I was planning on calling home and seeing if I could get a ride back. Luckily, this meant I 'had' to stop avery half hour or so and check for reception, providing a much nicer hiking pace. I talked to my dad in the early afternoon at the trails junction with FS Road 10 and made plans for him to pick me up at noon the next day along Vt. 140, 8 miles away. Interestingly, i was passed here by the trio I had slept with before, taking their time and enjoying a conversation. I did another 2 miles and stopped at Lula Tye Shelter at 2:30, and decided to stay there for the night, leaving the additional 6 miles to the morning. There was another shelter five miles down, which would provide an easy hike out the next day, but I was traveling so slowly I wasn't sure I would cover the distance before nightfall. Two of the hikers that had been in Peru Peak were also stopping here for the night, and we had an enjoyable evening getting to know each other before retiring early. I had to cover six miles the next day in time to meet my dad, and I wanted to make sure I got off early.

25th: I got off early, no exact time, and started off down the trail. It was a dry morning and I walked quickly through the easy terrain. This section was one of my favorites from my previous trip. A short climb was followed be a beautiful old pine forest on the ridge, the ground was uniformly covered in needles, and young trees dotted the area. There is a beautiful collection of what I can best describe as rock art or sculpture in this area. hundreds of little cairns, towers, thin rocks wedged into the cracks of a larger boulder creating platforms for others. I stopped here for a break, just soaking up the scenery. Along with the first ten or so miles, this was my favorite part of the trip. I ran some parts of the downhill to the road crossing, and once I got there I spread out my ridgerest, took off my shoes, cringed when I looked at my toes, and relaxed.

Some various thoughts:
Had I been able to stick through the first few days on schedule, the weather seemed to be clearing up and I think I would have had a shot, however my feet were in horrid condition so they may have still been my downfall.

I brought way too much food. I would have been fine had I forgot to bring my dinners, and then I would have been able to go no-cook, saving even more weight.

In my lunch/snacks i had packed two or three chunks of dried papaya per day, these were great. whenever I stopped I snacked, but I had these at "big stops" they were good motivation, and it was good to have some sort of marker of time and distance.

shoes…still trying to figure this out. I think something with thicker, stiffer soles would have been better, as well as slightly larger. My x-talons fit well for running when I wear them without insoles, which is what I normally do. I added the insoles to these and that took up some volume, which my toes didn't like, but the additional support and cushioning was good. the trail is entirely mud, rocks, and roots in varying proportion. I have yet to be lucky enough to be there on a dry day. In order to avoid mud and puddles I ended up stepping on many rocks and roots. Something I'd like to try is getting a thinner insole and then coating the bottom of it with a layer of fiberglass resin to add stiffness to the shoe. Hopefully this will prevent or lessen the stabs from pointy rocks and roots.

Brian Senez
(bsenez) - MLife

Locale: New England
re: Long Trail Unsupported Attempt - August 2010 on 11/30/2010 09:11:45 MST Print View

Great trip report. The LT south of Killington is deceptively tough. The trail itself is easy walking and it is no problem to do big miles, but the wet and muddy conditions quickly take a toll. It is mentally a tough section to get through when it rains on you every day.

I'm impressed at your attempt, especially at your age. For me being fully committed to a trip mentally is the most important part. I know that my gear is good and my body can handle it. When weather is making trail conditions miserable I remember that the bad weather gives contrast to the good and makes it even more enjoyable. Also music helps break up really long days. Waking up very early is crucial to getting to bed early. I love hiking into the sunrise.

will sawyer
(wjsawyer) - F

Locale: Connecticut
Re: Long Trail Unsupported Attempt - August 2010 on 11/30/2010 11:05:56 MST Print View

Thanks brian, I agree with everything you've said. I wasn't fully committed and was rudely awakened to the difficulty of it. I was thinking it would help get me in shape for my cross country season beginning a week later, but it really just ruined my legs.

On my next attempt I'll definitely be getting up earlier, and I've been thinking about bringing along an mp3 player. most importantly, I'm now much more obsessed and committed after failing once.

Frank Deland

Locale: On the AT in VA
Hiking the LT on 11/30/2010 11:44:01 MST Print View

Readers should not underestimate the ambition of your hike. The trail in northern Vermont is rugged. Lots of ups and downs over steep rocky terrain.
Most hikers take close to a month to complete the trail, and yes, several days of rain can reduce the trail in the southern sections to at least ankle deep mud, not easy to slog through.

Like the AT, however, there are many road crossings. If you parents could take time off, they could support you, by meeting at road crossings, supplying you with whatever support you needed to lighten your load. I have met AT hikers and trail runners who do this.

One couple I met on the LT, hiked in opposite directions. One was always hiking toward a parked car. One of them always hiked with their dog!

Another hiker I met set out with speed goals, not quite as ambitious as yours, but fast. He later went back later in his life and hiked at a slow pace. Instead of a camera, he carried water colors and colored pencils and drew sketches of views and scenery in his journal. Two very different experiences on the same trail.

Another LT hiker enjoyed his hike S-to-N , so much, the day after he reached the terminus in Canada, he started heading south toward MA. He was not the first to do this. Happy hiking, Will.

Edited by rambler on 11/30/2010 11:44:31 MST.

Erik Danielsen
(er1kksen) - F

Locale: The Western Door
Thanks on 11/30/2010 17:56:28 MST Print View

Successful or not, reading about your attempt is inspiring. Too many people settle for less than what they could achieve; better to try and not succeed than to never try, at least to my thinking. Reading this makes me all the more enthusiastic about your upcoming attempt that I read about over in the sleep system thread.

RE: Footwear, you may want to take a close look at Inov-8's somewhat more padded shoes. I currently hike in the Roclite 370s and find them to be an excellent compromise between comfort and minimalism (usually sans insoles). I find myself yearning for a low-cut and softer, stickier rubber, however, so I've been looking at the 212s myself. Plenty of options to consider, though. If I decide to stick with an ankle-high after all, the 240s look like a great bet, since they have just as much cushion plus the stickier sole and lighter weight. Not very water resistant, though.

Luke Schmidt
(Cameron) - MLife

Locale: The WOODS
Footwear on 11/30/2010 23:17:23 MST Print View

Nice report Will. I had a similar experience when I did a lot of wading in a canyon. Lots of blisters. Normally I don't have a problem with blisters on long days, and I don't mind wet feet either. I think it was a combination of wet feet plus mud getting caked on my sock, rugged trails and somewhat long days (for me).
Hope you can get back and finish it someday.

Edited by Cameron on 11/30/2010 23:18:04 MST.

Steven McAllister
(brooklynkayak) - MLife

Locale: Atlantic North East
Thanks on 12/01/2010 07:19:09 MST Print View

Good trip report.

Those are some miles per day. As you stated you do cross country racing.
I suspect your goal of too many miles per day, uneven terrain with wet feet and mud created a lot of wear on your body.

Of course going a little slower and allowing for more days would have probably been successful, but that was not your goal.

David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
Long trail on 12/01/2010 17:54:31 MST Print View

Nice job Will.

will sawyer
(wjsawyer) - F

Locale: Connecticut
Re: Long Trail Unsupported Attempt - August 2010 on 12/01/2010 20:31:20 MST Print View

Frank, I like your story about the speed hiker gone artist. At this point in life however, I think there is a lot of physical potential that I have, and won't have for my entire life. Many of the places I have hiked I would like to return to with speed in mind, having taken it slow the first time, traveling with my family or a group and being younger. I prefer to go after the unsupported record, mainly because the supported record is so darn fast, but also because of the philosophy of being unsupported. The logistics of a supported attempt would also be way over my head.

Erik, thanks for the footwear advice. I think this is one location where I'll have to suck it up on a few grams.

And thanks to the rest, hopefully a bit of public awareness will help motivate me.

David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
re: long trail unsupported record on 12/01/2010 21:21:46 MST Print View

Will, you've got at least two decades during which you can hope to get faster at ultraendurance hiking. Only up from here (unless you injure yourself!).

Reading the unsupported record holders report makes the record seem fairly soft. He sounds like more of a runner than a backcountry guy, and things like letting your sleeping bag get wet and not having enough food (or the right kind) not only confirm lack of experience, but point towards hours and hours that could likely be cut off that time.

It also seems like hiking shelter to shelter would probably be slower in the grand scheme, artificially constraining and lengthening days, rather than letting the most efficient moving time to rest ratio dictate that. I'd bring a bivy sack and be a bit more flexible with mileage goals.

Sounds like a very interesting project. It gets me thinking that hiking back east might be a good idea.

Jim McGrath
(JimmyTheWrench) - F

Locale: N.E.
Must have just missed you. on 01/26/2011 08:58:13 MST Print View

I started the LT NB on 8/18/10. I had similar problems with my hike. Hiking within a set time frame can turn an enjoyable hike into a race to get back to work. I was trying to complete the trail in two weeks. I figured ten days worth of food would minimize my stops, and maximize my overall mileage (Wrong!). Also, I planned to stay in shelters to save the weight of a tent. As someone else mentioned, shelters force you to travel less, or as is most often the case, further than you really want to. In the mornings I started to leave later and later, like you, purposely not setting my watch alarm. I ran through that rock sculpture area as rain and tree branches came down all around me in that same storm. I think that storm is what made the trail less fun for me as well. By the 26th, my feet still hadn't dried out, and I had one ankle that was twice the size of the other. My fiancee was supposed to meet me at a road crossing the next day for my first time off trail since starting. I ended up limping from Middlebury gap, to The Gathering Inn, in Hancock VT, where she met me the next day. After a weekend off my feet, It was clear that I would never make Canada in the time I had. So I swallowed my pride and headed back to Boston with her. This August, the two of us will try again, this time no more than 4 days of food, and no time limit, we may even bring a tent. And a last note about footwear, I used Merrel chameleons w/ Goretex. After that rain storm they got wet, and would not dry. In fact they stopped breathing all together. I would have killed for a pair of flip flops to hang around the shelters in. I'm thinking about non-waterproof trail runners for next year.

Sorry about the long post, after reading the great write up, I got all exited and couldn't stop.

will sawyer
(wjsawyer) - F

Locale: Connecticut
Re: Long Trail Unsupported Attempt - August 2010 on 01/30/2011 14:18:46 MST Print View

Hey Jim, great to hear your story too. I think we must have learned a few of the same lessons. And I am glad to know that I'm not the only person who had issues with that storm. I share the same sentiments about flip flops, although I'm not sure I could have put them not he way my feet were swelling, but it sure beats wet shoes or being barefoot. Some of those cheap flip flops couldn't be more than a few ounces...

I would also definitely bring a tent in I were you, with enjoyment paramount and speed secondary. or drop a few days of food, take a tent and flip flops, and your pack will still probably be less.

If everything works out for my trip, maybe I'll see the two of you up there. Hopefully you'll be enjoying yourself a bit more next time!

Kevin Sullivan
(bustedchucks) - F
LT on 02/05/2011 11:25:47 MST Print View

I certainly wouldn't frame that as a failure in your mind; it's not in any of ours. How many of your friends have spent the better part of a week in as cool a fashion as that? Zero, I'm guessing.

The LT is hard to do big miles on. It isn't the distance or elly gain so much as the footing is just awful most of the time. Even if you're in killer shape the mud and roots and slippery rocks'll slow you down.

It might be worth looking into going SoBo. Traditionally, the recommendation is to go North so as to "get your legs" before you hit the tougher North, but for a speed hike it would get that rough stuff out of the way while you are fresher. Also, the Northern half is just all sorts of beautiful so it'd be easy to stay motivated.

Good luck, keep us posted.

Here's a slide show from my LT trip last fall, if you're interested in seeing some pics: