Self-Portrait at about -25F

Mt. Mansfield, Vermont (4,393')

January 1, 1999

one of the mountain pages on muellerworld

A bad day for a hike:

After a quick breakfast at the Mt. Mansfield Skiier's Hostal, I drove up to the Stowe Ski Area to see how the conditions were for skiing and hiking.

They were terrible.

Deterioriating Conditions - from the parking lot The temperature was -10°F at the bottom of the mountain and -15°F with strong winds at the top of the gondola. The summit was even worse.

I stopped into the Ski Patrol shed to see if they had any information about the trail to the summit and at very least to let them know I was going to be up there. The woman in the office didn't think the trail was in very good shape, and she hadn't heard of anyone going up there for a week or so because of the bad weather. I told her that I was going to head up from the Gondola, and should be back by afternoon. She said that they didn't have juristiction over the summit area (it was out of bounds) so they didn't really take any notice of people out hiking around.

From the parking lot things seemed to be getting worse. In the few minutes it took me to buy a $15 gondola pass, visibility dropped. The top of the gondola wasn't even visible. I had already decided not to ski up the mountain from the parking lot (I had my mountaineering skis and skins) - the slopes were just too icy to make it worth the effort, so I took the gondola up to see what it looked like.

On the way up, four of us shivered in the tiny red compartment. The windows were frosted over and we couldn't see a thing. Two snowboarders had been to the summit earlier in the season, but said it had been too little snow to board all the way down. They pointed to a small trail that took off into the brush opposite the gondola and said that that was the trail to the summit. I asked tham about the Cliff Trail, but they said that the one they pointed out was better. I should have known better...

I stored my skis in some ski holders outside the chalet and started trudging up to the barracade to see where it led. The area leading up to the logs was sort of groomed, but immeadiately past the logs, I sank to my knees in soft, wind-blown powder. I followed a faint trail for a few hunderd feet and then it disappeared. I consulted my USGS topo map and saw that I was in a shallow gully that lead towards the summit. It looked like I could get to about 3,900' without any problems, but I wasn't sure where that would leave me.

I post-holed through and around trees that were heavy with powdery snow as I made my way up the hill. The knee-deep powder became waist deep before too long, and I reached a u-shaped wall that halted my progress. I thought about turning around and admitting defeat, but I knew that I could find a way to get up to the trail. After 10 minutes or so of picking around with my ice axe and wandering from side to side, I found a steep rock that led to a small shelf and then to another slab that might get me up to the trail. I started to try and put on my crampons, but nearly lost one in the powder, so I just went for it in my double plastics. The first slab was covered in smooth, thin ice and snow. I pre-cleared a few steps with my axe, then did some dicey moves to reach the shelf. I followed it for a little way to the right, before seeing that the slab I had seen from below was not in good shape for me to be climbing. I went back to the left and found some rougher rocks with less ice and made my way up to a shallow incline that went in the general direction that I thought the trail was in.

The workout had gotten me sweating and my ski goggles instantly fogged up as I reached the ridge. I was greated at the ridge by some super strong winds and powerful gusts that made me struggle to stand up. I had hiked Mt. Washington, NH a few months earlier in 60+mph winds, and not had many problems. These winds were battering me and making it hard to stay on my feet, so I knew they were much stronger. My progress seemed good, but the fog in my goggles was quickly turned to ice and I had to stop every couple of minutes to try and scrape them clear. On one such occasion, I was crouched down near a rock and when I stood up, I scared the hell out of another hiker, and he scared the hell out of me.

He was wearing snowshoes, but the terrain was pretty rocky. I asked him what he was doing up there.

"Same thing you are" he yelled (it was really windy).

"We're pretty stupid", he added.

"Ya", I agreed.

I wished him a Happy New Year and he said the top was just ahead and he headed down the trail.

Just as I neared the top, a huge gust of wind caught me and threw me about 10 feet, landing on my right side. I got up and carefully made my way to the top and snapped a self-portrait photo, then my camera froze.

Mt. Mansfield Mt. Mansfield

The trail was a lot more obvious on the way back down. It wasn't less windy and the visibility was about the same, but the trail was just more apparent. I found the spot where I had climbed up the rocks, but continued straight and found a sign pointing towards the goldola. I believe it was the Cliff Trail, but the trail was more like soup. I was quickly up to my chest in powder, and lost the trail again.

Chest-deep drifts Nearing the Gondola Above the Gondola, looking up the trail

After 10 or 15 minutes of struggling downhill, I saw my wind-blown path from earlier well below me, so I left what I thought was the trail and kind of boulder hopped down to the trail. The way out wasn't too bad, but the snow was still deep.

After a quick warm-up in the chalet, I skiied down the icy mountain and headed back to the Ski Partol Office to check out. When I came in, there was a different person there and I told her that I had checked in this morning, and wanted to let them know that I was off the mountain. She wasn't aware that I was up there, but thanked me for letting her know.

I packed my stuff up and headed towards New Hampshire to climb Mt. Cannon...

A note about the weather:

Just to see what the weather in the area was, I contacted the Mt. Washington (NH) Observatory. While they are a hundred miles away, they said the Green Mountain Conditions were similar for that time period:

  Date     High(°F)   Low(°F)   Snow(in)   Peak Wind(mph)
--------   -------   ------    --------   --------------
12/31/98     -5       -25        1.1          99 W
01/01/99     -5       -35        1.4          88 NW   
01/02/99     23       -32         -           94 NW

Matt Mueller
revised 20 Nov, 2000


Reader's Comments

It would appear that you may have a misunderstanding about Vermont law and going off trail on Mt. Mansfield at Stowe.

Your article makes is sound like the Stowe ski patrol was not doing its duty when you talked with them both before and after your out of bounds experience.

Your article should instead note that ski patrols at all Vermont ski areas are specifically exempted from keeping track of any skier, boarder, or hiker who purposely leaves the open and designated trails of a resort. (23 VSA Section 1038)

Vermont law is VERY specific. If you chose to leave the open and designated trails, you are 100% on your own and are 100% responsible for all arrangements and all costs associated with your rescue. In fact, there is no obligation under Vermont law for any ski patrol to rescue any out-of-bounds skier.

This law is designed to protect ski patrols, ski patrollers and ski areas from lawsuits filed by those individuals that use ski area resources to reach the back country and then get hurt, sick or lost.

The ski patrol wasn't concerned for your safety because, by using gondola and purposely leaving the ski area proper, you legally eliminated yourself from any responsibility they might otherwise have had for you.

You should explain in your article WHY the patrol wasn't concerned. You should not make it sound like they were negligent in their duty.

-- Brian Lindner <>, January 25, 2003