Mount Hunger

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(Host) Just about everyone is probably feeling a bit tired of this long winter. Commentator Tom Slayton has found one way to shorten the season – climbing up a small but snowy mountain.

(Slayton) There’s really no way to beat a Vermont winter — you’ve got to join it — by getting out into it. And for almost 30 years, part of my strategy for battling the winter blahs has been an annual group climb up Hunger Mountain. Lately, however, I’ve noticed that something — age most likely, since I now qualify for senior discount status at some cross-country ski centers — is stealthily creeping up on me.

Scott Skinner of Middlesex, an affable attorney with a passion for mountain climbing, thought up the Mount Hunger climb in 1977, as a way of beating the winter doldrums. That was back when snowshoeing was slightly dorky and winter climbing was the realm of either hardened adventurers or lunatics, depending upon your point of view. Now, people climb almost every major Vermont peak almost every weekend. Some days, the trails are so well packed, you don’t even have to use snowshoes.

At roughly 3,500 feet in elevation, Mount Hunger is not exactly Mount Everest. Nevertheless, in winter, a couple of steep, gullied sections of trail — and the fact that the summit is bare and exposed to every bit of weather between here and Canada — makes the climb challenging. At least it’s challenging in February for people of modest athletic ability, like myself.

Nevertheless, the hike is never, ever called off for any reason. “Our solemn creed,” Skinner has written, “is to slog on, to never turn back, not for frostbite, injury, or televised sports event.”

It was in 1978 that Skinner and I were the only two who made the top, thus establishing the record for fewest to successfully complete the climb. We literally crawled the last five yards through a gale. Just two years after that, a party of 10 waltzed up the mountain on a warm, cloudless day and sunbathed at the summit in shirtsleeves.

There have been warmish ascents and 20-below zero ascents, stormy ascents and clear-as-a-bell ascents. The climb has been made in deep snow, in snow crusted over with ice, and one year, amazingly, in no snow at all.

The big attraction of the event, as far as I’m concerned, is the cheerful, good-natured crowd that shows up each year — and the undeniable beauty of the mountain in winter.

Though snowy storm clouds shrouded us completely this year, shutting out any mountaintop vistas, I will long remember the way snow began falling, silently, gracefully, as I descended through a grove of bare-limbed white birches. Later, I happened to catch up with two Nepali women who had accompanied their American husbands on the climb. It was a treat to hear them chatting happily to one another in Nepalese as they walked through the
snowy forest.

Strangely enough, when the hike was over, after more than five miles of snowy walking and climbing, I didn’t feel old or tired any more. The mountains had worked their undeniable magic, and winter had become an acceptable presence once again.

Tom Slyaton is editor of Vermont Life magazine.

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