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Climbing Camel's Hump

11/13/03 12:00AM By Tom Slayton
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(Host) Commentator Tom Slayton climbs Camel's Hump - the hard way.

(Slayton) Bamforth Ridge is a long, rocky ridge that ascends Camel's Hump southward from the Winooski River. The hiking trail that follows it was designed by Professor Will Monroe, an eccentric trailbuilding genius who lived at the foot of the mountain about 70 years ago. Like most of Monroe's trails, Bamforth Ridge is sublimely beautiful, a masterpiece of the trailbuilder's art, and sublimely difficult: it connects beautiful and scenic spots along the ridgetop by winding over the top of every rocky eminence in sight. After about four miles of this, it climbs the northeast flank of Camel's Hump. Straight up.

This is the masochist's route up Vermont's wildest and most beautiful mountain. And so I leave the river and follow the winding trail upward through fallen leaves to the bare, rocky backbone of the ridge. A cold breeze blowing across the ridgetop cools my sweating body. while above me the Hump rises dark and powerful, even on this bright autumn day. It plays hide and seek with me as I clamber over rocks and wind through stands of stunted evergreens.

I'm tired and stop for a sandwich at my favorite spot, an open curving shield of bedrock, where the mountain looms right above me, its enormous flanks patterned with conifers.

As if on cue, a flock of geese flies over, not far above the ridge, headed west, toward the Champlain Valley and parts south. Bon voyage!

Climbing the steep mountainside in a realm of dark, moist rocks and evergreens, I'm panting and my heart is racing. The trail is a rocky gully, rising straight above me. "I'll climb that and be at the clearing," I think. But at the top the rocky gully continues straight up, and at the top of that, no clearing, just another stack of vertical rocks. It goes on and on as I gasp and curse and continue pushing upward.

And then, finally, the clearing, after almost four hours of walking and climbing. I feel completely spent, but eat some chocolate, reshoulder my pack, and force myself up and over the last quarter-mile to the open, rocky summit.

The big, familiar view falls away in all directions. The wooded ridges roll westward toward the lake, and Mansfield stands far off to the north. About 20 hikers are on top, sitting, standing, not talking much as they soak up the sunlight and the huge distances.

But it's after 3, and the woods will be dark by 6. Gotta go! Soon I'm back in the yellow forest, with the mountain above me again, glowing, benign. The leaves are gold, the light is amber, taffy-like -- slanting sunlight and late-afternoon blue sky cast an autumnal aura over the mountain.

As I trudge downhill, I thank Will Monroe for his crazy, inspired trail-building -- and Joseph Battell, who more than 100 years ago bought this mountain and gave it to the people of Vermont. And I thank my lucky stars for the privilege of spending a footloose day, once again pounding my aging body into a pulp, soaking up wildness and exploring the autumn mysteries of a great northern mountain.

Tom Slayton is editorof Vermont Life magazine.
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