Rich, Day Hiking Ambassador
Frozen fog has transformed the hillside evergreens into a tiered arrangement of powdered confectionaries. We are halfway up the slope of Camel’s Hump, Vermont’s third highest and most iconic mountain.
We have arrived at this point via the Burrows Trail, ascending from the town of Huntington, a mere half hour outside Burlington. I am snowshoeing with my sister Kasandra and her trusted trail hound Maggie, leaving behind the brown exposed farm fields of the Winooski River Valley for the new snow of the high ridge. The daily toil of an abnormally warm winter fades, disappears entirely, and we ascend into the mountain’s past.
The Abenaki called it “”tahwahbodeay wadso,” with a characteristically pragmatic, albeit long-winded, translation of “prudently, we make a campfire in a circle near water and rest at this mountain.” In 1609 Samuel de Champlain added his own interpretation. While he wasn’t busy naming the lake after himself, he turned his attention toward the important business of naming other things, christening the peak, “Le Lion Couchant.” On the western approach from Huntington it is easy to see why. The mountain’s silhouette outlines the regal image of a lion at rest, as if guarding the future French province of Quebec against the English and Dutch colonies that would appear to the south. But from the east the mountain looks nothing like a lion. In 1798 Ira Allen, brother of Ethan, renamed the distinctive shape “Camel’s Rump.” Though his map was the first mention of a camel, most would agree that he was a little off on the anatomy, and by the 1830s “Camel’s Hump” had instead replaced Ira’s label on most maps. To this day that is the image that towers predominantly, both literally and figuratively, above all Vermonters.
A pile of moose droppings next to the trail attest to who has been here before us. For all this talk of camels and lions, the moose are the ones who inhabit this place. Like clouds in the sky, it matters not what mountains look like from a distance when you are immersed within them. Allusions to old-world mega-fauna are insufficient when it comes to truly understanding a place.
The snow deepens as the trees thin, and we exit the forest into a wide clearing. The open space is all that remains of the Green Mountain House, a hotel constructed in 1859. The structure was part of a mountaintop hotel trend popular in 19th and early 20th century Vermont. Vacationers from the cities to the south would take a carriage halfway up the mountain before continuing on horseback to the hotel, just two-tenths of a mile below the summit. The hotel burned to the ground in 1875, but the clearing served as a site for trail shelters as late as the 1950s. In that decade all structures were removed from Camel’s Hump in an effort to preserve the mountain’s fragile alpine vegetation.
We pause at the clearing to admire the peak jutting out dramatically above the surrounding spruce trees. The clearing now serves as the juncture of three trails: the Burrows that we have come by, another day hike trail that ascends from Waterbury, and the Long Trail. The last of the three is the oldest contiguous hiking trail in the country, spanning 272 miles from Massachusetts to Canada, traversing Vermont’s high ridge. It is this trail that we will take to the summit. After a brief lunch of homemade cookies that Kasandra has brought along with her, we ascend into the domain of Bigelow’s sedge and mountain stitchwort. In doing so, we leave behind human history and move back through the geologic past.
The alpine species found on Camel’s Hump are living fossils left over from Vermont’s glacial era, a botanical handful crammed into a mere ten acres of preserved space. Camel’s Hump and the slightly taller summit of Mount Mansfield are the only places left in the state where such species remain. But they attest to a much colder past. After an icy climb the trail levels off in a saddle between the lower and higher peaks, and from here we catch our first panorama of the surrounding landscape. We gaze out across the Winooski River Valley, flat muddy fields crossing the gap at right angles to the surrounding mountains, the undulating peaks of Mount Mansfield rising beyond. To our right a space aside the trail is cordoned off from foot traffic in a final attempt to protect and preserve the alpine vegetation encased beneath the ice. We pause to catch our breath and take in the view.
But the cold wind rising off the stark winter landscape steals our breath away, and from our vantage point we glimpse the mountains as they were in their pre-human past. To the west Lake Vermont turned mountains to islands and extended long icy fingers deep into the modern state’s interior. It pushed up the modern Winooski River and passed through the gap below us, reaching miles to the east. In colder years the lake would dam with ice, swelling with the glacial melt. The green mountains at such a time were a landscape of water and ice, a past still reflected in the rivers and the botany of the high summits. It is an ephemeral vision of a past long lost, but it is one far more attainable for that it is winter. A hike in the winter mountains leave one feeling as if the glacial era is still accessible. But it has been too warm a winter. Snow in the lower altitudes has failed. Near my apartment in South Burlington, green grass has persisted through the winter. If this is part of a global trend, it is unclear how much longer Vermont’s alpine botany can cling to its sanctuary of stone and hold out against the heat.
We turn from the vista framed by trees and begin the final push for the summit. As we do so, we move back deeper in time. Thousands of years turn into millions, until in our minds we find ourselves in the Jurassic Period, nearly 200 million years in the past. Camel’s Hump doubles in size, and our view extends much further. The scent of sulfur wafts in from the east. Modern day New Hampshire is burning. Volcanoes have formed where the crust has been pulled apart, spilling lava across wide areas in vast formations of basaltic rock. Where magma does not break through it cools slowly, miles beneath the surface, forming the granite stone for which modern New Hampshire is nicknamed “The Granite State.” The view from Camel’s Hump would be most dramatic at night, New Hampshire’s tall volcanoes raging orange and red in the dark. On especially active nights a hiker on Camel’s Hump would be able to read by the light of the volcanoes, and the related earthquakes would shake the mountains of Vermont. Upon our modern earth there is no equivalent.
Back in the present, we reach the most dramatic point in the ascent, where the trail rounds the mountain. The western slope drops off below us, while above us the cliff face rises sharply, crusted over in frozen snow. We choose our footing carefully. As we climb we tumble back into the Devonian, and the mountains around us inflate in size. It is 350 million years ago. The Appalachians are still being formed, and their height matches the modern Alps and Sierras. Our old mountains have been made young again. An ocean has closed, and continents have collided, placing our mountain near the center of the supercontinent Pangaea. We round the corner and clamber over snow-covered stones, until once again we can see to the east. The Worcester Range falls one thousand feet short of our vantage point, and we gaze over it into New Hampshire. The modern Connecticut River follows an old fault line that marks the place at which the North American and African tectonic plates came together. In other words, modern New Hampshire was once part of Africa. Upon Camel’s Hump we stand at the center of the lost supercontinent Pangaea, look to the east, and gaze out across Africa.
As we ascend we move south, and soon the final climb comes into view, a crag of stone blown clear of snow by a ferocious wind. The stone is black, gray, and green, the unexpected tinge of color brought out by the clean and cold winter sunlight. The rock is made green by the mineral chlorite, and it forms only on the bottom of the ocean. The summit of Camel’s Hump – as well as that of Mansfield visible just to the north – used to be ocean floor. We are transported back further, to half a billion years ago. A wide ocean, the Iapetus, separates the North American continent from Africa and Europe, just as the Atlantic does today. We are just off the coast of a continent that is located on the equator. The water is as warm and blue, the sun is as hot and bright, as the modern-day Caribbean. It is out of this past that our cold mountains rose.
There could be nothing further from our winter sojourn up the mountain than such visions of a tropical paradise. Yet the two contrasting views cohabitate this landscape nonetheless. Just below the final rise I pause to put on a second winter coat, pull the hood tight, and brace myself for the summit. We crest over the top, the highest point. The wind is like being hit with an invisible door, and immediately we have to backtrack to take shelter behind the rocks. I attempt to stand and am instead reduced to crouching. But the view is spectacular. The landscape appears as if painted on a sheet of translucent glass, the high pressure of the cold air keeping any humidity at bay, the sunlight as sharp as cut crystal. Never in Vermont have I seen a comparable view. There is time enough only for a few photographs before we must head back down the mountain. We descend with an open view to the north, caught in the timelessness of the trail.