Lauren R. Stevens: Up the Bellow and down the Notch Road
WILLIAMSTOWN >> Odd in mid-January to be able to walk four miles up the Bellows Pipe Trail to the summit of Mt. Greylock, a low-snow feat — and then ski six miles down Notch Road. Even odder, at least for me, to have figured out that this would be possible and — with a piece of luck — pull it off.
So I set out early a.m., wearing hiking boots, with ski boots in my backpack, carrying poles and skis. Sun about to rise over Ragged. Temperature in the low 20s at the base. Henry David Thoreau had learned in 1844 that the Bellows, his route to the summit, was named because "the winds rush up and down it with violence in storms." No storm this day, but a bellowing wind as I climbed higher.
Good news: the Department of Conservation and Recreation had repaired the shelter, 2.5 miles up. A few years ago, someone apparently built a fire on the wooden floor, with the inevitable result. In a corner, a bag of freeze-dried turkey teriyaki, left by some camper, no doubt; more surprising a cardboard box containing a dozen volumes of Shakespeare.
I'm all for high class reading material in the woods, reminding me of another of Thoreau's observations as he read scraps of newspapers left at the summit: "Some sober, private, and original thought would have been grateful to read there, and as much in harmony with the circumstances as if it had been written on a mountain-top." Still only about five or six inches of snow, as I followed someone's footsteps on the steeper portion of the trail.
Surmounting the second of the switchbacks required some scrambling, because of the ice beneath. Branches were covered with light snow over ice as well. By the time the Appalachian Trail joined, the snow was a foot deep, but still manageable, especially with the aid of earlier footprints coming up from the Thunderbolt Trail. The steep ascent just below the road crossing was another scramble.
The same freeze-dried brand, this time mac & cheese, inside the Thunderbolt Shelter, where I ate a frozen sandwich I'd brought and changed into my ski boots. No beer cans, a sign that there was too-little cover for snowmobilers. The parking lot was mostly an ice sheet, the wind having cleared the snow. I knew from past experience that would also be true in open places on the road down.
Here's where the luck came. A snowcat had been up, presumably to service the WCDC television (and WAMC radio) broadcast tower. Where the powder was deep, it was easier to ski in its tracks. Where the wind had swept the snow clear, revealing either ice or blacktop, cat tracks remained snow-covered, providing a narrow but skiable path. This effect saved me from having to remove skis and walk for several stretches, especially at the turn from Summit Road onto Notch, where the headwind was strong (and cold).
Biking, say, up the mountain, you get the feeling that it's mostly steep up; funny that skiing down, you have a sense that hey, it's not so steep; in fact there seem to be long, flat stretches. Until near the bottom, at those hairpin turns just above the gate. This was also where the snow began to run out, and so I finished the downhill run as I had started the entire trip, having changed back into my hiking boots. "It is very rare that you meet with obstacles in this world which the humblest man has not faculties to surmount" — Thoreau again.
At least, that's how it looks from the White Oaks.
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