Athletes endure cold, dark in multi-day mountain challenge

VERMONT — On Saturday, Jan. 18, well before dawn, with the temperature hovering around zero, a group of 50 hikers boarded a bus at the Blueberry Hill Inn and Ski Center in Goshen and drove north. At around 5 a.m., their ride dropped them at the Smugglers’ Notch Road in Stowe, a short distance from the southbound trailhead of the Long Trail.
They then started walking south in groups of 10.
Their goal was to reach the Appalachian Gap in Buel’s Gore by Sunday evening. It would be a 50-mile hike through day and night along Vermont’s historic Long Trail, gaining and losing over 20,000 feet of elevation change in temperatures well below freezing. Along the way, they planned to summit nine mountains including iconic and recognizable peaks like Mount Mansfield (Vermont’s highest at 4,393 feet), Camel’s Hump (4,083 feet), Mount Ethan Allen (3,866 feet) and Molly Stark Mountain (3,662 feet).
“This will be a great team building adventure,” promised the organizers of the event, the Endurance Society, on their website. “We will all need to work together to go the distance safely.”
They also didn’t downplay the extreme nature of the hike:
“Expect frozen water bottles, frozen fingers and frozen toes.”
Unsurprisingly, the trek was called “Extremus.” It was the inaugural event of the Endurance Society, a new series of ultra-distance events organized by two Vermonters and hiking partners Andy Weinberg and Jack Cary. Weinberg, a former Middlebury resident who now lives in Pittsfield, is known for organizing extreme and challenging events including the Death Race, a yearly race in which competitors endure challenges that push their physical and mental limits over several days. According to Wikipedia, Weiberg also was a co-founder of the Spartan Race. Cary is an accomplished through hiker and endurance racer. The two met through The Death Race.
The Endurance Society is a series of endurance events that Weinberg said will “create unique, mind-blowing adventures for endurance and adventure enthusiasts.”
Apparently Weinberg and Cary know their audience. The inaugural event was for members only and the 50 available slots were filled within 24 hours after registration opened; a waiting list of another 50 hopeful participants formed after that.
The group of 50 was split into teams of 10, headed by group leaders that included retired combat medics, experienced hikers and ultra-distance runners. While they advanced through the trek on foot, a group of 30 volunteers traveled south by vehicle, meeting with the teams every eight to 12 hours to resupply food and fluids and to monitor participants’ health.
The journey started with an ascent of Vermont’s tallest peak, the 4,393-foot Mount Mansfield and traveled along the Long Trail. Temperatures dipped to eight below zero.
After reaching that summit, participants began to drop out due to fatigue and mild hypothermia. The large group size, in addition to the freezing temperatures and deep, unbroken snowpack, caused the hikers to move slowly, Weinberg said.
“Some of these people are pretty hardy,” he said. “But they’re from Boston and New York and not used to these kinds of conditions. Some people had poor clothing so they wound up sweating too much.”
As they moved, each group took into account the remaining daylight and the times at which they could rely on their support crew.
On that Saturday night, after more than 18 hours of hiking through deep snow, one group took an evacuation route on the Bolton-Trapps trail connecting the Von Trapp Family Lodge and Bolton Valley Ski Resort to where their support crew waited. Weinberg said the situation was growing urgent.
“We had to get some people out of the woods,” he said. “We were having some trouble finding the route and a lot of people were standing around. At that time it was 11 o’clock or midnight and we noticed hypothermia starting to set in on some people. We chose to get those people down to Bolton Valley. Once they got down to the vans, they realized they could pull the plug.”
The remaining group hiked through Saturday night and into the dawn of Sunday morning. On Sunday afternoon the remaining hikers decided to quit after reaching the summit of Camel’s Hump, opting to take the Burrows Trail off the mountain toward the town of Huntington rather than continue on the Long Trail. They had traveled roughly 30 miles.
After starting with 50 athletes, the number had dwindled to 11 — including leaders Weinberg and Cary.
Not completing the distance, Weinberg said, was a different experience for him.
“I’ve been putting on these events for years and one of the goals of these long distance events is you finish what you set out to do,” he said. “But in this event, we were focusing more on the performance of the group. You could only move as fast as the slowest person in your group. You had to work with that person to make sure they were safe.”
The inaugural weekend event was not a race, but a group trek. The Endurance Society’s first official race open to the public is called “Frigus,” and it is scheduled for Feb. 28, 7 a.m.-10 p.m., in Goshen. Frigus will feature divisions for Nordic skiing and snowshoeing in distances of 10, 30 and 60 kilometers, as well as a sledding contest in which competitors will run 5 kilometers, carrying their sled to the top of a course, and then sled down. Registration for the combined snowshoe, ski and sledding race has sold out.
Weinberg and Cary are also planning a series of open-to-the-public races in May called “Infinitus” in the Moosalamoo Recreation Area with distances of 8, 88 and 888 kilometers. Runners will have 10 days to complete the longest distance (about 551 miles). Obstacle races, bicycle races and an open-water swim are also planned.
Weinberg said he hopes the race will attract a variety of athletic abilities.
“We like the small, intimate races,” he said. “They’re usually pretty insane and pretty challenging and they’re not for everybody, but we try to offer some distances that could be for everybody.”
The Endurance Society also has announced a members-only race scheduled for June called “Sine nomine,” which translates to “without name.” Other than noting the starting date, time (1 a.m.) and registration fee ($379), the society’s website doesn’t give any hints about what the race will entail. Media coverage, blogs, spectators and public discussion of the race are expressly prohibited. The event will take place on private land in rural Vermont. Those who register will get an application, which must be accepted.
They will be sent a list of mandatory gear and approved food and drink containers. The website says, “Attendees found on the course with unapproved gear items will be immediately disqualified, escorted off the private property, and unwelcome at future events.”
The Endurance Society has 2,000 members so far, Weinberg said, with members as far away as Germany, Latvia, Sweden and Israel.
Weinberg and Cary are happy with their inaugural event. The society plans to reattempt the Extremus group trek again next winter, but will alter the trip to include cut-off times to keep groups from moving too slowly. They also plan to let the groups meet sooner to plan ahead.
Despite not completing the full length of the 50-mile hike, participants were satisfied with the experience, Weinberg said.
“It was definitely different than what most people thought,” he said. “When you sign up for a race, you expect you’re going to race individually. But this was a group trek so you had to work together with your team, be smart and work together.”

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