"The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart." - Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
A sense of dread has hung over Jason Spare's life.
Spare's father was 33 years old when he had his first heart attack. It almost killed him. Spare's mother had breast cancer and complications related to the chemotherapy haunted her. They both died in their late 50s.
"I always had in the back of my mind a sense of mortality and urgency in life from being in that kind of situation so early on," Spare says.
Spare, 46, looks worried. He's digging through his stuff and reorganizing his backpack on the cold concrete floor of an ancient feeling ski lodge. He's getting ready for what will be the hardest thing he has ever done: a 50-mile, 36-hour hike through the wilderness of Vermont in the middle of January. The hike, which will follow the Long Trail over the state's highest mountains, is called Extremus.
Lodging for Extremus is in the middle of the Green Mountain Forest at the Blueberry Hill Inn, in quaint Goshen. Cellular service is almost nonexistent here. Nothing is open past 9 p.m. The Inn sits deep inside the national forest, down a string of winding roads covered in packed snow. Most of the hikers will sleep on the floor in the rustic Nordic ski lodge across the street from the Inn—a few will chose to sleep across the street in the Inn.
Spare has a salt-and-pepper goatee, and he smiles like a man who's seen more than he lets on. When he's not smiling, he has a determined countenance that can be off-putting. But maybe that's because he has a lot on his mind. He's never hiked in a winter like this and he's focused as he packs and re-packs his backpack. Everything needs to be perfect.
Packing a bag for Extremus is a delicate balancing act. If Spare is short on supplies like food and water or extra layers then he could put himself in mortal danger. Temperatures will drop below zero and the wind will be howling, so time is of the essence if he needs something. He can't be fiddling inside his pack looking for a new base layer if he gets too wet. But if the pack is too heavy, it will wear him down physically and slow his pace down, which will hamper the movement of his team and sap valuable energy. The goal is to have a well-organized pack weighing around 25 pounds, half of which should be food and water.
Winter hiking is treacherous in New England. Conditions change without warning. Storms pop up out of nowhere. Earlier this year, a 32-year-old woman died from exposure between Mount Madison and Mount Adams just over the border in New Hampshire. There are signs on the Long Trail warning that the weather at the top of the mountains is the worst in America.
The Long Trail is, as its name suggests, the oldest long-distance trail in the United States, built from 1910 to 1930 by the Green Mountain Club, which still maintains and preserves the trail today. It runs 272 miles through Vermont, from its border with Massachusetts all the way up to the Canadian border. The trail navigates through the main ridge of Vermont's famed Green Mountains and includes some of the states' highest summits: Killington, Stratton, Mount Mansfield (Stowe), and Jay Peak. It winds through some of the most remote areas of New England. A hiker might travel on it for days on end and not encounter another human being.
The trail is unforgiving. One slip or change in weather patterns can leave somebody alone, stuck in the cold, surrounded by snow, and far away from civilization with no escape plan. Last May, a hiker was found dead in Vermont after getting lost along the trail. He planned to go on a three day hike but got lost and called his family. A search team was sent out for him, but by the time they reached him, the hiker was dead, done in by the conditions.
Spare, meanwhile, has never done anything like Extremus, a torturous, arduous test of fitness and toughness in the dead of winter. He trained by taking a few weekend excursions and doing the best he could to prepare his body and mind at the gym and in the woods near his home in Delaware. But none of that can prepare someone for the real thing. What Spare has going for him is his determination.
Growing up in South Jersey, Spare lived a dual life as a teenager. He competed in wrestling, soccer, and martial arts but found himself drowning his life away with alcohol and drugs. He went from one reform school to the next before dropping out at 16. He eventually got a GED and worked one job after another; construction, washing dishes, whatever he could find.
In the mid-90s he cleaned up, put himself through nursing school, and started running marathons and triathlons. But he wasn't satisfied with just being fit. He wanted something more. Races were great, but he wanted to push himself further.
Now, Spare spends his free time preparing for extreme events. He started with a Tough Mudder a few years ago, and was immediately hooked. He met some great people and decided he wanted to be part of the brotherhood that has formed in the endurance sports world.
"I wanted to try something that didn't have so much of a main objective as just finishing it," says Spare.
After each GoRuck and Spartan Race, he found himself wanting to go back and see what else his body could endure. It was his gateway drug towards a different life; the way he dealt with that lingering sense of dread.
"One by one I would do a different event and I loved pushing myself and I always considered myself a quitter early on and these events kind of showed to me that I'm not a quitter," Spare says. "It helped prove to me that I can endure and stand things, that I'm not going to quit when you things get tough. I'm not going to let people down."
As people start to pile into the lodge to check-in and sign over their lives, Spare drifts off into the distance. He disappears for a bit, hoping he's done enough to prepare. Everyone will head across the street to eat dinner before a quick safety meeting and final preparations. The participants will gather into teams and plan for tomorrow. Maps need to be examined and groups need to get to know one another. All the people who've signed up for Extremus are experienced endurance athletes, but everyone has their strengths and weaknesses.
Spare finds out he's in the last group. He's pulling up the rear and that means a lot of potential waiting in the cold. He'll need to stay focused and keep his head straight. Unlike many of the other hikers, Spare rented a room in the inn. He isn't ashamed to sleep in a bed the night before pushing his body to the limits. Every second of sleep is vital and Spare and his fellow hikers only have a few hours to get some rest in before the bus takes off at 3 a.m. for the final 90-minute journey to the base of Vermont's tallest mountain.
It's two in the morning and it feels like I'm standing on the edge of the Earth, like I can touch the stars in the sky. The world is black around me. The light pollution I've become so accustomed to does not reach this part of the world. The blackness surrounds us as we pile into a yellow school bus and a few vans and cars. The temperature is dropping below zero and it already feels like ice is building up inside my lungs.
Everyone is prepared for the worst. The deep freeze won't stop until the sun rises. By then, the 36 Extremus devotees will be climbing. The hike will be physically and mentally taxing, the snow will be deep and the wind will feel like small razor blades rubbing against any exposed flesh it can find. Society will be nowhere to be found. Serious injuries will require Hollywood-style rescue missions. But this is Extremus, this is what these lunatics signed up and paid for.
We're heading to Smuggler's Notch, a pass between two mountains that closes in the winter because it can't be plowed, where the group will head onto the Long Trail and ascend Mount Mansfield. Smugglers used to transport illegal and embargoed goods from Canada down to Vermont using the notch at Mount Mansfield as a secret pass, giving it its name. Today, it's the gateway route for Extremus. The hikers will head down the unplowed and blocked road towards the Long Trail trailhead. They'll bang a left and instantly begin a steep climb to the top of Mount Mansfield, the tallest mountain in Vermont.
It is eight degrees below zero. The plan is to hike at a pace of two miles an hour. Everyone is instructed to put on crampons or micro-spikes on their shoes for the the 2,000 foot hike to the first pit-stop along the trail.The Extremus hikers slip on their headlights and gather up as a group before heading off into the distance. They've all spent months training for this, but really, there is no way to prepare. The cold will engulf them. They will inevitably get lost on the unmarked and unbroken trails. They will go the wrong way and their water and food will freeze.
My toes go numb after only a few minutes of standing in the snowcapped parking lot before the group ascends into the darkness.
We're all here because of Andy Weinberg, the 42-year-old co-creator of the world famous and tortuous Death Race. In July, Weinberg and his friend Jack Cary decided to start a new society of extreme athletes looking to challenge themselves physically and mentally. They came up with the Endurance Society and now, after seven months of planning, Extremus is the inaugural event.
Weinberg, who grew up in Peoria, IL, is a cult figure in the endurance community. He ran his first triathlon in high school and eventually moved on to ultra-marathons—any race that is longer than a standard marathon—and decided to keep pushing himself mentally and physically by pursuing challenges like Triple Ironmans. In 2005, he met Joe DeSena and they came up with the idea for the Death Race. After meeting DeSena, Weinberg decided to move to Vermont, but did it in his own special fashion: by riding his bike for seven days and 1,200 miles from Indiana, where he was a teacher, to Pittsfield, VT, where he and his family now live.
"Andy has a magnetism about him that anybody would back up me saying that," says Coffey. "He knows how to put on an event. He knows how to get great people. I don't even know how to explain it: He's just Andy."
While Weinberg is magnetic, his partner Cary is the cautious and calculated part of the Endurance Society. A 39-year-old computer programmer who dropped out of high school (he eventually went back and graduated), Cary is quiet and reserved.
After reading a thru-hikers journal in 2003, Cary quit his job in Florida, sold his car,and decided to hike the Appalachian trail. When he reached Maine—2,050 miles of walking—Cary got sick and moved to the outskirts of Burlington, where he decided to live. He got hooked on endurance events and has done everything from the Dublin Marathon to hiking in the Swiss Alps to running up Mt. Fuji under cover of darkness to see the sunrise.
During the safety meeting the night before the trek, Cary is the realist who tells the group that most of them won't finish and about the dangerous conditions that await them. While Weinberg brings people in with his personality and connections, Cary plans and organizes.
The first checkpoint the hikers will reach is Taft Lodge, the oldest and largest shelter along the Long Trail. Weinberg will notice some troubling trends when they get to Taft: steam rising off people's heads when they take off their hats, sweat dripping from their foreheads. They were overdressed, and now they're sweating, starting to soak their inner layers. Wet clothes drain body heat, which causes hypothermia. It also causes dehydration. Dehydration drains muscles, including the brain, and causes people to slow down and make poor decisions.
Weinberg and Cary gather up their crew of loyal followers and tell anyone who struggled to turn around and head back to the base of the mountain. The climb won't get any easier. The conditions at the top of the mountain support Alpine Tundra from the Ice Age. There will be deep snow. There will be patches of ice. There will be icy ladders to climb and there will be a devastating wind chill that can bring on frostbite in just a few minutes—skin must be covered at all times.
And after the next stop at Taylor Lodge, there is no turning back.
"At this time it is minus 10 degrees, the sun is up and I will tell you what it was absolutely gorgeous as the sun was coming up through the mountains," Weinberg says. "It was beautiful we had this orange glow in the woods; absolutely gorgeous."
The sun glows on the teams as they cross the peak of Mount Mansfield. They're above the treeline and the big orb is right in their face, warming their hearts and raising their spirits. The hike has taken longer than expected and they're behind schedule,, but this moment is what these kinds of journeys are about. Three-plus feet of snow along the trail slows them down. They keep sinking and finally decide to put on their snow-shoes.
Taylor Lodge, the second regrouping spot on Extremus, is located in Nebraska Notch, between the "Forehead" of Mt. Mansfield and Mt. Dewey. I join the support staff there, waiting for the hikers to arrive. The original lodge was built in 1921 but was burned to the ground in the 50s when some hikers tried to build a fire inside it. The shelter was rebuilt and named after J.P. Taylor, the founder of the Green Mountain Club, which maintains the Long Trail. The second shelter burned to the ground again in 1977 and had to be rebuilt, this time without a wood stove inside. Names are carved into the walls and there are two picnic benches on the front porch. Inside there are three layers of flat sleeping spaces for people to spend the night or take a nap while hiking along the trail.
The sun shines down on us, beaming into the open side of the shelter and keeping us warm while we wait. When it disappears behind the clouds for an extended period of time, the water jugs I carried with me quickly ice up and start to freeze. We have to shake them and insulate them while we wait to keep them drinkable for the hikers. We don't know how long it will take for them to arrive. The little bit of radio connection we have doesn't give us a real sense of the distance or the conditions on the trail. It will be hours before we hear from Weinberg over the radio.
My toes go numb. I wish we could start a fire to warm up, but with the lodge's history of burning down, it's easy to understand why fires are not allowed. I unravel the sleeping bag I carried up the mountain. It's Coffey's and it's much too small for me, but I take off my boots and climb in anyways, curled up in the fetal position. My toes sting and I need to bring them back to life. I pull my hat over my head and close my eyes.
The hikers finally stroll in hours later than expected. Nine of them drop out, including Jay Miller, one of the team leaders. His knee is bothering him and he can't go on. He's visibly slowed and struggling to walk. He wants to fight through the pain. He wants to push himself and stick with his team—he's the leader after all. But he can't.
Miller grew up in Simsbury, Conn., a small suburb outside Hartford. A milkman and inventory supervisor by day, he's a CrossFit coach in the evening and a cannonball of a young man—short, compact, and powerful with an almost jet black mop of hair on his head. Weinberg picked Miller to be a team leader because he has a knack for pushing people past their perceived limits.
Miller grew up camping around New England with his family during the summer vacations and studied recreation and leisure administration (learning how to show other people how to have fun outdoors) at York College in Southern Pennsylvania. He used studying for his degree as an excuse in college to pack his things for a weekend and travel to Maryland and spend time backpacking, cliff jumping, and exploring coves.
Eventually, he fell in with the obstacle racing crowd and then moved onto GoRucks, which are extreme bonding experiences that take their cadence from U.S. Military basic training and are put on by former Special Ops personnel. The point of GoRuck is to bring people together through shared suffering and challenges. Miller did his first GoRuck in February 2013 in Atlantic City. He was stuck outside for 10 cold, wet hours of misery while carrying a 50-pound bag (the ruck) on his back. Half way through the event he was rethinking his decision.
"I said to myself, maybe half way through the event, that there is no way I am signing up for something like this again if I even make it through it," Miller recalls. "I'd say a week or two after I signed up for my second one."
Miller continued to sign up for GoRuck events, though. He wanted to keep pushing himself. He doesn't want to look back in 40 years and wonder where the time has gone or what he did with his life. He wants to find out who he is now.
"So many people in their day to day life they get up and go to work and it's just a grind. Some people are stuck on the grind for 30 or 40 years and their life goes by. Since that last college exam nothing has challenged them," Miller says. "I don't know what my limits are. I haven't hit that point yet."
Whenever I ask anyone why they would sign up for this kind of event, they inevitably give me a story about some sort of struggle in their life: losing a parent, pushing past addiction, etc. But they also keep coming back to the friends they've made doing extreme events.
"There is a certain amount of solace and suffering," Spare says. "I mean, when you're beyond your worst and it's 3 a.m. and you're freezing cold and you're wet and you just want to go home and everything is starting to suck and hurt, you look over at the guy or the girl next to you and all it takes is that smile or giggle or stupid joke and it's just amazing. And the feeling afterward of the accomplishment is just incredible."
There is a real connection to military training and camaraderie within Extremus. The hikers are searching for the kind of brotherhood that soldiers forge in basic training. They have been through hell and back and would do nearly anything for one another. But this group of extreme athletes, for the most part, don't want what comes along with signing up for the military and, for the most part, again, they don't have to sign up to get out of some economic strife that they were born into. They aren't a disadvantaged kid looking for a way to pay for college or to straighten out his or her life. No, they're middle class Americans looking for a struggle that they may not see from their cubicles or home offices.
The struggle is setting in for Miller, whose injured knee has finally caught up with him. Before the group reached Taylor Lodge, Weinberg stepped in and told him it was best if Miller didn't try to continue. He is disappointed, but the pain in his face as we slowly trek down the mountain on groomed trails says everything. There's no way he could have kept pushing himself, or putting his fellow hikers at risk. The worst is yet to come for those who continue on. It will be 1 a.m. before the hikers see anyone again.
What awaits them is one of the most remote and lonely sections of the Long Trail. Since the last snowfall, this stretch of the trail hasn't been touched save for the moose living in the mountains. There won't be any ski tracks from Nordic skiers and there certainly aren't paths cut from snowshoers or previous hikers.
"We were the first ones since the fresh snow," Weinberg says. "There was no trail at all in the snow beyond Taylor Lodge."
Beyond the physical struggle of pushing through snow and steadying your body on icy climbs, hiking in winter wears out the mind. Each step counts and focus is vital in making sure you don't sink through a tree well—loose snow built up around a tree that someone can sink through and get stuck in. And there's staying on track. Everything looks the same in the untouched wilderness covered in snow. Trails are covered. Shrubs are hidden beneath snow pack. Trees look the same with their white frosted branches. The mind can confuse itself trying to orient itself in a world that seems to be on repeat.
On top of all that, the Long Trail is identifiable by a series white markers on trees, and it's easy to lose your bearings and focus. Your mind starts playing games on itself. The snow pressed and splattered against tree trunks starts to look like trail markers. Paths seemingly form out of nothing. The Extremus crew finds navigating past Taylor Lodge exhausting and frustrating. They keep backtracking, searching, and exploring trails to find the route to their next stop, Jonesville Road in Bolton, which should take eight hours.
As the sun begins to set, around 4:45 p.m., the teams regroup to collect their thoughts and turn on their headlamps. The compass says they're on track, heading south, but somehow the hike has taken them west. They need to backtrack. Weinberg and Cary have mapped out and hiked the trail on their own and know the route—they spend large chunks of their lives and weekends exploring the mountains of Vermont—but the snow, the setting sun, and the struggle of navigating with a group of people with varied experience hiking in the winter has them searching for answers.
The trail eventually opens up into a clearing with fresh moose tracks and droppings and a shortage of trail markers. Popular culture has given the moose a friendlily and cartoonish lure, but they're actually quite dangerous. They average between 5 and 6 1/2 feet tall, can weigh as much as 1,400 pounds, and have been known to charge people when they feel threatened. Thankfully, no moose are in sight. But the clearing makes finding the trail difficult. There are any number of paths the hikers could take and now it's up to the lead group to find the right one. While the lead team searches, everyone else stands and waits in the cold, trying to regulate their body temperature and maintain their sanity.
Eventually, after 30 minutes of searching, the trail is located and the hikers get moving again. Now they're horribly behind schedule, though, forcing Weinberg and Cary to talk privately about a possible change in plan. They try to do it so no one will notice. They don't want to disappoint anyone or bring down the morale. Cary and Weinberg decide there's no way they can get everyone to Appalachian Gap—the proposed ending point—come Sunday night. The pace is too slow and there's no way to make up the lost time.
"We thought it would be liability issue," Weinberg says. "We told everybody we'd be done by Sunday; they have enough food to go until Sunday and it would be negligent to keep them until Monday.
"One of our goals was that everybody experiences a unique adventure, winter travel together in a group. We already met that goal. The second goal was to get everybody out of the woods safely," he continues. "I think risking that and pushing on to [Appalachian] Gap we would have gone into Monday and our support crew would have been drained and who knows what would have happened with the participants. We made the decision that we were going to pull the plug at Camel's Hump."
The next spot to take a break is at Puffer Shelter, which is really a lean-to that looks up at Bolton Mountain (3,500 feet high) to the South and Mt. Mansfield to the North. The hike to Puffer is roughly 3.4 miles, but all the delays have slowed the hike down so much that Weinberg and Cary need to reassess where they are at.
Things look grim inside the shelter. Hypothermia has started to seep into the bones of the Endurance Society's devotees, Weinberg included. The early morning sweating and all the stopping on the trail has brought people's core temperature down. Their bodies are tired, dehydrated (water bottles, even insulated ones, froze within an hour of being outside), and people have gone quiet, a sign they're retreating into their own world and losing focus and feeling. Weinberg and Cary figure 16 of the 27 remaining disciples have mild hypothermia. They need to get help.
After the regrouping session, they move out and head towards Bolton Mountain. Weinberg and Cary linger in the back to discuss what to do next. They're worried that if they keep getting lost they'll lose someone to hypothermia, exhaustion or dehydration. They have to discuss all their possible options for keeping everyone safe.
"One of our options was turn back to [the lodge] and get everybody in that lodge and use our body heat—we did have some sleeping bags, we could keep people who were hypothermic in the sleeping bags," Weinberg says. "We were thinking about that: If this was a rescue situation, we'll build a fire and we'll have to stay overnight. We'll try to keep everybody as warm as possible and we'll definitely survive through the night."
The climb up Bolton is arduous. There are so many false hopes and peaks. The sun has set and the wind picks up in the mountains. The tree cover is minimal. People begin shivering and retreat further inside themselves. Jonesville, the lowest point on the Long Trail, is still some miles away and a steep climb down. Weinberg and Cary know they won't make it down before something bad happens. Months of planning and fighting to get this hike insured and approved could go up in smoke if they lose someone or force a rescue crew out in the middle of the night. If a disaster somehow ruins their reputation with the local authorities, making permits harder to come by, Extremus could possibly be the Endurance Society's last hike.
At the top of Bolton, Weinberg and Cary decide to change routes. They need to get everyone out safely. Luckily, Bolton Ski Resort is right there and they can climb down a ski trail and get to the parking lot, where they've radioed the support team to meet them.
"Our goal was to safely get the people to a warm van who needed to get there," Weinberg says. "I think when we found that ski trail that there was a sense of relief, everybody in the group. I don't think there was a single person that was upset we went that direction. They knew if we had continued south we would have been risking more time standing around looking for the trail, which in an essence could have caused more problems."
It's 1 a.m. when the group arrives at the parking lot of the Bolton Ski Resort. The support staff has brought pizza and sports drinks for the Society members climbing down the mountain. Spirits for some are still high and they want to continue on to climb Camel's Hump. There is no way the group will make it the whole distance in the time they planned, so Camel's Hump would be the final climb. But most of the people are tired and ready to call it quits.
Spare's clothes are soaked and he's cold like the rest of the group. While his mind says "keep going," his body isn't ready for that. "I think I would have been in a lot of trouble," Spare says. He made it this far and now a bed at the Inn is calling his name.
Part of the group that wants to go on to Camel's Hump decide to head back to the Inn to get some rest. They'll leave for Camel's Hump at 7:30 in the morning and finish their weekend with one last hike.
There isn't enough room in the vans for everyone. I drove myself up to the mountain and Weinberg is standing in the parking lot with all his stuff looking for a ride. He's the last one stuck out in the elements. So he hops in my car and we are the last ones out of the parking lot. We talk for a few minutes before he quietly dozes off. We're still an hour and a half from the Inn. The world is quiet. Only a few cars go by us. I can feel my brain shutting off. I start to hallucinate on the dark and winding roads as I drive. The road ahead turns into a white light. I think I'm driving to heaven and then my eyes blink and I see the snowy road winding in front of me. I crank the music in my car to keep myself awake. Weinberg barely stirs.
We get back to the Ski Lodge, across the street from the Inn, around 3 a.m. People are sprawled out on the floor asleep in their sleeping bags. I restart the fire in the wood stove and head to bed. In four hours I'll hear Weinberg waking people to go hike Camel's Hump. I'll pass, getting a few extra hours of sleep and some much needed breakfast.
By the time the small group of 11 people comes back from the hike up Camel's Hump, almost everyone else has headed home. The lodge is nearly empty. I decide to spend one extra night. It's cold and a snowstorm is rolling in. The roads are treacherous. I'm not up for the challenge. For everything these people have taught me about pushing myself, a four hour drive with tired eyes over slippery roads isn't something I want to risk. A night in a warm bed sounds like a better idea.
When I talk to Spare a few weeks after Extremus, I ask him if he'd sign up again. He says he can't wait. He wants to get back in the mountains. He will be more prepared next year—Weinberg says they will be doing the same route to try and finish it. These are his people after all, and there's no way he'd pass up the chance for another adventure with them, even if it means nearly dying from hypothermia and getting lost in the unknown.