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Caring for Vermont's Fragile Summits (7/05)

The Green Mountain Club stations summit caretakers on the four peaks that see the most visitors: Mt. Mansfield, Camels Hump, Mt. Abraham and Stratton Mountain. The first three of these peaks have the only arctic/alpine vegetation in the state.

Summit caretakers are experienced hikers whose mandate is to protect both the summits and the visitors to the summits. Caretakers work every weekend during peak hiking season plus three week days. (Days off are negotiated among all the GMC workers on a specific mountain, and the summit caretakers cover for shelter caretakers on their days off.)

Caretakers of summits and shelters also have other duties, such as maintaining the composting privies along the Long Trail. However, the primary job of a summit caretaker is to interact with visitors to the mountains and educate them about hiking safety, Leave No Trace ethics, and fragile alpine ecology without lecturing or overwhelming them.

Meet Kristin Link

Kristin is a second-year summit caretaker for the GMC. She was on Mt. Mansfield last summer, mostly stationed at the Visitors’ Center at the top of the Toll Road from Stowe. This year, Kristin is working on Camels Hump.

Kristin was born in Belgium, lived a while in New Jersey, and completed high school in London. She’s currently between her freshman and sophomore years at Middlebury College, considering a major in Environmental Chemistry with a possible second major in Studio Art.

Kristin first fell in love with New England’s mountains as a young child when she visited her grandparents in Maine and did some backpacking on the Appalachian Trail. After that experience, Kristin has looked forward to summers as “my time to get away and run to the mountains”.

In spring 2004, Kristin decided to apply for a job as a GMC summit caretaker. She loved the idea of talking informally with other hikers while acting as the first line of defense for Vermont’s unique alpine summits. On the job, Kristin quickly realized that she’d have to use a wide range of approaches in order to reach the largest number of hikers. Like other summit caretakers, she has to gauge each hiker’s level of expertise and tolerance for new information. Sometimes, she sits down with groups of hikers and gives little mini-lectures. Other times, she walks along with them for a while, answering their questions and pointing out things that might interest them.

Last summer she found out that many of the visitors who take the Toll Road up Mt. Mansfield know very little about mountains and are actually frightened when they step off the wooden walkways and are out on open rock faces for the first time in their lives. Kristin said she always urged visitors to walk at least as far as Frenchman’s Pile (a heap of rocks on the ridgeline, not far from the Visitor’s Center parking lot).

“The top of the Toll Road really isn’t a mountain experience. I didn’t want them to leave without just a taste of what a mountain is really like. Besides, it’s so cool when they don’t think they can go that far and they do and then they’re so psyched. They think it’s a really big deal – and it is for them.”

Many of the other hikers Kristin met last summer on Mansfield were old pros. They knew about Vermont’s fragile alpine summits and they didn’t really need reminders to stay on the trail. But they were often delighted to spend a few minutes chatting with another experienced hiker, sharing information about trail conditions and wildlife sightings.

An important part of the summit caretaker’s job is to be prepared for emergencies. Particularly on Mt. Mansfield, where so many visitors either drive up the Toll Road or take the gondola part of the way, summit caretakers see people who simply aren’t prepared for what a mountain can deal out. Kristin always carries extra water and first aid equipment. She’s also worked out gentle ways to advise people that they might be setting themselves up for trouble. For example, she’s seen people start out across the Mansfield ridgeline toward The Chin wearing backless sandals with narrow high heels. Kristin said she might be thinking “No way! Those shoes just aren’t going to cut it!” But aloud she’ll say very gently, “It can be quite treacherous between here and the summit. You might want to change into hiking boots if you have some in the car”.

Kristin thoroughly enjoys meeting all of the visitors to Vermont’s mountains. But she takes the greatest pleasure in meeting and interacting with the youngest hikers.

“I think when you get past a certain age, it’s very hard to get interested in outdoor stuff – so I love seeing kids on our mountains. It means they’re getting the right start, and what they learn now will stick with them for their whole lives.”

That’s certainly true for Kristin. Her early AT experiences led directly to her current job, on top of Camels Hump.