Friday, April 22, 2011

Saddleback and Basin (and Saddleback) 2011-04-22

The drive from Montreal was uneventful aside from an unusual glut of cars at the border at 5:00 AM. I arrived at the The Garden parking lot at 6:30 AM on a sunny Friday morning. There was a welcome nip in the air (23 F) because it meant the trails would be frozen. I suspected the conditions would change during the day so I was armed for everything: snowshoes, microspikes, and 12-point crampons.

My feet were still healing from last week's hike. As an experiment, I applied zinc-oxide ointment (for diaper rash!) and medicated foot powder to see if it would reduce chafing, heat rash, and the other mementos I collected from my last hike. At 7:00 AM, I registered to hike Saddleback and Basin and, feeling cocky, I added "Big Slide optional". I often want to change my itinerary en route but, not having recorded my optional destination, I err on the side of safety and stick to the original plan. Should a serious accident befall me on an unrecorded route, it'd be that much longer before help arrives.

The trail was dusted by a recent snowfall and the ground was frozen; bare-boots provided adequate traction. Except for a few traces, the trail had very little left of its snow-spine. Sections of the trail were fractured and pock-marked by frost. The soil near brook crossings was decorated by curlicues of ice. Water dripping from deadwood solidified into molasses-coloured icicles. I made good time and covered the three-mile stretch from The Gardens to the DEC Interior Station in an hour and a quarter.

The clearing next to the DEC Interior Station was covered in two inches of snow that would be gone upon my return. I crossed Johns Brook, running with snow-melt, over a late-model suspension bridge. The trail conditions on the east side of the brook changed and featured an inch of snow over an icy base. It became a slippery chore to bare-boot so I stopped to put on Trail Crampons. By staying on the snow-spine, the microspikes provided adequate traction up to the summit of Saddleback.

It was the first time I ever hiked the Ore Bed Brook trail. I stopped along the way to photograph a few of its many waterfalls, now running with snow-melt. At the 1.5 mile point, near an enormous tree-topped glacial erratic, the brook runs over a wide expanse of exposed rock. The water was flowing over the smooth rock in a thin, shimmering, rippling film. I thought it'd be a great spot on a hot day in summer but I imagine, deprived of snow-melt, the 'carpet of water' would probably be reduced to a trickle.

At 8:50 AM, I crossed Ore Bed brook and passed Ore Bed lean-to. The lean-to's roof is skewed and gives it a rakish look. Most of the elevation gain occurred over the next hour. I encountered a few sections that, given better snow conditions, would make awesome butt-slides. After my hike, I reviewed the guidebook's trail description and it indicated a section with a ladder. I did not see a ladder but I can imagine which steep, snowy section might contain it.

Frosted moss dreadlocks.
I arrived at the Gothics/Saddleback col at 10:00 AM. Owing to the rains and recent dusting of snow, the entire stretch of the Ore Bed brook trail was pristine snow and unmarked by footprints. However, it was relatively easy to follow due to obvious routing and plenty of markers. The trail up Saddleback required a little more attention because the route wasn't blindingly obvious, had fewer markers, and the snowpack's depth is considerable. I would discover that the Saddleback/Basin col would require even more attention.
I arrived on Saddleback's summit at 10:30 AM. Owing to the sharp drop on Saddleback's southern face, the col between it and Basin seems more like a vast gulf. I stopped for a quick snack and then proceeded to descend Saddleback's rocky cliff. The rock was snow-free and all paint blazes were clearly visible. The trail leading to the cliff was icy and the rock was frosted in places so I didn't remove my microspikes. The descent was a little tricky and I took my time to pick a safe route (that didn't necessarily coincide with the paint blazes). Once past the cliff face, the snow-pack was intact and I slip-slided my down the steep incline into the col.

I found one marker, continued on into the col and then zigged when I should've zagged. I thought the trail was towards my right, in an obvious clearing, and chose to follow that route. Within minutes I dead-ended in a thicket. I pulled out my map and saw that the trail ran dead-center through the col whereas I was veering towards the Johns Brook side.

I turned hard left and within a few feet snagged my snowshoes (strapped to my pack) in low-lying branches. I thrashed, tore-free, reversed, turned hard right, and headed into the col. Within a minute I felt cold water running down my pant leg. My bite-valve was missing and water was coursing down my left leg. As luck would have it, I had left my pocket unzipped for ventilation and the water found that chink. I pinched the tube shut and realized I needed to find the bite-valve because I didn't have a handy substitute. I found it in the most obvious location, namely where I flailed about to free myself from the branches. The bite-valve's winter-cover has a small loop that must've snagged during the struggle. Something to guard against if I ever find myself bushwhacking through cripplebrush.

The wet snow was balling beneath my microspikes, rendering them both uncomfortable and ineffective. Thirty year-old, 12-point Salewa crampons (purchased mail-order from MEC) would now be pressed into play. I hadn't worn them since I ascended Marcy's icy southern face in November of 1981! Fortunately, I had recently adjusted them to fit my new winter boots and practiced putting them on. Yet, sitting on my snowshoes, perched on a steep incline, pack hooked on a tree branch, where anything laid onto the snow skittered off into the col, it took longer to don them than in the horizontal comfort of my family room. However, once on they felt bomb-proof and, careful not to slice open a leg, I marched up the icy slope.

I spent an hour traversing the Saddleback/Basin col, which seemed like an eternity to cover less than a mile, and arrived on Basin's sub-summit shortly before noon. The remaining stretch, from the sub-summit to Basin's true summit, took twenty minutes. In sharp contrast, the return trip to Saddleback from Basin would take me all of forty minutes. Route-finding, losing bite-valves, lashing on crampons, all served to chew up time.

Basin viewed from its sub-summit.
The section between Basin's northern sub-summit and its true summit represents some of the best hiking spring has to offer. The route is steep, scenic, and covered in a mix of crust, hard-pack, snow, and ice; I loved every moment of it. The final pitch is a steep ramp, located below a boulder perched near the summit, paved in hard ice. My crampons bit into it securely but the well-worn carbide points of my hiking poles were less effective. An ice-axe was the right tool for the job but, given the ramp was perhaps thirty-five feet in length, being extra cautious with hiking poles was adequate. I arrived on Basin's summit at around 12:15 PM to a spectacular vista of Haystack, Skylight, and Marcy.

Final hurdle; a thirty-foot ramp of hard ice.
Haystack, Skylight, and Marcy viewed from Basin.
Thirty years ago, a good friend and I had backpacked the Great Range over three days of foul weather. We saw not one view from any of the summits. Now, atop Basin on a bluebird day, I stood there admiring the beauty that had not been revealed to me so long ago. It reinforced my opinion that summiting a peak is an incomplete experience if you are deprived of its views. I spent twenty minutes on Basin, debating whether I should risk returning via Bushnell Falls or simply reverse my route as I had originally planned. I decided that I had no need to 'test the waters' of Johns Brook and, at 12:40 PM, began my descent back to the Saddleback/Basin col.

Re-tracing my steps made the return trip simpler and faster. Descending the ice-ramp required focused attention but the open snow-fields were pure joy. About a half-hour later I was beneath Saddeleback's cliff when I heard my name being called. I had seen people on Saddleback's summit and guessed it might be Cynda, and company, who had indicated her intention of hiking to Saddleback. I replied "That's me!" and continued up the steep, snowy trail where I discovered a pair of sunglasses emerging from the melting snowpack. It was the best find of day compared to the alkaline battery and stainless-steel nut I discovered later on. Next time I'll bring a trash bag so I can pack out messier finds like discarded hand-warmer packets.

Hikers above Saddleback's cliff.
Beneath the cliff, I stopped to remove and stow my crampons and jacket. I carefully made my up the rocks and, at 1:20 PM, met Cynda, Mary, and family. It's always a great pleasure to make the acquaintance of forum members. We chatted for awhile, discussing the day's trail conditions, past trips, and future hikes.

At 1:45 PM I bid them goodbye and pressed on to The Gardens. To speed my descent I frequently veered off the hard snow-spine and strode down the softened snowpack in the woods. It wasn't as gratifying as glissading through powder snow but unquestionably faster, and a lot more fun, than negotiating a rocky, muddy trail in the summer. The best part was bounding down a snow-covered slide adjacent to the trail.

I was back at the DEC Interior station at 3:00 PM where I stopped to change my socks. The ointment and powder seemed to make a difference because my feet were less red and chafed then they normally would be. Nonetheless, it felt good to strip off the damp socks and slip my feet into dry, pre-powdered socks. I toyed with the idea of tackling Big Slide but decided that it would make a for a long, tiring day. In addition, I had no way of contacting my wife to let her know I'd be home exceptionally late. Big slide could wait for another day.

I left the Interior station at 3:15 PM. The trail back to The Gardens was substantially different than when I hiked it earlier in the morning. All the snow was gone and several patches of mud had developed making it feel very much like hiking in the fall. Along the way I was surprised to hear an owl hooting. I was under the impression they were nocturnal birds so it seemed unusual, to me, to hear one in the middle of the afternoon. The three-miles seemed to pass slowly yet my pace was virtually the same as in the morning and I arrived at the trailhead at 4:35 PM. I counted fifty-two people who had signed in after me including a group of eleven who had omitted to indicate their destination. The most popular destination of the day was, you guessed it, Big Slide.


See all photos.