Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Marcy, Haystack, Basin, Saddleback, Gothics 2012-07-25

In terms of ideal weather for hiking, the forecast indicated Wednesday would be a day free of clouds, showers, and thunderstorms. The summit forecast for Marcy promised to be sunny, high of 55 F, with winds speeds of 25 to 35 mph. Yes!

I really had high hopes of completing a Great Range Traverse (GRT) this summer and felt all I needed was more stamina. I took up running in the spring and felt the improvements over a two month period. I believed I was on schedule for a successful GRT until my right knee developed a debilitating pain. It took three weeks to recover (i.e. walk without limping). I resumed running and added a lot more stretching before and after each run; however, my knee hasn't felt right since the injury. A recent hike confirmed it was unhappy with the kind of deep knee bends normally required during descents. Fortunately, it had few complaints during ascents and that meant I wasn't doomed to be a flatland hiker.

I decided to hike the upper Great Range, Marcy to Gothics, with the mindset that I was hiking the entire Range; my provisions and pace would be for a full GRT. After completing my 'half GRT' I would assess my performance and determine what improvements were needed to successfully complete the entire route. 

I left Montreal at 4:30 AM. Despite being thwarted by a road closure and a poorly marked detour, I arrived at the Garden at 7:00 AM. The lot was about four cars shy of being full. I remembered to bring exact change for the parking fee, but another arrival, a young woman from Québec, did not. I couldn't make change for her fiver so I simply gave her the extra two dollars she needed for the fee. What goes around, comes around.

I was looking forward to this trip because I'd be hiking the classic "HaBaSa" route, sandwiched between Marcy and Gothics. I've never seen the section from Shorey Shortcut to Little Haystack nor the site of the former Sno-Bird leanto. Thirty years ago, I descended Basin to Shorey Shortcut but it is now a distant memory. Similarly, I've descended the cable-route on Gothics and was now looking forward to ascending it. As always, I enjoy meeting other hikers and the trip would prove to be a success on that front; the trails were alive with people enjoying a spectacular day in the High Peaks.

I left the Garden trailhead at 7:20 AM. Only three groups of hikers had signed in before me but the number of cars in the lot suggested many people were camping in Johns Brook valley. The trail was dry and free of mud and I made good time; I arrived at JBL an hour later. A few folks were socializing on the deck and enjoying the crisp morning air.

At 9:00 AM I arrived at Bushnell Falls leanto which was occupied and featured several tents in the vicinity. Beyond Bushnell Falls, the trail gradually ascends through a beautiful conifer forest. I arrived at Slant Rock (9:45 AM) and stopped to replenish my water supply. At the brook, I met a couple who had camped and were preparing to hike Marcy. I used a SteriPen to sterilize about a liter and a half of water, bringing my supply up to four liters. It was far more than I needed (the next reliable source was at Sno-Bird) but I was simulating the conditions for a full GRT hike. We were joined by a second couple who had hiked Marcy the previous day and were now heading to Haystack. A third couple marched through as well, bound for Haystack. I'd meet all three couples again, later in the day.

I'd forgotten how pretty the trail is between Slant Rock and the Marcy/Haystack col. It ascends steadily, over a fairly good trailbed, through a boreal forest and offers a few glimpses back along John's Brook Valley. I arrived at the trail junction (10:15 AM) and turned right for Marcy. Up to this point I had set myself a hard-charging pace and was feeling no pain. The ascent from the col forced to stop and catch my breath. I had to adjust my pace because my enthusiasm was overreaching my conditioning.

Above treeline, I caught up with two teenagers, a boy and girl, and attempted to match their pace. I marvelled at how swiftly and effortlessly they moved over the rock and easily recovered from slips and missteps. Perhaps feeling that I wished to overtake them, they paused to let me pass. The girl said "We're holding you back" to which I replied "Not at all, I'm barely keeping up with you!" Needless to say, a few hundred yards later this old man had to pause and was immediately overtaken by the boy; the girl dropped back and proceeded at a more relaxed pace. Pausing reminded me that 55 F, with a 25 mph wind, felt great while hiking but very chilly when standing still in a soaking wet T-shirt. I pressed on and arrived on the summit at 11:00 AM.

Marcy: 1 of 5.
I sat on the lee side, not far from the summit steward, and admired the view of Haystack. Within minutes the teenagers, their parents, and other hikers, joined me to get out of the chilly wind. They asked what the steward did and he began his lecture on summit ecology. I had no intention of spending time on Marcy so that was my cue to depart for Haystack. Not wanting to seem rude I sat politely for a minute before leaving (11:05 AM).

During the descent, I met the couple from Slant Rock and an attractive young woman who inquired about the summit weather. I also met the new bane of my hiking life, my right knee. It had been silent since the Gardens but now it found its voice. During a routine step-down, a stabbing pain was accompanied by what I can only describe as "over-stretched rubber bands shifting around in my leg". I stopped dead and wondered if this was the end of my hike. A few tentative steps proved the "rubber-bands" were still intact but, from now on, I'd be favouring my left leg. I reached the col (11:42 AM) where I met a group of weary hikers resting before the final push to Marcy.

The ascent out of the col reminded me, one of many times throughout the hike, the advantages of hiking in winter. A deep snowpack, acting like wrinkle cream, smoothes away clefts, drop-offs, boulders, rocky slopes, and other blemishes. The first section of trail out of the col, that made for an amazing butt-slide in winter, is a crazy-steep jumble of rocks. The "shredder" is mercifully short but does gets your heart pumping. Beyond it, the trail ascends steeply but at a more humane grade. 

At noon I was out of the col and, just above the cripplebrush, had a clear view of the Haystacks, junior and senior. I was thrilled and, to be repeated several times throughout the hike, grinned ear to ear. I'm sure if a kindred spirit saw me, at that moment, they'd think "He's having a great day in the mountains!" Others might think "Who's this lone nut-job?".

I paused at the Range trail junction and spoke briefly to a couple returning from Haystack. There certainly were more than a few husband/wife, boyfriend/girlfriend teams out in the woods today. I continued up Little Haystack and paused to admire Haystack's silhouette; it looks like a child's depiction of a mountain, namely an "inverted vee". While descending Little Haystack's steep southern side, I met the first of the two Haystack-bound couples returning from the summit. A few minutes later I met the second couple and was greeted with "Oh, you're shaming me!" Quips like that are always welcome to boost one's ego but I knew that my fitness level was far from where I wanted it to be.

Haystack viewed from Little Haystack.
Within a few yards of the summit I had the most amusing encounter of the day. Three teenage girls inquired, with crisp British accents, if I had just come from Haystack. Slightly perplexed by the question I said I had arrived from Marcy and we were standing on Haystack. They replied they thought they were on Little Haystack and relayed the good news to several other teenagers on the nearby summit. I smiled and asked if they had a map. They produced a few scribbles on a crumpled bit of brown paper bag. I jokingly suggested they might not want a ranger to see that. I asked if they started from the Loj to which they replied "Upper Ausable Lake". Ah-hah, I indulged in some 'class profiling' and surmised they were privileged guests of the AMR, perhaps from the summer camp. Maybe this was an exercise in self-sufficiency because I didn't see adult supervisors. The girls seemed a wee-bit unprepared but no worse for wear and definitely in good spirits. Who can deny a teenager's sense of resilience and immortality. I stood on Haystack's summit (12:36 AM) and looked northwards to "BaSaGo"; the best was yet to come.

While descending Haystack I passed a female hiker who described her pace as "puttering". She explained she normally listens to books while hiking which I thought was an interesting concept. Personally, I enjoy hearing nature's sounds, as opposed to music, books, or whatever, but to each her own. In the Haystacks col, I caught up with the previous couple; he exclaimed "Hey, you don't waste any time on the summits!" I explained my itinerary and he said they were considering Basin as well. I looked forward to meeting them again but we never did.

I was back at the Range trail junction at 1:00 PM and decided it was time to use my hiking poles for the descent to Sno-Bird. It was only the second time I was hiking with low-cut shoes and, combined with the unpredictable antics of my knee, it made me atypically unsteady on rocky descents. The hiking poles helped me regain my confidence.

Along the descent I met a couple from Québec, who decided to stop for lunch after learning the junction was still a ways off, and, ostensibly, a family headed for Haystack. They had that weary "this is tougher than we thought" look about them. Mom did all the talking, Dad muttered a few words, and the teenage kids were wide-eyed and silent. They stood close together in single profile. Mom was interested in an alternate return path, namely the red trail. I described the upcoming Range trail junction and the descent to the Haystack/Marcy col terminated by the "shredder". I hesitated to ask if they had a map for fear of seeing another bespoke drawing on a grocery bag. I have no idea if they came by way of Shorey's Shortcut or Basin but, aside from smiling Mom, they looked to be in dire need of a rest. I bid them well and pressed on to Sno-Bird where I stopped to top up my water supply.

To date, I've had no issues with my SteriPen mostly because I've drawn water from clear, running streams. Haystack brook presented a challenge because each bottleful came up with suspended debris. I tried pre-filtering the water by covering the bottle's mouth with a clean bandanna but discovered it was surprisingly water-resistant. Refusing to be defeated by a bit of cloth, I tucked the bandanna into the bottle, thereby creating a makeshift funnel, and it allowed the water to flow in quickly. It was a bit of a bother and I concluded a traditional filter-pump is more convenient for handling water with "floaters".

I explored the Sno-Bird area briefly and understood its appeal. Although views are in short supply, it offers several surprisingly clean and level tenting spots in a secluded area where "level" is unexpected. If you're willing to haul overnight gear up Shorey's "Shore Ain't No" Shortcut, then Sno-Bird is a fine base camp for Basin and Haystack. Although the valley was alive with campers, Sno-Bird was deserted. After twenty minutes to rest, snack, and down Nuun-flavoured water (that sounds very odd when read aloud), I departed (1:38 PM) for the eagerly anticipated ascent of Basin.

The trail features several rugged spots and steep pitches, one being notably spanned by a ladder. The hiking poles were appreciated but grabbing tree branches worked better at times. Maybe it was excessive anticipation or a quirk of the terrain but the summit always seemed over the next rise yet always failed to materialize. Finally, at 2:22 PM, I stood atop Basin. I spun around and marvelled at the view of Haystack and Marcy.

Basin: 3 of 5.
Once again I spent little time on the summit, no more than five minutes, and continued on to the next peak. On Basin's northern slope, the trail takes a westward turn and descends a steep, rocky ramp and then makes a hard turn northwards. If you fail to negotiate the turn at the base of the ramp you'll plunge off a thirty foot cliff. I recalled this section from a hike in April when the ramp was a sheet of iceThe trail proceeds along the very edge of the cliff and serves as a test for vertigo. Whoever cut the trail had a love for exposure. All this to say it is a memorable few yards of trail.

View of Saddleback and Gothics.
The descent into the Basin/North Basin col was an eye-opener. Again, I had wintry memories of steep but smooth snow allowing me to ski down on snowshoes. Hah! Outside of winter, there's nothing smooth about this section. It's no worse than other rugged trails in the High Peaks but it's no slouch either. It reminded me of the steep drop off Santanoni when descending via the Express route. The descent from North Basin into the Saddleback col is equally "irregular". All told, it took me about 35 minutes to traverse Basin to the base of Saddleback's cliff followed by another 8 minutes to ascend to the summit.

I have no advice to give anyone who wishes to tackle Saddleback's cliff in the rain (try not to?). I've done it in thick fog, laden with a heavy framepack thirty years ago, but the details are equally foggy. Warm, dry rock is the best surface for a little bit of scrambling fun. I'd say it is a solid Class 3 slope as per the 14ers site: "Scrambling or un-roped climbing. You must use your hands most of the time to hold the terrain or find your route". It was fun and gave my hands something to do instead of clutching hiking poles.

From Saddleback's summit I had a clear view of a new slide on Basin, one of many created by Irene throughout the High Peaks. I knew there was another new one along the Orebed trail and I was eager to see it firsthand. But first I had an appointment with Gothics.

Saddleback: 4 of 5.
I had already stowed my poles prior to the cliff scramble and, being a lazy cuss, I chose to descend without their aid. Twenty minutes later I was in the Gothics/Saddleback col and beginning my ascent of the cable-route. The fifth peak of the day did not come as easily as its predecessors. I took an inventory of what had become unhappy: upper quads were sore, calves were achy, soles were on fire. I also noted that I needed to pause more frequently to slow my breathing and heart-rate. Aside from 'walking on hot coals', the other complaints could be reduced by more conditioning. I had more training to do before attempting a full GRT.

Atop the first knob south of Gothics, I paused to call my wife. Lake Placid was in view and I got three bars via AT&T. I left a message reassuring her I was fine, that I was very near the top of Gothics (Oops! Not listed on the note I left her!) and would be home a little later than planned. At 4:18 PM I completed the day's goals and stood atop Gothics.

View of the Upper Great Range from Gothics.

Gothics: 5 of 5.
I dropped my pack, looked north and the peakbagger in me said "Hey, look! Armstrong and the Wolfjaws are so close. How about doing a 'GRT 4K', you know, just the 4000 footers? C'mon, it's mostly downhill!" I sat down, considered the words of my peakbagging egotist, and decided to return via Orebed Brook as planned. Today was not the day to complete a GRT in good style; know thyself.

I spent about twenty minutes on Gothics, admiring the views, silencing the growling in my stomach with another Clif bar, and tending to the needs of my tender feet. I had no blisters but my soles felt like hot plates. I greased them with Butt Paste, put on fresh socks and it felt like someone turned the burner off. After a few more photos, I left the summit (4:38 PM) eagerly anticipating the descent.

I didn't find the cables to be essential during the ascent. However, they were very handy to accelerate my descent. When using hiking poles I normally wear cycling gloves and they were perfect for gripping the cables. I walked forward downhill while bleeding off energy through the gloves. Twenty minutes later I was back in the col and heading down the Orebed Brook trail. Within five minutes of my descent I encountered a trickle of water which is good to know if your supply is running low during a GRT.

The cable route.
Prior to Irene, the steepest section of the Orebed trail ascended along a small slide. The slide has grown into a spectacular slope of pristine white rock leading to an impressive debris field at its base. A long staircase has been constructed along the slide's northern side but it is no match for the fun of walking on the slide. For the benefit of those who may be unclear of where to walk on the open expanse of rock, a giant Hi-Liter descended from the sky and drew a series of yellow dashes and arrows. They're of dubious value in the debris field where the dashes appear to suggest you head over boulders instead of around them.

In the debris field I noticed a sharp odour that I associated with the water coursing over the rock. Below the field, the rocks are stained a brilliant orangey-rust colour (either iron precipitate or iron-loving bacteria). I believe the slide exposed a vein of iron deposits which are now leaching into the brook. The result is a foul smell and an orange brook bed. It's something to consider if you plan to draw water below the slide.

Iron fortified water. Yum.
The Orebed trail seemed longer than its advertised 3.3 miles (Gothics to JBL). Nearing six o'clock I passed the Orebed leanto and arrived at JBL fifteen minutes later. I didn't feel as chipper as I did in the morning but overall I was fine and looking forward to having a meal at the Noonmark Diner. I arbitrarily set myself a goal to reach the Garden before 7:20 PM (i.e. within twelve hours of my departure). Whatever I had in reserve came to the fore and I jogged most of the trail back to the Garden. I ran by a couple heading in and resisted the urge to shout "Is the bear still behind me?"

I arrived at the Garden at 7:09 PM. I cleaned up, changed into dry clothes and headed to the Diner for a turkey dinner, blackberry pie, and a large glass of cold milk. It was a satisfying end to a great hike. I learned a few things about myself and the full GRT definitely remains on my to-do list. 


See all photos.

For number-crunchers:

Total time including rest-stops: 11h 49m

Gardens to JBL, 1h 2m
JBL to Marcy, 2h 36m
Marcy to Haystack, 1h 38m
Haystack to Basin, 1h 26m
Basin to Saddleback, 0h 52m
Saddleback to Gothics, 1h 04m
Gothics to JBL, 1h 38m
JBL to Gardens, 0h 53m

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Giant and Rocky Peak Ridge Traverse 2012-07-14

Last summer (July 2011), I enjoyed hiking from the New Russia trailhead, over Blueberry Cobbles, Bald Peak, Rocky Peak Ridge and Giant, to the Chapel Pond trailhead. The experience left me with wonderful memories and I vowed to hike the route in the opposite direction. When Mike (Photobug65) announced his intention to traverse Giant and RPR, from Chapel Pond to New Russia, I jumped on the opportunity. Mike and Doug are great hiking companions and I looked forward to ridge-walking on a hot summer's day.

While preparing my hiking gear, I was reminded of the fact that my last hike was to Iroquois on March 21st; my hiking poles were still equipped with snow-baskets! Starting in April, I had taken up running to build endurance for a Great Range Traverse (GRT) at the end of June. Unfortunately, in early June, my right knee developed a severe pain that had me hobbling on level ground and wincing while ascending stairs. I shelved plans for a GRT and ceased running until my knee healed. After three weeks, the pain eased and I was able to run again. The hike over Giant and RPR would be the first test of my knee's recovery. It would also be the first hike wearing a new pair of low-cut shoes (Garmont Momentum XCR).

I arrived at the Chapel Pond trailhead at 7:40 AM and was joined by Mike and friends at 8:00 AM. Mike, Doug, Christopher and I intended to traverse the peaks whereas four other members of the group, including two friendly dogs, were heading exclusively to Giant. Two additional people were late so Mike chose to stay behind to greet them while we departed via the Zander Scott trail. Along the way, one of our group's members chose to turn back.

We stopped at the Washbowl lookout to wait for Mike and friends to catch up. Upon his arrival, he reported the two other hikers were a "no show". After a half-hour of rest, photos, and pleasant conversation, we split into two groups. Four of us left for Giant and the remaining three, two hiking newcomers led by Doug, proceeded at a more relaxed pace.

Along the way I learned I was in the company of at least three people who completed the Great Range Traverse two weeks earlier. I congratulated them and was happy for their success. I was also a little sad my own plan had fallen through. I eagerly listened to the physical and mental hurdles they overcame. A midnight start was followed by 20 hours of hiking interspersed with long breaks on sunny summits. It sounded as good as I had imagined.

The Zander Scott trail is for hikers who enjoy "all ascent" and "no approach". Exit your car and you immediately begin a three thousand foot ascent over a distance of three miles to Giant's summit. The trail is hardened (rock stairs, waterbars, switchbacks, etc) and passes over open rock slabs offering splendid views of the High Peaks. It has been a hot, dry summer and the trail was mud-free, bone-dry, and dusty! Even the blackflies and mosquitos, who normally enjoy my company (the feeling is not mutual), were absent. Was I truly hiking in the Adirondacks?

Bone-dry trail.
Mike set a good pace and I could feel the months of running had improved my endurance albeit at the cost of a wonky knee. It felt great to be back on the trail and having plenty of energy in reserve.

Each of us brought several liters of water in anticipation of hiking on a hot, muggy day via a very dry trail. By day's end, I had consumed all I brought (3.5 liters). Aside from the Washbowl and Marie-Louise Pond, there are no obvious sources of water.

The summit steward atop Giant greeted eveyone with a "Are you hydrating?". He had packed extra water and offered it to anyone in dire need. As expected, Giant's summit was like a day at the beach minus the water; everyone was stretched out along its rocky "shoreline" and gazing off into the hazy distance.

We played "Name That Peak" and, being 46ers, couldn't stump one another until I spotted one on the horizon lying behind East Dix. Even the summit steward was at a loss to identify it. It appeared to stand taller than East Dix but we knew that couldn't be true. If it was a 4000 footer, we'd all have climbed it! At home I used and my best guess is we were looking at Hoffman. It lines up directly behind East Dix, when viewed from Giant, and is 300' lower than East Dix. 

We spent an hour atop Giant, eating lunch, enjoying the views, people-watching, and trading hiking stories. Doug and the newcomers were making their way to the summit when Mike and I decided to push on to RPR where we'd wait for Doug and Christopher to join us. Fifty minutes later we were atop, much less inhabited, Rocky Peak Ridge. Mike used a walkie-talkie to communicate with Christopher, on Giant, but the reception was, surprisingly, very spotty. Eventually we were joined by Doug and Christopher and we began our trek down the East Trail to New Russia.

Summit of Rocky Peak Ridge.
The open character of the East Trail is due to a forest fire in 1913. One hundred years later, the ridge has not recovered its thick mantle of native conifers. In its place, you walk through open meadows carpeted in sedges, mosses, and wildflowers. There is a strong desire to rest amidst the sedges and watch the clouds pass overhead.

Along the descent to the pond, my knee signalled it was unhappy. I slowed down and paid more attention to using my hiking poles. The pain subsided but I remained watchful of my footing for the remainder of the hike. The new shoes proved to be very comfortable and supportive. I normally wear ankle-height boots but didn't miss their extra support. I did roll my ankle once but, fortunately, did not injure it.

Marie-Louise Pond (or Mary Louise Pond or Lake Mary Louise) is "good from far but far from good". It's a lovely spot to photograph but, up close, its water is brown and opaque. I described it as being "filled with motor oil". Its nearby camp site, nestled among birches, is lovely and offers at least two grassy spots for tents.

Prime camp-site near Mary-Louise Pond.
Shortly before the descent into Dickerson Notch, distant thunder indicated the weather forecast was not entirely accurate. Towards the east we saw a pillar of rain beneath an enormous cloud. It looked like an atomic mushroom cloud and it hovered directly over route 9. Hiking on an exposed ridge in a thunderstorm is not the best place to be. Fortunately, the pillar did not move westwards and the cloud dissipated.

In the path of an oncoming 'mushroom cloud' of rain.
Atop Bald Peak we met three backpackers heading for an overnight stop in Dickerson Notch. One of their party had fallen behind and they asked us to pass on a message: they would return to assist him with his pack. We descended and expected to quickly meet the fourth member. After a significant descent, we were surprised to discover he was not close by.

He was accompanied by his five-year-old son and both were in good spirits. An enormous pack lay on the rock. His right boot had lost its sole and gave him the appearance of wearing a leather sock. We were informed the group was packing 30 quarts of water! I wondered if they were planning a culinary feast featuring many soups and stews. We chatted for awhile, concluded he and his son were no worse for wear, and continued on our way.

Blueberries were few and far between. Unlike last year's bumper crop, I found the bushes to be parched and almost free of berries. The few that bore fruit were mostly under-ripe or tart. The shortage of rain has affected the plants and, although no expert, I suspect many will not bear fruit this season. Many other plants, especially those growing in full sun in thin soil, have withered from the heat.

The remainder of the hike was a pleasant descent on an excellent trail. As throughout the hike, our group of four divided into two groups, Mike and I, Doug and Christopher, moving at different paces and occasionally regrouping at lookouts and rest stops. It was a leisurely descent and tacitly indicated no one wanted the trip to end.

Nearing the New Russia trailhead, we met a group of three women whom we recognized from the summit of Giant. One of the group was clearly injured and was hobbling along using two branches as walking sticks. I inquired about her injury and she explained she had sprained her ankle. I asked where this happened and she said "During the ascent of Giant". I was taken aback. I sputtered something along the lines of it being an example of "sheer bloody-mindedness". It seemed to me that there was plenty of opportunity to turn back and avoid exacerbating the damage to the ankle's ligaments. However, I did not know this woman's tolerance for pain and here she was, many miles and two peaks away from Chapel Pond. 

She didn't accept our offers of proper hiking poles or an elastic bandage. Mike checked his GPS and informed her she was at least a quarter mile from the trailhead and she replied "I've come this far, I'll tough it out". Having very litle else to offer, I suggested analgesics and she accepted two Tylenols. Unfortunately, none of us had any water left. Mike and I pressed on to his car where he retrieved a bottle and headed back to the injured woman. Arriving at the trailhead, the group thanked us for our concern and assistance. We were informed RPR was the injured woman's fourth High Peak.

Mike ferried me back to my car, parked at the Chapel Pond trailhead. It had been a great hike with engaging trail companions and I hope we share more miles in the future. 


See all photos.