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