Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Saddleback and Basin 2013-02-26

Have cold, will travel!

When it comes to hiking with others, the one thing I dread is having to opt out due to illness, especially if we are a group of two. A cancellation can be a tremendous inconvenience and a loss of time, money, and other resources invested in the trip. I've had one or two near-misses with falling ill before a trip but on Monday evening, the asteroid hit its mark.

I left Montreal late Monday afternoon, bound for Tmax-n-Topo's hostel. During the 2.5 hour commute, I began to feel a tightness in my throat. It developed into a burning sensation accompanied by mild fatigue. I hoped a hearty meal at the Lake Placid Pub and Brewery followed by a good night's sleep would resolve it.

The following morning confirmed by worst fear, I had contracted a cold. My throat was raw and my sinuses were in overdrive. I decided to ignore the symptoms and continue with my day. I arrived at the Garden and informed Brian (Pathgrinder) that I was not well and unlikely to complete Haystack, Basin, and Saddleback. I asked if we could hike them in reverse order since I only needed Saddleback and Basin for my winter 46. He didn't object but indicated he would've been more comfortable ascending, rather than descending, Saddleback's cliff.

We left the Garden at 7:10 AM. The walk to Johns Brook Lodge was an interesting experience. Despite the fairly mild temperature (22 F) I felt cold and wore more clothing than I had worn on similar winter hikes. Naturally, I was sweating but it felt like the "I'm sick" kind of sweating rather than the "I'm exercising" kind (if that makes any sense). I was having a hard time on relatively flat terrain and knew it wouldn't get easier. I felt like a dishrag and, if I did not feel better soon, I decided I'd turn around at Johns Brook Lodge.

We arrived at the trail junction in good time. Perhaps I was being hasty and could manage to climb at least one peak today. At the very least, I ought to try. It was a lovely, sunny morning, we had invested time and effort to get here, so I shouldn't throw in the towel just because my throat hurt. Would I rather be at home or hiking my 44th and 45th winter peaks? I accepted my condition as being a marked contrast to how well I felt on all other hikes. People soldier through nastier afflictions than sore throats and runny noses.

Off to Saddleback.
We passed folks camping near the Orebed lean-to. The tent was simultaneously too close to the brook and the lean-to but we didn't bother to comment. We paused for a short break in a clearing with an excellent view of Saddleback's slide. When we arrived at the Orebed slide, I was feeling more confident that I'd see Saddleback's summit on this day.

Ski tracks on Ore Bed slide.

Brian ascending the Ore Bed slide.
Shortly before reaching Saddleback's col, Brian asked what my intentions were for Basin. I replied I'd be more than happy with Saddleback alone. From Cory Delavalle, who had ascended Saddleback's cliff the previous day (and eight other peaks!) I learned the cliff had been carpeted in snow plus it received another inch or two during the night. Descent would be challenging and I was not certain I had the energy reserves to tackle it plus the ascent of Basin.

Three hours out of the Garden, we reached the Gothics/Saddleback col. We lost the window of good weather because the clouds had rolled in and blanketed the summit of Gothics. The trail sign indicated a half-mile to Saddleback but it felt longer. Thirty-five minutes later, we were on Saddleback's summit. Saddleback became my 44th winter peak and the excitement overshadowed all symptoms of illness.

Views are fleeting.
Although I didn't know it at the time, I had reached the summit in the same time it had taken me in April 2011. The winter of 2010/2011 was a banner year for snowfall and provided wintry hiking conditions well into April. We were making good time but the effort required (for me) seemed greater than usual. Pleased with my success, I cast my gaze into the murky col. Basin lay a short distance away but first one had to descend Saddleback's cliff in less than ideal conditions.

I had hoped the weather forecast would hold true but it did not. The summits were engulfed in clouds and Basin was obscured. A few breezes would occasionally lift the cloud cover and offer a peek at the magnificent scenery but only for a few fleeting moments. A brief glimpse into the col confirmed the cliff was coated in snow thereby eliminating any hope of an easy "friction descent" on dry rock. I told Brian I'd wander to the western end and inspect the cliff.

Brian gets a peek at Basin's slides.
The fresh layer of snow combined with diffused lighting made it difficult to judge the distance of the ground beneath my feet. Mindful of the depth-perception problem, I carefully made my way over to the western end and, peering down the slope, searched for a potential descent route. I found something promising but couldn't see beyond the initial thirty-five feet. While walking back to the summit, I glanced at the traditional route and it did not seem feasible to me. The thin snow cover appeared to offer no friction for boot soles and no purchase for crampons. Our chosen route would need plenty of solid handholds.

I explained to Brian that I thought I may have found a a potential descent route. We were both aware of a reported "right hand route in the trees" but didn't know where it began. I did see a very steep and narrow rock chute, with what appeared to be faint footprints at its base, but I didn't think we could descend it safely (I now believe it is the start of the "right hand route"). Given that it was only 11:00 AM, we ought to take the opportunity to, at the very least, explore the cliff. If successful, I was willing to continue to Basin. Brian concurred and we proceeded to prepare for the descent. Brian  wore full crampons and I used Trail Crampons. Given that the rock was dusted with an inch or two of snow, neither device was ideal for the conditions.

Brian took the lead and we made good progress until about three-quarters of the way down. We reached a point where the handholds ran out and the rocks forced us to down-climb a nearly body-width gap in a very precarious manner. I realized we reached the "crux move" and neither of us was skilled to execute it. While Brian attempted to solve the puzzle, I scouted an alternate route but it led to a man-high ledge with no secure handholds. The situation was heartbreaking because safer terrain lay a mere fifteen vertical feet below us. In addition, snowshoe prints at the base of the cliff seemed tantalizingly close. The base may have well been miles away because we could not safely descend the next fifteen feet. Despite all our efforts, it was a dead-end and we had to abandon it.

Brian discovers our descent-route is a dead-end.
I looked up and eastward to a line of trees and exclaimed that's where we need to go. We ascended and traversed without incident and found the bottom of a narrow chute. It was the same chute I had seen from above and it didn't look any easier to climb than to descend. Turning our gaze downslope, we saw a natural path through the trees and, carefully wading through thigh deep snow, ploughed to the base of a wall. We followed the wall westward until it ran out and then continued down through the trees and emerged at the set of snowshoe prints we had spied from above. It was done; we had descended the cliff. All it took was forty-five minutes and a lot of patience and care.

Chimney Bypass.  A roundabout way of avoiding the chimney in winter.
Relieved that the worst was now behind us, we proceeded to ascend out of the col and up Basin's northern slope. When I caught sight of the glacial erratic, I grinned because I knew the summit was well within reach. The ramp below the erratic had a cover of snow over a base of ice and I was able to ascend it in snowshoes. Brian was still wearing his crampons and had no trouble surmounting it. Less than one hour from the col, we arrived on Basin's summit where we met a lone hiker, Gary Koch. Basin offered no views but I was elated to be standing on its summit.

One last tricky incline to go.
For a few moments, I was asymptomatic and revelling in the day's accomplishment. Haystack was not in the cards today but we managed to visit two peaks and in "good style". I thanked Brian for being an understanding and supportive partner. Five minutes later at 1:00 PM, summit photos taken, winds increased, views hidden, we left my 45th winter peak.

Basin makes 45.

We caught up with Gary at the trail junction where we stopped for a snack. I had not hiked the Shorey Shortcut in over thirty years so it seemed like a good time to revisit it. Perhaps it was due to the engaging conversation with Gary, or the excellent snow conditions, but I found the Shorey Shortcut to be a pleasant trail. Sure, it makes you climb in either direction but it offers a few good views and it beats having to return via the Haystack/Range trail junction.

We arrived at Slant rock at 2:15 PM. Gary, who appears to be a big fan of butt-sliding, climbed Slant Rock and then butt-slid down. We continued walking and talking until we split up perhaps a mile or two past Slant Rock. We continued to leap frog one another until JBL where we, now wearing Trail Crampons, overtook him and pressed on to the Garden. My cold symptoms were evolving and now my ears were blocked and I had trouble hearing.

We arrived at the Garden at 4:50 PM, approximately 9.5 hours from our initial departure. It was a relief to change into dry clothes. We made tentative plans to hike to Dix for my 46th peak and then departed for our respective homes. I had the heat turned up in the car, the seat heater on maximum, and wore a jacket all the way home; I couldn't get warm. The following day I was gripped by sneezing, sinus congestion, runny nose, and malaise but I have no regrets. I hope to return in a week, cold-free, and celebrate atop my final peak.


See all photos.

See Brian's photos.

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