Thursday, February 13, 2014

Basin and Saddleback. 2014-02-13

Neil and I left the Garden trail-head at 6:45 AM and bare-booted the Phelps trail to the Shorey Shortcut junction. The trail was all hard-packed snow and we didn't even bother to bring microspikes. The temperature was 14 °F (-10 °C) and the cloud ceiling was hovering around 4000 feet. The predicted snowstorm was several hours away and we had a hard-limit of 5:00 PM to exit the Adirondacks. We didn't see any reason why we wouldn't be out well before then.

At the junction, we paused to put on snowshoes, Neil calibrated his altimeter, and we headed up the Shorey Shortcut. Just before its crest, we paused to admire the slides on Basin's southwestern flank. The clouds partially obscured our view but we managed to study the slide's track and wonder what it looked like up close.

Beyond the height-of-land, the one good viewing spot of Haystack offered nothing to see. The snow conditions were soft underfoot and we made a rapid descent to the junction in the Basin-Haystack col. We paused briefly for a snack, stowed our packs and headed south in search of an abandoned pack.

Given that were in the vicinity of a reported "lost pack" we calculated it would take us no more than 45 minutes to locate and retrieve it. It's location was estimated to be midway between Sno-Bird and the 3-way junction at the base of Little Haystack. It had been hung from a tree and temporarily abandoned, to save weight, while its owner continued to Haystack. Upon her return, she and her son overlooked to retrieve it. Apparently some of its contents had been transferred to the son's pack and I was under the impression it was mostly empty.

We passed Sno-Bird and continued up the slope. The midway point came and went and we trudged upwards towards the 3-way junction. Neil was in the lead, breaking though several inches of fluffy snow and was the first to spot it. As reported, it was hanging from a tree along the trail.

The first thing that I noticed was that the pack was larger than I had expected. From its belt dangled a water-bottle, folding knife in a leather sheath, and a goody-bag with snacks. Its appearance suggested it was far from empty and my suspicion was confirmed when I lifted it off its perch. I'm fairly certain I said something like "This thing is heavier than my pack!" only with more colorful language. Weighing it afterwards, my assumption of it being "mostly empty" was very far from reality. The "found-pack" weighed 15 pounds! Hello "training weight"!

I looked up and saw the exposed rocks of Little Haystack's treeline. To satisfy my curiosity, I dashed up the trail and, within fifty feet of the pack, arrived at the 3-way junction. Neil arrived a moment after me, grinned, and asked if I wanted to continue to Haystack. He was joking, of course, because we not only didn't have enough time, there was little to see, and Neil had visited Haystack several times over the past few weeks.

Three-way junction below Little Haystack.
We returned to the pack, I shook it free of snow, put it on, and we glissaded down to the col. After a brief ascent to the Shorey Shortcut junction we were reunited with our packs. We paused to inspect the "found-pack". It did not appear to be damaged, by hungry critters, because its goody-bag still contained dried fruit and a piece of granola bar.

The water bottle contained a cup of what appeared to be frozen orange juice and there was no way to empty the contents. I put it and the, now empty, goody bag into the pack and handed the sheathed knife to Neil for a look-see. I did a cursory inspection of the main compartment but only to satisfy myself that it didn't contain any bricks (to explain its heft). It wasn't my property so I was not comfortable rifling through its contents. Nevertheless, the darn thing weighed a tick over one stone and I was hoping there was something non-essential inside, like a frozen leg of lamb, that I could discard.

There was no easy way to combine the two packs into one, so I chose to wear both of them in a "spooning" fashion. The found pack had substantial padding so I wore it and then threw my own pack over it. The shoulder straps of my pack, extended to their maximum length, didn't sit properly but tended to slide outward and into the underside of my deltoids. I couldn't buckle the sternum strap, to draw the shoulder straps inwards, because it sat high up against my neck. It was an interesting little problem that didn't have an obvious solution other than "ignore it".

The two packs "spooning".
Neil set a comfortable pace and it took us an hour to ascend Basin. The ladder was easy but the long stretch of iciness above it was trickier. Once the trail moderated, I knew the worst was over and now we had a short walk to the summit. As expected there was nothing to see and we continued on to Saddleback.

Atop Basin's frosty summit.
Basin's northern side had far more snow then its south, especially drift snow. The ample snow made for excellent glissading and it was fascinating to watch the drifts fracture and slough off their underlying base. This winter's conditions have created an avalanche hazard and it was evident from observing the way the packed powder sheared away.

I had some trouble maintaining my balance with the poorly-distributed weight on my back. I missed a turn at the base of a slope and ended up in hip-deep snow. Whereas the trail held a few inches of snow, just enough to obscure all previous tracks, the surrounding woods were filled with "feathers and oubliettes". I struggled to get back on my feet and vowed to be more careful on the descents.

I recalled there was a very steep pitch just before the final drop into the col. As expected, it was glazed in ice and descending it in snowshoes was not part of my skill set. Using the trees along its perimeter, we monkey-armed our way around and down the hurdle. Once in the col, I let my guard down for a moment as I pushed a branch away with my right arm and walked into a knee-high stump with my left leg. The stump let out a sharp "Crack!" and I let out a grunt. Neil looked back and said "What was that?" in a tone that suggested "Tell me that wasn't your femur!" I reassured him I was fine, just clumsy.

We stopped in the col where we had our first view of Saddleback's cliff. Actually, the clouds only let us see the lee side of the cliff but it was still impressive. The rocks were frosted and that suggested they were slippery. Leaving behind our microspikes now seemed like a questionable decision. Maybe I should have looked in the found pack to see if it had a set or two!

We paused for a snack and a breather before the next milestone, ascending the cliff. If the conditions didn't prove to be favorable, it would make for an interesting afternoon. Based on Neil's description of his recent ascent via Chicken Coop Brook, to the very col we were standing in, it didn't seem like conditions were optimal for a retreat via that route. Come ice or snow, we'd make the cliff a "go".

When I used to rock climb, back in the Age of the First New Wave, I had a bad experience that left me, for better or worse, forever wary of "helping hands". Wearing a pack loaded with climbing gear, I intended to rappel (abseil) down the climbing route. An acquaintance (not my climbing partner) offered to lower me to the ground and I accepted. Unlike a rappel, where you are in complete control of your descent, being "lowered" places your destiny completely in someone else's care. Long story short, I was dropped the last few feet. I landed squarely on my back and the blow was cushioned by my pack. Miraculously, I was uninjured but I vowed to never be lowered again and to never climb with the "acquaintance".

With our snowshoes, poles, and assorted packs strapped to our backs we proceeded to ascend the cliff. The rock was indeed frosted and slippery. The first move, just getting up onto the cliff, was a challenge given the lack of friction for hands and feet. Neil made the first move and I placed my hands under his left boot-heel to give him a bit more purchase. I proceeded to duplicate the same move but declined assistance predominately due to an aversion of "helping hands". I should have shared my little story with Neil because I may have come across as being a stubborn hard-head.

We continued to follow a secure line that brought us to a six foot stretch of gently sloped but seriously frosted rock. We tested the surface, slid, and could not find anything that would allow our bare-boots to stick. I looked around but found nothing easier. We explored the slope further and found that the "move" needed to clear it would have to be "dynamic" (forward momentum is your friend; don't linger at an intermediate position). I took note of the handholds on its far side and envisioned how I would have to move across the rock.

Having the longer legs, I volunteered to go first. I stepped out with full commitment, made contact, allowed my left boot to smear and slip, and let forward momentum be my friend. Contact! I turned around, braced myself, and outstretched my arm. Neil reached out for it and cleared the slope in one smooth step. OK, that part was done. Clearly, this was not going to be a summer-like, five minute, speedy ascent of the cliff.

We moved laterally to the marked route. It was a section of blank rock bisected by a boot-wide crack choked with ice and snow. Neil indicated this was the route he had taken during his last trip. Without microspikes, I didn't like our chances of ascending all fifteen feet of the clogged crack without a slip. Popping out of the crack put you on the frosted rock and we knew it offered no friction. I voted to continue east to the nearby winter route. We discussed it briefly and Neil agreed to try the treed ramps of the winter route.

We post-holed up the ramps and monkey-armed around the worst of the ice to arrive at the base of the chimney. It was a grunt getting there but it was comforting to know a slip would deposit you a few feet away in cripplebrush rather than unyielding rocks. The chimney was frosted but free of significant deposits of ice and snow. We removed our packs and I clambered up onto the top of a large flake. Standing on the flake placed me chest-high with the top of the chimney. The surface of the exit ledge was sloped and completely iced over. No "get out of chimney for free" card today.

I reached down and Neil handed me the packs, one at a time, which I proceeded to deposit on the exit ledge. I did my best to push the packs as far as I could so they rested on the nearby cripplebrush but arm's length is all I could muster. They needed to be secure otherwise they would slide off the ledge and drop ten feet to the base. The same fate awaited us if we didn't pay attention to our footing on the iced exit ledge. Of course we first had to get out of the chimney and onto the ledge and that required a bit of study.

There was no way to "mantel" onto the ledge (the term comes from climbing onto a fireplace mantel) because it was iced, sloped, and being at chest-height it was simply too high for my skinny arms. The frosted walls of the chimney yawned outwards, like an open book, and I couldn't see how to use them to any advantage. A four-inch wide vertical crack offered the best option.

I raised my right foot to thigh height, inserted my boot into the crack and locked it place with a toe-jam. At chest-height, I inserted my right hand into the wide crack and locked it in place with a fist-jam. I pulled hard on my fist to ensure my over-mitt would not cause it to release; it held firm. With my left hand on the lip of the ledge, I levered myself upward and stood tall. It was a very easy rock-climbing move but one I had never attempted in winter conditions (or since Duran Duran dominated MTV).

I scanned the exit ledge and found nothing desirable. Knowing time was of the essence, I placed my left palm flat on the ice and, thinking that if I apply all my weight it will hold fast, proceeded to mantel onto the ledge. Once on the ledge I realized I was crouching on sloped ice and the best real-estate was occupied by the packs. I grabbed nearby cripplebrush and, with zero points for style, pulled myself towards it.

I explained to Neil what I had done but cautioned him the hardest part was placing one's left hand on the ice and expecting it to "stick" during the mantel. To eliminate this wild-card, I would belay his ascent. I found a secure handhold, braced one leg, grabbed a pack and, using its shoulder strap as a sling, lowered it to him. Neil repeated the jams, levered himself up, grabbed the strap and, in a strange maneuver where he inched forward in concert with my pulling the pack higher, he cleared the icy ledge and moved into the cripplebrush. I maintained my belay position while he moved the packs higher and out of my path. A few more steps and we and our baggage were on a level portion of the trail. Big grins all around; the hardest part was now behind us.

We looked back at the top of the cliff and it was sheathed in ice. Had we chosen to continue straight up the cliff, and succeeded, we would have had to traverse east, to the summit, over the ice. I think it would have been a little dicey even in toothy snowshoes. We'll never know.

All's well that ends well on Saddleback.
Wearing snowshoes again, we walked up the last few yards of rock to the summit. We paused for a minute and then headed north to begin our descent into the Saddleback-Gothics col. During the descent we were treated to an impressive view of Gothics and the cable route.

Gothics in full winter garb.
The trail into the col was unbroken and made for good glissading in snowshoes. Upon reaching the col we encountered a hard-pack trail indicating recent traffic to Gothics. It was now 2:00 PM and several miles stood between us and the car so we didn't dawdle at the junction.

Upon reaching Ore Bed slide we ventured out onto it and, hugging its edge, plowed down through the soft snow. A short distance past the slide's debris field we encountered two hikers, the only ones we would see all day.

Upon reaching the Ore Bed Brook lean-to we chose to stop and remove our snowshoes. The lean-to's entrance was completely sealed with a huge sheet of plastic. Neil took a peek inside and I jokingly quipped "Let me guess, there's a tent in there?" to which he replied "Yup!"  I looked inside and saw a tent occupying the lion's share of the floor along with piles of freshly cut branches and short sections of dimensional lumber for kindling. I looked outside and noted a blackened hole, the tell-tale sign of a recent camp-fire. Ironically, one had to pass an eye-level "No Fires" sign to enter the lean-to.

Beavers, in a tent, in a sealed lean-to?
The multitude of infractions was unlike anything I had seen in recent memory. It was unclear if the occupants were the couple we had met on the trail. It was also unclear if they made the fire or it was made by a previous party. Anyway, it wasn't our responsibility to clarify the situation nor to identify the culprits. We left everything as we found it and pressed on to Johns Brook Lodge.

We walked past Camp Peggy O'Brian, crossed Johns Brook, and hoofed it to the Garden. We emerged at 4:20 PM, approximately 9.5 hours after setting out. I entered a note, in the bottom margin of the trail-register's logbook, indicating the multiple infractions at Ore Bed Brook lean-to.

We stowed out gear, put on some dry clothing, and by 4:30 PM we were off to Montreal. Not a stellar day for views but a very interesting one nevertheless, filled with challenges and discoveries.


See all photos.


  1. Great report, especially your vivid description of Saddleback's ascent. I was wondering if you think going with crampons (and an axe) would have made a difference on the cliffs?

  2. Yes, some form of moderate, or aggressive, traction (Hillsound Trail Crampons or full crampons) would have certainly made a difference on the cliffs. Had we bothered to bring our Trail Crampons we would've chosen to ascend directly, via the standard route, as opposed to the so-called "winter" route. Although not by design, our decision to leave them behind certainly made for a more challenging experience.

    I don't believe an ice-axe would have been useful. There wasn't enough coverage to have permitted an ice-axe to be used for self-arrest. Maybe for "dry-tooling" but, quite frankly, I don't feel the standard route 's slope isn't steep enough to require such techniques.