Saturday, March 5, 2016

Socked in on Saddleback and The Horn for New Year's Day

Route: Saddleback Mountain Ski Trails, Appalachian Trail
Peaks: Saddleback (4120', NE4K), Saddleback - The Horn (4041', NE4K)
Mileage: 7.0mi
Elevation Gain: 3000'
Book Time: 5hr (actual 4hr 55min)

Last year following the turn of the calendar to the New Year, a group of us headed up to Stratton, Maine to hike some of the Maine 4000-Footers in winter. Due to really fast trail conditions, most of us visited all 6 of the highest peaks surrounding the Caribou Valley: The Crockers, Redington, Sugarloaf, Spaulding, and Abraham. Before leaving, we all agreed that we would return a year later to see if we could visit the remaining 4 4000-footers in the area: Saddleback and Saddleback The Horn, and the 2 highest peaks of the Bigelow Range (Avery and West). So, we set up a house rental in Rangeley, and on New Year’s morning we all headed off for Maine. The group was almost the same as last year: aside from myself, Chris, Whitney, Pam, and Tim returned from last year’s trip, and Brent was a new addition (Mike from last year was in the process of moving out West).

I’d been unfortunately off the trails, and mostly sedentary, for the 4 weeks preceding this trip thanks to the badly-sprained ankle I suffered in early December coming out from Carrigain. Thankfully, while certainly not at all fully-healed, I was able to hike nearly pain-free as long as I watched my footing (a short spin through the Blue Hills near Boston a couple days before the trip assured me of this), so with good ankle-supporting boots, I was still a go for the trip. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to hike both days, especially with having been sitting around for so long and not having carried a heavy pack yet this year either, but I was going to give it a go.

Unlike last year, when we merely had to drive on the first day, we planned to hike after the up-to 4.5-hour drive. Thankfully, the weather looked reasonable for visiting the shorter of the two hikes, to Saddleback and Saddleback-The Horn. The normal winter route ascends from the Saddleback Ski Area up the ski slopes to an extension that heads to the summit ¼-mile above the top of the slopes. From there, it is a 1.7-mile trek in and out of the scrub and over wide open ledges to The Horn, which is only a handful of feet lower in elevation. (The longer, but also much more scenic, route from Rt. 4 along the Appalachian Trail sees little to no use in winter, and in fact the lot was not even plowed out when we drove by it.) All in all, we expected this hike to take roughly 5 hours to complete thanks to the relatively short mileage, and as such it meant that we didn’t need to get a crazy early start (it was still too early for me!), meeting at the ski area around 10:00.

Most winters, one must get an uphill access pass from the ski area (in the last year or two they have started charging for this pass similarly to most other NorthEast ski areas), but the owners were/are in the middle of trying to sell, and as such the entire facility is closed. No snowmaking, no chairlifts running, no open warming huts, though the parking lots were still being plowed out. This meant that we had no trouble getting a parking spot in pole position, a mere handful of yards away from the main base lodge.

There was just barely enough snow on the ground to warrant snowshoes, so on they went in the parking lot, and up the ski slopes we went. The day was forecast to be a little windy up top, and it was also clear early on that we were not likely to get any views from the summit ridge, which on clear days holds magnificent views, but we expected conditions to be manageable thanks to mild-for-winter temperatures. Ski slopes are both good and bad for getting to the top of a mountain: they do it quickly (less than 2 miles in this case), but with that short distance comes steepness. Televators are very handy! The snowshoeing conditions were so-so, with the lack of natural snowfall so far this winter, and the lack of man-made snow-making occurring at Saddleback this year, there were some thin spots, and numerous rocks sticking up here and there. But overall, the snowshoes were definitely the way to go. Around 3000’ in elevation we entered the cloud deck, and shortly thereafter we encountered our first people of the day, 2 skiers who had skinned up and were heading down, plus their 2 friendly canine companions bounding about in the snow.

Starting up the vacant ski slopes. Weird to be on ski slopes in winter without the chairs running, other skiers around, etc.

We start to gain elevation.

And into the clouds we go.

No chairlifts didn't stop a few skiers. They just skinned up and rode (carefully) down, with their 2 dogs bounding down happily after them.
At the top of the slopes by the upper warming hut we took a snack break, and caught out breath: our ascent thus far had been fairly speedy, especially for those of us (cough cough, me) who were out of shape. We’d been feeling the wind at our back for a little while now, and knew it was about to be worse when we would leave the relative shelter of the slopes, so we also layered up and got the facemasks and goggles ready. Right next to the warming hut is the extension trail that meets the Appalachian Trail near the summit, and it soon breaks out into the open. The wind was blowing fairly strongly (maybe in the low 30s mph at most – it was strong, but we could still walk in it), but with full skin coverage (facemask, goggles, shell jackets, etc) it was fine. You just need to be careful to cover all exposed skin in such conditions. The bigger issue for us was the visibility, or rather the lack thereof. The rime-covered cairns were few and far between for a stretch, and they all looked similar to the rime-encrusted scrubby trees. But Chris and Whitney had come this way just a few months before, and Tim had a GPS track handy, so within a few minutes we found our way to the summit of Saddleback Mountain. Peak number one, check.

The summit of Saddleback Mountain. Yes, it really says Saddleback Mountain under that rime.
The cairn hide-and-seek continued across and down off Saddleback, which drops steeply at times into the col. Shortly above the col was a large, ice-covered ledge that we had to route carefully around, but thanks to the few inches of snow that had fallen in the last week, we were able to manage just fine without crampons (though we’d brought them just in case, especially after the incident on Abraham last year). Chris and Tim did a terrific job of keeping us on-course, with only one false route that we soon figured out. We even found a handful of the white Appalachian Trail blazes along the way. Conveniently, the wind once off the very summit of Saddleback was dramatically reduced. Even atop The Horn, which we eventually reached after a steady climb up from the col (it is a 600-foot-deep col between the peaks), the wind was not bad. We took a few pictures, then re-traced our steps. With our tracks visible most of the way back up to Saddleback, it was fairly simple going until the last ¼-mile, when the wind picked up again, and our tracks were blown away. Route-finding turned out to be less tricky since we had been through only an hour or so earlier and thus had a feel for where the trail went. It briefly looked like the clouds might burn off as we neared the summit, and there was even a very brief peek of blue skies, but we never got any views.

A large ice flow along the trail near the col.

Into the void...

Saddleback - The Horn.

Nearing the summit of Saddleback Mountain on the way back, it briefly looked like the skies might clear for us. This was about as close as it got though.
Leaving the summit for the ski trails is where it got a little interesting for me. I’d been having some goggle-fogging issues for the last few minutes and my vision was almost completely gone now – I could only see a few yards ahead, and footprints from those ahead were already filling in, so coupled with lagging a bit behind the group thanks to my slower pace, it was tough going for a couple minutes there. Luckily it held out just long enough to get down to the warming hut where I could remove the googles altogether, and I could see just fine again. The main issue was that across the ridge between the peaks I had taken the goggles off several times and hung them around my neck. Putting goggles up on your head while hiking is a good way to get them filled with moisture, which then fogs up when put back on your face, so hanging them seemed like a good idea. The problem was some snow fell during this time, which led to some accumulation in the goggles, and so the same fogging issue occurred when I put them on. If the goggles had simply fit more appropriately over my glasses and thus weren’t jamming them into my nose, I’d have left them on as is advised. Lesson learned: buy new goggles meant to go over the glasses. I’ve simply not needed to wear goggles very much the last couple of winters since I got newer, slightly larger glasses.

The rest of the descent was uneventful. We saw several groups of folks skinning up the slopes, and also one pair of hikers heading to the peaks (though they only ended up getting to Saddleback thanks to their very late start and the same poor visibility issues we had). One of the hikers was a familiar face even, one that had been in the group I took to Isolation last March. Once back to the car, it was off with the snowshoes and packs, and we all headed about 20 minutes away to our rented house where we had hot showers, cooked a good dinner, and relaxed for the evening. Plans were also laid for the next day’s long drive up to Stratton to hike the Bigelows.

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