With an alarm set for 3AM I started stirring around 2:30. Got coffee going and enjoyed a relaxing (no time pressure) morning getting things together. Loaded up the gear and the dog and left Albany around 3. I had no idea I’ve been doing an “alpine start”. I thought I just woke up early to hike! I’ll just put it in the hiking glossary that’s been building up along with col, krummholz and glissade.
It was 5AM when we arrived at the Garden. I guessed 5 cars but there was more like 8-10. I put on my snowshoes and pack, turned on my Spot device and put Koda’s high vis vest on. I got it for hunting season but have kept putting it on him. It’s nice to see him so easy and for him to have the consistency that he wears this when he’s hiking….doing his job. Three guys were gearing up before me and when I got to the register saw that they were from VT and going for Basin and Haystack.
They got on the trail in a hurry so I gave them a bit of a lead and conserved energy for the first leg of the hike. Last winter I noticed I was over-exerting on the hike in. Hiking in from Upper Works to Flowed Lands for Marshall and the hike in to Bradley Pond for the Santa’s I tried really hard to make good time so I’d have more for the ascent. I realized I was burning a good chunk of my energy stock by the time I started climbing which is pretty counter-productive. I’ve also noticed that I don’t particularly shave off all that much time straining on these approaches when compared with an efficient and steady stride.
Thoughts of the hike ahead ran loops through my brain as we made our way through the familiar landscape. My primary goal was Saddleback. If conditions were good and I felt ok (fighting a cold and still dealing with some occasional pain from my IT band problems), we’d continue up Gothics, Armstrong and Upper Wolf Jaw. I find that on long hikes I start very much in my head (logistics for the hike, life outside the hike etc) and as the hike goes on become more and more present, in the moment.
On the final push where you side slope high above John’s Brook approaching the designated camp site and Howard lean to, the first glow of morning light appeared in Wolf Jaw Notch getting me very excited to be high up in the mountains. There wasn’t much snow on the ground over the first 3.1 miles. You could tell a lot of people were bare-booting or wearing spikes but I just always want to be in snowshoes if there is any real snow pack. I feel more stable and like the idea of maintaining nice solid trails all winter for all the hikers and skiers sakes.
I signed in at the interior register and we started hiking down towards the interior outpost and suspension bridge over John’s Brook. We stay in the JBL lean to’s a lot so I actually hadn’t been over that bridge since Mountain Wolf and I climbed Lower Wolf Jaw in fall of 2009. Very pretty. Also, very amusing to watch Koda cross. He doesn’t trust these bridges at all and sort of waddles skittishly across.On this portion of trail until Ore Bed Brook and also from the Garden there was a TON of deer tracks and a bunch of other animal tracks as well. Koda was having a field day investigating all the smells.
|he doesn't think it's a good idea|
It was around 7:30 as we reached Ore Bed Brook and by the time we made our way a significant ways up the Brook, I was pretty hungry. I had a veggie scramble at home and a Larabar at the start of the hike so my belly was growling after a good 5 or so miles of hiking. I gnawed on a pepperoni, had some dried fruit and coffee. Koda got some kibble and also a small can of wet food which is an uber luxury on a hike for him. I’m trying to sit down a little more on winter hikes so cleared off a log and had myself a nice rest. It was actually good timing for a break. After hiking for about 5 minutes we reached the stair cases and the slide. There was significant drifted snow covering icy steps. I sort of crawl-climbed up while Koda looked at me quizzically with all my struggling as he easily trotted up. Show-off. I noticed my snowshoes (MSR Evo’s) were actually bending a bit up front as they were sort of hitting two steps at once. I changed my foot placement but noticed some discoloration in the plastic where they had bent. Hopefully, they aren’t damaged structurally too badly.
|Big Slide over the Irene Debris|
|Koda off leash for a minute to negotiate the trickiness|
The climb up the stairs was tiring and there were a number of tricky, icy bumps to contend with. I found myself using my upper body a ton more on this hike than on other hikes. Lots of hauling myself and sometimes Koda up icy steps. We reached the intersection around 8:30 which had me excited to hit my goal of 9AM on Saddleback. The trail up was pretty easy going and despite tired legs, we found ourselves enjoying a stunning view from both the south lookout and the main ledge. There was a sunny yellow haze to the south and west which was very pretty. After enjoying the amazing view of Basin to the fullest, we slide-trotted back down to the col. The views of Gothics coming down were pretty intimidating but there appeared to be lots of ice free rock on the cable route so I decided we’d give it a try.
|Obligatory intersection sign|
|Golden Glow over the Pinnacle Ridge. Ausable Lakes too|
|From the Saddleback Ledge|
This was my first time hiking up either the Ore Bed Brook trail or Gothics (I’ve climbed the UWJ>Gothics loop 3 times but always the other way). Before reaching the open rock the flats between the mountains were drifted in and I found myself up to my knees despite my snowshoes. Koda was belly deep. As we made our way up, I had to take off and put on my snowshoes several times. The ice was all avoidable and Koda found many valid work-arounds, not all of which were human friendly. I was relieved and elated to arrive on the western most summit of Gothics. This ascent was a big ole question mark and I fully intended to bail at any point if I felt like Koda (or I) was at risk.
|Going up the cable route|
|looking back..Haystack visible behind Basin|
Gothics was it’s typical windy self. My first winter ascent was in 2011 and there were the heaviest winds I’d ever experienced, white-out conditions and I had to crawl across the summit. This time, things weren’t nearly as intense and we had simply stunning views. As the day went on, it went from gray and overcast to bright sunshine and lovely dramatic cloudscapes. I feel like Gothics is such a special summit. I feel like its safe to assume it’s in most 46ers top 5 favorites. I felt like I shouldn’t over-indulge and so after paying my respects to this epic place, pushed on.
|#24 for koda|
|pyramid, Nippletop, Dix and more|
Coming off the main summit and down to the easternmost, there was deep drifts and we both got mired a number of times including my first spruce trap of the season. We lost the trail a bit and it was a good feeling to eventually find it and the accompanying supportive snow. This repeated from Gothics down to the Armstrong intersection. The portions of trail without obstacles or snow drifts were so fun to trot and glide down and every time we were able to get some speed both Koda and I’s tails were wagging. We also got some really nice glissading in if you don’t mind a slightly bumpy ride from the ice underneath.
|Dogs eye view coming off Gothics|
|Love the view of Gothics south face from this spot|
Uneventful ascent of Armstrong and we were on the ledge. It’s a lot harder to be objective after seeing so many beautiful places but I still think this is my favorite view in the high peaks. The sky had lightened up further and I got some stunning pictures. I ducked out of the wind a bit to enjoy more food and coffee. Koda got some food too.
|Hey god? Nailed it!|
The next section of trail proved to be the most challenging for both of us. The many cliff steps down were covered in about 8 inches of snow with bulletproof ice underneath. Koda will climb up any precipitous ledge or slide but will come to a 3 foot drop and will cry like he’s being tortured. He needed a bit of prompting (and the occasional tug haha) to make his way down several complicated sections. I think he got over his fear a bit though and by the descent from UWJ, was actually enjoying the moves.
The ladder was my last worry for this hike. The only real X factor. The bad: there is really no good work around. I imagine we could have crashed deep into the krummholz and found some way but there was no obvious way off this steep cliff. The good: the ladder was covered in snow but not icy. Also, the snow below was pretty deep in case either of us took a tumble. I got us both down to the top of the ladder which was no easy feat. We were exposed and on uncertain terrain. After wedging firmly into a nook at the top of the ladder I took off my snowshoes and threw them down. Koda begrudgingly moaned as I picked him up and carried him down the ladder. He always tries to jump at the ¾ mark but I held on to really get him used to being calm while we descend ladders. Success!!!!!
|We did it!|
|Giant, Rocky, NoonMark|
I thought that that was it but there was another good ledge or two. No complacency in the high peaks…that’s for sure! On the way up Upper Wolf Jaw we experienced the most exposed ice of the hike but luckily the terrain was much mellower. I gave Koda a couple of butt assists and had to pull myself up a few tough spots. This ascent felt blessedly quick and before long the summit spur trail was upon us. Glory!!!! We summited 4 high peaks by 1PM. Since Koda had already climbed Upper Wolf Jaw his number went from 22-25. Since I had climbed Gothics in the winter, my number went from 16-19.
|Marcy off in the distance|
It was warm and bright on the summit. I gave Koda a pig’s ear after his dry food and got to enjoying a good 15 minute break, drinking the last off my coffee and enjoying some dark chocolate. It was a beautiful day and this was a great time and place to reflect on this hike and look around at all the mountains and remember my time on them as well.
|A snack with a view|
|Tired but happy|
We made our way down as quickly as my jelly legs could carry me. I felt a bit dopey but knew I had enough in me to get me out. I stumbled on the way down and tore my new shell (Outdoor Research Paladin). On the website their warranty/ return policy) was fairly promising so I’m not sweating it although I was pretty irritated at the time. The new location of the Wolf Jaw lean to is pretty awesome! Looked like a nice place to spend the night. Back over the suspension bridge and out. The first leg dragged but once we hit the lean to at Deer Brook, I was fueled by the proximity to hikes end. Just before the intersection with the Southside trail, we saw our first people all day: a group of 5 with overnight gear and a pulk (another fancy hiking word!). As we approached the parking lot I sent the all safe message on the Spot to my wife.
After a painless drive I was eating a delicious home cooked meal of acorn squash stuffed with ground meat and peas and Koda was passed out on the couch in minutes. I felt very grateful that we were able to accomplish so much and was also glad that my knee didn’t give me any problems. I’m excited to see what’s next and hike more! Sometimes you come out of a big hike feeling like the world is a better place than it was before and you can do anything, even in the other parts of your life. This was truly one of those hikes.