Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Haystack and Basin 2/28/15

This hike has loomed largely in my mind since committing to a winter round. How would the conditions be? Would I have to buy crampons and an ice ax? I obviously have to leave the dog at home. I hope I have good views etc. In many ways this was the crux of my winter round. I was a heady mix of worried and excited. A big factor in my favor was how the weather unfolded during February. Lots of snow and lots of cold days without thaw meant a solid snow pack, possible covering features that are normally icy. On Monday the 23rd, a check of the 10 day forecast showed near perfect conditions to climb these peaks on Saturday the 28th: clear blue skies and moderate temperatures. When I started planning this winters hikes I knew it would be the right choice to hike this one with people. I fished around on the high peaks forum and found Emily and Adam (Emily is ringpopsandmountaintops on the forum) were going for another try of Haystack>Basin>Saddleback after being thwarted early in the winter with extreme winds.

I got a very solid nights sleep before the hike which always gives me a confident feeling to start the day: I'd be at my best. The drive up was pretty uneventful aside from some police activity which is pretty rare for this time of the morning (4 AM-ish). I got set up in the High Peaks welcome center which was completely empty, a real contrast to the previous weeks Dial and Nippletop trip. I pulled into the Garden parking lot a little after 5:30, with Emily and Adam already getting set up. Yay for punctuality! We had called a meeting time of 5:45.

Quick hellos and off on the trail. We all remarked on how warm it was, already 14 f or so at 6 AM. Compared to the rest of the winter, a real heat wave! We moved quickly with Ringpops taking the lead. I got really warm fast with the brisk pace being set and my extra layers. Of course I wore more clothes on this trip than on last weeks where it was way colder hahaha. It seems like I never quite get the optimal set up. I like that though, always tuning up and striving, trying to find the best situation to stay warm but not overheat. Pretty amazing it's ever as comfortable as it gets. Modern clothes! I can't imagine doing this 50 years ago. I ditched layers, took off my hat and put on lighter gloves.

We all had a drink just before entering ADK property. We noted the location of the warming hut for the afternoon. I took the lead from there until Bushnell Falls and was finally able to stop sweating, hiking at Sobik pace. Emily and Adam are very strong hikers! I again recognized my place in the hiking strength hierarchy: on the stronger side of average. Not a bad place to be, I get to hike with more leisurely as well as faster hikers without too much hardship either way. The sun started shining in to the forest and I started snapping some photos.

The miles flowed by, moving through the easy terrain. Slant Rock snuck right up on me. We had a quick snack there.  Here begins more challenging hiking with steeper but rolling terrain. Views opened up behind us north over Big Slide to a Whiteface Mountain wearing a skirt of fluffy clouds. Point Balk and Little Marcy bulged high above the creek valley over our right shoulder. The trail to Marcy flew by, landmarks becoming a blur. The race was on. We could now see Marcy's summit and glimpses of Skylight. After you pass the Marcy trail you begin the really steep climbing up to the summit of maybe one of the more famous nameless bumps in the high peaks: the bump before Little Haystack.

Here the photography began in earnest. I got Sathi's Cannon 20D with the wide angle lens out and took some amazing shots from this famous locale. After my hands got cold, I put on my down jacket and got my point and shoot ready to document the ascent. I urged the speedy couple to go ahead as I was hiking pretty slow and intended to take a ton of pictures. They hiked ahead at their own pace but never out of sight. There was nothing too tricky climbing up Little Haystack. I was glad I waited until just the right day for this climb. There was hardly any wind and no exposed ice. I kept looking over at Basin, picturing us on that summit soon enough. The last time I was up on Little Haystack, with Koda in early summer of 2014, I was beat it was completely clouded in and Koda's pads were getting sore. What a different experience. I love returning to a peak and having a better hike. Mindset and conditions color a day in the woods so much.

Views in all directions were amazing: down the great range and past to Giant and Rocky, into Panther Gorge and across to Skylight and Marcy, south to the Dix Range. Coming off of Little Haystack is one of those well known often tricky spots. It's steep, exposed and ice builds up. For us on this day we had a combination of bare rock and grippy snow. Perfect! I couldn't help but slow down even more and focus on being as present as possible. Focusing by not focusing at all. One of those amazing paradox's of mindfullness. I wanted to etch every detail into my mind: how the rock looked, the wave-like drifting of snow, the color of the sky and the peaks around me. The world rang like a prayer bowl. All too soon the summit cone was before me with two celebrating hikers whooping it up on top. It must have been a great feeling for them, coming back to this peak after being so close (they had to turn around on Little Haystack due to intense horizontal winds) on their previous attempt. More pictures of course. It was nice to have someone to take a picture of me on this truly special peak. I'll cherish it forever.

I hunkered down in the little rocky crevice on the summit  out of the wind, had some trail mix and water. I watched the duo buckle down and get ready to climb down which I did as well, if somewhat reluctantly. I knew I had to leave at some point and climb another peak but I was pretty blown out from the ascent and pretty agog from the spectacular setting. I always return to that great anecdote about Old Mountain Phelps at times like this: Setting up camp with some folks he was guiding at Lower(?) Ausable Lake, one of the clients asked why they didn't set up camp facing Gothics. His reply was something to the effect of "a view that precious you don't just gobble down". You have to savor and not over indulge. Who wants the magic too thin? For the specialness to become ordinary? Certainly not me. 

I took my time on the way down and got some fun shots of them off in the distance. Back up Little Haystack with no problem and back to the intersection with the range trail down to Basin. It was a fast decent with the most loose snow we'd see all day. Everywhere else was hard packed snow gutter leading you through the woods. My quads were grateful for the descent but my brain was trying to rebel on me saying Basin was just too far and I was losing too much elevation. We hit the low point and started trucking uphill. Well they were trucking, I was moving. Though not particularly fast. At the Shorey shortcut intersection we met a dude very casually smoking a butt. It was an odd site. He was heading up Haystack first, Basin and Saddleback after.

The climb up Basin is way easier in the winter in my opinion. Lots of the ugly spots are smoothed out. The ladder was actually many rungs shorter and I had to laugh: with these conditions doing this hike would've been far easier than when we did it in June. Oh well, you never know! Knowing we were on the final section of trail together and that they'd be up chilling on the summit, I slowed my pace down a bit more to save up for the long trek out. The climb up from the col was a bit longer than I remembered but I'd say it had a lot to do with how I felt. There are many spectacular views along this stretch of trail and I used them as a welcome break from climbing.

On the summit of Basin Emily was sun-bathing and both wore ear to ear grins. Wow! The views! The conditions! Haystack and Basin climbed by lunch! It was great to eat a bunch and drink some green tea. Since I perspired a lot more than usual on this hike with the warmth and fast pace, I was a little dehydrated which I remedied with water and lemon lime Gatorade.  As we hung out and took pictures, Emily pointed towards the Saddleback cliffs and said they didn't look bad. I agreed but said, no those aren't them, that's still Basin, there they are further along the ridge. I was pointing to Gothics hahaha.We exchanged high fives, I shared some tea and after some more revery, the two headed on down the trail. After they left and I stared for a bit longer and realized my mistake. Oh well, they'd be amped to climb those and realize where they were.

I decided to stay up there. Maybe forever. It was just so beautiful. I dug in to the cookie I had brought from this amazing restaurant/ coffee house/ music venue called the Tramontane Cafe in Utica. It has delicious lunch and dinner food including homemade soup and awesome signature sandwiches. Their baked goods tho....Many of the staff there bake and have their own specialties so there's always something different. For this trip, I brought the classic giant chocolate cookie, knowing it would likely carry the most calorie/ sugar high bang for my buck. I buzzed around the summit riding that giddy wave of sugary delight, alternating between the DSLR and the point and shoot. The DSLR battery would eventually get cold and read dead so I'd put it back in my pocket to thaw. I knew it'd be slow going for me on the way down and I wanted to get back to Jeanette and Koda so I eventually got my stuff together and started the descent.

My legs were tired but my soul was totally rejuvenated. The day kept getting more gorgeous. I started running into solo dudes climbing up Basin. Everyone had very serious game faces on and did not want to chat. Several sections were steep on the way down. If you like suicidal butt slides, this would be the place for you. I gingerly lowered myself down, turning around and down-climbing as if on a ladder a few times which was really effective. Will def do more of that in the future.

I had Shorey shortcut all to myself :) I can't imagine why: a "shortcut" that's uphill both ways. I got an ear-full of black cap chickadees celebrating the warm and sunny day. I paused often to catch my breath and take still more pictures of the views to the northwest. On this hike there are many miles of views. It's truly incredible. Especially after spending so much time below treeline this winter hiding from the cold. Once over the height of land, I finally got my legs back under me and picked up speed, getting me down to the Phelps trail in a hurry. I chatted with a guy cutting through the ice of Johns Brook for camp water. He and his group were hoping to climb Haystack if they got their chores done quickly enough. I strongly encouraged him to give it a shot with how gorgeous it was.

Now the long walk to Johns Brook Lodge. The woods were full of pine trees and sunlight. The trail was mellow under foot. I was talking to myself hahaha. I thought of my wife and how she makes time pass: I created a sci-fi short story and narrated it out loud. Would've been a funny moment to run into someone. I eventually caught up with two campers around the confluence of Hogback Brook and Johns Brook. They were wearing microspikes and carrying MSR's. They mentioned as we chatted that someone told them they needed to be wearing snowshoes the day before. I let them know that indeed it was the rules and they could get a ticket. I did so in a way that conveyed the information but didn't sound like I was scolding them, just trying to help them avoid a ticket. I feel like this is a much more effective method of education rather than the scold I hear so often from other winter hikers. Once a person is on the defense, their ears and brain are closed.

JBL looked really pretty and all eco-cool with it's solar panels. I got to the warming hut and was warmly welcomed by Jay (like the letter). Her and the other woman (Caryn I believe?) were spending Friday-Sunday in the cozy little cabin, doling out hot chocolate and mocha's. I chose the mocha looking forward to a bit of a caffeine kick along with the sugar. I really love chatting with folks you meet along the trail and since no one wanted to chat coming of Basin I was glad to get my folksy fix. I hiked out. It went fairly quickly with the help of the warming hut staff. I got back to my car at 4:15, a 10.5 hour day covering around 19 miles. Certainly not my fastest day in the woods but maybe one of my favorites. While I have a few more peaks left to climb to finish my winter round, this was it. This was the big one. A day I'll never forget.

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