Monday, June 27, 2011

Steep and Treacherous: The southern approach to the Adirondacks Saddleback Mountain

Colvin on the northern descent of Basin Mountain with Saddleback and the Gothics in the background.

I’ve always felt that people who have experience technical rock climbing (on real rock) tend to not have issues on rough sections of trail. For those people, the featureless rock that hikers see is filled with giant “jug” holds for the hands and feet. The southern approach of the Adirondacks Saddleback Mountain via Basin Mountain is a great example of this.

If I haven’t made it perfectly clear throughout the years, I avoid the High Peaks like a case of syphilis -especially during the warm months- and I pick my winter forays with some care as well. So quite often, my experience in the Adirondacks High Peaks Wilderness is one with a winter perspective. As a matter of fact, I’ve been up Marcy several times, but never when there wasn’t multiple feet of snow on the ground. I have no idea how hard the trail is in the summer, though I assume it’s pretty beat up and rough due to how often it is climbed.

Suffice it to say, I’ve never climbed the south face of Saddleback via Basin in all my years of hiking during the summer months, though I have been up Saddleback in the winter on several occasions.

How is it? Absolutely fun. It’s probably the best trailed hiking in the Adirondacks. Steep, technical, but the hard sections are either too easy or too short to really make you say, “wow, that was hard.” Add in the fact that Colvin isn’t Caney on the steep and technical sections; he doesn’t love climbing steep technical rock like a mountain goat or dipping his front nails over the edge of 1000ft cliffs. I note that because my difficulty rating includes assisting Colvin. These were generally short boost followed by encouraging and challenging him to climb the correct route. Nevertheless, they were an additional level of effort that most human hikers would not need to put out, unless they were climbing with children or novice mountaineers.

Yellow line indicates the trail routing.

I’d rate the hardest sections as low 5th class (upper 4th to 5.0-5.1 type terrain), and while there is a risk of a long fall (or rather slide), it’s not what you’d call exposed. There is never more than a few feet of air under you, or 30ft of super grippy slab below you. Steep it is, treacherous it is not. I’d personally rate something steep and treacherous, if while on it and assisting a 50lb dog, I felt any sense of fear or worry that we were getting ourselves into something that might be difficult to get out of. Perhaps I don’t have the common sense to feel that fear, but based on the amount of times I’ve shit my pants leading technical rock climbs, I’d say I am often too aware of what can go wrong. At no point did I feel that way. As a matter of fact, once Colvin was safely on the steep slabs above the craggy lower section, I descended a bit and reclimbed it via the more technical options.

Colvin on top of Saddleback, Ausable Lakes and the Colvin Range in the background.

I was actually a bit disappointed at how easy it really was, and I was prepared for Colvin to have more trouble with the terrain. He was wearing his Ruff Wear Doubleback technical climbing harness, and I had a 40ft 8mm static line. I never even considered breaking out the 40ft rope. Had it been steeper, I could have slung a boulder with two 10 foot tied slings that double as leashes, or wedged a frost knot into a crack to haul Colvin over the steep sections. Or just simply short roped him up the hard sections.

Although I enjoyed Saddleback, the highlight of the trip was watching Colvin finally get it on the 20ft ladder up Basin. Though I climbed the rungs of the near vertical ladder with with him, and held on to his assist loop just in case he panicked or slipped, he ultimately climbed the ladder without my assistance. We spent quite a bit of time on ladders a few days before on the Stimson Trail on Noonmark Mountain, and it was gratifying to see him finally get it.

View from Basin ladder towards Haystack

Alpine Zone WarningsAs far as Saddleback, it was over far too fast, and just wasn’t hard enough. On the flip side, it was, almost without a doubt, the hardest climbing (on a trail) in the Adirondacks. Be careful in making assumptions though, while it was the hardest officially trailed terrain, those wanting tougher challenges that fall into the gray area of technical rock climbing and hiking can still be challenged in the Adirondacks. Just look around when on an Adirondack summit at all those wonderful expanses of bare rock, the slides. Those slides offer even more challenge, without the benefit of a blazed trail or step by step directions, yet they are generally non technical enough that specialized ropes and climbing protection can be left at home for all but the most difficult slides. Be forewarned though, having 1000ft of 60* slab under you as you approach a headwall might not be officially 5th class terrain, but it carries all the same risk and challenges.

Shorey Shortcut and Range Trail intersectionWas Saddleback worth the price of admission ($7 to park), including all the rules, regulations and crowds that come with the High Peaks? Hell yeah! But for full disclosure, I picked a good early season weekday and was on the trail at 6:50am -which was later than planned. I saw just 1 person on the trail till my last 2 miles of the day (5 people in total)! Had there been 100 people climbing those mountains, creating a wilderness conga line, I’d probably not have felt like we were on any sort of remote adventure!

So there you go, a little more sensible perspective about the steep and fun trail over Saddleback.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Hating on the Adirondacks infamous Shorey Shortcut

Mount Haystack - Adirondacks, NY
Spring views of Mount Haystack from the Shorey Shortcut

By Adirondack -and Northeastern US- standards the Shorey Shortcut is a pretty tame trail. No mud pits to wallow in, bogs to wade through, or talus fields to hop over. No 1000ft dry slabs with (unecessary) cables or steep muddy runout slabs without cables, and no viscous scrambles through boulder fields with rocks the size of houses. Yet, this trail is infamous- perhaps even hated- throughout the hiking populous.

Barbara McMartin, in her Discover the Adirondacks guide book series, hates on the trail. Barbara wasn’t exactly an explorer confined to the most well footed trails. Her guidebooks are filled with adventurous, off the beaten path and often trailess hikes that are devoid from many guidebooks. I should note, Barbara was a damn good descriptive writer as well. Some people hate that she turns what might be a paragraph in the ADK guidebooks into 3 pages in her books, but like Don Mellor and Paul Jamison, she fills her guides with superb writing and historical narrative. So, I was expecting the Shorey Shortcut to certainly be everything it is famed to be.

What’s more, in spite of not being horrific in any way, the Shorey Shortcut even has a few unique views, and some some nice glacial erratics to keep things interesting. Calls to replace this trail have been sounded for some time, though they seem to be based on folklore more than reality. Shorey Shortcut is the trail version of the fishing tales, “the one that got away.”

My guess is the misnomer is the issue. "Shortcut" implies some sort of shorter route, and the Shorey Shortcut is neither shorter, nor gives any sort of elevation edge to the trails it accesses.

Most people comment that it "needlessly" ascends a virtually view less nubble, only to descend again; so what? It"s called hiking, and if you are on the Shorey Shortcut you hiked at least 6.9 miles from somewhere to get there. What is a couple of hundred feet of generally pleasant hiking over a nubble in the scheme of things?

Since I don't hike in the eastern high peaks often in the summer, my experience on the Shorey Shorcut was limited to winter. Terrain in summer and winter is vastly different. What might be a 20ft ledged scramble in summer is a 5ft ledge in mid winter. A long rock slab might be an easy snowshoe slope in winter, or it could be a sheet of ice with ascent made easy via crampons. If the snow is very deep, what might be a scrub covered mountain side in summer, could now be a completely snow covered 1000ft slope that requires technical skills to ascend or descend. Low angle ladders all but disappear, while vertical ladders shrink or aren’t needed. Mud pits, boulders, roots and scrub are usually below several feet of snow, usually frozen. Some trails are easier, some harder. The change is drastic indeed, so it’s never fair to comment on a trail based on winter or summer hiking alone.

Now with more perspective I can say, enjoy the hike. The Shorey Shortcut is just another Adirondack connector trail, and undeserving of it's infamy. And quite frankly, I’d take the Shorey Shortcut long before the more traveled Orebed Trail.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Under the Gunks...5 1/2 minutes you aren't getting back!

Shawangunk Views

It's been a busy 2 months dating back to mid April. Lots of trips and trip reports on the back burner, but I'd rather be outside than blogging about being outside, so like all of 2008's missing trip reports, these might end up in the permanent incomplete file.

If you follow this blog, then you know that we've been working with Colvin to get him climbing at a competent level. This summer is mostly focused on getting him climbing 3rd and 4th class rock scrambles with or without moderate assistance. In a few weeks we'll start working on vertical rock descents with him on rappel.

This month he's done his hardest single day hike, 18 miles and 12,000ft gain and lost, and his hardest scrambling to date. The hiking was no problem, but the scrambling has been a heck of a challenge for him, though he is making hella progress as he continues to be pushed beyond his comfort level. Last year he was terrified of going above treeline into the wind, this winter he was first to ascend no matter how ferocious it was. With a little luck he'll get his confidence on rock this summer.

The video is "Under the Gunks", and it pretty much covers the underground half of our day in the Gunks. Colvin also climbed a 3rd class scramble to the top of the Shawangunk Ridge earlier in the day. Some photos of that more scenic half of the trip will follow.

Although it's probably 5.5 minutes you'll want back, chances are it's more interesting than whatever you were gonna do with that 5.5 minutes anyway.

Under the Gunks from Mountain Visions on Vimeo.
After spending years climbing the clean white cliff faces of the Gunks, we decided to mix it up and try a convoluted loop over and under the Shawangunk Ridge in the Hudson Valley of New York State.