Sunday, August 29, 2010

Basin & Saddleback

If it looks like Meredith and I are at the edge of a cliff on Saddleback Mountain, it's because we are. And why are we giddy with joy? Because we survived the climb up the cliff and lived to see the top! Picture a 300' wall at a 70 degree angle, and we have to go up it with no rock climbing gear or boulder experience. I'm serious. This was the scariest, most death-defying hour of our lives. Sure, we look composed here, but our knees were still shaking.

I had read about the "ledge" on Saddleback and that some people (especially women under 5'10" according to two websites) freaked out a little,...oh, and also that one false move could mean a fall to certain death. Nobody said this ledge was a straight-up wall. And here's the real kicker--I had done this before. As a teenager, my father and I had hiked from Basin to Saddleback with full loaded backpacking gear. All I remembered was that it was really hard and that I said at the time that I would never to do it again. Now that Meredith "needed" Basin and Saddleback for her 46 peaks, I figured it couldn't be all that bad.

When I read the blogs and online advice, I rationalized: my father had taken me there--would he have jeopardized the life of his teenage daughter and "hikin' buddy?"; also, having hiked 36 of the high peaks, I decided that Meredith and I had experience enough to handle doing these; 46er friends of mine agreed that online information can be extra-cautionary because people with no knowledge or experience are reading them; and finally, wouldn't I remember if I had been scared out of my skin when I hiked this previously? Well, talk about selective memory!

Meredith and I backpacked in 3.5 miles and camped near Johns Brook Lodge on Friday. Saturday morning, I felt great beginning the day with temperatures in the 40s, a clear atmosphere and predictions of 70 degrees by mid-day. Just my kind of hiking weather. The hike up Basin was predictably difficult where we hauled on tree roots to get up innumerable rock scrambles. Views at the top were breathtaking. The entire great range and beyond stood out crisp in the late-morning sun. As we descended Basin and headed toward Saddleback, I determined that the upcoming ledge was nothing to worry about. From the Basin trail, we could see the rocks on Saddleback with a few people at the top.

Our first clue that the ledge was really a slab of straight-up rock came as we stood at its base. A woman, near tears, had only a short descent remaining, and cried out for her husband to catch her. Next a couple of very nimble 30-something men came down, saw us studying how to get started up, and offered to give us a hand for the first couple of ledges. Although grateful for their help, now we were 20 feet off the ground on precipitous footing, knowing we had to go up and unable to go back down if we had chosen to.

The man who had helped us pointed to a group of half a dozen men on their way down who, he said, would give us another hand. We turned and saw them, on all fours, faces tense, one man with his backpack on his chest to keep it from bumping him forward in a roll down the rock. One man coached the others, all of whom had fear written across their faces. They would not be helping us go up--it took all their concentration just to take care of themselves. We stood, our eyes glued to their progress. When one of the men passed us, he tried to give us tips, but we could tell that he really hoped that he wouldn't, moments later, watch us tumble from higher up into a bundle of broken bones.

All of a sudden everyone was gone. Meredith and I stood alone on a thin edge of rock. It is hard to describe how we made it to the top. Sometimes there was the smallest notch in the rock that became a hand-hold, or the slightest indentation that had to keep a boot in place as we hauled ourselves up. If the boot slipped, or the hand lost its strength, we knew we would hurl hundreds of feet. And where there was a crack in the rock, we wedged a boot and tried to find a notch for our hands.

One spot, the size of a chair seat pad, allowed me to rest a minute turned forward. Like the man before, I put my backpack on my chest and was able to go a few feet up on my bottom, but then how to turn around, and get the backpack back on my back without its weight throwing off my balance and sending me to the base, no longer visible beneath the rock? And was each step the right one? What if we made it up one section, only to come to another that was insurmountable from that location? Each decision literally held do-or-die significance. We could not lose focus for a second.

Meredith and I stayed a distance apart. At one point, I said to her, "I can't believe that I am one of the people freaking out." She agreed. My legs began to shake. I couldn't watch her. What if my precious daughter fell to her death?

Finally, somehow, I reached the final stretch, and saw rocks that began to level out. I shouted to Meredith. When I could, I turned around. She was not visible below the sheer cliff edge. I thought about watching to see her head appear, but couldn't. She might still fall. Instead I kept going. At last, she was on the level ground too. At the top, a young couple that we had met on Basin said that this was the scariest and hardest thing they had ever done. The young man took our picture and understood our giddy relief.

When they left, we went to higher more secure ground to have our lunch. We were still shaking. Meredith's hands trembled as she held her peanut butter sandwich. A few young men came up from behind us, arriving at the summit from the trail that we would descend. They looked over the edge of the cliff and decided to go back the way they had come.

The view was stupendous. We could see nearly all of the peaks we had hiked over the years. A few lakes and marshes glimmered in the valleys below. We stayed at the top for a while, regaining our composure, glad for our safety, and wondering that most people do actually summit Saddleback this way. After a while, we started down the opposite side to Johns Brook.

Meredith and I had made the wonderful decision to spend our second night at Johns Brook Lodge, rather than in our tent. Evening discussions at the lodge always center on where everyone had hiked that day. A quartet of 30-something men, all fairly tall which athletic builds had done Basin and Saddleback. There were unanimous as they said, "I have never been so afraid in my life; I love to hike, but I hated that; I don't know how I did it; One false move and I would have been dead; It's the scariest thing I have ever done; I'm mentally and physically exhausted." When we discussed hand-holds and footing, they nodded and regaled us with similar predicaments. Hearing these strong young guys admit to abject terror certainly validated our experience!

At breakfast the next morning, they were still talking about it. We all felt like we had come back from a test of survival. Sure, there are those men and women, like the two nice guys who helped us up the first rock, who are like Spiderman, or who have rock-climbing skills, but for the rest of us caught between going up and going down, the risk of dire injury is too high. I may have forgotten this from when I hiked Saddleback as a 16 year-old, (or, as one friend told me, 16 year-olds are fearless, and I trusted my very capable father), but the memory is with me this time, along with a surprisingly few scratches, bruises, and a couple of tender muscles.

Basin and Saddleback are always billed as a pair, like Algonquin and Wright, Skylight and Gray, Street and Nye. If done separately, as two different trips, hikers could avoid going directly from Basin to Saddleback, yet I know of only one person who did them this way. And he separated them based on what other trails he wanted to hike, not out of any particular knowledge of the terrain. If aspiring 46ers ask me, I will tell them how to bag Basin and Saddleback on safer trails. Meredith now has 32 peaks to my 36.


  1. Aaargh! My knees are shaking just from reading your account. I'm reminded of hiking in the mountains near the Mohonk Preserve with my grown daughter a few years ago and reaching a part of the rock-climbing trail where we had to go forward into terrifying space and could not go back. I had to keep reminding myself that hundreds of people had gone this way before me and came out alive. As, obviously, did we. But I would never choose to do that again. I love nature and hiking and paddling, but I don't get any kick out of risking my life. Too many wildflowers yet to find.

  2. Oh my!!! This is really really good to know!!! Great description Virginia & I am so glad everyone made it back. Really makes you appreciate things. : )