Duration: 12.75 hours
Benchmarks: Start 6:25 a.m., Orebed Lean-to: 8:20 a.m, Basin NE col: 10:45 a.m., Bottom East Face: 11:15 p.m., Summit: 2:30 p.m., Garden: 7:15 p.m.
Mileage/Elevation Gain: 16.5-17 miles/~5,300 feet elevation gain.
Route: Garden – DEC Interior Outpost—Saddleback Mountain—Basin NE col (below summit)—East Face—Basin Summit—Range Trail back over Saddleback to Garden.
Temperature:about 36-45 Fahrenheit with 5-40 m.p.h. winds
Trail Conditions: packed snow on trail, soft snow/ice/rock on face, 3-4 feet soft snow in forest.
Diet: 1 brownie, 5 starburst, 2 e-gel, a couple bites of banana bread, 3.5 litres water
Gear: Capilene, Columbia Titanium snow pants, Rain jacket (shell), Northface TKA100 micro-fleece, Black Diamond sabertooth crampons, BD viper & Charlet Moser Axar tools, Koflach Arctis boots, OR Absolute Zero mitts.
Pack Weight: 30 lbs.
Basin’s East Face has been my primary goal all winter; each prior climb a building block along the way. It’s hard to put into words what this particular climb meant. Again, my friend NP and I set our sights on it together many months ago. We tried to tackle it in February with Anthony Seidita after Saddleback’s Catastrophic Chaos slide, but weather and time constraints forced a change. Afterward, this winter’s ‘interesting’ weather complicated the logistics; there seemed to either be too much snow or not enough consolidated snow on the face. Fast forward to March; we received a copious amount of snow in a fairly short period which increased avalanche danger. Once again, it needed to consolidate. Finally, NP and I finalized plans to climb it on the tenth day of the month.
The day before, he was forced to cancel and the outing turned into a solo endeavor. I normally prepare myself for more ambitious day-hikes/climbs during the week prior especially if I feel it may test me physically or mentally. Basin east would do both. Psychologically, the change in plans left me re-evaluating logistics and trying to bolster my ambition.
Friends spent the night before the hike, each planning their own trek the next morning. I left them at the house (they know to make themselves at home) car-camped close to the trailhead so I could quickly roll out of the sleeping bag and start walking. I planned to climb the face before the snow became soft and unmanageable or, in the worst case, dangerous. A wet slab avalanche is nothing I planned to mess with. I arrived and crept into my sleeping bag at 1:15 a.m. (daylight savings time).
At 1:16 a.m. @$#%*!, the devil mouse spent until dawn trying to gnaw through my dash. By 2:15 a.m. I was seething with frustration and shoved some toilet paper in each ear as earplugs. I carefully hung my watch close to my head so the high-pitched beeping of the alarm would awaken me at 4:30 a.m. Sleep then came quickly. The slam of a car door snapped me out of a dream at 6:15 a.m. springing out of my bag in a grumbling panic, I found myself walking some 10 minutes later nursing such thoughts as, “Should I should just scrap the day because I’m so tired and it’s so late? What will the conditions be like…etc.” So the adventure began...
Given how I felt, I planned to walk slowly yet consistently; I was too tired and frustrated to do otherwise especially when I saw the bright sun shining on the top of Basin around 7:30 a.m. It would have hours to soften and I didn't want to walk eight miles for naught though I did have a contingency plan that would still allow me to bushwhack to its summit. Thankfully, the trail was like a concrete highway. This allowed a faster pace and I arrived at the col just northeast of the summit (where my bushwhack/descent began) at 10:45 a.m.
Summer bushwhacking down the col/gully can be difficult. It’s riddled with tightly knit trees and man-eating sod-holes. There was enough of a snow pack to keep me above the forest floor since it was semi-supportive. When combined with gravity, the descent down about 800 vertical feet was pleasant and fun. Fifteen minutes after leaving the trail, I broke through the tree line onto some open slab. Rolling snow created lines in the surface, an indicator that the day before was quite warm. Some were over 12” in diameter when they came to rest. About 3/4 of the way down, an area of beautiful ferns and grasses in summer, was now home to the remnants of a small avalanche from the opposing ridge. I felt my senses awaken as a feeling of extreme caution swept over me. My thoughts reflected on NP's last email the night before, "Take care of avalanche conditions if the weather gets too warm." The warning stayed with me all day.
Underfoot, the two-foot thick layer of small icy blocks (about 200 feet long) was locked tightly together, a stark contrast to the soft surrounding snow. I changed into climbing gear and assessed several route options just below under a protected area near a grove of trees that separate the east and east-southeast flanks of the mountain. It would be a mixed climb...ice, snow and rock.
A route up the right side of the face looked tempting, but I wanted to follow a line near the center, something near what I climbed last July in combination with one that NP suggested. It followed adjacent to what few trees grew in a sparse line up the center. Even a single small tree trunk offered a point of protection if I grew tired or felt too exposed. I was alone and didn't want to end up in a precarious position. Meanwhile, a weather front neared and the wind increased. The high-level cloud cover giving it an eerie forlorn appearance at times.
I settled on a route that started at the bottom right of the primary slab (roughly 1,500 feet across and about 800 feet high depending on where you measure) and traversed up at a 45-degree angle toward a run of ice and snow between two exposed rock ledges. The snow was deep and moderately soft as I broke through nearly to my knees. It eventually thinned in depth. I could feel the points of the crampons biting into ice one moment, then scraping on stone the next. In the latter case, I was unconcerned since almost all of the face is rough with small facets, steps, and holds. My front-points would slide negligibly before catching on something supportive. If I felt ice, then a firm kick sufficed.
Afterward, I climbed in a sinuous line upward toward the lower left-hand side of the central and highest slide tributary. The slope was generally between about 40 and 45 degrees, though I’d occasionally happen upon steeper section along the way. Feeling some fatigue, I sought the cover of a lone tree and carved a seat in the snow above the 4” trunk. It was nice to be able to shoot pictures and video from a protected area without concern. My other option included clinging from three points of contact while using my free hand manipulate the lens and shutter. I also absorbed the magnificent scenery. The gully from which I descended was far below, merely another snowy accent in the network of slides and cliffs. The summit was far above to the right, but a distant dream at this point. The face sprawled 700-800 feet to either side and fell away hundreds of feet below. The bedrock peeked through on occasion surrounded by a rim of rotten ice which transitioned to the solid layer I sought with my crampons. I was alone with the wind and my own thoughts in one of the more remote areas of the High Peaks. I felt close to God, another reason I love to occasionally explore solo.
About three quarters of the way up as it approached noon, the sun came out again. It was beautiful, but the snow noticeably softened, an uncomfortable feeling on the steepest pitches near the top. I was near enough to the top for a maintained push toward a nice ice flow where I could really protect myself. It was good ice. Once I embedded my axes and set my crampon points, I too another photography break, caught my breath and studied the next challenge; a traverse across the tributary. For my own sanity, I tend to break the strenuous days into a series of segmented goals.
I climbed the ice for another 75' along the edge until coming to the snowfield. Again, I felt ice underfoot most of the time, though stone occasionally met my points. I didn't want to slip since that could send me careening down the entire face, there was no protection. I only worried about the ever softening snow. On the positive side, the pitch was slightly less. I could have probably walked it while leaning into the face using the ax handle as a balancing point, but played it conservatively, working my way across in a prone position. Safely on the other side, I sat in the snow and relaxed. The view was astounding. Saddleback, the faces of Gothics, Pyramid, Sawteeth and a host of others formed the panorama. Their slides were stark white against the bluish contrast of the forest.
A quick bushwhack through the spruce led to another smaller tributary. I surveyed the east-southeastern face and looked below the summit crown. Its face contained a myriad of slides, cliffs and clumps of trees. It involved more exposed climbing and I was tired both from awakening early and the exertion thus far. It’s also somewhat draining to keeping such continual focus...being extra careful in such a remote area. Thus, I decided to bushwhack to the summit via the forest. There are some challenging ledges in the forest as you get closer to the summit proper. I wanted to stay above these to save energy. In any case, the bushwhack would be arduous, but it would give me my second goal of the day; a summit-direct bushwhack. If the situation became too difficult, I could always climb straight up and meet the trail on the other side of the ridge.
Back in snowshoes I began the plod/crawl to the summit. I quickly set my pace to ‘ultra-slow’ as the snow continued to soften. It was unsupportive and between 3-4 feet deep. The steep forest floor, however, was delightfully open much of the way. Trees were a few feet apart not 15" like much of the area. Were the snow not the consistency of mashed potatoes, it would have been quite pleasant.
In an effort to lighten my body weight at key times I tried the many techniques that we ALL learn as a child...climbing trees with snowshoes, dislodging buried snowshoes from under hidden tree limbs, ax placement on supportive deadfall, dispersing weight on a trekking poles in a prone position etc.
On a side note, I sometimes wear 5 pound leg weights at work (my boots and snowshoes or crampons add up to this exact weight per leg). I've had a few people at work ask about them. I’m considering responding with, “They’re padded ankle bracelets that I’m allowed to remove after my next court appearance, when I'm hopefully acquitted.” I digress; the leg weights help keep up my endurance during the time between hikes. I should have been wearing 10-15 pound weights apparently since the snow stuck to the bottom of each shoe in an 8” thick pad that I had to knock off each step. I know…I asked for this by setting the goal! I’m not complaining…
An hour and one-half later, at about 2:30 p.m., I neared the summit crown. The path was about 100’ to the west, but I stayed on my track up through the, now thick, cripple-brush. The East Face was hundreds of feet below, a giant white scar spread over the flank of Basin. This was a stunning perch from which to see the face and the distant panorama a final time before stepping on to the open stone of the summit.
The wind had risen to about 40 m.p.h., but it was warm. It was also sprinkling rain. The late night and tiring day took a toll on my digestive system so I quickly descended the Range Trail to the northeast and laid on the ground next to the snowshoe prints marking the start of the bushwhack—I’d made a loop. It took about 15 minutes to begin to balance my system with tiny bites of food since I was unable to eat much during the climb. A quarter mile later I rested again, eating a bit more. Slowly I felt myself heading toward some semblance of nutritional equilibrium. Even a few bites would give me what I needed to re-climb Saddleback Mountain.
The wind had its way with me along Saddleback’s ledges while a stinging sleet greeted me on the summit as I rested yet again. Interestingly, I was able to photograph the face in the fading light and lowering clouds. Later, I found my tracks up the face which can be seen in this highly color-adjusted photo. The next 7 miles of trail were basically downhill; the major effort was over.
Rest and rest again became my mantra. An extended butt-slide down Orebed Slide on the way out expedited my descent from the Gothics/Saddleback col and the lean-to bearing the same name served as a wonderful place to shut my eyes for a few moments. Farther along and only a few miles from the trailhead some deer darted across the path. I whistled to get their attention; they stood nearby and watched quizzically as I passed. I also found what looked like a bird’s nest (possibly a Baltimore Oriole) woven from strands of grass hanging delicately from a beach tree limb, something I’ve not seen before in this area.
I reached my car at 7:15 p.m. as darkness began to overtake the day. In reflection, it was my second hardest climb this winter, only surpassed by a climb up Dix’ Beckhorn Slide in December. I took many an opportunity to reflect on Christ and my relationship in that realm. The unplanned solo climb had a greater impact than just another outing in the High Peaks. It’s a day I’ll remember for a long time.