Hiking in the dark
Due to the fact that I am not equipt (yet) to hike in winter conditions, we wanted to get in one more longish hike before we would have to be content with short, day hikes closer to home. We had been to the Bigelow area the week before and had heard that Saddleback via the AT was a great hike. We love the area so just couldn't pass it up.
Due to the loss of daylight hours, we decided to try and get on the trail by 5:00 am and hike in the dark. That would give us plenty of time to hit both the summit of Saddleback and the Horn as it was about 5.1 miles to the summit of Saddleback and another 1.7 to the horn.
There was massive construction on Rte 4 so we missed the trailhead twice. We finally got onto the trail at 5:40..still a good hour before the we would have any amount of light.
As a greenhorn (think I've graduated from newbie to the next level by now, I was a little apprehensive about hiking with only a dim headlamp to guide me, but I took the lead and we made it to Piazza Rock Campground by 7:00. The trail is very well marked and quite worn to this point so there weren't any problems. There are a lot of muddy sections, but these are (mostly) covered by log bridges...pretty long ones too.
This is a two seater...with a cribbage board in the middle. Hmmm...
Piazza Rock Campground is quite nice with several tent platforms and a very nice, large lean-to complete with fire ring and cooking grill. Met a pair of gentleman who had come up the day before and hiked to the summit. They were headed down today. They asked me if we had gators and crampons. I said we had cheap crampons but no gators. They cringed and said that they'd leave dry firewood in the lean-to so we could dry off on the way down as there was knee deep snow up there in places and quite a bit of ice. Of course, by now...I'm getting a bit nervous about this as I've done the hiking while wet and cold quite a few times this summer and really didn't want to do that anymore. But...I wasn't about to miss a last, long hike for this season either. So...on we went.
Mud, muck, and detours
Feeling a bit intimidated about the "above treeline" sections to come...considering the snow and icy conditions I had been informed of...we set off. The trail between Piazza Rock Campsite and Eddy Pond (close to where it begins to become "alpine" climbing) is VERY muddy and mucky. In hindsight, I remember reading a trail report about the trail and how muddy it was and that there was a detour at one point around this section. We missed this and ended up with very muddy shoes, pants, hands, etc. There are many log bridges in this area too...but they are rotten, broken and, when covered in snow, slippery. Care should be taken here because they also "see-saw" when hiking with a partner. Funny though this is...it can be dangerous.
At one point...Bobby looked up and said that he no longer noticed white blazes...or the footprints that we had been following up to this point. We did the about face and return to our last known point process...and discovered that hey...there are actually branches over this part of the trail and a white blaze on that tree showing a left hand turn. Sigh...ok, back on the trail. We were only off by about 0.1 miles.
The rest of the way up
There are three really nice ponds on the way from Piazza Rock campground and the alpine part of the trail; Ethyl, Mud, and Eddy.
They had just begun to "skin" over with ice. Eddy Pond is the last reliable sorce of water for a while and a stream just prior to this is even more convenient.
Once you pass Eddy pond, you are almost to the really steep part of the trail. We crossed a dirt tote road (lots of fresh moose prints here and a bus parked off to the side) and re-enetered the trail. Soon, we reached a sign requesting respect for the fragile vegatation that is the "alpine" zone. Here there was some great scrambling...mostly without any such help.
The snow got a bit deeper here in spots, but nothing like I expected. The rocks were covered in ice in places, but, generally, the going was fine. My hubby did end up sliding down one rock...luckily being stopped by a tree. Finally, we broke treeline completely. The views here are wonderful, even on such a cloudy day. The last 1.0 mile to the summit is completely exposed so you are treated with the expansive views right up to the top and beyond. The going at this point is fairly easy, not too steep but with enough climbing to keep it interesting. It appeared, from the vegitation that I could see that there might be rhodedendrums as well as blueberries up here.
There was definitely more snow here (yup, almost knee depth in some places) but, nothing as I had expected. Thanks to a prior traveler's prints, I didn't even have to ge my boots very wet at all. It was quite windy at the top but, surprisingly, it wasn't as cold as I thought it would be. The top is quite large, and there would be plenty of room for lots of people. We encountered a group of about 15 college students who had spent the night at Piazza Rock Campsite the night before. We didn't spend too much time there, it was about 10:00 am and we had plenty of time to head over to the Horn so as to add another 4000 footer to our list.
The Horn...not to be
We headed to the Horn, noticing that the actual trail seemed MUCH steeper in person than it did in any of the pictures that we'd seen. It was also quite icy in spots. We decided to try it anyway, knowing that we could always head back if it got too bad. We started down, slipping and sliding in a few spots and hoping to NOT slip in others...as the fall could be very bad for our health. After a lot of hard work with slow progress down the incline (probably no more than 0.5 miles in about 45 minutes), we stopped for a bit of lunch. Looking at the Horn from where we were, and the trail from here to there, we decided that we would have to abandon our quest for that summit today. We didn't have the proper footgear (the crampons we had were cheap Walmart specials...not appropriate for a steep, icy descent) and it would really not be worth risking our health or ability to work for this. We had accomplished Saddleback and the Horn would be there another day. Reluctantly, we headed back. The trip up to Saddleback and down to the Piazza Rock Campground was quick and uneventful.
The Caves and Piazza Rock
As we were heading down sooner than we had hoped, we decided to spend some time exploring the caves. We had noted the sign for this side trail on our way up but, as it was still fairly dark at this time, we had not stopped. It took a bit to find the side trail from this direction, as the sign is very small and only posted on one side of the tree.
We had to back track to find it. However, it was well worth it. There are blue blazes into the caves, but, there are quite a few different caves and different routes through and around. This is not a very large area, but it is quite fun to explore. We had a good time playing "hide and seek", with my husband going into one cave...saying "ouch" then quitely sneeking behind me and just staying there until I turned around! Good thing we were on ledgy areas or he would have gotten a smack! If Mahoosuc Notch is anything like this, it should be a blast!
After about 45 minutes of playing, we decided to head on to Piazza Rock, another side trail we had not taken this morning. Again, as any hiker knows, pictures just don't do justice to the real thing. This rock is huge. There is another cave under it...that leads to the top of it. It's almost like climbing onto a giant diving board. We spent another 20 minutes or so here. By this time it was about 3:00 pm and, I think, we were both ready to head back to the car. His backpack was hurting his back (he has a cheap department store brand that really doesn't fit weel) and I, somehow, had hurt my right knee. We made it back to the car by 4:00 pm and gave a couple of flip-flop AT hikers a ride into Rangley for resupplying.
It was quite a satisfuly day and we have both decided that this will be one of our first long-day hikes come next late spring (or early summer...depending on the rain/snow fall). We will bag the Horn...and, potentially Saddleback Jr. If nothing else, I had some new experiences on this trip: hiking in the dark and in the snow/ice. You have to start somewhere, and I feel I'm well on my way. Who knows? Next spring Saddleback, Horn, Saddleback Jr...maybe soon the 100-mile winderness.