Saddleback and The Horn – 11/22/2015

Summit of Mt. Saddleback, The Horn
Summit of Saddleback, The Horn

On Sunday I made a solo trip up to the Rangeley area of Maine to check out Saddleback and The Horn.  I’m glad I did.  It reminded me of a mini Franconia Ridge, with different views to take in.  This one is worth the drive, and would be a blast in winter.

This was the day after the Camel’s Hump hike in Vermont – I covered a lot of ground that weekend. I wanted to spend the entire weekend outside, and get 2 days in a row of hiking to be ready for the annual post-Thanksgiving camping trip that Rich and I do almost every year.

I started at the Saddleback Ski Area base lodge.  There wasn’t a soul around.  I usually do solo hikes in areas where I expect there will be at least some other people around… but not always.  I didn’t see a single person the entire day.  I don’t even know if I passed any cars within an hour of the place on the way there or the way back.

This ski area puts messages on its trail maps/signs for hikers, snowshoers, or anyone going uphill.  They encourage it, which is cool to see.  They give a good description of the route they want you to take on the big sign at the base lodge, but the best thing they did was mark the trails for people traveling uphill with nice red signs, the way a ski trail network is marked for people moving down.  Great move on their part.  This is the first time I’ve hiked up a series of ski trails and did not get at least momentarily into somewhere they didn’t want me to be.  It would be good to see this in more places, it really benefits everyone.

A nice thing about hiking ski trails are the views created when the trails are cleared.  That doesn’t feel entirely right to say, buy hey.  It’s only a few minutes before they start getting good on Saddleback, and it seems like they’d stay that way, but after 20 minutes, I was thick in the fog until much later, on the summit of The Horn.

View from ski trail on Saddleback Mountain, Maine
View from the ski trail on Saddleback Mountain

Ski trails are usually nasty to hike – these ones were the worst I’ve been on.  Contrary to what the picture above would have you think, most of this is hard packed jagged rocks, so there was rarely a flat spot to place a foot.  It was also covered in slick ice in many places.  I could have justified MICROspikes the entire length of this trip, but didn’t put them on just yet.

I wanted to spend most of the day up on the ridge, so I went up the ski trails very quickly, changing over to the rest step when I was tired instead of taking a full on stop.  It worked, I was up at the top of the quad very quickly, and I took a good long break there to recharge.  I could tell the wind was strong higher up, so this was the place to rest.

After the break, I went up the more standard mountain trail toward the summit of Saddleback.  Much more ice now, but still easy to get around, so I continued barebooting.  There is a false summit here, which is probably obvious in clear weather, but with my very limited visibility, I did hang here for a bit before moving on toward The Horn, only then realizing I was approaching the true summit.

This area had a beautiful frozen pond, with a nice rock and grass patch in the middle that looked extra nice in the clouds – it was a monochromatic day.

Frozen pond near the summit of Saddleback Mountain, Maine
Near the summit of Saddleback

Having already spent a few minutes taking photos of this, I moved quickly over the Saddleback summit and headed out over the alpine ridge (now on the Appalachian Trail with its perfectly placed white blazes) toward The Horn.  I was really hoping the clouds would clear out, I could tell I was moving blindly through crazy views of an area I wasn’t very familiar with.   But it made for a nice atmosphere on a solo hike, sort of intimidating and strange.  I liked it.

I spiked up here, as the trail was completely ice now, and told myself to be careful.

Icy trail on Saddleback Mountain, Maine
Icy trail descending Saddleback Mountain

About 10 minutes later, still descending to the low point between the peaks, I took 2 bad falls, only a minute apart.  The ice was just too hard and the trail was too steep for my MICROspikes to hold well.  I wished I had my crampons instead of spikes, made a note to sharpen them when I got home, and forced myself to slow down. No falls for the rest of the day.

In the clouds on the way to The Horn, I did my best to keep track of where I was on the 1.7 mile path from one peak to the other.  But I did have two fake outs – like before, due to the poor visibility, so this wouldn’t happen on a clear day.  On the summit of The Horn, the wind was really whipping, and I was blown to the side several times as I walked.  Thankfully, it wasn’t a bitter cold wind, but it sure wasn’t warm.

Just as I started thinking about leaving this summit, it began to clear.  For the entire way back, I was able to see where I had been.  It would be a healthy climb back to Saddleback proper.

Saddleback and the ridge from The Horn
Saddleback and the ridge from The Horn

Ascending Saddleback from The Horn was much easier and safer than descending it had been.  That’s almost always the case, especially when ice is involved.

It was nice to have a view from Saddleback on the way down.   When I was here a couple hours before, I could see about 100 feet.  The lakes are beautiful from here, and I was able to see the Crockers and Mt. Redington, which I had been on the weekend before, as well as Sugarloaf, Abraham, and more.

The ski trail was even worse going down.  The rocks had no give, but kept tricking the eye into thinking they would.  Lots of impact on the knees and ankles here.  I actually took a break just 15 minutes from the car so that I wouldn’t hurt my left ankle, which had started up with sharp pains as it hit the ground with each step.  It still hurt for the rest of the way down, and maybe I just wanted to sit and take in the view one more time, but I’m pretending that’s why I didn’t end up with an injury.

If this pair of mountains were closer to home for me, I’m sure I’d be doing them several times a year.  It had some of the best qualities of Franconia Ridge, Mt. Hight, South Kinsman, and more, rolled into a 7-ish mile hike.  I’ll be heading back here in the winter for sure, although likely not solo.

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