Saddleback Mountain & The Horn – Maine Trip Day 1

On a cool, rainy Monday in early June, Chris and I set off for what would be an interesting week of climbing in the Carabassett Valley area. Since we’ve been getting close to our goal of finishing the ADK 46, our minds have been shifting focus beyond 46 and onwards to the Northeast 111. Since the 14 peaks in Maine are kind of out of the way, Chris suggested we take a week and just go up there to climb as much of them as we can, and I was happy enough to come along. Even though 4 straight days of climbing was bound to be a tough test, it was undoubtedly going to be a better time than going to work.

We took off from Boston around 6 AM or so knowing it would be a bit of a trip to get up to where we were going. The forecast called for light rain throughout the day, but considering it was calling for a washout just a few days before, we decided to give a shorter hike a try, so we set off for Saddleback Ski Resort to climb Saddleback and Saddleback Horn. The book distance on the hike was only about 6.8 miles, so we figured it wouldn’t be such a bad climb to do in the rain. As we drove up and the rain continued on steadily, I began to think we were kind of crazy trying to go out in weather like this, but I knew we were going to try it regardless, just because that’s how we do things. Besides, hikes with a little adversity make for great stories (and this one was no different).

The first indication that this was going to be a strange day was when we got close to the mountain and Chris’ GPS decided that the best route to the trailhead would be to take a shortcut down a relatively unmarked, unpaved hunting road. It was a random, sketchy trip for a mile past no trespassing signs before we reached a metal gate and realized the GPS was sorely mistaken. It felt like a bad omen to start the day, and more or less it actually was a sign of things to come for our trip through Maine (but more on that will come in later blogs). We turned around, found our way to the ski resort eventually, and were on our way in no time.

We got started hiking around 10:45 AM after trying to figure out where it was we supposed to park. The whole resort was a ghost town with the exception of a few construction crews off in the woods, so it was a little confusing trying to figure out what we were supposed to do. We learned a valuable lesson on Day 1 of this trip; you really have to earn your peaks in Maine because there’s not a heck of a lot of guidance out there outside of the Appalachian Trail trailheads. We ending up parking downhill a ways, and went off to find the ski lift. From there we were going to read the trail map and look for the Grey Ghost trail, which was supposedly the best trail to take to get uphill.

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Not the Grey Ghost trail but whatever

 

Without knowing it at the time, we ended up taking a different trail up, the Green Weaver, which zigzagged a little bit on a more gravelly trail the whole way up the side of the mountain. To be honest, it really didn’t make much of a difference which trail we took up because they all lead to the same place anyway (a logic we would use again on Day 3 of this trip) so we just pushed on uphill. It was a steep and taxing effort trying to climb up the trail we did, and I found myself needing to stop every 100 feet or so to catch my breath. It was a tough push for the first hour of the day, but we did manage to get up top in no time. Eventually, after taking the second wrong trail of the day, we ended up at the spot where we would leave the ski area and hop over to the ridge line where we would meet the Appalachian Trail en route to the summit.

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The connection path is not well marked at all, but if you keep your eyes open heading up to the highest point of the ski trails then you should find it without much hardship. It was probably about a tenth of a mile from there before we got on to the exposed ridgeline of Saddleback, and that was where our day became an even bigger struggle than we imagined.

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Getting up to the ridge line seemed like a relief after going straight up ski trails for about an hour, but that relief lasted only a few moments, because we were quickly overtaken by the harsh conditions of the day. While climbing up the mountain, we were mainly blocked from the wind, but there was no escaping it on the ridge line. The wind was gusting to probably 30-40 mph by the time we started taking off to the summit, and the wind was whipping the rain around, making it far more uncomfortable than it was before. The calendar said it was June, but being up there and facing the cold wind and rain, you could’ve easily mistaken it for October or November. We knew the conditions were bad going in, but we were not prepared for how bad it was going to be. My glasses kept fogging up in the rain, making it hard to put one foot in front of the other, and the swirling clouds made following the trail on the exposed parts more difficult than it really should’ve been. Luckily enough, I did manage to pack my hat and gloves at the last second before I came out, just in case, and they really came in handy because it was that cold up there.

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This wasn’t a pleasant walk stroll through the woods on this day, this was grin-and-bear-it peak-bagging at its best! Once the shock wore off and we geared up a little, Chris and I continued on the Appalachian Trail and walked over to the summit of Saddleback Mountain for our first peak in Maine. I’m sure the views would’ve been wonderful, but all we got was clouds and wind gusts, so we didn’t stick around the summit for too long. Instead, we basically went straight through, heading towards our final destination of the day, Saddleback Horn.

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Thankfully the path between Saddleback and the Horn was extremely simple to follow and even featured a few heavily forested sections that braced the wind impact. I’m sure if our entire trip between the two peaks was exposed we may have seriously considered turning back, but the conditions were a little more comfortable under tree cover. The trail descended a little bit from Saddleback to the col, but never to any real extremes. There were no steep parts along this trail section, and only one small ladder to traverse along the way, which was much appreciated.

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By the time we started ascending again towards Saddleback Horn we could start feeling the winds getting even more abrasive in the exposed sections. I knew the forecast had called for some potentially steadier showers in the afternoon, and we ended up feeling a little bit more of a kick as we approached the summit. To our astonishment, we actually passed a couple of hikers as we got up towards the Horn, which we certainly didn’t expect on a day like that. We stopped for a second to talk about how crazy we all were for braving these conditions, and went along our ways again. From there, it was just a few more minutes until we ended up close to the top.

 

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The cold wet walk towards the summit of The Horn

 

Arriving towards the summit of the Horn was a remarkably unpleasant experience in many ways. Getting above tree-line again exposed us to the deteriorating conditions, as the winds swirled just a little bit harder than they did when we were on Saddleback. Because of that, my glasses started fogging up again, and without a clear sight line I walked right off a boulder with my left leg, which left me in a painfully contorted split with a banged up knee. It’s hard to properly describe the kind of contortion I ended up in, but it seemed a fitting fall for a hike like this. Chris caught up to me right as I was trying to extract myself from in between the boulders, and I’m sure it made for a pretty comical sight looking on. My knee throbbed for the rest of the hike, but thankfully I wasn’t too hurt and we made our way up the last few sections of the trail to the summit.

The summit of Saddleback Horn didn’t have a marker like Saddleback, but it did have a gigantic stump in a rock outcropping that basically acts as the summit marker. It’s a good thing that was a blatant sign for the summit because it was so cloudy up on the summit that it was hard to see too much around. If you watch the vlog we did for this climb, you’ll see that I had zero interest in enjoying a moment on top of the peak like I usually do because the conditions had gotten way too miserable to stand still. We quickly got our pictures at the top, and headed back down for tree cover before we stopped to grab a bite to eat.

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“Jesus Christ get me off this thing…”

 

Even though I didn’t time it, I’m confident in saying we set new personal record for least time spent at a summit, and I’m not ashamed of that in the slightest. I knew it was going to be a bad day, but I wasn’t expecting it to be so cold in June, regardless of elevation. Every hike seems to have some sort of learning experience along the way, and this one was certainly no different!

After a quick break halfway back to the col, we decided to press on and make our way back and out of the bad weather.  I knew the conditions would improve drastically once we got back over the mountain to the ski trails, so it was worth pushing through until we got there. By the point in time we started climbing back up to saddleback my hat and gloves were soaked and useless so I was fairly miserable for that last half hour of the ridge walk. Once we were back on Saddleback the clouds had gotten just bad enough to confuse us a little bit on which was the trail lead, but we quickly found the route and got back to the trail junction a few minutes later. For some reason that trail junction seemed to have the worst wind situation of all the exposed parts on the trail, perhaps because it was a flatter section along the ridge-line, and we were astonished to feel some of the rain turning over to ice in that one section as we got to the junction sign. It was June and we were getting pummeled with ice! Such a weird experience, but it stopped pretty quickly once we got down the trail and back to the ski trails.

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The good part about climbing down the ski trails was that we could see the signs for the trail labeled clearly. We managed to find the proper Grey Ghost trail on the way down, and took that to get to the bottom of the mountain.

 

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Oh…there it is

 

We quickly figured out why this was the preferred hiking method because there was an actual, defined foot path on this trail that we could follow. We made our way down the trail, descending pretty quickly despite the rain, and got down the mountain about as fast as we’d ever descended one before. Only about 4 hours after we started our hike, we had arrived at the base of the ski lifts and made our way around the base lodge and back to the parking lot. At no point in that hike did the rain cease for even a moment, and it seemed to even get worse as we walked back to the car. Still, we were pretty relieved to get out of the rain for a moment and get some heat to dry off with. I’m pretty sure I spent the first 15 minutes of the car ride over to Rangeley shivering, but at least we got to cross a couple peaks off our list! All-in-all, it was a pretty memorable hike, and a decent start to our 4-day hiking trip in Maine!

Recommendations: I definitely would recommend this hike, although it would behoove you to climb it on a nicer day so you can enjoy your ridge walk. It’s a fairly easy day to grab two peaks, and I believe the views towards the east should be pretty nice when you can see more than 20 feet in front of you. It’s also worth noting that this particular trip shouldn’t be attempted during ski season unless you enjoy being run over by skiers. Instead, you can access Saddleback and the Horn via the Appalachian Trail from Route 4, although it will be a slightly longer day to do so.

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