HaBaSa from JBL

Haystack, Basin and Saddleback (HaBaSa)
Order in ranking: 3, 9 17

It was down to the Adirondacks for another long weekend of climbing and luxury camping, if you can call what we did camping, and if you can call Johns Brook Lodge luxury.  I should probably start at the beginning so you can follow that.

Backwards J is a thing, apparently

First, Johns Brook Lodge (JBL).  This is a hike-in facility run by the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK).  It’s a 5.6 km (3.5 mile) hike from The Garden parking lot to JBL.  It’s a full board lodge, at least between late-June and Labour Day.  The staff, there were three when we stayed there, hike in all the food.  Any special dietary needs (gluten-free, egg allergies, etc.) need to be communicated at least 24 hours in advance so that the staff can bring in any special food (my friend Stephanie, who has celiac’s, had gluten free pancakes one morning).  But this is no luxury lodge – the rooms are all dorms (there are two general 10-bed dorms, and two family four-bed dorms), there’s no electricity, no shower and no flush toilet.  Not to dissuade you too much – the privies are clean, with a seat (no squat toilets!), and there are sinks to wash your hands/do a bird-bath after your climb.  The water is also potable, so you don’t need to hike in water for your stay.  And, while there is no electricity (and no charging phones, batteries, or cameras), there are propane lights, and propane stoves.  We had wonderful meals (turkey, mashed potatoes, bacon, sausage, eggs, oatmeal, coffee, BBQ chicken, etc.) while we were there, and they prepared a bagged lunch for everyone each day.  Additionally, it effectively cuts 11.2 km (7 miles) off your hike; if you’re planning to do the Haystack-Basin-Saddleback (HaBaSa) loop, this is definitely a good thing.

Our big plan was originally to do a Gothics-Armstrong-Upper Wolf Jaw loop, and spend a night camping at Johns Brook Lodge.  We’d hike in on the Friday, spend the night, do the loop on the Saturday, hike partway out and camp in a lean-to, then hike the rest of the way out on Sunday.

This plan then grew to doing Saddleback-Gothics-Armstrong-Upper Wolf Jaw as a loop on Saturday, spend an extra night at JBL on Saturday, and then hike Haystack and Basin on Sunday, before hiking out.

Which changed one last time when we saw that it was to rain on the Sunday.  Everything we’d read said don’t climb Basin or Haystack in the rain.  So our game plan, upon reaching the Adirondacks, was to do the HaBaSa loop on the Saturday, then the Gothics-Armstrong-Upper Wolf Jaw on Sunday.  Ambitious, to say the least.

And onwards towards JBL

Our hike in was a little slow – it was the first time that we had carried full backpacks (with clothes, sleeping bags, extra snacks, and our day packs) and we wanted to make sure to conserve some energy.  It probably took us close to two hours to reach JBL.

Once there, we quickly unpacked and sat outside enjoying the view, as well as sharing stories and tips with the other hikers.  The great thing was that most of them were also aspiring 46ers, including two women (also from Ottawa!) who were set to complete the 46 the next day with a hike up Haystack.

It was an early night for everyone, and a mad scramble the next morning as everyone prepared for their hikes.  We had filled our camelbaks and water bottles the night before, so after breakfast (eggs, oatmeal, sausages), we grabbed our lunches (two sandwiches – one pb and j, the other ham, as well as trail mix and cookies), stuffed them in our day packs, and set out.

A few broken sign-posts along the way

The first few miles were definitely easy, with a few rolling up and downs, but nothing strenuous.  This always scares me, because I know that at some point there’s going to be an up, and the longer it takes to get to the up, the harder that up is.  And that certainly proved true, as we had 878 feet to climb in a mile.  But, we thought, ‘how hard can it be’?

Not very, it turned out.  It is steep, and it is rocky, and it was wet (and buggy) but it wasn’t too bad.  I wouldn’t want to go down it, but up – it was fine.

We got to a rocky outcropping, where a woman was sitting, and I got all excited, “Is this Little Haystack?!?”  I asked.  No, it wasn’t.  “Is it BIG Haystack?!?” I asked in jest, no it isn’t.  “Is it Needle-In-A-Haystack?!?” Stephanie jokingly chimmed in, and after a laugh we all agreed that would be the name of that outcropping.  So, for those of you follow us, you will first summit Needle-In-A-Haystack, then Little Haystack, then descend Devil’s-Half-Mile (more on that) before finally summiting Haystack.

People picking their way down Haystack

The trek between Little Haystack and Haystack, Devil’s Half-Mile, is a little bit daunting.  It involves walking carefully on small ledges along the rock face, and gingerly scaling the rock face up towards Haystack.  It’s not hard, but it does require some concentration, and I definitely wouldn’t like to do it in the rain, or on wet rock.  The best piece of advice I can pass on is….leave your poles (or pack them into your day pack.)  We left ours by a cairn on the way up Haystack, which  made the rock scrambling that much easier.  (And yes, they were still there when we got back down.)  Follow the yellow paint blazes and you’ll be fine – there are lots of hand holds and toe grips, and for most of it, you can walk upright, if a little slanted forward.

We convinced two other hikers to do the rest of the loop with us.  Their group was only planning on doing Haystack, and they had been debating doing the Basin-Saddleback loop but were unsure.  In retrospect, I’m very, very, very glad that there were four of us.  The trail up the Saddleback cliffs was….scary.  Especially in the moment.  But I’m ahead of myself here.

Going down Haystack was a lot easier than going up – possibly because we had only spent about 20 minutes at the summit, and the way was fresh in our minds.  We raced back up and over Little Haystack, and back down to the trail, that branched off towards Basin.

More ladders.

Basin was a little slower going.  It was quite steep, and there was a bit of rock scrambling to get up and over some of the larger boulders.  And, because of course always, there was another ladder.  I practically hopped my way up, I was so happy I didn’t have to climb down the thing.  The other two people had gone on ahead, and we ambled our way towards the summit.  We’re not fast hikers, and we’re ok with that.  We hike at our pace, and we get there.  Plus we enjoy it along the way.

We met a few people along the way, including a couple who had come up over Saddleback before tacking Basin (doing it the opposite way from us), with full on backpacks.  Like massive full on backpacks.  So some more advice – do not do Saddleback-Basin-Haystack.  Especially if you have full on massive backpacks.

We finally made it to the summit of Basin, and looked back over the path we had come.  We could see both Little Haystack and Haystack in the distance.  It always amazes me, how distances always look massive when you see them, but seem so much smaller when you walk them.  We met up with the other two hikers from Haystack, and enjoyed a few moments rest before we left to tackle……the Cliffs of Saddleback. (dun dun dun!)

I have no idea of what’s coming

Ok, so, disclaimer.  I am beyond terrified of heights.  Or rather, falling from/being pushed from heights.  Two steps up a ladder and I freak out.  (Second disclaimer:  I do not let this stop me from doing anything I really really really want.  I will tough it out and scare myself if I have to, but I will do whatever it is if I am that determined.)

So back to these cliffs.  Have you seen “The Princess Bride?”  And do you remember the Cliffs of Insanity?  It’s basically that.  Only I’m exaggerating just a little bit.  (Although, we did have a woman following us, and I swear she kept gaining.  It was very Princess Bride.)   The cliffs aren’t that bad.  There are three ‘sets’ that you have to climb.  The first one is probably the hardest, because you have no idea how to begin.  Thankfully, the other two people went first and coached us up.  Once you get the first foot up, and the first hand-hold, the rest just seems to “flow” – you can easily get up the first set of rocks.  After that there’s a small area to stand and catch your breath.  Then it’s up the next “set” – again, once you get going, it’s easy to keep momentum up to the next flat-ish area. 

The paint blazes lead either up and over or over and down

I found the third one the hardest – this one seemed to have fewer hand-grips, but did have some space to wedge an arm against the rock and push yourself up.  And then…you’re there.  You’re at the top, or at least very close.  You have to walk around the rocks a bit (again, on an angle as you are still on a bit of an incline) but after one brief haul up a rock, you’re at the summit.  You’ve made it.  You have accomplished one of the hardest hikes in the Adirondacks (that’s what I think, and I swear I have read it somewhere else.)  Is it scary?  Yes.  Could you hurt yourself, badly?  Yes.  Should you have company?  Yes.  Should you do it the opposite way?  No – because then you’d see where you are going, dooooooowwwwwn, and that is just….stupid.  Go up.  Climb.  Climbing it is easier than trying to descend it and have clean underwear at the end.

Woot number 17!

Once atop Saddleback, we took a group picture with our other two hikers, Chris and Eric.  This summit was Chris’s 16th, our 17th and Eric’s 20th.  We were all a little battered and bruised – I have a few (very minor) scratches from my climb up, as did most of the others.  But we made it, and the pride….man.  If you’re wondering if you can do it – yes you can.  Take a deep breath, and go.

We all slowly hobbled down Saddleback.  We met a crew doing trail repair on the Orebed trail – they were building a new ladder up the slide, to maybe? replace one taken by Hurricane Irene.  The devastation left behind by the hurricane is incredibly evident – the slide is desolate, and piled at the bottom is a massive amount of dead wood – trees, branches, roots.  It’s just incredible.

New ladder being built

If you’re thinking of doing the Orebed trail, it’s not too bad, at least until the split with Gothics.  From the base of Saddleback to the bottom, it’s fine, especially with the new ladders.  (I hear that the portion from the split to Gothics summit is a must-go-up, because of the cables.)  We were a little slow on descending – Stephanie and I went ahead, and Chris and Eric took it slower on the way down.  I was so ready to stop walking.  There are a few times, as you cross slides, that it might be easy to lose the trail.  Follow the cairns and the trail markers, and you’ll be fine.  We did get lost at one point, but we just back-tracked to the last marker, and then made our (corrected) way from there.  I guess that’s the thing with the Adirondacks; it’s like the Hitch Hikers Guide To the Galaxy – Don’t Panic.  If you ever think you’re lost, just go back to the last marker, and re-find your way.

We walked for what seemed forever, when we hit a lean-to.  The lean-to is half way along the Orebed trail, and we couldn’t believe that that is where we were.  We honestly felt like we were closer to the end.  But we kept walking, and a little bit later hit the junction for the trail that leads to JBL.  The good news is that if you’re staying at JBL, you don’t have to walk the half-mile back to the Interior Outpost to start your hikes – there is a trailhead at the lodge.

At this point we were moving on auto-pilot.  One foot in front of the other.  All we could think of was the BBQ at JBL that night.  Dinner is served at 6:30, and we knew it would be close.  Finally, after two river crossings, and a horrid, horrible, set of “stairs” we neared JBL. By this point it was 7:00, but thankfully dinner was still on, and there was lots of food.  As we walked in (me first, Stephanie a few seconds behind me) two massive cheers went up from the hikers already back at camp.  They clapped and cheered us as we entered the lodge and we were both overcome with the sense of camaraderie.  We quickly devested ourselves of our shoes and socks, and sat down for some well-deserved dinner.  About 10 minutes after us, in came Eric and Chris, and another massive cheer came from those of us at dinner.


Total climbing time: 10 hours and 57 minutes
Left JBL at 8:05, returned at 7:02
Summited Haystack at 12:30, Basin at 2:40, Saddleback at 4:30