Upon getting dropped off back at the trailhead in the morning I knew I had a pretty solid stretch of trail coming up. I was going to attempt to do the 32 mile stretch to Rangeley in two days. The prior zero day would have been frigid cold but sunny and beautiful hiking weather. Watching Star Wars was worth it but the upcoming forecast showed sleet and freezing rain. That’s what I get for being one with the force. I have the Crocker Mountains first, followed by Sugarloaf and Spaulding, and then Saddleback. Just a few +4,000 foot peaks, that’s all. Doesn’t sound like too crazy of elevation does it? Especially considering some of the elevation that is out west. But I assure you that it is significant elevation up here in winter time when you factor in weather.
The day began great, sunny, not warm, but sunny. I got up and over North and South Crocker mountains no problem. The trail was a runway of inches of pure ice until I got high enough for snow to cover that ice. I had great views of the Bigelows and of Sugarloaf, and of course Saddleback. It’s always interesting to be on a high point and see where you’ve come from and look at where you’re going. The skies in the distance didn’t look too threatening from here, but my day had only just begun.
I descended down to the Caribou Valley to a stream crossing, the South Branch of the Carrabassett River. It separates the Crockers from Sugarloaf. I anticipated an icy ford here and as you know, I am about sick to death of these. Upon arriving at the crossing, I noticed that there was a layer of ice covering much of the river. And then there were rocks covered by snow and ice leading to a log that spanned across the deepest and most powerful flow of the river. I was able to safely cross the river without having to submerge my boots too far. That is huge for me and my psyche. It saves me time too.
Then began my climb up to Sugarloaf. The trail doesn’t go to the summit, it branches off at a junction .5 miles from the top and 600 feet lower in elevation. I couldn’t be happier about it either, besides the fact that the trail was quite steep and rather icy, the wind was howling. The top of Sugarloaf is widely known for it’s windy conditions ( I think I may be making that up but it sounds good). Going up and over Spaulding was pedestrian compared to going up Sugarloaf. I was coming down Spaulding Mountain and into the saddle before making my way over to Spaulding Mountain Lean-To when the precipitation began. This was not what I was hoping for. I still had many miles to go. It was also beginning to get dark as the clouds rolled in. I had only come about 13 miles from the road and wanted go another 5 miles to make the next day a shorter day into Rangeley and over Saddleback. But the precipitation was freezing rain and I didn’t like it. I didn’t like it one bit. The trail led me to the shelter right as it began to pick up. So I reluctantly called it. And I do mean reluctantly. I sat there in the shelter with my pack on debating it for a few minutes and finally unclipped my belt and shoulder strap and threw it off me in a fit. I really don’t like it when I don’t make my goals for the day. But, screw this freezing rain. I’m gonna get to sleep early this night and wake up earlier than I have on this whole hike and get a jump start on the day.
The alarm went off at 3:30am. I went to bed at 6:30pm. That’s 9 damn hours. I was well rested. I have 3 hours until even seeing a glimmer of a fraction of a piece of the tinniest corner of the sky showing any light whatsoever. I raced to get all my shit together so that I could shove off as soon as possible. I had arranged to get a ride into Rangeley with a local who I met on my first thru-hike of the AT in 2013. Lucy was a middle school science teacher and helped run the Rangeley Outing Club and hosted an event for the Warrior Hikers in 2013. We have loosely kept in touch and she knew I was coming through and offered to help. I was looking forward to seeing her again and very thankful for the offer to help. I really wanted to make the road before dark. And as it stood I had almost 19 miles to go and some serious terrain standing in my way. Making “good time” doesn’t ever feel like a possibility out here. You don’t just decide you’re going to hike faster. That results in putting yourself in exponentially greater risk. All you can do to compensate is to wake up earlier and take less breaks. Or in my case, no breaks.
The morning started with a long, dark descent to Orbeton Stream where I would have yet another crossing. By the time I got down to the old Sluice Brook Logging Road it was light enough that I could see without my headlamp. I would later learn that the body of Inchworm was found near this location. She was a missing hiker back in 2013 and there was a big effort to trying to find her or get information about where she was last seen. I made my way down to the stream and did my best rock hop (splashing in many times) and got across safely yet again without having to de-robe. I don’t believe I remember there being in major river fords that you couldn’t just rock hop south of Rangeley, so I think I might actually be in the clear from here on out!! That’s huge. You don’t even know how huge that it. It’s one thing for you to sit there and say, “Yeah that sure would suck to have to get naked and go barefoot through a river this time of year in Maine.” It’s an entirely different thing to have already gone through several and to realize that you don’t need to do that shit again. I can’t even tell you how elated I am to be done with it. It’s getting much colder and wetter daily for me out here and it’s just one less thing to have to manage.
But now I began my climb up Poplar Ridge and eventually to Saddleback Junior. I gotta tell you, that climb was probably the most treacherous climb I have had up this point. It wasn’t no junior on this day. The side of the mountain that the climb approached the peak was entirely encased with hoards of ice and deep heavy snow on top of it. I was barely, barely able to keep my balance during the steep grades. I only had my microspikes at this point and I feel like it would have served me to have my ice axe for this if only for a little extra leverage to climb up over massive walls of snow and ice. I was forced to use tree branches and trunks of the tiny pines that clung to life in the alpine up there to pull myself up and over. I bet I looked like a fish out of water flopping around trying to make my way up the last little bit until the summit. But when I got to the top finally, which was a huge freaking relief, I could see The Horn in front of me and Saddleback behind it with its summit completely shrouded by clouds. I knew that sooner or later the weather was going to be on top of me. They were closing in, and fast. By the time I got over to The Horn it was upon me. I slapped my cuben fiber rain mitts on over top of my wool gloves and battened down the hatches on my rain jacket and began to slog through the pouring ran over sheets of ice on completely exposed slab rock. Almost all of the terrain on the traverse from The Horn, down to the saddle and up and over Saddleback is completely exposed. The rain and wind was coming at me sideways. Smacking the left side of my body as I tried to maintain my balanced through snow and over ice. For the next 3 hours I would deal with the freezing cold rain until I would finally make my way down to the road. There wasn’t a single spot on me, inside my rain gear or out, that was dry. When I got to Lucy’s car in the parking hour, I demonstrated to her just how soaking wet I was. I pulled off my rain mitts and rung out about 8 ounces of delicious drinking water from my wool glove liners.
Lucy was the consummate host, I was able to get dry by their wood stove while my laundry was getting done and all my things were strewn about their house drying out. Her husband made homemade bread and we had a variety of homemade soups to chose from for dinner. It was Christmas Eve the next day and while I knew I wouldn’t be spending it with family, I was exactly where I was supposed to be: warm and dry with good people. I was very thankful for their hospitality. Thanks is certainly never enough.