The sun continued to shine strongly and the temperatures continued to rise. We started to notice that the snow that on the sunnier side of the brook was beginning to get soft and sticky, and if we snowshoed over a stretch like that, it started to clump and stick to our snowshoes, increasing the effort. Fortunately, the tracks typically stayed on the shady side of things. For now, at least.
Our open brook walking along a packed track had meant good progress. By 11:30 a.m. we had reached a point at about the 3,300 foot level along the main Orebed Brook/Slide. We stopped for a quick food break at the junction of the main slide and a smaller wooded side drainage, then continued, choosing to follow the ski tracks as they led higher up the main slide. Looking at my map, I was starting to wonder whether or not we would have to veer off left at some point, for this slide seemed to lead towards the northern slopes of Saddleback Mountain - not where we wanted to go.
Backcountry skiing wonderland
Backcountry skiing wonderland
A few more minutes along the ski tracks and we came to their terminus. Whoever had been doing the skiing had decided that this was far and high enough, and had turned back to start their run down. Looking up the now pristine snow of the slide, I tried to divine whether this was the right route. A few more steps to look around a corner and I became fairly convinced that we were now headed in the wrong direction. Back down below (where that small side-drainage had come in) was in fact more likely to be the proper route - likely to lead us back to the official signed trail. So, back down we went, despite a bit of grumbling from the others about wasting some just-gained elevation.
Now with no track to follow, breaking trail up the small connector stream required more effort, and our pace slowed. Happily, not ten minutes of hiking up the streambed intersected us with the blue-signed Orebed Brook Trail. This we followed for another ten minutes (still un-tracked) or so before we came to another, higher slide. This one was much wider and - at its upper end - a lot steeper.
This upper slide I remembered. It had been in place for many years, and in its previous incarnation, I knew the trail briefly came out onto its upper end, providing a welcome bit of view-filled hiking in what is otherwise a primarily treed-in ascent to the col. Hurricane Irene had significantly widened and extended it, I could now see. I wondered how the trail had been modified to accommodate it.
Wonderful new Gothics view
With the now unbroken snow coupled with a steeper grade and stickier, wetter conditions, travel upwards became quite a chore. Taking lots of measured, small steps, we slowly made progress. The heavily blue-markered trail skirted the left edge of the slide - sometimes in the trees for a few yards, sometimes out on the edge of the slide for a few yards - before finally coming out for a longer stretch on the steeper upper face. I was very curious as to what sort of views one could get from this much-expanded open space, and I took the liberty of making a long switchbacking traverse across the upper face of the slide. I'm glad I did, because there was a fantastic oblique view back across the slide to the north face of Gothics, now very close.
A few more minutes of steep slide climbing brought us back into the trees at the slide's upper end. It was then only another fifteen minutes or so before we arrived at the col (low point) between Saddleback and Gothics mountain. After all of that slow, steep climbing, it was time for a rest break and some caloric intake.
As a couple of military helicopters buzzed close by overhead (apparently on some sort of training outing - unfortunately I was inconveniently in the trees every time they came swooping past, so I have no pictures of them), we lounged about in the warm noontime sun. It was now well above freezing - even here at 4,000 feet elevation, and the trees were starting to drip, drip drip. The rest of the day was likely going to be quite wet.
With the clock's arms swinging past noon, it was high time that we continued our ascent. We still had a lot of ground to cover to complete our loop.
Gothics' western ridge is quite steep - about as steep as the upper part of the slide we had just completed. With no track broken out and with wet, clumpy snow frequently making our snowshoes fail to solidly grab into the slope, it was a tiring 500 feet of ascent to the crags of the western sub-summit. After switching from ski poles to ice axes to aid the last part of the ascent, we arrived at the sub-summit at 2pm. A very slow 500 feet!
Windblown snow formations