Last winter, friends informed me about a new trail at Saddleback Mountain Ski Resort that led to the summit of Saddleback Mountain. For a fee, hikers and skiers were offered the opportunity to ascend Uphill Trail to the mountaintop while separated from downhill skiers. I lauded the hiker-friendly concept.
Recently, I decided to schedule a Penobscot Paddle & Chowder Society club hike or ski on the Uphill Trail. Since the path was reported to be a 2.2 mile climb to a 4,000-foot summit, it impressed me as an outing that would appeal to club members, especially us seniors. Just before the start date, I found a report on New England Trail Conditions website submitted by a hiker who had recently ascended the trail to Saddleback Mountain and then crossed the ridge to Saddleback Horn. I contacted him by email and he provided a glowing report of his experience and the trail. The trip was on!
Three of us met at Saddleback Mountain lodge on a cold but sunny, almost wind-free January morning. The weather was near perfect for an above tree line excursion. Two of us older retirees were equipped with snowshoes while the younger member would ski with skins. Our intent was to summit Saddleback as advertised on their website.
We informed the woman at the ticket office about our planned mission when purchasing trail passes. The helpful employee explained that snowshoes or skis were required while on the trail. She took time to show us the correct route on their map.
From the lodge, we followed Wheeler Slope Ski Trail for a short distance and entered a narrow wooded path signed Uphill Access. The shallow snow base was adequate as we progressed on a gradual incline. Some ice and occasional open water had to be avoided.
After crossing the Hudson Highway Ski Trail a couple of times, the trail steepened in a dense conifer forest. The snow depth was barely sufficient for the skier in our group, but he doggedly negotiated the twisting route. The shorter, more maneuverable snowshoes were an asset in that terrain.
Shortly after, we encountered a precipitous section of trail. Our skier exhaustively sidestepped up the gnarly impediment. Climbing on snowshoes with claws was more efficient. Just above, we encountered a steep section of Hudson Highway situated at the bottom of a curve. Skiers were hurtling down the trail from the right. The Uphill Trail re-entry sign was observed on the other side but crossing was precarious. Once assembled at the narrowest location, we safely raced across during a brief lapse in traffic.
The Uphill Trail continued rising steadily until a roped-off section was reached where excavation was in process. Unable to find signage, we explored right and ascended along Hudson Highway before relocating the trail.
Persisting upward, three Chowderheads emerged on Tri-Color Trail amidst blasting snow-making machines. According to the Saddleback website, Tri-Color leads to the summit. Angling left, we proceeded to the top of the ski lift where downhill skiers were assembling for their descents. Just above and adjacent to a warming hut, an unmarked path led to the nearby summit. Our skier decided to forego the short remaining climb to the top and ski down instead.
Two seniors not acting their ages began their final ascent. A member of the ski patrol abruptly halted us declaring that climbing above the hut was prohibited. Astonished, we asked why. Her explanation was unclear but she stated that if hiking to the summit was our goal, we should have taken the Appalachian Trail. Since AT access begins about 15 miles away, that advice was not helpful.
To say we were disappointed would be an understatement. We had labored heartily to reach the top of the lift anticipating glorious views on the spectacular barren summit. While descending, I decided to return to the lodge to obtain a coherent explanation and request a refund. A gentleman in the ticket office quickly agreed to refund my money. However, he was unapologetic and asserted their policy had changed because they didn’t want responsibility for rescuing hikers above the ski lift.
That settled it. If “you can’t get there from here,” next time I’ll take the AT. And it’s free!