My friend (who goes by the nick-name NangaParbat) and I descended the well-known cliffs of Saddleback and shortly thereafter cut left into the woods. Within 10 minutes we found ourselves out in the open with huge views on the Saddleback South slide. This must be a very old landslide because the once-exposed rock is now mostly covered in moss. Small trees are beginning to grow in. Lower down on the slide the water flow increases and the rock slab is exposed but we found it to be very slippery and stuck well to the edges.
Over to our right was Basin’s East Face, our ultimate destination. In between the slide and Basin lies a most impressive feature that I know as “Big Pink”, which is a huge, bare slab of pinkish smooth rock. We walked along the 60 degree base of Big Pink and then we picked up the drainage that runs down from the East Face of Basin.
This is huge country and we humans are dwarfed by the Gothics-Pyramid-Sawteeth massif as well as by Basin and Saddleback. Across the way the Dix range and the characteristic Beckhorn stick out behind and above Colvin and Nippletop. In August of 2011 the floodwaters of Hurricane Irene scoured the creek bed down to a smooth gently sloping slab and as you ascend towards it the East Face looms directly overhead. After having looked at this face for years and taking photographs from various vantage points in all seasons and moods I was about to climb it.
I am not much of a rock climber although I have done at least 40 slide climbs ranging from easy Bennies Brook and Erminebrook to the steeper White on Upper Wolf jaw and the Eagle Slide on Giant. Just two days earlier Nanga and I did the Beckhorn slide which was newly ripped open by Irene. That was perhaps the most challenging slide for me to date. The transition from off-trail hiking to climbing was abrupt and we dismantled and stowed our hiking poles inside our packs and put our rock shoes on. Right away, what I already knew became very clear. This was like nothing I had ever done before. The width and depth of exposure was huge and the face was a lot steeper than anything I’d done before. It was an incredible environment and the only way to put ourselves fully into it was to climb the face.
Nanga is an experienced climber and together we studied the rock above us in order to determine the most logical and safest route. After choosing a line Nanga would lead and he identified for me every foot and hand-hold, many which were obvious, and many which seem to evaporate into thin air when it was my turn. I was continuously and unwaveringly focused for the entire climb but I moved with less fluidity and elegance than Nanga and used more energy. Placing and shifting one’s weight upon one’s feet for minimal effort and maximum stability, moving with ease and fluidity and not hugging the rock were of paramount importance but were easier said than done.
As we ascended there was more and more air below us. Looking down reminded me that falling or slipping would be ruthlessly unforgiving. This was relatively easy rock climbing but the fundamental, mind-sharpening factor was that it was unprotected. From experience on many easier slides I know just how easy it is to mis-read the terrain and to get “stuck” and to have to do a hairy and delicate downclimb. That wasn’t going to be an option here on this steep slope and I held my ambitions and impulsiveness firmly in check.
Every single move was thought out and made with extreme care, with an understanding that falling or slipping would be ruthlessly unforgiving. The toughest move of all came at the end and involved a traverse over wet, smooth rock followed by a two-handed chin-up maneuver. It was quite a feeling to relax and sit quietly in the lush moss and switch into runners while looking out across the valley to Saddleback-Gothics-Pyramid in the late afternoon sun.
All that remained was a gorgeous late-afternoon bushwhack to the Great Range Trail and a 4-hour hike out over Basin and Saddlebacks’ summits to the Garden Parking Lot.