A Journal of our Hike to and up Katahdin
by Bob Manley
(to view a gallery of all the images from our trip click here)
On February 23, 2016, myself and seven hiking partners summited the highest peak in Maine, Baxter Peak on Mount Katahdin, a journey that began months earlier. This is the story of that journey.
First a little history. Baxter State Park (BSP) is the largest public wilderness area in the State of Maine. The park is is only open to cars during the months of May through the end of October, during the rest of the year you can only access the park on foot. Snowmobiling is allowed, but is restricted to only a few areas within the park.
Every person who enters the park must first register with the park and reservations are limited. Preferential treatment is given to Maine residence over all others. For this reason, access to the park is extremely difficult to get, especially for the more popular areas like Chimney Pond, the most common access point to climb Katahdin.
So, our journey began with Sue, our trip organizers and leader, spending several days camping outside the doors of the BSP office on the days leading up to November 3rd, opening day for reservations for the 2015/16 winter season. The sooner you get there, the closer to the beginning of the line you will be and the better chances of you reservering the dates you wish to enter the park. As a result of Sue’s experience and dedication, she was able to reserve one night (Feb. 21) for ten at the Roaring Brook Cabin and four nights (Feb. 22-25) for ten at the Chimney Pond Cabin, thus begins our journey. Click for map
Over the next several months planning and preparations began for our epic journey to the summit of Katahdin. Confirming participants, organizing group gear, travel arrangements, hotel accommodations, car pooling, etc. Our trip organizer exchanged dozens of emails with trip participants ensuring we were all prepared and well informed with regard to the trip itinerary and required equipment. As the day of departure approached, the flurry of emails grew ever greater checking and rechecking last minute details. All of us started watching the extended forecast in anticipation for our journey, if we were not to make the summit, the number one reason would be weather.
In the final days our numbers went from ten to eight hikers. Two people had to drop out for personal reasons. On Saturday, February 20th, the eight remaining hikers began their journey to Northern Maine from all points across New England and as far away as Southwestern Connecticut.
Gordon and Fran picked me and my gear up (or most of it anyway) at 10:00 am Saturday morning and we headed north. Our meeting place was Ruthie’s Hotel Terrace in Millinocket, a five hour drive. About halfway there I had a heart stopping moment, I had left one of my backpacks at home. In the rush to load the car, I loaded everything but my expedition pack.
We pulled over on the highway right away to assess the situation. We had a couple choices, go back, adding four hours to our trip, or assess the gear I did bring and consider whether I could purchase any key pieces of gear required to make the summit at a backpacking store in Bangor. The good news is I am an obsessive overpacker. Except for just four key items, I had more than enough gear to make the trip. My expedition pack was packed very lightly as most of my gear would be hauled to the base camp in my sled.
We stopped in Bangor at Epic Sports and one other sporting good shop where I was able to purchase a balaclava, goggles, two headlamps, and expedition mittens, the four key things that remained at home that would have prevented me from summiting. A quick stop for coffee and off we went.
We arrived at the hotel between five and seven and gathered in the bar as we waited for everyone to show and began getting to know one another as they arrived. Most of the group were at least somewhat familiar with each other but there were some introductions to be made, especially for me, as many of our group attempted this hike together in years past. This was my first attempt in the winter, but others were on their third. Our group leader and one other member of our group had summited Katahdin in the winter numerous times befor.
We settled in to dinner at the hotel restaurant around 8:00, our last real meal before five days of camp food. After dinner we made our final group preparations and went over last minute details and went to bed early for a 6:30 am departure on Sunday.
Day One, February 21: Sunday morning began with a quick stop at McDonald’s (the only restaurant open in Millinocket before 7:00 on Sunday), and then up the Golden Road to Abol Bridge and the start of our adventure. We arrived at the parking area around 9:00 and it took everyone about 30 minutes to unload and prepare all the gear in the sleds for the hike in. Our group included our group leader Sue, Fran, Gordon, Greg, John, Doug, Ron and me.
Each hiker carried 30 to 40 lbs of gear and food on their backs and the remaining grear, between 40 and 60 lbs or more, in a sled which we pulled behind us, totalling between 70 and 100 plus pounds per person. Our gear consisted of food, clothing, cooking utensils, stoves, fuel, head lamps, batteries, cameras, water, water containers, sleeping bags, mountain climbing gear (ice axe, polls, goggles, extreme weather clothing, emergency gear, etc.) for five days in the mountains.
The hike in involved an approximate 13 mile hike up a modest elevation gain of around 1000 feet to our first night’s destination, Roaring Brook Cabin, elevation 1,500’. In the winter the park roads are closed, so the only way into the park is on foot. Some choose to ski and we discovered that fat tire bikes are now an option as well. Given the conditions, we all felt that walking was the best choice. Most of this first day was on wide open snow covered roads that had been well packed down by park rangers snowmobiles.
It was unseasonably warm at about 35 degrees and raining for the first three or four hours of the trip. As the day went on, the weather started to clear and we began to see a few breaks of sun. The group spread out based on each hikers hiking speed and the weight of their gear. Fran and I arrived to the cabin first at around 3:30 pm and got water for the group and got the woodstove stoked up, with the rest of the group filtering in over the next hour and half.
The evening’s activities consisted mainly of settling into our bunks which were plywood platforms three high in two separate bunk rooms, and preparing our evening meals for retiring early for the climb up to Chimney Pond. Meals ranged from freeze dried food to complete gourmet meals depending on each person’s ambition and level of fatigue. Most were in bed by 9:00.
Day Two, February 22: It was a bluebird day with temps in the single digits and expecting to climb into the high teens by afternoon and no wind, couldn’t have been more perfect. We left Roaring Brook Cabin around 8:00 am for the 3.3 mile trek and 1,400’ of elevation gain to the Chimney Pond Cabin. The trail climbed steadily right from the start. Feeling the previous days 13 miles and the heavy weight of our sleds, we were in for a workout. The trail was packed down from the rangers snowmobile, so no breaking snow. About half way up my sled broke. Fortunately, with some strapping and some creative tying, we were underway again in just minutes.
Again, Fran and I arrived at the Cabin first, arriving around 10:30 am with the rest of the party not far behind. As before, the first order of business being water and stoking the fire. Fortunately, the cabin was occupied the night before so it was warm and the stove was already full of coals. Water is accessed at Chimney Pond, about 300 yards from cabin. We took one of our empty sleds and a small group of four headed down to the water. Due to the unseasonably warm weather, the ice on the lake was thin and a hole had already been made for accessing the water. It was simply bucketed out of the lake and we filled our three containers. Short of Gordon putting his foot through the thin ice, all was good. By noon everyone had began settling in and preparing lunch.
Six of us decided to do some reconnaissance on the Saddle Trail. The Rangers were reporting a slight risk of avalanche on this route so we wanted to check it out before deciding whether to take this route to the summit or not. The Saddle trail provides the easiest and shortest route to Baxter Peak, a 1.2 mile climb to the saddle and a one mile climb to the summit. However, upon reaching an elevation of around 3,700 feet, the rangers suspicions became clear. The trail was very steep at this point. With only another quarter mile to the saddle, we could see the snow propagating with each step, cracks forming away from our snowshoes. We dug down and discovered there was about 12 inches of fresh snow on top of an iced over layer of snow, perfect avalanche conditions. We decided to turn back and hike the Hamlin Ridge trail instead.
We returned to the cabin and settled in for the night. Everyone again cooking their own meals and preparing their beds. The Ranger paid us a visit and reported favorable conditions for the high summits on the following day, good news for everyone. Again, everyone in bed by 9:00 or soon after.
Day three, February 23:. An early rise on a spectacular winter day. Sunny cloudless sky, low wind and somewhere around 0 degrees, expected to rise to the high teens (in the valley) by afternoon with winds climbing to around 20. We prepared breakfast and checked and rechecked our packs for our summit push.
The group got off at about 8:00 am to a bit of a staggered start with our leader setting the pace. Everyone was taking time to adjust their equipment and mindset for the long day ahead. The first seven tenths of a mile was a gentle rise along a pine tree lined Chimney Pond Trail and then the Hamlin Ridge trail which goes off to the left at about .3 miles. However, the trees soon thinned and the trail began to climb more aggressively. We were soon above treeline on the spine of the Hamlin Ridge trail with all of Katahdin spread out in all it’s glory before us. The mount Katahdin massif includes Baxter Peak to the left or south which also includes the Knife’s Edge and Pamola, Hamlin Peak in the center (from this vantage point), and the Howe Peaks to the right or north. It is truly a sight to behold as we climb out of the valley on this wide open ridge.
As we leave treeline the snow begins to thin and the trail turned to mostly rock and ice with patches of iced over snow between. From here on out, we are following what looks less like a trail than simply a route marked by the occasional blue blazes, over and around rocks and boulders. It is here where we decide to switch from snowshoes to crampons. The Hamlin Ridge trail is exactly that, a ridge and like the Knife’s Edge, it narrows to less that 12’ in places with steep drop offs on both sides, traction is very important.
For the next two hours we climb steadily with just wisps of wind and the warm sun giving us relief from the the cold. The group spread out along the spine according to everyones pace but given the wide open terrain, you could see the whole party from any vantage point along the ridge. Everyone seemed to be taking it especially slow, taking lots of time to catch their breath, enjoy the views, take pictures, contemplating, who know’s, the experience is different for everyone.
As we approached to top of the ridge, about five or six hundred feet from the summit things started to change, a strong fifteen to twenty mile and hour wind started to develope from the south and the surface become more ice than snow. Time for another gear change. We hunkered down below whatever rocks and shelter we could find and each began adjusting our gear for the summit push.
It was clear we were going to be dealing with increasing winds for the duration of our hike. Wind chill temperatures would be deep into the negative digits. Time to put on our best wind gear, balaclavas to cover our faces, and goggles a must. Any exposed skin over a long period of time in these conditions could easily result in frostbite. It was also time to put the poles away and carry our ice axes. As the terrain was very steep and in places sheer ice, with steep drop offs on both sides, one slip could send you careening over the side, the ice axe is really your only defense should this happen.
Within just minutes of changing our gear, and less than two miles into our hike, we were at the summit of Hamlin. No time to linger, a couple summit shots with those that arrived together and off to Baxter. It was already noon and we still had the lion share work ahead of us.
It was nice to be heading down for a change, reaching Hamlin involved hiking over 1,800 feet in just over a mile, my legs were burning. The view across the saddle, an area between Hamlin and Baxter of about two miles and about 500 feet drop from the summit of Hamlin was breathtaking. As we descended toward the saddle the wind let up just a bit, blocked by the summit of Hamlin, a great time for food. Most of us took a few moments to grab a quick bite and enjoy the views, the break was much appreciated.
The hike across the saddle is deceiving. From Hamlin peak, Baxter looks like an easy walk and the first mile really is, as you drop off the summit of Hamlin. However, once you reach the bottom of the saddle, the next mile over to the summit of Baxter climbs thousand feet. The trail runs along the left edge of the saddle just a few hundred feet from the cliffs overlooking the Chimney Pond area where we came from.
It is here where the Saddle trail comes up from the Valley, had that trail been safe, we would have arrived onto the saddle right between Hamlin and Baxter. Had we been able to hike the Saddle Trail, our hike would have been shortened by two or three miles, but, we would have missed the spectacular view coming up the Hamlin Ridge. If you are ever in the position to choose the Saddle Trail over the Hamlin Ridge, only choose the Saddle trail if you have done the Hamlin Ridge trail before, you don’t want to miss it.
The final climb up to the summit of Baxter was a real bear. I was feeling every mile of the over 20 miles of the last three days journey into the mountains. My legs were burning with every step and I required frequent stops along the way. The wind was growing annoying, having been blowing hard now for several hours, hard enough to knock you off your feet if you weren’t careful, and in the fatigued state we were in, that was certainly an option.
It seemed like forever, but was really less than two hours crossing from Hamlin to Baxter Peak, a long time for just two miles, but the views were amazing and we had no reason to hurry. At around 2:00 pm the first of the group, Greg, Gordon, Fran, and I arrived at the summit in that order. It was truly an amazing moment. Months worth of preparation and anticipation and here we were, at the summit. The rest of the group followed along shortly. Everyone began recording their moment in various ways, video, pictures, selfies, group shots, this was a moment to be remembered. I wondered a few yards out onto the Knife’s edge to take in the views of the Chimney Pond area below, marveling at the thousand foot drop just feet away on both sides of me, truly awesome.
We all spent no more than 10 or 20 minutes on the summit, each of us starting our return journey in our own time. Everyone’s experience and reason for being there is different. Some of the group had been on the summit many times before, winter and summer, others, like myself, only in the summer and I believe at least one of us was seeing the summit for the first time. Some were pursuing lists, others just looking for another excuse to be out in the great outdoors. I don’t know all the reasons people choose to go through what we went through to spend a few minutes on the top of this mountain, I only know mine, and I am not sure I even fully understand that.
The simplest answer is that Katahdin and Hamlin are two of the mountains on the list of New England’s Hundred Highest mountains, a list which Gordon and I have been trying to complete in the winter for nearly 15 years. Today’s summiting of Baxter marked the completion of that list for Gordon (Congratulation Gordon!), I am still about a dozen summits away from completing the list. Honestly, I don’t know if I will ever complete it.
The list is not my reason for being out there. I choose to do this for so many reasons, the list being the least important of them. I do this to share experiences with the people I care about, to meet new people with similar interests, to explore the great outdoors, to test myself, to push myself mentally and physically to the limit, to find out what my limits are. Honestly, when the conditions are really harsh and the going really tough, I can’t tell you why I am out there, but at the end of the day, I am always glad I am.
I will add here that Summiting Hamlin and Baxter today, was by far the most challenging of all the summits I have hiked. Not so much the actual summit push from Chimney Pond, I have been on many a hikes that were harder than this and in much harsher conditions. No, climbing Baxter is a trip that takes months of planning, hours of preparation, and miles of hiking and climbing just to get the chance to hike the mountain, and many people go through all that and never get to make the summit. Let’s be clear, we got very lucky, if we had been there one day later or two days earlier, we would not have been on that summit. Because of the extreme exposure, hours above tree line, and the remoteness of this area, the weather must be very good to chance a summit push.
To help put this into perspective, some of our party, including Gordon had been on this trip twice before in the winter and never summited Baxter. A party we meet coming out of the park were on their eleventh attempt and still had not summited Baxter in the winter. If I had to guess, I would say that less than a third of all attempts to summit Baxter in the winter are not successful, don’t quote me on that, it is really a wild guess. Needless to say, I am feeling very fortunate to have been able to achieve the summit on my first winter attempt. Thank you to Sue and everyone else who helped make this happen.
However, summiting is only half the challenge, we still had 4 miles of hiking to return to our base and an additional 16 miles to get back to our car. We returned the same way we came, everyone still felt that trying to go down the Saddle would be too dangerous. We descended Baxter to the saddle and back up over Hamlin, climbing the 500 feet to the summit (not fun), then descending the Hamlin Ridge Trail the way we came up. The afternoon light was spectacular, views changing by the minute as the sun began to set and a front started to move in. As we got to the bottom of the ridge we could see the summits of Hamlin and Baxter begin to be engulfed with clouds, thankfully, none of us were still there. We were all safely back at our cabin at Chimney Pond by five-ish and began celebrating our spectacular day.
The Ranger interrupted our celebration to inform us that the weather was changing for the worse and that we might want to consider cutting our trip short as a result. All but two of us decided to leave the next day, Wednesday, February 24 instead of the intended day of Friday the 26th. We had achieved our goal and did not relish spending two days cooped up in the cabin while it rained and risk not being able to get out on Friday due to potential flooding.
We got a late start on Wednesday, leaving Chimney Pond around 10:00 am. Our goal was to hike straight out, 16 miles, again pulling our sleds and all our gear. Our sleds were not as light as we would have preferred as we had three days worth of provisions still in them that would have been gone had we hiked out Friday.
It snowed for the first hour and a half as we went quickly down the 1,500 feet and 3.3 miles to Roaring Brook. We regrouped there before continuing on. From that point on it rained the entire 13 miles back to the car. By far the longest slog of my hiking career. Our good gear kept us dry for the most part but the temperature hovered around 32 degrees and hypothermia remained a serious risk should anything happen to cause us to have to stop.
We arrived back to the car at around 5:00 p.m. and were pleased to learn that two members of our group had been given a lift out of the park by one of the rangers. John was having severe knee problems and at the pace he was going, would not have made it out for many more hours, thankfully the Ranger was sympathetic and we all made it out safely.
After warming up and showering at our hotel, we celebrated our accomplishments at the Sawmill Bar and Grill just outside of Millinocket. The owner bought us all a round of beers, gave those who didn’t have one already, a Sawmill T-Shirt and printed a picture off our camera, framed it and placed in the wall of fame, the Mile High Club. I am proud to say, of all the pictures on the wall, ours was the only one on the summit in the winter!