Except for three years in the Army, I’ve lived my entire life in Maine. One would surmise that after seven decades experiencing Maine winters, they wouldn’t come as a surprise. However, for some inexplicable reason the first significant winter storm always seems to catch me unprepared.
I’m not alone. A few inches of white stuff and savvy longtime Mainers are slip sliding away on roads acting as if it they’re out on a sunny, dry summer excursion. For too many of us, winter doesn’t truly arrive until we’re startled back to reality by a rash of snow-related automobile accidents.
The Penobscot Paddle and Chowder Society had scheduled a hike on Bigelow Mountain for the second Saturday in December. Undeterred by the first forecasted winter storm, chowderheads were intent on climbing the mountain despite the blustery prediction. Actually, we weren’t quite that reckless; our goal was to complete the trek before the storm arrived.
Located in the Carrabassett Valley area of western Maine, the Bigelow Mountain Range is one of the state’s premier mountaineering venues. Paralleling the south shore of picturesque Flagstaff Lake, Bigelow has four significant peaks. Our mission was to summit two of them, South and North Horns.
Bigelow Mountain also has the distinction of possessing three of the Appalachian Mountain Club designated one hundred highest peaks in New England; South Horn at 3,805 feet and two four thousand footers, Avery and West Peaks. As a result, it’s a must climb for peak baggers in pursuit of four thousand footers or the one hundred highest. The Appalachian Trail traverses much of the mountain seductively lending itself to some excellent backpacking options.
Friends and I have experienced multiple adventures on Bigelow that have spanned several decades. An early encounter was a backpacking trip with my wife Nancy and longtime friends John & Diane Stokinger. Spending nights at Horns Pond and Bigelow Col with wonderful weather, it was the perfect overnight introduction. Motivated by that exceptional experience, another friend and I decided on a winter trip a few years later that wasn’t quite as accommodating. Inadequately equipped for extreme cold, we spent a near sleepless night in a tent at Horns Pond with temperatures dropping to 25 below zero. Err on the side of caution in the winter.
In January of 1995, the summits of Bigelow were the objective of a large group of peak baggers on a quest to climb the one hundred highest peaks in New England in the winter. Beginning on Route 27 near Stratton, we had an epic 18 mile alpine day climbing all four peaks using skis, snowshoes and crampons. Two memories stand out; an undercast at higher elevations allowed us to hike the summits in sunshine while there was a freezing rain storm below and late mountaineering friend Lloyd Brown was a major player on the trip.
For many years, Lloyd was a fun-loving mainstay in the Maine winter mountaineering community. Always accompanied by his beloved dog Kito, he fell short of his alpine goals due to an untimely death. Sadly missed, Lloyd passed away at much too young an age.
Our most recent trek began with four chowderheads meeting at the Stratton Brook Trailhead. With the storm scheduled to arrive late afternoon, our goal was to complete the hike and exit the potentially treacherous unplowed Stratton Brook Road before significant snow accumulated.
Crossing a sturdy hiking bridge over Stratton Brook outlet, we vigorously rambled up Firewarden’s Trail to a junction with Horns Pond Trail. Ascending north on Horns Pond Trail for about 2.5 miles to the Appalachian Trail, we lingered briefly for lunch at Horns Pond lean to. Attaching micro spikes to our boots, it was a steep, icy half mile scramble to South Horn. Magnificent views of West and Avery Peaks east and Sugarloaf, the Crockers and the Saddleback Range west greeted us on the barren summit.
On the return descent, we took a short spur trail to North Horn where there were breathtaking panoramic vistas of Flagstaff Lake. Meeting two chowderheads on top who had hiked a segment of the Appalachian Trail, they had experienced a shorter more demanding alternative approach.
Remarkably calm at the summit, the storm could be observed approaching from the southwest. Realizing that it would soon envelop the entire mountain, we hurriedly descended to our vehicles, ending a ten mile expedition. Snowing on arrival, we were able to avoid any difficulties on the drive to Route 27.
That’s when the most dangerous challenges of the day began, navigating on dark, snowy highways trying to avoid collisions with drivers careening along slippery roads as if it were a clear August afternoon. Dodging the kamikazes, we safely reached our destinations.