Nine of us slowly ascended snow and ice covered Hamlin Ridge in one of Maine’s most remote and rugged regions, Mount Katahdin massif in Baxter State Park. Probably the only realistic opportunity to achieve our collective goal to summit the two highest points in Maine, Baxter and Hamlin Peaks, the high elevation forecast was marginal at best.
Several of us veterans of previous successful winter climbs on Mount Katahdin were surprised with the conditions. Expecting to remove our snowshoes and affix crampons once reaching the normally ice dominated above-tree line ridge, instead we were progressing gradually on a predominantly snow covered surface. Patches of ice and exposed boulders required tedious maneuvering in our cumbersome footgear. Dark ominous clouds were forming above and already moderate winds increasing.
Our journey began last fall when trip organizer Julia Richmond made park hut reservations and assembled an international team of five Mainers and four Quebecers. Unlike global relations in too much of the world, this was a friendly, conflict free endeavor. Varying in age from 35 to 70, this weathering arthritic old man represented the top end of the maturation spectrum.
On the first day of our expedition, we skied or bare booted thirteen miles from Abol Bridge on the Golden Road to Roaring Brook Hut pulling our gear and supplies on heavy sleds from Togue Pond Gate. Traveling on an essentially hard-packed snow surface on a cold breezy day, we had excellent sledding for the primarily uphill tow.
The following day, we hauled sleds steeply up Chimney Pond Trail for 3.3 miles to a hut at the breathtakingly spectacular mountain tarn using micro spikes or crampons for traction. Except for a midway respite crossing picturesque Basin Pond with magnificent views of the massif, the almost continuously precipitous path sports 1,425 feet of elevation gain.
Since day three of our excursion was the only full one at Chimney Pond, the goal was to summit both Baxter and Hamlin Peaks on what would be a long day of principally above-tree line mountaineering relentlessly exposed to the elements. Both the Cathedral and Saddle Trail approaches had greater climbing and avalanche risks, so we decided on an out-and-back trek via the much longer safer Hamlin Ridge Trail. Obtaining the latest summits forecast from the Park Ranger stationed at the pond, possible light precipitation, moderately high winds and some cloud cover were his best estimate of conditions. If that prediction held, our mission had a reasonable chance of success and the entire group decided on an attempt.
Entering thickening clouds about halfway up the ridge, our intrepid band labored on. Angling right on the shoulder of Hamlin Peak, we encountered much stronger winds. Estimated at over forty miles per hour, higher gusts sometimes threatened our balance near the rim of North Basin. In what I characterize as near whiteout conditions, we progressed from one cairn to the next struggling to differentiate ice and snow covered cairns from similar sized rocks and boulders.
Shortly after passing a junction with North Peaks Trail, we arrived at barren Hamlin Peak. Celebrating attainment of the first half of the two summit objective, our choices were to continue on to Baxter Peak, possibly descending the Saddle Trail as a bailout option if serious difficulties were met, or return on Hamlin Ridge Trail. Weighing alternatives in the blustery claustrophobic environment, prospects of an additional five miles of exposure to the same treacherous elements with serious potential for getting lost were too great. Halfway down the ridge some second guessing occurred. In fact, the higher elevations were never cloud free and the winds didn’t diminish.
Hut reservations required us to pull sleds down to Roaring Brook on our final day at Chimney Pond. Since that was a relatively brief straightforward undertaking, we had one final opportunity to reach elusive Baxter Peak. Believing it to be our best choice, six of us decided to ascend Saddle Trail with another troublesome forecast. Accepting that success was a dubious possibility, several in the group were able to persist close to the rim before confronting difficult weather. Alas, Baxter was a peak too far. After a rapid sled down to Roaring Brook, we returned to Abol Bridge the following day in glorious weather that would have provided superb climbing conditions.
Our mountaineering adventures don’t relate the entire story. Cheerful banter, a willingness by all to assist one another and everyone joining in to complete the more mundane chores typified the trip. Ski and snowshoe explorations were numerous at Roaring Brook and Chimney Pond. Despite the climbing setback, I departed the park with new friends and positive feelings about the ability of a very disparate group of people to work effectively together for a common purpose. Baxter Peak isn’t going anywhere.