Snow came early to Maine this year leaving a frosty layer of white stuff on most of the nearby prominent peaks. Pleasant Mountain near Denmark was no exception with an accumulation of several inches at higher elevations.
The closest substantial mountain to my home in Topsham, Pleasant is a long one hour drive. The two thousand foot monadnock which is also the site of Shawnee Peak Ski Area offers a multitude of hiking alternatives most including exceptional views of surrounding lakes and more distant mountains.
A ten mile trail system managed by Loon Echo Land Trust; four trailheads ultimately lead to the highest summit where there is a closed fire tower and truly phenomenal views from cliffs facing the White Mountains in New Hampshire. The Fire Warden’s Trail begins on Wilton Warren Road rising 2.3 miles from the west. Slightly shorter Bald Peak Trail originates on the Mountain Road not far from the ski area and ascends northeast. They have a common imperfection, no truly exceptional views until hikers reach the top.
My preferred trails are Ledges and Southwest Ridge, also known as Mackay Pasture Trail. At 1.8 miles and climbing from the southeast, Ledges offers the shortest route to the summit while Southwest Ridge is the longest most scenic. An abundance of trails that approach from substantially different directions provide several opportunities for planning an appealing traverse.
Having volunteered to lead the first scheduled Penobscot Paddle & Chowder Society trip of the winter season, I decided on a Pleasant Mountain trek after learning the higher peaks in Western Maine and the White Mountains had been clobbered with a progression of storms dumping copious amounts of snow. Worse, wind chills were predicted to approach 30 below zero at lofty altitudes. Mentally unprepared for serious winter conditions, Pleasant seemed a more benign introductory winter mountaineering challenge.
Perhaps discouraged by the early arrival of winter, only three Chowderheads signed up for the trip; my wife Nancy and longtime outdoor friends Suzanne and Gary Cole. No, I didn’t exert undue pressure on Nancy unless a genial bribe meets that standard.
After exchanging emails, we reached a consensus to attempt a traverse. Addicted to scenic trails, I successfully lobbied for a climb on Southwest Ridge and a descent on the Ledges. The proposed itinerary included virtually every impressive view on the trail complex with the exception of those on a spur path leaving Bald Peak Trail.
Meeting at an almost fully occupied parking area for the Ledges Trail on Mountain Road, we left a vehicle and shuttled to the Southwest Ridge Trailhead on the opposite side of the mountain. Concerned with the prospect of high winds and possibly icy footing, we packed parkas, warm mittens and micro spikes. Gambling that the snow covered trails would be packed by the large turnout of hikers, snowshoes were left behind. Ten years ago, I would have carried snowshoes to train for the upcoming more strenuous winter mountaineering. However, at my age I’m functioning one hike at a time – no unnecessary weight to be inflicted on the ancient joints.
Beginning on a thin blanket of snow, we ascended gradually in a sparse predominantly deciduous forest. Emerging on a rocky bluff after hiking less than a mile a panoramic vista of Beaver and Moose Ponds was a delightful reward. Persevering up a series of open ledges to Southwest Peak, occasional glances back provided wonderful glimpses of the spectacular snow-capped Presidential Range in New Hampshire.
Proceeding from Southwest Peak in four to six inches of crusty snow, we arrived at a junction with Ledges Trail after 2.7 miles. Climbing steeply for a short distance, gusty but manageable winds were encountered at the summit. Dawning parkas, we briefly savored breathtaking views before seeking shelter from the frigid breezes below. Joining Ledges Trail, we rapidly descended to a unique sequence of precipitous ledges, source of the trail’s name.
Stopping at a distinctive location on the ledges called Overlook, Gary’s birthday was celebrated with delicious cake baked by Suzanne. Without disclosing his age, I can report that although younger than I, he definitely qualifies for senior citizen status. It doesn’t seem that long ago that I was often the youngest person on an endeavor. Alas, those halcyon days are gone.
Departing the ledges, we negotiated down a succession of switchbacks and navigated through a wet slippery section before passing a trail kiosk and reaching the Mountain Road. Completing the journey in about four hours, ours had been perhaps the finest most picturesque mountain trek in southwestern Maine on a glorious winter day. My book Mountains for Mortals – New England provides detailed directions and guidance for a climb on Southwest Ridge Trail.