A modest peak, Rumford Whitecap was a test. Old age had delivered another surprise visit in the form of a new knee problem. Where do these aggravations come from? I’d been taking all the recommended supplements. Reluctant to depress readers with the gruesome details; suffice to say it was a few days after my latest cortisone injection. Outdoor exercise and confidence that I’d be in the game for winter-mountaineering and Nordic skiing was needed; otherwise I’d be packing bikes and kayaks and pointing the RAV towards Florida. Of course, that assumes She Who Must Be Obeyed, otherwise known as my lovely wife Nancy, agrees.
Scheduled to lead a Penobscot Paddle & Chowder Society mountain hike, Rumford Whitecap seemed the ideal experiment; moderate in difficulty, wonderful views, and an expedition that would appeal to a multitude of Chowderheads. Alas, only my friend Brent and Nancy signed on. Brent was forced to cancel so it became a family affair. Not a problem, we’d successfully climbed many peaks together without difficulties. Well, maybe a couple of minor issues. For the record, Nancy is not an alpine debutante, having ascended the one hundred highest peaks in New England, including about 60 in the winter.
Possessing perhaps the most extensive views of any mountain in western Maine, Rumford Whitecap at an elevation of 2,214 feet is a very appealing outing. We’ve been hiking there for over thirty years. Early on, informal traditional itineraries to upper reaches were badly eroded and worsening. Mahoosuc Land Trust has been a vehicle for positive change. Rerouting paths and completing substantive trail work where necessary, they have created an exceptional hiking environment.
Arriving at the trailhead on East Andover Road in North Rumford, the small parking area was covered with ice. Nearly falling when stepping from the car, it was apparent micro spikes were a necessity. Avoiding injuries has become a priority. For the old and infirm, compounding physical problems is too often a disagreeable reality. We need a remedy. I suggest a new vaccine. It’s worked with shingles.
Whether or not snowshoes would be required at higher altitudes was a concern. An inspection of the trail indicated previous hikers had packed a well-defined route. Since carrying snowshoes would add weight and instability to our packs, leaving them behind was the preference. This was a dilemma both of us had faced many times before; sometimes unnecessarily carrying snowshoes for an entire journey and exhaustingly post-holing in deep snow without them on others. Someone had to make a decision; and accept blame if wrong. Contemplating my knee, I suggested foregoing the hopefully inconvenient winter accessories. I know how to live on the edge.
Initially, hiking conditions were superb with a hardened track perfect for micro spikes. A compacted layer of snow over rocks and other obstacles produces a benign smooth “highway” that is particularly forgiving on elderly joints. Experienced hikers will affirm that there is no better walking surface in any season.
Persevering steadily upward on Orange Trail with a moderate gradient, considering the alternative Yellow Trail loop was an early decision. Longer but more gradual, it offered a tantalizing option. The choice was easily resolved as Yellow Trail wasn’t packed when reached. Perfection was not to be squandered so Orange remained our choice. Continuing for about a mile, we reaped the benefits of the land trust’s trail improvements. Relatively new switchbacks in a dense conifer forest provided a more measured but steady climb essentially absent troublesome erosion. Shortly after the final switchback, the path angled left emerging on partially exposed snow covered ledges with sporadic views. Persisting on, the upper end of Yellow Trail loop was achieved. Signage at the junction indicated we had traveled 1.9 miles from East Andover Road and it was an additional .6 to our destination.
Most of the remaining passage was predominantly exposed and glorious. Savoring almost continuous impressive views, we followed cairns approaching the barren slightly rounded summit. The hard-packed trail had extended for the entire trek, validating our sanguine election to travel without snowshoes. Light winds, moderate temperatures, and partial sunshine provided a phenomenal above tree-line experience.
A prolonged respite at the top was followed by a casual blissful descent. The journey ended with the gratifying realization that my knee had remained pain-free throughout. The marvels of medical science have at least temporarily provided the opportunity for additional winter exploits. I’m not packing the RAV yet, but let’s get to work on that vaccine! Where have you gone Jonas Salk?
Author of “The Greatest Mars Hill Bank Robbery” and “Mountains for Mortals – New England,” Ron Chase resides in Topsham. Visit his website at www.ronchaseoutdoors.com or he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org