The most exciting and challenging winter mountaineering in Maine can be found in Baxter State Park. Baxter and Hamlin Peaks on the Mount Katahdin massif are the two highest points in the state. Imposing Knife Edge connects Baxter and Pamola Peaks. Arguably the state’s most exceptional ice climbing and backcountry skiing are found in the Chimney Pond area. Several three and four thousand foot peaks are scattered throughout the park.
This week, I’ll be returning for my nineteenth winter expedition in the park. Organized by Penobscot Paddle and Chowder Society member Julia Richmond, her motivation is peak bagging. On a quest to climb the New England 100 Highest Peaks in the winter, Baxter and Hamlin are two of the most difficult and elusive summits remaining on her list. At age seventy, I just want another shot at Katahdin in the winter.
Except for snowmobiles on the Perimeter Road, no motorized traffic is allowed in the park during the winter. Access to the mountains is by snowshoes, skis, crampons or bare boots. Traditionally, pulling sleds has been the principal means of transporting gear. While it’s possible to summit some of the peaks via a long day-trip, most successful climbs are the result of multi-day expeditions. Overnight shelter is accomplished in tents, lean-tos and a handful of huts strategically situated around the park.
The primary mountaineering destinations are Chimney Pond to ascend the Katahdin peaks, Nesowadnehunk Field to climb the Brothers and nearby mountains in the northwestern sector of the park and South Branch Pond to scale the Traveler Range in the northeast. Other locations also attract winter visitors but do not provide practical access to the higher summits.
Every trip into Baxter in the winter includes its own unique adversities, circumstances and adventures. The accumulated exploits of eighteen trips could easily fill a book. Frigid ascents, major storms, whiteouts on the high peaks, a near fatal fall, conflicts with park officials and more are memories that absorb my mind when thinking of Baxter.
My first winter trip into the park in February of 1991 was one of the most memorable. Accompanied by friends John Stokinger, Tom Homsted and the late Bill Kaiser, we were intent on climbing to the summit of mile high Mount Katahdin. Ascending in bitter cold gusty conditions, Tom had a diabetic attack part way up Cathedral Ridge and Bill escorted him back to Chimney Pond. After assessing our options, John and I decided to forge ahead. Chill factors worsened near the summit and both of John’s crampons cracked and broke. Unable to repair them and recognizing dire signs of hypothermia, we survived a hazardous but successful icy descent.
In March of 1993, I joined a large group of peak baggers attempting to climb four of the New England 100 Highest in the northwest part of the park during what turned out to be a blizzard named the Mother of All Storms. After a night tenting at Slide Dam in subzero temperatures, we spent the following day climbing Coe and South Brother Mountains. Returning to our tents, park rangers had left a note stating that severe blizzard conditions were expected, the park was closed and we should seek shelter in cabins at Nesowadnehunk Field. Pulling our sleds after dark in formidable weather, we spent two nights hunkered down in cabins waiting out the storm. How deep was the snow? It required two days of trail breaking to haul our sleds six miles to Telos Road.
This year, I’m hoping for another unforgettable outing but a little less adventure than those two earlier trips. Just getting to Chimney Pond is daunting. Beginning outside of the park near Abol Bridge on the Golden Road, the entire distance is about 16 miles. Leaving Abol Bridge, it is two miles on Abol Pond Trail to the Perimeter Road and another three miles to Togue Pond Gate. From the gate, aspiring climbers trek eight miles to Roaring Brook and then steeply for three more miles to Chimney Pond.
On day one, our gang of eight will pull gear on sleds to Roaring Brook Hut. Depending on conditions, we’ll decide whether to use snowshoes, skis, crampons or bare boots when we leave Abol Bridge. Regardless, we’ll carry all of them with us. The next morning, everything will be hauled by sled on the arduous ascent to Chimney Pond, probably using crampons or snowshoes. We’ll spend two nights in the hut at Chimney Pond, providing two opportunities to climb the peaks, weather permitting. Roaring Brook Hut will be our final stop before returning to Abol Bridge.
In my next blog, I hope to relate the details of a safe successful expedition in the park.