View of Katahdin on the way to Roaring Brook.

Winter hiking and mountaineering provide beautiful and challenging days out. The contrast of deep blue skies beyond snow covered mountains, the smell of pines and cold crisp air taking your breath away make for unforgettable times. Mountaineering carries an element of risk and weather conditions can be unpredictable and harsh. Having the right team, gear, training and knowledge make for safe and enjoyable times out even in demanding conditions.

The previous statements are true except a winter summit attempt of Maine’s highest peak, Mt. Katahdin (5,269 ft.), tested my patience, resolve and leadership a few years ago. An excellent initial plan to climb this remote mountain contained a few missteps and a precarious situation for two fellow climbers and myself. (Names of the climbers have been omitted for privacy.)

Knowledge learned is knowledge gained…

The Katahdin plan was seven climbers making a trek into Baxter State Park to summit the mountain in a three day push. Hike in day one. Summit day two. Hike out day three. With good weather this can be easily accomplished. Three in the group have climbed this mountain in the winter and one had Mt. Everest to his accolades. An excellent crew to be with.

Two weeks before departure no one took the lead and the three with Katahdin experience dropped. With no responses I volunteered as leader since planning and safety are engrained from experience, Outward Bound and good friend Rick K. Although not an arctic expedition, it’s one of a smaller scale being more than twelve miles from civilization in barren wilderness. We were quickly down to four. Three of us climbed together knowing each others experience and abilities. The fourth, only known by one in the remaining group, missed a training hike and pre-climb discussion. Meeting all team members before an excursion is important to see the personality, training, fitness, use of gear and mental toughness under stress. Two of us had concerns not meeting her. We were told as a personal trainer she was fit, but being fit is only part of the needed requirements.

The night before heading to Maine one climber tore his rotator cuff snowboarding. He was out after months of training. We were down to three. The next morning our small team met and I was introduced to the unknown, friendly and rambunctious trekker. Five hours later we were in Millinocket, Maine for dinner and a night in a local motel. Rising early we arrived at the trail head with plenty of time to reach Roaring Brook bunkhouse by sunset. The option of hauling gear is Pulking it incarrying a 75lb. pack or “pulking” it in. I opted for the pulk with another climber building and testing it a month before trip. The two of us divvied much of the load from our friend so she would have a less strenuous trek to the bunk house and conserve energy for the following day.

The nine miles in was fairly flat with intermittent views of Mt. Katahdin. Arriving before dark we collected water from a nearby stream and made dinner. Before lights out I called for a gear check. Our newbie didn’t have compatible crampons for her boots and no hooded jacket. Both are a MUST! With some swapping of gear we were able to make compatible boot/crampon sets and I had an extra hooded jacket. Obstacles cleared.

Ready to go at 7AMWe left the cabin at morning light. The three mile trek to the Chimney Pond bunkhouse was a light uphill pull. Discussing conditions and best routes with climbers in the cabin the decision was made to hike Saddle Trail, 2.2 miles to the summit from where we were. Other routes required technical ice climbing gear we weren’t prepared for nor had the experience. We pulled our mountaineering packs from the pulks and set off after signing the register. The trail winded through pines to a steep ascent to the ridge where I demonstrated proper technique for using a mountaineering ax. We were on the ridge at Ascending Saddle Trail11:00 encountering 6 climbers/volunteers of the New Hampshire Mountain Rescue Service. They mentioned conditions were passable after a short conversation. The summit was one mile from our present location and cairns could be seen marking the trail. We carried on.

We were almost there or were we? With 75 yard visibility and 20 mph winds conditions were comfortable. Whiteout conditions can quickly occur and a half hour later winds increased and we were no longer able to see snowshoe tracks from the New Hampshire group. Cairns were fading in the windblown snow. Closing in on the summit, visibility quickly shortened to 25 feet and the wind increased to 40 to 50 mph. We gathered and I motioned we were finished with forward progress. Communicating could only be done by signaling and yelling to overcome the howling winds. Time to turn back. The summit would be there for another day. We turned around and saw our recent tracks already blown over. Panic set in with the others. The ridge was to our right where getting too get close could cause a break away from a possible cornice resulting in a deadly fall (see pics Below). We moved ahead slowly keeping a safe distance from the ridge. A short time later were postholing from our waist to armpits. Getting out of these were laborious. What looked to be princess pines weren’t. They were the tops of pines tens of feet tall.

Panic stricken eyes were upon me and I was asked to take the map out again and again. The wind made it impossible to get the compass on it, plus there was no way to get a bearing to find our location. Three panic stricken hikers was a sure way to make the news in an undesired way. Keeping composure a snow cave came to mind as time passed and conditions worsened. I wanted to be off of the mountain as much as the others but there’s a time staying put is the right decision. Riding out a storm is better than wandering and postholing with the probability of hypothermia…or worse. With time expiring we had an hour to find Saddle Trail. I yelled out to the lead to take his compass and march due east where we would encounter the ridge, hopefully at a safe area. At that time we were opposite of the ridge giving us a break from the wind. Heading east took us back up the mountain. Not the desired direction by the others. With Spartanlike steps we pushed on to higher ground encountering more wind and face pelting snow. I took the rear and looking at my compass making sure neither fell behind and stayed on course. Fifteen to thirty minutes later we crested the ridge noticing the Saddle Trail marker where we ascended to earlier. We were being watched over. I was relieved while watching the other two hugging joyfully.

Safe? Not yet. Most accidents happen coming down a mountain due to fatigue, rushing and being careless. During the steep decent I showed one climber proper technique while the other decided the to glissade (sliding on your butt). “Really? This wasn’t the time.” Thinking to myself. I yelled “Crampons’ off!”. Besides most accidents happening on the decent, most injuries occur from glissading wearing crampons that catch the snow and ice tearing knee and ankle ligaments creating a new set of problems. I’ve seen the ugly results of this first hand on another climb. I turned and continued down. A few minutes later a food bag bounced by. I was expecting the owner to be right behind it. I shook my head wondering what was going to happen next. We gathered at the base of the ridge to collect ourselves and replenish with food and water when I Base of ridge on Saddle Trailheard, “Governor Baxter almost kicked our a$$!!” I was in a horror movie or an alternate scene of the climbing movie K2… This wasn’t something to laugh or joke about. None of it was. Maybe that was their way to deal with the last few hours of uncertainty. We could have been on the ridge overnight making for a very uncomfortable night…or worse.

Shortly after, we entered the cabin to the surprised looking crew from New Hampshire. One said they were about to leave and search for us. A nearly impossible task to perform in pitch black nightfall and whiteout conditions. Unpacking my stove, making a large meal I played the day over and over in my head on how the situation could have went better including my own performance. I was in the bunk room solo with my journal turning the lights off for a restless nights sleep before the others came in.

The next morning I was more at ease and started to relinquish analysis of the previous days events. The trek in Baxter State Park was not only to attempt the challenging mountain summit, it was also to enjoy the winter wilderness, the frozen ponds, possibilities of wildlife, the crisp air and the people I was with, admittedly a struggle at times. After breakfast I took a short walk to Chimney Pond for some final views knowing I would come back again with a much better plan. We packed the pulks and set off on the 12 mile exit having a chance to ride them like bobsleds the first few miles.

Leaving the park I was at times preoccupied taking mental notes of the knowledge gained through this experience. After loading the car I slept most of the way back to our meeting point in Massachusetts. We said our good byes and I received a gracious thank you from one who encountered much more than she imagined. Waiting at a friend’s place was a burger, fries and growler of beer with four people to share an unforgettable story including forgettable moments.

Peace – Greg

“Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.”  – Edward Whymper, Scrambles Amongst the Alps

Lessons for any excursion (partial):

  • Know your leader
  • Know your team
  • Know your gear and check each others
  • Know how to use your gear
  • Safety is the priority
  • Expect the unexpected
  • Watch the weather
  • One problem leads to another and another
  • Don’t risk injury the night before
  • There is no room for ego on a mountain
  • Know your limitations and those of others
  • Ascend and descend all using the same technique
  • Be prepared for the worst and know bailout plans
  • The mountain will be there for another day
  • Communicate
  • Bring hot chocolate

There are numerous books on mountaineering. Freedom of the Hills is one of the best. My suggestion is if you’re interested challenging yourself to a winter summit of a mountain go to a climbing shop/school, talk with the guides and take a course. Preparation is key.

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