The Snows of Katahdin

Most people climb Maine’s highest peak in the summer, but some are daring enough to do it in the winter.

By Lance Tapley

“All we have to do is climb those cliffs and we’ll be on top of Katahdin.”

[I ]was joking. It was mid-afternoon, we weren’t properly equipped, and we weren’t even close to the summit. That February day in Baxter State Park’s Northwest Basin, however, was when my friend Colin Caissie and I began planning to climb Maine’s highest mountain in the winter. We had climbed it many times in the warm season, but summiting in winter would be a giant jump forward in what my wife Peggy calls our “big boy” outdoor adventures. I prefer to call them “challenges,” hoping it sounds a little more mature.

At 5,268 feet, wintry Katahdin is indeed a challenge. It also is spectacularly beautiful, difficult to get to, and inhabited by a curious, tiny tribe of adventurers. I would join that tribe without really knowing what I was getting into. In that, I discovered, I was not alone.

Colin and I had beheld a snowy Katahdin from a distance as we cross-country skied from one campsite to another on numerous Baxter adventures. On that February expedition we skied for six days through the park’s northern and central expanses, camping in a lean-to on one zero-degree night and staying in the communal bunkhouses on the others.

We had the typical Baxter winter fun: At South Branch Campground, I goosed a young moose with a ski pole to force it to move from the bunkhouse steps. At Russell Pond one night we chased down a thieving pine marten to persuade it to release a block of cheddar it had taken from Colin’s grub bag. It was on a day excursion from Russell, after snowshoeing through deep snow and krummholtz (trees that have been stunted and misshapen by harsh, freezing winds) to gaze at those cliffs that we realized we hadn’t had the complete Baxter winter experience.

So it was that six months later, in the early-morning dark of November 1, Colin and I found ourselves driving from my house in Augusta to park headquarters in Millinocket, where we stood in a chilly line with thirty-five other eager types to ensure we got reservations for our desired dates in February.

By then we had convinced two of Colin’s friends, Josh Davis and Patrick Libby, to join us. Like Colin and me, they had done some day-trip snow climbing, but nothing serious. To get more experience, the four of us scrambled up Old Speck in January, Maine’s third-highest mountain, using crampons, ski poles, and, new-to-us, expensive, plastic climbing boots. Then we paid for an ice-ax lesson at an abandoned ski slope in Waterville. Our teacher, Registered Maine Guide Ned Doughty, gave us advice about climbing Katahdin, the most important being that weather would determine whether we made it to the top.

We were far less prepared than enthusiastic. “Better make sure your affairs are in order,” advised Jon Lund, publisher of the Maine Sportsman, an old friend who had initiated me into ski touring in Baxter many years before.

I must have something to prove, I thought. It must have to do with ego and having passed my sixty-seventh birthday. Such a primitive motivation! Of course, the primal appeal of the beautiful mountains and the expedition’s camaraderie were important motivations, too.

Those were my reflections as Colin and I set out for Baxter State Park on a Wednesday in February. Fifty-eight, grey-bearded, with an open, engaging manner, Colin is a farmer. He has a gold 1985 Mercedes that usually burns a fragrant combination of cooking oil and diesel, but on this day he’d given it an injection of what he called “jet fuel” — kerosene — to ensure it would start in the north-country cold. On an open trailer behind us, our orange sleds, under tarps secured with bungee cords, held expedition-size packs, steel-edged backcountry cross-country skis, and metal snowshoes. Josh and Patrick followed in Josh’s car.

Nearing the park, we were pleased to see snow much deeper than the traces we’d left behind in Augusta. When we arrived just before noon at the nearly deserted Abol Bridge parking lot, the massive white giant to the northeast summoned us from what seemed a very long way off. We had to ski to its other side.

The day was sunny, temperature in the thirties. After the first mile, we had to stop to strip down. My loaded sled weighed, what, sixty to seventy pounds? Too much, for sure, especially with a daypack on my back as well. We stopped only once more, at a picnic table in the sun on the Roaring Brook Road. I guzzled Gatorade and wolfed down dates, dried apricots, crackers, and Peppermint Patties. (The latter I have determined to be the fuel with the most palatable energy per ounce.)

We arrived at the Roaring Brook bunkhouse at 7:15 p.m., well after dark, having skied thirteen miles. It was a haul, but I remembered far worse times on this road. Once, as the sweep for a late-starting group, I had skied almost all the way in darkness as the temperature sank below zero. A couple of miles from Roaring Brook, I came over a rise and almost crashed into my brother-in-law, Ralph, curled up on the snow. “Just going to take a nap,” he said when I roused him. Aye, perchance a nap into an undiscovered country, from whose bourn no skier returns. Hypothermia and exhaustion go together. I got him headed toward camp.

The bunkhouse had been made toasty by Holly Blanchard and Bob Yates. In his thirties, intense, muscular, Bob was a cook at a Hudson River Valley golf club, a job that gave him months off a year, which he spent skiing, hiking, and climbing. Holly, whom he’d met on a winter trail in the Adirondacks, was a bit younger, quiet, and slim. The previous year, she had quit her work as a corporate lawyer in Philadelphia to become a clerk in an outdoors store in Burlington, Vermont. En route to Maine, Bob had proposed. Now Holly wore his grandmother’s impressive diamond engagement ring.

Bob had skied in on alpine touring gear — downhill skis that optionally allowed the heel to be lifted like cross-country skis. Holly had Telemark skis, on which the heel is free but held fairly rigidly in the binding. Both used climbing skins to go uphill. They hoped to ski from Katahdin’s summit. The couple plainly was from the skiing elite.

In our bunkhouse chats I got to know Josh and Pat better. Like Colin, they were country Maine guys. From Oxford County, they had rock-solid Maine accents. Josh, thirty-two, a big, cheerful bicycle racer, was foreman of a machine shop. Pat, forty-eight, slim and dark-complexioned, worked at a company that made a coffee extract for coffee machines. He had brought along a metal canteen of this elixir.

Colin and Josh were eager philosophers who read widely. Pat was more taciturn, occasionally interrupting with a quip. We had lengthy conversations about such things as scientific versus religious knowledge. We were all of the scientific bent. In colloquial terms, we b.s.’ed at great length.

At five o’clock the next morning, Holly and Bob quietly left for Chimney Pond. Not so elite, we slept until seven. Pat’s pre-cooked whole-wheat pancakes, to which we applied gobs of peanut butter, provided the muscle we needed.

Now we snowshoed — due west in a light snowfall through birches and fir up a steep but snowmobiled trail. Once, we had to scuttle out of the way as five middle-aged men and women climbers speeded down toward us on their sleds, whooping it up like kids.

When we arrived at Chimney Pond bunkhouse, a curtain of clouds had been drawn over Katahdin’s top half. Yet its immensity was only enhanced as its icy cliffs were revealed and obscured moment to moment by the shifting clouds and snowfall. We picked out two ice climbers — small dark spots — on the vast, kaleidoscopic, blue-green-white ice encasing the southern peak, Pamola.

We were preparing supper with Bob and Holly when, after dark, the ice climbers arrived. They frantically changed their clammy clothes, putting them to dry above the stove. The varnished-wood bunkhouse was a place to sleep and eat, but just as essential it was a place to get warm and dry. Pants, tops, socks, gaiters, gloves, mittens, boots, and even ice tools hung from a tangle of lines.

The climbers, who had been at Chimney three days, were Don Pelletier and Bob Dest, both in their late fifties, lithe and lean, friends from Connecticut who had climbed together for years. Bob, short and strong-looking, was a high-speed talker. Youthful in manner, with long curly hair, Don looked even stronger. He had been camping and climbing in Baxter for most of his life.

The previous day they had gone over the Knife Edge, a thin, mile-long arête with drop-offs on either side that in bad weather is the scariest hiking trail in the East, rarely attempted in wintertime. But they had been graced with an extraordinary opportunity. Even on top it had been sunny and warm, with no wind. They hadn’t even roped up. “But you can’t make a mistake,” Dest said. “It’s 1,500 feet down.” He had seen a minor avalanche, and there was “a lot of slab,” unstable snow, high on the slopes.

The experienced mountaineers, including Bob Yates and Holly Blanchard, talked a lot about climbing equipment, a subject we neophytes listened to attentively. They each had substantial experience. Yates had been the cook for a group of wealthy American adventure skiers on an expedition to Greenland. Don Pelletier had climbed in South America. He said “focus” was what drew him to the meticulous and risky sport of ice climbing. Bob Dest listed the three rules of their climbing trips: “One, be safe. Two, go home as friends. Three, it’s okay to fart.” He and Don seemed close, squabbling sometimes like an old married couple.

We got our heat from a woodstove, cooked with backpacking stoves (thawing out Colin’s startlingly spicy jambalaya one night), and got water by melting snow on the stove or from an open spot on the pond shore.

On Friday it continued to snow. We had already decided that the predicted sunny Saturday would be the best day for our summit attempt.

We first snowshoed up the Cathedral Trail a half-mile to tree line, where a formidable steepness began. We next inspected the big gully called the Saddle. In summer it’s the easiest way up. But as the trail approaches the plateau known as the Tableland, it ascends Saddle Slide, a rock fall, a perfect place for an avalanche. We went as far up as snowshoes would take us. The unsound slab snow we could now see firsthand. We decided to make Cathedral our route.

Until I had begun researching Katahdin in winter I had assumed avalanches were a danger only in the West, but people had died in them on this mountain. In fact, after the trip I learned that two people had been killed at the base of Cathedral in 1984! I had examined Holly’s and Bob’s fancy avalanche radio beacons with interest — a notable lack in our gear.

That evening at the bunkhouse, past adventures were the topic of conversation. I couldn’t match the stories of the bona fide climbers, but my experience in the eighties of being trapped with a ski party by rain and flooding at Russell Pond — and, two days overdue, of being flown out by an Army National Guard helicopter — proved interesting to our new-found friends.

At 5 a.m. on summit day — or so we hoped — it was snowing harder than ever. The forecast had been wrong, but big mountains make their own weather. Each of us was plainly anxious about the weather, but we felt we had to make an attempt. As the wind swooshed through the fir trees around the bunkhouse, we said goodbye to Don Pelletier and Bob Dest, who were getting a snowmobile ride out with Greg Hamer, the stocky ranger in residence at the park cabin on the pond’s shore.

When we came out of the trees on Cathedral Trail, the stiff wind shocked us, despite facemasks, balaclavas, helmets, and parka hoods. Between the granite spines, the soft snow had drifted deep, sometimes to our waist. On the rocks the crampons were clumsy.

We tried to do as we had been taught: Keep the ice-ax pick on the uphill side in the self-arrest position (to stop a fall). Dig the crampons in. Don’t take big strides. Rest frequently. Slow and steady. After three-quarters of an hour we huddled as much as we could out of the wind beneath a couple of boulders. After swigs of water, we started up an even sharper section, trying not to dislodge slabs on the climber below, not always successfully.

Pat stopped to put on extra clothing. One of his expedition mitts ominously tumbled down the open slope. That small event could have ended his climb, but Colin quickly strode down the slope and retrieved it. We continued up.

After I put my eleven dollar hardware-store goggles over my eyeglasses, I began having trouble seeing because of condensation on both glasses and goggles. Kneeling in the wind, sheltered a little by Josh, I tried to wipe them.

Colin and Pat descended to us. “This is not going to work,” Colin said. “Let’s go down.”

The weather was too harsh for our inexperience — and probably for all but the most experienced and best outfitted. In an hour and a half we had ascended only a few hundred feet in altitude on the first of three Cathedral buttresses we had to scale. At this rate, we would have arrived at the top, if we did, after dark!

Descending, however, was a piece of fluffy vanilla frosting. On the lower slopes the surface layer was deep and soft enough for us to practice glissading, the method of speedy sliding using the ax’s spike for control, that we had been taught.

After warming up and snacking in the bunkhouse, we crossed the pond and climbed to the base of the dazzling Pamola ice. This short climb was steep and gave us good experience with ax and crampons. Then we got more practice at the bottom of the Chimney, a couloir that slices up to the Knife Edge.

As we returned over the pond, we observed three tiny figures on a rock ledge in the midst of the ice cliffs. Another figure was high above them. We could barely make out the rope from the leader to the three below. But the wind carried to us the repeated shouts of “Belay on!” meaning the rope was secured. But nobody shouted back or started up the rope. We deduced that because of the noise of the wind on the ice, the lead climber was inaudible to the three below. We watched this scene for half an hour. As the day faded, it became a drama. In Native American legend, Pamola was the mountain’s menacing winter spirit.

Getting cold, we started for the bunkhouse, stopping at Ranger Hamer’s cabin to alert him to what was happening. But he already was peering at the climbers through binoculars. Outside his cabin we met a mountain rescue crew heading into the Saddle on a training trip. We figured the authorities would have things in hand.

Still, as we cooked supper a couple of us at a time would go out into the darkness to the pond’s shore to see if the climbers had found their way down. Only one light, belonging to the person on top, could be seen.

Any rescue would likely involve a team rappelling down hundreds of feet, which I couldn’t imagine being done before dawn. As the evening wore on, I went to one of the two lean-tos where the apparently trapped ice climbers had set up camp. The several young people I encountered there were oddly numb to what was transpiring. “They’re on their own!” one guy weirdly exclaimed about his friends, who at that point appeared in real trouble on the mountainside. His words seemed to be coming from a bad horror movie.

But the current movie ended well. The young climbers, all from the Boston area, somehow made it down on their own around 9 p.m.

The three-day storm broke during Saturday night. We awoke to a cold, dazzling final day, the sun painting the top ridge golden. The wind tore clouds of snow from the summit, Baxter Peak.

Holly Blanchard and Bob Yates, who also hadn’t summited, left early, heading for Mount Washington. As usual, I was the slowpoke in packing, so I told my teammates to leave before me. As I admired the peaks before ducking into the woods, I met a pair of young men dressed in expensive Marmot outfits who said they were going to the summit.

Down the trail, I encountered one of their companions. “I have developed hypothermia,” he said, rather formally. I had seen hypothermia, and he just looked like a cold city person. He told me that his group, from New York and Washington, planned to cross the Knife Edge. I politely suggested that, in a wind like what I had seen blowing on top, that achievement would be doubtful. He was happy when I recommended that he warm up in the bunkhouse.

At the Roaring Brook bunkhouse, my buddies were chatting with a young blonde woman from D.C. who had hurt her foot hiking in. She and the men I had encountered at Chimney were part of a group that assembled for outdoor adventures. Our crew later marveled at the strangeness of tackling this remote and difficult mountain with people you didn’t know, some of whom seemed considerably less experienced than we were.

It was a long journey out — sixteen miles. Colin and I let the faster Pat and Josh ski on ahead. On the Tote Road, where snowmobiles are permitted, we encountered a ranger who had set up a speed trap with a radar gun. To us, all snowmobiles went too fast.

Well before we arrived at the parking lot, I had eaten all the food I had, drunk all the liquid in my two canteens, and was hitting the wall — slowing down from sugar depletion. I was extremely pleased when Colin’s bomber started without a hitch.

On the way into Millinocket, Colin and I talked over the lessons we had learned. I needed prescription goggles, we needed to have mitts tethered to our parkas, and in other ways we had to prepare more carefully. But the most important lesson we ruminated on was a general one: “Be safe,” as mountaineers say. Perhaps the abandonment of our summit attempt demonstrated that we had begun to learn it.

Lance Tapley is a freelance writer who led the citizens’ initiative campaign in the 1970s that created the state preserve encompassing the Bigelow Mountain Range.