When we left the parking area for my annual New Year’s hike we were immersed in darkness and an approaching blizzard.
The goal is to reach the summit of Cadillac Mountain to catch New Year’s dawn, which I had done every year since 2000.
My buddies Scott Fisher of Ellsworth and Don Littlefield of Orrington were just ahead of me, leading by headlamp.
When we drove from Ellsworth, it was snowing lightly, but as we approached the park entrance it was accumulating quickly. Now, that we are on the North Ridge Trail, it’s snowing continuously and sideways from the northeast. I trailed the other two and followed their headlamps until they pulled ahead. Then, I was route-finding by keeping to their tracks.
They were following one other guy’s tracks whom we met earlier. Soon, though, he turned off toward the auto road where it comes close to the trail. We were determined to stick to the trail, which is a mile shorter than the auto road, so we pressed on, making our own tracks. As we climbed, the lights of Bar Harbor disappeared below us in the storm-driven snow.
The more elevation we gain, it snows more fiercely. I was on snowshoes and the other guys were wearing strap-on traction. We were all making about equal progress when Fisher announced he had lost the trail.
We worked out a pretty simple strategy for finding our way. Fisher would hike ahead 40 or 50 feet down slope or up slope, while Littlefield and I stayed at the last cairn. As Fisher roamed around, I would holler directions out for him to turn in search of the next cairn marking the trail. Eventually he would find it. We did that about three times on our way to the summit ridge and managed to stay on course.
The summit ridge was an expanse of white, with a few four- foot drifts to climb. The cairns were more frequent and more obvious, because the wind had blown some of them clear of snow. Some were covered over by it, though, so we still kept our eyes peeled to find the way. In the two hours it had taken us, since about 4:30, it was getting noticeably lighter. We no longer needed the headlamps and we were on top. The wind was pretty strong, whipping across the summit parking lot.
“Let’s head over to the gift shop,” someone said.
The gift shop, closed for the season, had a couple feet of drifted snow on the outside deck. The building sits in a growth of spruce and fir and provided a wind break while we waited for sunrise.
Seeing the actual sunrise was out, of course. This New Year’s was the first one where I’ve hiked it in a blizzard. I’ve been in rain, cold, fog, and wind, but never a blizzard. A few times I’ve seen the sun actually break the horizon, but not this year, 2010.
Fisher went across to the summit to see if there were any others besides us up there. He came back and said, “If there are people, I didn’t see their tracks.”
That really wasn’t surprising, because our tracks were filling in quickly behind us on the final climb. He said he looked around, but if there were others they could have been huddled in the rocks. There were other vehicles at the gate, so we wondered where they were.
Maybe they turned back.
In any event, we stood out of the wind at the gift shop, snapped a few pictures and greeted the New Year with handshakes and back slaps all around. After standing for long enough for the sun to have risen, about 7:15 a.m. or so, we decided we’d seen enough snow and wind and hoisted our packs to head back down.
Fisher hiked the trail, but Littlefield and I took the road. Even though it was light enough to see the route better than on the way up, we knew we wouldn’t be confused on the road, and it would provide more of a windbreak, so we took it. Shortly after we parted company with our partner, a ranger came by on his way up the road by snowmobile. We waved as he went by.
On his way back he stopped his sled to chat. He said there were a few others up top and asked us if we had seen anybody unprepared or under prepared. He said he heard from the others that someone was up there in a hooded sweatshirt. We said we didn’t see anybody except our partner. We told him Fisher was very familiar with the mountain and shouldn’t need any help on the North Ridge Trail. He left shortly, while we continued down.
The road was an easy walk and we talked about the trek up and the rock and ice formations on the rock outcrops along the roadside. As a tradition goes, we both agreed, this one’s like most of them.
The part about a tradition that’s appealing is that it’s something you keep, like a promise. The mountain is always there. The promise to hike to the top for dawn is one I make to myself, but only partly for tradition’s sake.
The main reason I keep it is because I can.