I’ve been determined to climb Mount Katahdin in winter ever since I thought I had enough experience to make it, probably for the last 20 years. I’ve climbed it 95 times in summer and fall in the past 30 years, but never in winter.
Now, with my age hovering over 60, I thought I’d better get there soon.
So, last December, when Scott Fraser, the instructor in the Adventure Recreation and Tourism program at Washington County Community College, invited me along as a participant on his school’s annual trip to Baxter State Park, I took him up on it.
If anyone could provide me with a good chance for success, I thought, it would be him and his students who were enrolled in the Associates of Applied Science degree program. Fraser and I exchanged e-mails and phone calls and he informed me that I would be guided by four second-year students whose responsibility I would be for the trip, as part of their coursework in outdoor leadership.
As Fraser explained it, “Ben Stevens Jr., Casey Ryder, Samantha Sutton and Tyler LePage are four of the 15 students enrolled in the outdoor leadership program, who decided to take you on the trip. They are required to research the trip, develop an itinerary, maps, equipment list, risk management plan, menu and client informa-tion forms. They were instructed to treat you as a client who inquired about a guided trip to Katahdin.”
Fraser would lead another group of seven first-year students. The scheduled date was March 5-8.
I started preparing in January. I had tried twice over the past few winters with different team members to make it to the top, without success. The distances you must travel on snowshoes or skis just to reach the base of the mountain are rugged and long, even by the shortest route. It was just physically exhausting. A young guy in our group didn’t make it then either. This year I trained for about six weeks by carrying an increasingly heavy pack over longer distances and steeper terrain on local hills and mountains prior to the trip.
I wanted to be in physical shape.
A couple of weeks before the trip I received all the info from the students by e-mail and we were set to go. Finally, last weekend arrived and I met my guides, Fraser and the rest of the students in the parking area at Abol Bridge. We went around in the circle and introduced each other.
There were first-year students: Jon Trevais, 19, from Anson; Jacob Syncyr, 19, also from Anson; Joel Whitney, 19, from Aurora; Aaron Moody, 23, from Millinocket; Greg Hudzina, 24, from Connecticut; Kristen Hill, 19, and Cydney Cammarata, 21, from Canton, Mass.
Stevens, Ryder and Sutton, my guides, introduced themselves and explained that LePage couldn’t come because of an injury. Three of them would guide me instead of four.
Abol Bridge to Roaring Brook
We had skied about four miles, when Stevens asked, “How you doing, Brad?”
I answered truthfully, “This pack’s heavy, but I’m going to make it.”
Our destination today is Roaring Brook Campground, eight more miles away. My pack is loaded with everything I’ll need for four days and three nights of winter camping in the park. The plan is to climb Katahdin on the third day.
Actually, I wasn’t carrying everything I’d need for the trek. Stevens was hauling a plastic sled containing enough breakfasts and suppers for him, me and our two companions, Ryder and Sutton, who are just ahead of us. I had my own snacks and lunches for the duration of the trip, plus all my equipment. At 50 pounds, it was plenty heavy. The other group led by Fraser is trailing behind us, out of sight.
We had paused once already for a short break and are pulling into the next landmark on the trek, Togue Pond Gate, for another stop to get the packs off and wait for the other group. All our loads are heavy, but the day couldn’t be better. A cloudless blue sky overhead, strong sun, temperature in the 30s, brisk breeze and deep snow cover have made for a great morning of skiing.
While much of Maine is wondering where winter went, we’ve found it. It’s here.
Soon, the trailing group shows up, drops their packs and joins us for a few minutes, before we are up and off again. It was around 1:30 and the next eight-mile leg of this first day would be the hardest. From this point we will ski from our present elevation of 623 feet to Roaring Brook at an elevation of 1,500 feet.
Skiing along at a leisurely pace, we conserve energy for the long haul. The landmarks pass by slowly; Rum Brook picnic area, Beaver Brook, Bear Brook. At a pre-arranged radio check, Ryder informs Fraser, behind us, of our situation and location. Stevens skied along with me, while Ryder and Sutton alternated between leading and following us; all of us steadily ascending.
We became fixated on reaching one landmark feature, a big hill, Windey Pitch (pronounced with a long “I,” like in whine), elevation, around 1,200 feet. We knew that it was the biggest climb on the approach to Roaring Brook. Stevens, Ryder and Sutton had planned the route and were familiar with the terrain. We all expected a tough haul. The next thing we knew we were topped out on the pitch, with four miles to go before the lean-tos at the campground.
The sun had set behind the trees and the temperature dropped like a rock. I could really feel the effect of the long miles and the heavy load in my legs. Gone was the spring in my stride. I had a tough time going very far before I had to stop again for a breather, just to get feeling back in my legs.
The rear group caught us at the final landmark, in total darkness. We were stopped at Avalanche Field picnic area for a rest break, with about a mile and a half to go. Fraser asked if we were OK. I said, “I’ll get there but I’m going to be late.” It was about 10 degrees and everyone had to get moving, so they skied off with the light from their headlamps fading away as they passed us.
They were out of sight before we started moving and I asked Stevens for help with my load.
“Ben, can you take my pack on your sled?” I asked. “Sure, Brad,” he replied.
I loaded it up and we were off again, very slowly.
We pulled into Roaring Brook, unloaded and ate a great supper of mashed potatoes, and beef franks. It took all my strength to eat. Fraser came over from his lean-to to check on us, then I was asleep, exhausted. What a long haul. I couldn’t have made it without Stevens’ help.
Twelve miles in eight hours.
Roaring Brook to Chimney Pond (3.3 miles)
I feel a lot better than last night. What a difference a good night’s sleep makes. After a huge breakfast of French toast, maple syrup, hard-boiled eggs, an orange and coffee, we are off toward tonight’s camp at Chimney Pond, elevation, 2,900 feet. We left our skis under a bunkhouse, put our ski boots inside, put on our snowshoes and mounted up the packs.
Now the 10 pounds of plastic, double-shelled, insulated mountaineering boots that we previously carried in our packs are on our feet, in the snowshoes. At least I can pick up my feet now, unlike late last night when we pulled into camp and I just shuffled in. I check my watch. It reads 9:30. Chimney pond by noon, we hope.
Today is a carbon copy of yesterday, weather-wise; brilliant blue sky, strong breeze and lots of soft snow. The difference in the amount of snow, between here and yesterday’s Togue Pond Gate is remarkable. The blazes that mark the trail at eye level in summer are now passing by beside our feet.
We’re getting close to the mountain and the views of its barren, white summits appear as we cross Basin Pond. It’s a fantastic, frozen white landscape that looms before us as we make the final climb to tonight’s camp.
When we arrive at the lean-tos, around 12:30, we’re greeted by the others and we’re here. Setting up involves shoveling steps down five feet into the side of the lean-to. Ryder and Sutton dig the steps and a cooking shelf, while Stevens and I go for water across the pond. We had a much easier day today.
Fraser led his group partway up the Cathedral Trail for avalanche training. This was not a spring break for his students; they were performing technical course work. I stay with my crew at the lean-to and we talk with the ranger on duty, Greg Hamer. Hamer is a great example of a dedicated backcountry ranger. He said there was 83 inches of snow on the snow stick here.
The sun follows Katahdin’s ridgeline toward sunset and by 4 o’clock, it was past the ridge. It’s time for supper. Stevens, Ryder and Sutton prepared a huge meal of chicken and rice, which we devoured. Then, after socializing, swapping stories and joke telling, we hit the sleeping bags.
Tomorrow is summit day.
Next week: Getting to know the students and curriculum; pine martens in our food at night; the climb to the top; last day, 15 miles out.