Katahdin: A winter wonderland, too

Posted March 19, 2010, at 6:55 p.m.

The first time I tried to climb Mount Katahdin in winter was March 2007.

I didn’t like the way the weather looked on the top, I told my climbing partners, and I turned back, part way up Abol Trail. The truth was I packed too much stuff on the sled I hauled behind me; expended too much energy skiing the five miles to Abol Campground at the base of the mountain the day before, and didn’t have the strength to climb the mountain the next day.

I tried again in March 2008 with the same result and for practically the same reasons. I didn’t learn anything from the prior year, again hauled too much weight on a sled and again ran out of steam on summit day.

My climbing partners on both trips were a good 20 years younger than me and had no problems climbing the next day. I told myself if I was going to make it to the top, I would likely need a recovery day after skiing in any great distance to the base.

Last year I didn’t even try.

Then this December, Scott Fraser, the instructor in the adventure recreation and tourism degree program at Washington County Community College, invited me to join him and his students on a four-day, three-night trek, March 5-8 to climb Katahdin.

One of those days would be a light travel day when I could recover and, hopefully, climb the mountain the next day. This time I lightened my load from the previous trips so I didn’t haul a sled at all. I carried the 50 pounds of equipment and snacks I needed in a pack on my back. My three guides carried all the breakfasts and suppers we would need, further lightening my pack weight.

There are 12 of us in two groups. Fraser is leading seven first-year students from WCCC while I’m being led by three second-year students on the expedition. It has been a two-day, two-night, rugged, uphill climb to get here at 2,900 feet. Now the most rewarding part of the trip is about to begin.

Day Three

Chimney Pond to Baxter Peak (2.2 miles)

The noise came from the food bag that was hung up under the eave of the lean-to at Chimney Pond. It was about 2 a.m. and it sounded like the wind was rattling the plastic bag that held the food. That sound was followed next by my camp mate, Ben Stevens Jr., yelling, “Get out of here, marten!”

Stevens shined his headlamp in the direction of the noise, which didn’t stop. He sat up from lying in his sleeping bag and yelled some more. Finally, the pine marten who was trying to get a free supper, at our expense ran off. I went back to sleep.

The next sound I hear is Fraser, who peeks into the lean-to and yells, “Time to get up.”

I check my watch. It reads 5:10 a.m. It’s time to get up and join the rest of the waking campers in my group.

Today is summit day on Katahdin.

Ben Stevens, Casey Ryder and Samantha Sutton, my guides for the trip, are busy loading their packs when I return from a morning stretch walk around the campground.

“Scott says we’re leaving at 7,” Ryder tells me, so I start loading just the items I need to be safe for the day — lunch, down vest, goggles, ice ax, extra hat, mitts and that’s about it. The other items I hauled up to be safe on this leg of the trip will be worn on my body; avalanche beacon, crampons, helmet, wind shell, a couple of light layers of polypropylene and a wool sweater.

My sleeping bag will stay in the lean-to. Everyone has just the minimum in their bags for their safety except Stevens, who packed his sleeping bag in case it’s needed to protect an injured, immobilized person above the tree line on the mountain. He also carried a shovel in case someone gets buried by an avalanche and needs to be dug out.

My guides cook a great breakfast of toasted bagels, oatmeal and coffee, which we devour. The sun is casting pink colors, known as alpenglow, on the summit as we climb out of the lean-to and greet the cold morning air. The temperature is in the teens and the sky is becoming brighter and bluer with each passing minute.

For the past two days the wind has been blowing strong. It’s been so forceful that snow plumes have constantly blown across the summits. Snow plumes continue their race across the summit even now as we gaze up at our destination.

After leaving our climbing plan with Greg Hamer, the park ranger on duty, Fraser returns and asks, “Everyone ready?” Judging by the loud, vocal response from everyone assembled, I’d say we were as ready as we’d ever be.

Fraser takes the lead with his group on the route up the Saddle Trail. From the lean-tos to the summit it’s 2.2 miles. I can’t speak for the others, but I’ve been anticipating this moment for a long time.

Now it looks like I might make it. We walk along for a short ways before we get to the steep headwall of the saddle. Looking up I can see Fraser and his group waiting for us. That has been the strategy for this entire trip. One group advances, waits for the others, leaves shortly after regrouping, then repeats the process. As we ap-proach them, someone hollers, “Look, sundogs!”

We all turn around to face the sun and sundogs, rainbow prisms of light on the compass points around the sun, appear. Then someone notices the sun’s halo. It’s an awesome, unforgettable sight.

The snow is incredibly deep. There is no sign of boulders, rock cairns marking the trail, shrubs or small trees. Every summer feature is buried under five feet or more of snow. After Fraser does a head count, we head up again. He knows there is one person, Cydney Cammarrata, who stayed at camp. She took a hard look at her fa-tigued situation at Chimney Pond and realized she wouldn’t make it to the top. It was a courageous act for her to admit that and when I get back to camp I promise myself to tell her that.

Now, we climb the gentle slope to the top and minute by minute we inch closer toward the goal. The glaze ice on the surface of the windswept mountain glistens like chrome steel in the morning sun. The wind has sculpted fantastic shapes in the snow. It’s still strong, about 30 mph, with the air temperature around 30.

The next thing I know Joel Whitney, a first-year student, is congratulating me for reaching the summit. Aaron Moody, another in Fraser’s crew, asks, “How do you feel, Brad?”

I try to answer but become overwhelmed with emotion.

“I think I’ll cry if I answer you, Moody,” I respond.

The feeling of accomplishment I got from standing there is difficult to express. I through-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 1994. On Katahdin this morning I felt the same way as I did after finishing that hike.

Unbelievable.

My two previous unsuccessful attempts, the long struggle to get here on this one, and the beautiful day combined all at once to overpower my ability to hold my emotions in check. I had to sit in silence or I would have bawled like a baby.

We sat around, lunched, took pictures of ourselves and the scenery, then after about 20 minutes we left for the bottom. It was about 11:30 a.m. I hated to leave, but took off first. The descent passed by without incident and by 1:30 p.m., Stevens, Ryder, Sutton and I were back at the lean-tos in warm sunshine, waiting for the oth-ers.

They returned, we all got together for congratulatory fist bumps and handshakes and turned to preparing ourselves for supper and the final night. My crew had a huge, dehydrated, chili meal that we again devoured along with biscuits, cooked in boiling water and an oven bag. Then it was lights out, and snoring was the only sound to be heard in our lean-to.

Day Four

Chimney Pond to Abol Bridge (15 Miles)

We’re on the trail by 7:30 a.m. After a breakfast of oatmeal, we joined the others in leaving. Casey Ryder carried up a pair of short skis and he would ski ahead of the rest of us, slowing down on the corners to look for oncoming uphill hikers on snowshoes. He covered the three miles to Roaring Brook in about 20 minutes.

Stevens, Sutton and I packed up and left the lean-to after everyone else. We took one last look at the mountain before we skied out. Now our loads are three days lighter from the food we’ve consumed, and all we have to do is ski mostly downhill for the next 15 miles to the parking area at Abol Bridge, where we started from four days earlier.

I’m still feeling the joy of having made the summit. Fraser hangs back with me and we talk about the trip and the students. I ask what type of careers his students are headed for upon graduation.

“They can become whitewater rafting guides, mountaineering guides, backcountry rangers, National Park Rangers and outdoor leadership instructors, among other careers,” he says.

He went on to say many of the students in the program go on to earn four-year degrees.

He told me that one of my guides, Ben Stevens Jr., is an Academic All-Maine scholar and has been nominated as an Academic All-American. After spending so much time with each of the students in turn, it dawns on me that all of them have bright futures in the outdoors. With Fraser as their instructor, I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise.

The landmarks we passed slowly on the way went by much quicker on the way out. It’s mostly downhill and fun. It only took about eight hours to ski the fifteen miles that took two days to hike. It was really mostly downhill.

After such a trip, this day is made for savoring. The measure of any successful trek doesn’t really occur at a particular moment during the ordeal. It comes after. We all made it in to the destination safely and we all arrived at the start in the same condition, with one exception. We were made better for having done it.

A rest day taken between skiing in and climbing the mountain made all the difference for me. I still brought more food than I needed. So next year, when I plan to go again, I now know how much to bring. Even though I didn’t carry any breakfast or suppers, I figure if I leave the food behind I didn’t eat this time and take my own meals, next year I could climb it again, with a recovery day, of course.

I’m not getting any younger, after all.

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