Taking on Mount Katahdin in the winter

Posted March 25, 2011, at 4:53 p.m.
Last modified April 02, 2011, at 8:44 p.m.
View from the Abol Trail during a winter trip to climb Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park in March 2011.
View from the Abol Trail during a winter trip to climb Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park in March 2011.
Winter trip to climb Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park in March 2011.
Winter trip to climb Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park in March 2011.
Bob Bukaty (left), Cory Ricker, (center) and Roy Curtis head down the Abol Slide Trail on Mount Katahdin after making the decision to turn back a few hundred feet before reaching the Tableland. The wind gusts kept knocking us off ballance and the semi-truck-like sound indicated higher winds on the plato.  The members of the group estimated the wind gusts were about 60 miles an hour during the climb in Baxter State Park Friday March 18.
Bob Bukaty (left), Cory Ricker, (center) and Roy Curtis head down the Abol Slide Trail on Mount Katahdin after making the decision to turn back a few hundred feet before reaching the Tableland. The wind gusts kept knocking us off ballance and the semi-truck-like sound indicated higher winds on the plato. The members of the group estimated the wind gusts were about 60 miles an hour during the climb in Baxter State Park Friday March 18.
We all huddled behind large boulders to stay out of the wind on the Abol Trail after the decision was made to turn back due to the high winds on Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park Friday March 18 2011.   We estimated the wind gusts were around 60 miles per hour during the climb making it difficult to stand up at times.  Pictured are from left: Roy Curtis, Cory Ricker, Bob Bukaty with Gabor Degre's boots and ice axe in the foreground.
We all huddled behind large boulders to stay out of the wind on the Abol Trail after the decision was made to turn back due to the high winds on Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park Friday March 18 2011. We estimated the wind gusts were around 60 miles per hour during the climb making it difficult to stand up at times. Pictured are from left: Roy Curtis, Cory Ricker, Bob Bukaty with Gabor Degre's boots and ice axe in the foreground.
Climbing up the Abol Trail during a winter trip to climb Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park in March 2011.
Climbing up the Abol Trail during a winter trip to climb Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park in March 2011.
Our lean-to at the Abol Campground during a winter trip to climb Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park in March 2011.
Our lean-to at the Abol Campground during a winter trip to climb Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park in March 2011.
Some of the food the first evening during a winter trip to climb Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park in March 2011.
Some of the food the first evening during a winter trip to climb Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park in March 2011.
The group stands around the fire after a good jambolaya dinner at Abol Campground in Baxter State Park Friday March 18.  The failed attempt to climb Mount Katahdin did not bring down our spirits. We agreed it was for the better not to risk injury in the high winds. Pictured are from left: Cory Ricker, Roy Curtis and Bob Bukaty.
The group stands around the fire after a good jambolaya dinner at Abol Campground in Baxter State Park Friday March 18. The failed attempt to climb Mount Katahdin did not bring down our spirits. We agreed it was for the better not to risk injury in the high winds. Pictured are from left: Cory Ricker, Roy Curtis and Bob Bukaty.

BAXTER STATE PARK — By 1 p.m. it was decision time.

The winter gusts were fierce and we didn’t want to leave the relative shelter of the boulders around us. Our chance of reaching Baxter Peak safely that day seemed rather slim.

To continue on would have entailed a two-hour hike on relatively flat but completely exposed terrain. And the 60 mph gusts similarly would have battered us as we returned on the Abol Trail.

Our wind-muted discussion was short. We turned around a minute later.

No one was cold but we were worried about the other dangers. Having recently talked to two people who had wrestled with the mountain’s high winds, we decided not to risk it and we retreated downward.

If you ever considered climbing Mount Katahdin in the winter, but thought it is reserved only for an uber-athlete, you’re wrong.

I believe that anyone who is fit enough to climb the mountain in the summer can do it during the winter season — provided they have the right gear, experience and the ambition. I have met a range of folks — from teenagers to those 60-plus — who have tackled similar excursions.

On March 17, our four-person group, Roy Curtis, Bob Bukaty, Cory Ricker and I, set out in unseasonably warm temperatures and on wet snow on cross-country skis and on foot near the Golden Road bound for Abol Campground in the park.

The trail offered great views of the peaks. Along the way we planned the evening’s chores and compared notes on our young children. Three of us pulled gear sleds that allowed us to take along some extra amenities. My sled weighed about 80 pounds, but it glided along easily.

A few hours and 4.8 miles later, we arrived at the campground.

Bob prepared the first dinner for us that night, pirogies and salad with smoked salmon, and I brought an apple pie.

After dinner we filtered some drinking water from a stream and hit the sleeping bags to get a good rest before the ascent.

We woke to predawn rain and to slightly above-freezing temperatures. This kind of climate is hardly optimal for a winter trip, and our departure time was delayed a few hours. Luckily, the rain stopped, allowing us to leave by 9 a.m.

The trail wound through hardwood forest toward the foot of the mountain. Soon the trees changed to conifers that gradually shortened as we gained elevation. Eventually, as the grade steepened, our snowshoes were traded for crampons. I was very excited to try these on a climb, and I assure you, they were not overkill.

Just above tree line we endured a short but intense barrage of wind-driven hail. By noon the relentless wind forced us to retreat behind boulders for a quick bite. Otherwise we risked our provisions being blown away. During our break, a quick survey confirmed that we were relatively comfortable in our coverings, so we pressed on.

Sleet peppered us as we ascended into a cloud bank. We had to grip rocks and our ice axes to steady ourselves to keep from being blown down.

Another hour passed before we heard a strange noise from above us — it sounded like semi-trucks on the highway. We deduced that we were very close to reaching the flat plateau called the Table Land and that the sound was wind howling over the mountain — unbroken by any feature in the landscape.

At this point, we conceded that it was for the best to turn around. Sure, we’d probably have been OK going further, but we decided not to risk it. As we made our descent the clouds started to break up, offering us glimpses of the landscape more than half a mile below.

We joked that now we have a good excuse for coming back next year.

Freshly churned chunks of wet snow kicked up by our boots and water dripping from rock edges flew up toward us, driven by gusts. No sooner had we reached the line of stunted trees than a brief snowstorm engulfed us.

In the course of a few hours, Mother Nature had thrown a lot at us. That counts as an interesting experience in my book.

When we reached the campground around 4 p.m., we spread out our wet clothing and started thinking about dinner. It was Roy’s turn as camp cook and he made some tasty jambalaya burritos.

That night the mercury dropped into the teens and the wet, slushy snow froze rock-solid. We huddled around the campfire, reflecting on the day’s events.

By daybreak the icy conditions presented a major challenge to our ski back out to the parking lot on the heavily rutted and now frozen snow. The biggest challenge was on a downhill section where both Roy and I fell. Despite two layers of clothing, he scraped up his right elbow so bad that it required a bandage.

In my 10-plus years of winter excursions this was the first time I saw a first aid kit put to use.

Hours later, as we scarfed down burgers and chicken wings at a Millinocket restaurant, we agreed that the trip was great fun.

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