On the third day of our February Baxter State Park expedition, a foot of fresh snowfall greeted the seven of us when we awoke at the Chimney Pond bunkhouse in the shadow of Katahdin. My son, Adam, led the excursion, and I was by far the senior citizen in the group.
Since as much as two feet of snow had been predicted, a foot was a welcome relief. The summit forecast posted at the ranger station reported that moderate winds, cloudy skies, a chance of snow showers and temperatures in the 20s were anticipated.
My six ice climbing companions were intent on scaling the formidable Pamola Ice Cliffs, which dominate the south wall of nearby Chimney Pond Cirque. I decided on an attempt to summit Hamlin Peak, Maine’s second highest point, via majestic Hamlin Ridge. Since I would be hiking solo, I resolved to turn back at the first sign of unsafe conditions.
Hiking this route solo in the winter is challenging, potentially dangerous and requires plenty of prior experience.
Before departing, I signed out at the Chimney Pond Ranger Station, notifying rangers that I was completing a solo climb of Hamlin Peak. We were in regular communication with rangers during our entire stay so they were aware of all of our activities. The rangers were also aware that I have participated in numerous winter expeditions in Baxter State Park over the past 30 years, and that I’d completed multiple winter climbs of both Hamlin and Baxter peaks. According to my records, it was my eighth winter climb of Hamlin, and my 14th climb to the peak during any season.
Breaking trail with snowshoes in the new accumulation was arduous, but after about two hours, I advanced above the tree line on the lower slope of Hamlin Ridge. The hiking conditions improved substantially on a predominantly hard-packed, snow-covered surface as I entered murky clouds on the steep, boulder-strewn prominence. Following a switch to crampons, I emerged above the clouds with a glorious view of Pamola and Baxter peaks connected by impressive Knife Edge.
An undercast enveloped Chimney Pond below, where the ice climbers were laboring. Clear skies offered an unobstructed view of the remainder of the ridge above. Light winds and sunshine provided assurance that a safe climb could be concluded. After angling right on the shoulder of Hamlin Peak, the trail, marked with ice-encrusted cairns, led abruptly upward along the sheer rim of North Basin to the rounded summit, where the mountain gods welcomed me with a dazzling rainbow.
Following a leisurely respite, my cautious descent was uneventful. Arriving at Chimney Pond, I found that the accomplished climbers were still executing daring maneuvers on the vertiginous wall. There they remained until almost dark.
That evening, Adam and I decided that we’d try an ascent of Baxter Peak, the highpoint of Katahdin, the following day — if the summit forecast was favorable. The entire group embraced the endeavor. Since the ranger had disclosed there might be some avalanche danger near the upper Saddle Trail and a team of three had successfully ascended Cathedral Ridge that day, Cathedral Trail was the unanimous choice for our route. We decided to climb in two groups. Everyone packed assuming the outing would begin shortly after an updated weather forecast was posted at 8 the following morning.
The next day’s summit forecast called for partly cloudy skies with moderate winds. Single digit chill factors could be expected. Stormy weather was predicted for the ensuing day, so this would likely be our only chance to summit. By 8:20 a.m., four of us were progressing up the Saddle Trail on snowshoes. The second group was following close behind. Our predecessors the previous day had broken trail part way up the Saddle Trail and then bushwhacked to the base of Cathedral Ridge. We followed their packed path.
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The avalanche risk at the foot of Cathedral Ridge appeared negligible, so we proceeded with confidence up the steep lower slope of the first Cathedral. Three immense escarpments called Cathedrals constitute precipitous Cathedral Ridge, which divides Chimney Pond Cirque from Great Basin.
After encountering patchy ice and hardened snow on a rocky pitch, we converted to crampons. We guardedly negotiated over the first two Cathedrals, and a spectacular view of Knife Edge was the reward for our efforts. As we continued above the third Cathedral, winds increased in intensity from the northwest. Obvious trail cairns in a barren, wind-swept subarctic environment marked the remainder of the trail to the summit.
Arriving at the top of Maine in the winter is always a reason for celebration. The fourth time since our first success 29 years ago for Adam and I, this one was particularly rewarding. Deep snow and strong winds made crossing Knife Edge too treacherous an undertaking. Given frigid wind chills, we didn’t linger long. Returning via the same route, we met the second party just below the summit. Prudently descending the potentially hazardous Cathedral Ridge, the youngsters safely escorted their elderly ward back to the bunkhouse.
The fifth day of the expedition was a tale of two weather patterns, beautiful in the morning and stormy in the afternoon. Three members of our party returned to the Pamola Ice Cliffs for a long day of dramatic ice climbing, while Adam and I enjoyed an exhilarating snowshoe to the top of the North Basin, arguably the most scenic location in Maine.
It was snowing during the 11.6-mile sled pull to Togue Pond Gate on the final day. Primarily downhill, the trek was completed in about five and a half hours. For me, it was one of the most satisfying Baxter trips ever. Maybe I’ll join the kids again next year.