Winter Katahdin Traverse
Jon, Paul and I set out from Albany on Friday AM for our long journey northeast to the small town of Millinocket Maine. Millinocket is about 25 miles from our destination of Baxter State Park, home of the mountain known as Katahdin. Katahdin is the highpoint in Maine at 5,268 feet and the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.
Because of the remoteness of Katahdin and the lack of open roads in the winter our plan was to spend three days out, two consisting of travel days to get in an out from our approach site of the Roaring Brook Bunkhouse. After an early start from the Katahdin Inn and Suites in Millinocket we drove the 45 minutes into the Abol parking lot near Baxter Sate Park. While our group of 10 was organizing our gear and getting ready to head out we were approached by one of the park rangers on a snowmobile. He questioned us as to who we were and what our plans for the day were. In Baxter they take extra time to know who is going be in the park and what their plans are. We were required to obtain a permit to even be there in the first place and had to apply for it back in November. This is quite a contrast to the Adirondacks or White Mountains where you sign in and that’s about it. After a brief discussion with the ranger he sped off on his snowmobile.
After our chat with the ranger we took off for the 14 mile approach hike on the now closed road into Baxter State Park. In the summer this road leads right up to the bunkhouse where we would be staying, however in the winter it is only open to snowmobiles (for part of the way) and skiers/hikers to the end. For the trek in I was one of two people in our group that had brought a sled to haul some of my gear. I had about 30lbs on my back and another 30 or so in the sled. The sled I used is called a pulk and is designed with two poles that attach to your backpack or harness to pull it. The fiberglass poles provide more control than a typical sled with a rope attachment. A sled like this can be somewhat easily made and there are many homemade versions of it but I purchased mine online at: www.skipulk.com this system worked out great and my sled made it very easy to pull my gear in rather than haul all of it on my back for the 14 miles in. The trek in was long, uneventful and full of snowmobiles passing us on this busy Saturday. We were quite jealous of this and a few of us tried hitchhiking but there were no takers. After the initial six miles we made it to the “gatehouse” where the turnoff to Roaring Brook was. We had spread out quite on the approach and we waited a bit to group up for the final 8 miles in. From this point there are no snowmobiles allowed except for the rangers in the park. The trail is still a road and was quite packed down from the rangers snowmobiles and we were able to bare boot all the way into the bunkhouse.
Jon and I were the first to arrive at the bunkhouse in Roaring Brook. We were not sure what to expect of the bunkhouse but were quite surprised with what we found. There were three rooms; the main area had a woodstove, picnic table, some shelves for gear, clotheslines above the stove, hooks on the wall for gear, a bench, some lanterns and was stocked with quite a bit of firewood. The two bunk rooms were the same with 6 bunks each the bottom bunks being on the floor. Jon and I each claimed middle bunks in the back bunk room deciding these would be the nicest ones to have. Roaring Brook is where you can drive to in the summer and has several outhouses, lean-tos and a ranger’s cabin. The brook is close by for access to water, making it quite a nice setup. Most of our group arrived about an hour and a half after Jon and I and claimed their spots in the cabin.
We discussed our day tomorrow and various approaches we would make. Katahdin consists of the primary peak known as Baxter, a secondary known as Pamola but it is not officially a different peak and is not considered a separate mountain from Baxter. Nearby is Hamlin at 4756 feet, a traverse is possible across Hamlin, Baxter, and Pamola peaks. This traverse takes you over the infamous section known as the Knife’s Edge. This section traverses a ridge between Baxter and Pamola peak. For a section of 3/10 of a mile the trail is only three feet wide with a several thousand foot drop one either side. We had met several people on the way in and after describing our plans to traverse the Knife Edge they told us we were crazy to attempt in the winter. Despite this I still felt confident in my own skills and our group that we would be able to traverse it safely.
One of the group members Mike wanted to climb Hamlin as a well since it counts towards the Northeast 115, 4000 Footers. Jon and I decided to go along with him for this traverse figuring it was always good to add another mountain. Travel across this type of terrain is much easier\faster in a smaller group as well and I typically move quickly so I figured this was more my style. The route would take us up the Hamlin Ridge trail, to the summit of Hamlin, over to Baxter Peak, across the Knife Edge, up a section known as the Chimney, down the backside of Chimney, up PamolaPeak, down the Helon Taylor trail and back to camp at Roaring Brook the loop is about 10 miles in total.
We left Roaring Brook at 5AM on Sunday and moved quickly on the trail towards Chimney Pond. It was very windy and we knew that once we were above treeline we would be blasted for hours on end, it was going to be an exciting day. Our pace was quick and Jon and I took the lead from the beginning. We stopped briefly to snap a few pictures of the rising sun and of our first sight of the Hamlin our first objective.
We had been unable to see the mountain on our approach as it was covered in clouds but now it was not and it was beautiful. I couldn’t wait to begin climbing this beast. The sky was almost completely cloud free and it looked like we were in for some amazing views. After crossing a frozen lake we came to the junction with the Hamlin Ridge trail.
Jon, Mike and I departed from the main group and made our way up Hamlin Ridge. The ridge ascents steeply but is nothing technical. Just below tree line we added a layer and attached our crampons to our boots. We quickly lost any trace of the trail and were sucked into some nasty spruce traps and were post holing. We debated snowshoes which we had brought but decided not to deal with them at this point. The wind really started up at this point now that we were exposed above tree line. It was quite strong and some of the gusts had enough force to knock you off your feet if you weren’t balanced. After plowing though and slogging along waist deep snow we found some footprints and a somewhat broken trail. The going was much better at this point as we weren’t continually sinking in up to our waists. We followed the ridge towards Hamlin Peak. The trail was rocky in places and snow covered in others. The consistency of the snow made it similar to walking in sand so going was not as quick as would typically be. My glacier glasses were fogging up at this point and not offering enough protection for the wind so I donned my goggles and facemask which I would wear for the rest of the day. At this point I had no exposed skin and was protected from the wind almost completely. As we approached the summit of Hamlin the snow became more packed and supported us better and it was easier to move faster. We reached the summit around 9:50AM and took in the views. We could see the rest of our day laid out ahead of us. A large plateau was in front of which rose up to the main summit of Katahdin (Baxter). We could see the Knife Edge after that and it looked extremely windy from our vantage point on Hamlin.
We moved very quickly over the hard packed snow towards our next objective the summit of Katahdin. After crossing the junctions with the Saddle and Cathedral trails the ascent became a bit steeper. Here the wind all but completely died and it became very hot from the sun beating down in us. There wasn’t a single cloud in the sky. I stripped down quite a bit for this section to keep from sweating. As we approached the summit our short break from the wind ended and we were blasted again and had to suit up for the final approach. We reached the summit at 11:30 AM and took in the views. The summit of Katahdin is the northernmost point on the Appalachian Trail and the sign in front of us stated that it was 2184 miles to Georgia.
We took some pictures at the summit and quickly began to move towards the Knife Edge. We had a brief discussion and sanity check to see if we really wanted to do this. The main group had come this way after ascending Cathedral and we could see their tracks as well as one member lagging behind and bringing up the rear on one of the sections of the Knife Edge in front of us. We decided to go for it and continue the traverse at this point. The wind on the Knife Edge seemed to funnel through the chutes in the rock in certain sections and was strong enough to knock you over if you weren’t prepared for it. Every step had to be precise and you had to be sure that when the wind gusted you were prepared for it and wouldn’t get knocked off your feet. We made our way down and up over the ups and downs along the ridge. We reached several sections where it was only several feet wide and to safely cross you had to crawl on your hands and knees. Every move had to be deliberate and calculated in order to be sure we wouldn’t be blown away. The drop off on either side was around two thousand feet and covered in rocks and ice, a fall wouldn’t be pretty here.
The three of us moved over this section without any major missteps or events, our adrenaline was pumping and I loved every second of it. As we approached the end of the Knife Edge I spotted another person in front of me as well as the rest of our group further ahead of him approaching the summit of Pamola. I decided to attempt to catch up to them as they didnt look that far ahead. I moved pretty quickly over the final sections of the ridge and caught up to the person at the end of the main group who turned out to be the other Mike. We’ll call him D.C. Mike. He was stuck below a section of rock and was not sure how to get up it. I got the feeling he had be standing there for a while not sure what to do. I showed him how to use his ice axe to pull himself up and he quickly followed me up after that.
Next we approached a section known as the Chimney where we had to down climb a section of snow, rock and ice with a steep ramp down the mountain right behind it. I realized we wouldnt be catching the other group at this point. A fall here most likely wouldn’t be fatal like on the previous section but it would result in significant injury and a tumble down a large snowfield. We did not have a rope which would have made this a simple rappel or down climb with the added security, so we had to free climb down. I started off and took my time going down attempting to follow the footprints of the group ahead of us but they were not very distinct so I was on my own. I descended slowly facing into the mountain and had to rely on my ice axe a few times to hold me while I dropped my feet of a ledge or two in a leap of faith that my crampons would catch something. After a few minutes I was down without an issue. I proceeded to walk Mike from D.C. down the section, he was quite nervous about this (and rightfully so). D.C. Mike made it down without a problem and at this point the rest of my group Jon and Mike had reached the top of the Chimney and were descending as well. They made it down safely and after a few minutes to check our pants we were ready to start moving again. I would highly advise anyone attempting descend this section in the winter to have a rope for the extra security. This would have been an easy descent with a rope if we had one and it could have been done in a few stages using several of the rock outcroppings as anchors.
The ascent of the other side of the chimney and up to Pamolawas quick and we reached the summit of Pamolaat 1:30PM.
The descent down the Helon Taylor trail was a wide ramp of rock and snow and moved quickly now that we were off the ridge and back into safer territory after two hours on the Knife Edge. Once down below tree line we began to posthole a bit but as long as we stayed on the middle of the trail it wasn’t that bad and we continued on without snowshoes. The trip down and back to the cabin was a gradual descent and very uneventful compared to the hours spent on the ridge before.
We reached the cabin at Roaring Brook and swapped stories with the rest of our group who had made it back ahead of us. We talked with the Ranger who scolded us for signing in as one group and then splitting up into separate groups. They keep very close track of who was on the mountain at any given time and want to know as much as possible to keep us safe. The ranger also told us the proper way to get back to the parking lot which would cut off about two miles from the trip making it only 12 miles back to the cars. After our debriefing from the ranger several members of the group decided to pack up and hike the 12 miles back out however the majority of us stayed the second night.
Monday morning we packed up the cabin and left for the cars around 6am. We spread out a bit on the trail initially but all moved very fast. I reached the gatehouse which was 8 miles from the cabin in just over two hours. We regrouped there and hiked the final 6 miles out together. Once we reached the cars we packed our things up and stopped over at the small store by the trailhead for a bit. After that we said our goodbyes and headed out towards Albany for a nice 8 hour drive home. While the distance to Baxter is quite a bit it’s worth it as this was easily the best climb I’ve done in the Northeast and was right up there with some of the amazing view’s I saw in Alaska last May. I can’t wait to go back and do this all over again next year, who is in?
Full set of pictures here: