Friday, January 31, 2014

The Bigelows (West Peak & Avery) - 12/28/2013

Back on December 28th, the plan was originally supposed to be hanging out in cozy cabin after a summit of North Brother in winter.  Things were pretty hectic around the holidays, and the plan was sort of coming along too fast.  After starting up the Williams Pond Road on the 27th, we were faced with deep snow getting in from the Telos Road side.  In addition to that, my brother was having some upper leg issues.  After what seemed like an eternity, we made the decision to turn around, both of us, even after we talked about me heading in solo.  As a result of that, there was an opportunity for me to continue to take advantage of my vacation time, and get a tough hike out of the way.  My brother and I parted ways in Millinocket, and I was off to Rangely, where I would take on the Bigelows in the morning.
Some drifted tracks on the AT between Route 27 and Stratton Brook Pond Road
I arrived late in the evening to Stratton Brook Pond Road (SBPR).  Upon arrival, I was confronted with a large pile of snow plowed right at the last house, which meant that I couldn't park anywhere on the Stratton Brook Road, or away from the houses enough.  This meant that I would have to use the Appalachian Trail to access the road, and get to the trail head for the Fire Warden's Trail.  My next problem was that the Appalachian Trail lot was not plowed (and is apparently never plowed).  With it being late, there were not many other options.  I took a chance and parked in an opening where there was fenced in equipment servicing the nearby high-tension wires.  I got in there with the Jeep, but as I would learn two days later (thankfully) after I got home that it likely was the cause of a flat tire.  No one bothered me, and I got some sleep, I even waited until after sunrise to start, to get some extra rest.  I've car camped several times this winter so I can make the most of my days and deal with the long drives.  
A couple of snowmobile passes on Stratton Brook Pond Road
I crossed the street from my car, and went right into the woods at the high tension wires, and after about 5 minutes, came onto the AT and followed it to SBPR.  The road was not really that packed yet, so knowing I'd be putting on my snow shoes soon anyways, I stopped and put them on.  It seemed like it was taking a while on both the AT and road, but eventually I came to the start of the Firewarden's Trail.  Looking past the sign and seeing no tracks beyond it, right then I sort of had a realization that this hike was going to be pretty brutal.
Start of the Fire Warden's Trail on SBPR 
Stratton Brook Pond in winter
I could hear the water running as the pond came into view.  The stream was flowing similar to my time here two falls ago, so I was relieved with that while also getting a nice view of the pond.  Other than the outlet, it was silent, and I could see well all around.  I crossed the outlet without issue or any wetness.  Once I got to the edge on the other side, I looked up and saw these fresh coyote tracks beckoning me up the trail.  Here, I had another realization that I was heading solo into some territory known for a good mix of awesome wild animals (according to the State of Maine): coyote, red fox, black bear, marten, fisher, bobcat, white-tailed 
deer, moose, and the rare Canada Lynx.  I was just getting started, and it was all focus from here.  

Coyote tracks
Rabbit tracks 
Lower part of the Fire Warden's Trail 
The woods along the lower part of the trail were beautiful.  All I could see were animal tracks, and I heard nothing.  I kept looking side to side and all around, and the noise of my snowshoes on the rather annoying hard crust gave sufficient warning to any animals in the area.  It was a hard crust with unconsolidated snow underneath.  All of the way to col my snowshoe would either go through or I wouldn't and it was like 50/50 so it was tough going sometimes.  Everywhere along the way this winter there has been signs of how difficult New England's 4000-footers in winter are.  I got another one when I passed the sign-in box and found that no one had signed in in the last 22 days. Perhaps I'd be the first to reach these peaks this winter.  Feeling pumped about that, I continued on breaking trail, like I had been on every since winter started.
Please register 
Moose post holes 
The trail eventually gets real steep.  I had some difficulty in a few spots because of the breaking crust and angle of the trail.  You may recall me mentioning my snow shoes were dull (but I still did not realize that yet at this point in time).  I took a break at the Moose Falls Campsite.  I noticed a little field mouse nearby who probably lived in the outhouse.  I remember putting on an additional layer here, and getting ready for the push up to the col.  The sky on the day was simply gray, and the weather really wasn't doing anything so the hike in the woods was great.  When I got to the col, I noticed it was much colder.

Ascending West Peak 
I decided to hit West Peak first this time, and headed up from the col.  At first the trail was easy, but then there was just a dumping of deep powder for a short distance the rest of the way.  Underneath the deep powder snow, there was treacherous ice, so I was hanging on to every step until I reached the summit sign.  There was a consistent freezing wind, and I couldn't see very far around me, but for a few moments on the West summit, everything was good.
Mt. Bigelow, West Peak summit sign 
Mt. Bigelow, West Peak - #52 of 67 in winter
After heading back and passing over the same spots with care, I arrived back at the col for a quick breather before heading up above treeline again for Avery Peak.  The trail heading out to the exposed ridge was drifted in very deeply with powder snow, moreso than West Peak.  There was some really tough-angled ice making the trail very side-sloped.  There were a few spots that a slip would make it fairly difficult to get back onto the trail.  It was beautiful, though, as I hiked into a much more fierce wind than on West Peak.  It was exciting to hit West, and it was more exciting making my way to Avery because of the untouched and challenging trail section.
AT sign at Bigelow Col
Completely drifted in trail to Avery Peak 
I made it to the summit sign for Avery Peak, which I absolutely needed in order to stand still.  It was here where I really felt good about the hike.  Breaking trail for 8 miles to summits that may not yet have been visited this winter was an incredible experience, and I was taking it all in a few quick moments on the Avery summit, where I stood unable to have any skin exposed.

It seemed so quick though.  As I stood there hanging onto the sign, I never kept my eye off the last cairn and where I needed to go to get back to the col.  Maybe I was seeing things, but it seemed like it started to get darker or the wind picked up, but I thought I better go while I can still see it, and after just probably 5 minutes, I had left the comfort of the sign and quickly descended back to the col.  I took a longer break at the col, checked in with family after the successful summits, and prepared to descend.  The only thing that eventually went wrong on the hike, was the crampon on my first pair of MSR Ligtnings snapped in half as I extended my legs to a tree trunk, bracing myself on a butt-slide.  Amazingly, the binding stayed on by a thread, and I managed to make it back without much annoyance, where I just ripped it off.  I had the luxury of following my tracks the entire way back to my car.  I had lost the light of day just after passing the outlet of the pond.  This had been my longest hike outing this winter at about 8 hours.  It was a tough tough hike, especially solo, but the woods, the Bigelow Range and Preserve did not disappoint in winter.
Crossing the SBP outlet at twilight
After this hike, I went home for a couple of days, and enjoyed New Year's Eve at home before I was planned to set out for another a full week of vacation and hiking.  2012 was an unforgettable year in the mountains. 190 named summits, including 142 4000-footers, much more than any of the last 3 years.

Hike Stats
Trails: Appalachian Trail, Stratton Brook Pond Road, Firewarden's Trail
Distance: 13 miles
Elevation Gain: 4,097 ft.
Actual Book Time: 7:52
GPS Track: Garmin Adventures

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