Saturday, April 5, 2014

Mt. Katahdin Baxter & Hamlin Peak: Solo in Winter - January 2014

Over the last couple of years, the Martin Luther King holiday has meant exciting outdoor adventures for me, and this year, my Mt. Katahdin winter trip was this year's plan for the long weekend.  While I was not initially planning to take on this magnitude of adventure by myself, due to the speed of life and some other factors, that is how it turned out.  Before I let the adventure get too close, however, I had to slow things down, and do a heck of a lot of thinking and planning to prepare myself physically and mentally for this endeavor.

It was a quite a different experience this time leaving home to go on this solo adventure.  There was certainly some nervousness and excitement going off in all directions.  Everything was prepared, the Spot Messenger was ready and discussions were had with family on the possible meanings of my check-ins, as cell service anywhere in Baxter should not be expected.  The pulk and all of my gear was pre-packed in the back of the Jeep, which meant on arrival, I would make only a few additions to the pack and pulk, and I would be off. Of course, there was a 4+ hour drive still, and a departure from home at about midnight on Friday morning so that I could start early in the morning (6-7am) for the 18 mile trek in.  With wishes of good luck and support from my brother and parents, I departed to take on the one of, if not, the biggest winter undertaking in the Northeast...solo.

I arrived at the Abol Bridge Parking area very timely, which allowed me to catch almost two hours of sleep/rest before I got ready to leave the car.  The weather for the weekend was looking very promising, which had me very excited to be going in.  I spoke to the camera in a video clip before setting off, but instead of sharing that spoof, I basically said that here I was, heading into Baxter State Park to take on Mt. Katahdin solo in winter.  I mentioned that this trip would not be easy, but that I was ready and excited to take it on after all of the dedication and planning.  I also stated that it was my hope that I would be afforded even just the opportunity to make an attempt at the two peaks, so to give myself the chance to continue with my goal this winter of hiking the New England 4000-footers in winter.  And that was it, I hooked into my pulk, and set off on my adventure into Maine's Largest Wilderness in winter!

Just as I hiked onto the snowmobile path across the Golden Road, I spotted a deer standing not far from me.  Seconds later it scooted off, and I witnessed three large white-tailed deer run up the road.  Only seconds into my journey, I had just witnessed some beautiful wildlife in a beautiful place.  This was going to be awesome!  After that, I was anxious as I continued to the start of the Abol Stream Trail, gauging the conditions under my feet.  I made it the to first registration box going into Baxter, and signed in my solo-self for the next 4 days!  Then, off I continued, with no more anxiousness, as the trail and tote road were a nicely beaten and hard surface, and the pulk behind me felt like nothing.
Passing Abol Pond picnic area 

Incredibly, I was moving at 3mph on the way in according to my GPS.  It snowed on and off throughout the day as I made my way in.  I didn't pass another soul from the Abol Parking area until sometime after I passed the Roaring Brook Ranger Station.  I enjoyed taking in views of the streams off to the side, most of which were open and flowing.  There were animal tracks leading everywhere off into the woods.  Other than constantly moving forward, there was not a whole lot of action as I cruised into Roaring Brook Campground - just Baxter State Park in all its winter glory around me.
Pulling a pulk into Baxter State Park
Entering the Roaring Brook Campground 

The bridges on Chimney Pond Trail
There was no one around at the campground, so I stopped outside the ranger cabin, and signed in.  Wasting almost no time, I wanted to continue, so I started quickly up the Chimney Pond Trail.  It would be another 3 miles and just over 1,000 feet of elevation gain until I reached my destination, Chimney Pond.

Roaring Brook Ranger Cabin in winter
Chimney Pond Campground area with Pamola in the background
Chimney Pond Bunkhouse this way!
Walking into the Chimney Pond area in winter was awesome and intense. I settled into the bunkhouse where I met a couple of cool guys who were close friends from New York (I think) and did backpacking trips together in a lot of places. I stayed with them this night and the following night at Roaring Brook, they were great company. Other than that, I was all to myself.  I got there in a plenty good time in the afternoon to relax and unpack my gear and help feed the wood stove. Next, I went down to the ranger station to check in.  He we was all set with me being solo, as I explained what my goal was and shared my solo climbing form.  It was nice and easy, and he was cool to talk to.  A little after 6pm, he came into the bunkhouse with the weather report and for a discussion of itineraries.  The weather was going to be good with a chance of weather developing in the afternoon hours, low winds.  I was pretty excited as that was the point I knew for sure I would be heading up the mountain tomorrow for a chance.  No one had been to the summit in about eight days, he said. A few minutes later, it was already dark, and with ax on shoulder, he took us three down onto Chimney Pond to show us where to get the water from the frozen pond.  As we walked onto Chimney Pond, I looked to my left and a nearly full moon was rising next to Pamola Peak.  Absolutely incredible! And the wind was coming across the open pond blowing up some snow.  We made it all the way to the other side, and retrieved some water, as that is where it opened up in the week's thaw.  We now knew where to walk to get it, but he wanted to show us, because likely we'd only need that one water run tonight in the dark.  Chimney Pond was re-frozen but the other was not.  After some dinner, I settled in. It was so comfortable in the bunkhouse and with everything in place to go, I hardly had any nerves, everything was going perfect. Exciting stuff tomorrow!

In the morning, the sky was a beautiful deep blue color.  It was pretty cold to start, but it all had the making of a pretty awesome mountain morning.  The morning weather report was basically unchanged.  I spoke to the ranger once more in the morning, and for a minute stood in the open picnic area at the end of the Chimney Pond Trail, and prepared to start my climb.  Everything was great, and I couldn't believe how lucky I was.  I started down the Chimney Pond Trail to the North Basin Trail.  Less than a half mile later, I was at the start of the Hamlin Ridge Trail.  It was a small layer of fresh snow over a hard surface, and easy going up the short section of trail to the tree line, which comes quickly.

North Basin Trail
Hamlin Ridge Trail junction
Just below tree line on the Hamlin Ridge Trail
Moments later I was above the trees, and was greeted with incredible views of the massif and the North West Basin.  It was cloudy, but it made it more intriguing.  I couldn't believe the sight of the Knife Edge in winter, and that it was right there.  The ridge ahead looked like a blast, and the colors to my right, I could hardly contain the excitement as I had made my way up the ridge. 

Pamola Peak, the Knife Edge, & Mt. Katahdin from Hamlin Ridge Trail
Ascending Hamlin Ridge 
Looking right, into the North West Basin, from the Hamlin Ridge Trail 
A beautiful morning to climb Maine's highest peak
Every once in a while, a blue blaze was visible on the rocks.  It was easy, and almost impossible to not know which way to go.  There was only one dicey spot near the top where a slip would send you steeply into the North West Basin, but the conditions were excellent, and it was clearly visible.  I watched my steps, and made it smoothly up to the plateau now on the approach to Hamlin Peak. The color of the sky and the setting of the clouds made it feel like I was 20,000 feet up, on another planet.  The clouds made it seem ominously dark for a minutes, but it was clear and beautiful, providing extended views beneath them. Hamlin Peak was my 59th peak of the winter.
Approaching Hamlin Peak from the Hamlin Ridge Trail 
Looking northerly from the Hamlin Ridge Trail, approaching summit 
Mt. Katahdin, Hamlin Peak in winter 
Summit of Hamlin Peak, with Katahdin and Knife Edge in the background
Summit photo
After that important pit-stop, I was on my way off the backside and into the Saddle towards Katahdin. I cut a little bit off the actual trail in this section, but that did not come without penalty...I fell into one pretty good trap of hidden scrub as I neared the junction of the Cathedral Trail, that's what I get.  As I got closer to the middle of the Saddle, I noticed the weather starting to change slightly for the better. The sun was making its way through more, and things were getting lighter. There was a little breeze or gust here and there, but other than that it was pretty much silent. Looking back, I was pretty much in awe this whole time. When I saw the photo I captured of me hiking across the saddle, I couldn't believe it.
North Brother 
Looking into South Basin (Chimney Pond) near Saddle Trail Junction
Crossing the Saddle en route to the Highest Peak in Maine. I love this one!
Another shot from the Saddle
It was an easy walk across.  More quickly now, the sky was opening up to bluer skies and the clouds were moving away.  The path in front of me as I went up the summit cone got a bit icier from the scouring wind.  The tricky ice, had nothing on my careful steps and zig zagging. About halfway up the cone it became a nice crunchy snow again, where I took a quick break to change the battery in my GoPro. This was about the only time all winter season that I fiddled with the camera to change the battery. I'm glad I did.
Wind scoured summit cone of Mt. Katahdin

As I left from my break, I couldn't believe the sight of the snow, which was scoured in such a cool way. It was like a huge field, and who knows when I'd see the summit sign. For a short while, its like a huge wall in front, but then it slowly tapered, increasing the angle of views.  As I looked right, lakes for miles and miles became visible, and then I could see everything. Although you will be able to watch my video, there are no words to describe the excitement of accomplishing this summit on such a beautiful day.  Summit #60 on the was by far, my favorite winter summit arrival ever. It was truly epic, and was the result of such an intense physical and mental effort.

Taking a picture of the Brothers and Coe
Mt. Katahdin summit in winter
The Knife Edge in winter

Snow blows through the Chimney between Chimney & Pamola Peak

I really wish I could have stayed there all day, but it gets cold standing around. I left the summit sign untouched and covered in beautiful rime ice. Never seen such an awesome view of the Mt. Katahdin summit sign, especially in person! After about 30 minutes of the summit all to myself on a beautiful winter morning, it was time to go. Best summit ever. If I could have this hike again exactly as it was, I'd do it in a second and take everyone with me.

"Every mountaintop is within reach
if you just keep climbing" - Barry Finlay
Thriving from the excitement, I skipped all of the way down to the Saddle in just minutes (just like I like doing to LOC Hut from Washington). At the junction of the Cathedral Trail a large group that was staying in Lean-Tos had made its way to the top of the Saddle from the Saddle Trail. They were switching footwear mostly after climbing up. I cruised on by, greeting them with a large smile, I'm sure. I continued on, following my steps back over to Hamlin and out. I was already passing the summit of Hamlin as the group was visible nearing the summit of Katahdin. The hike down the ridge was spectacular.  I signed out on my climbing sheet at the Ranger's Cabin at 12:25pm, just in time for lunch back at the bunkhouse!

Chimney Pond Bunkhouse
My original plan was to stay another night at Chimney Pond, however the planned party for Roaring Brook was not coming, so the three of us (me and the two other guys) decided to head down to Roaring for Saturday night with the go-ahead from the Ranger to do so. After a quick lunch on the stove, I packed the rest of the gear into the pulk for the hike...or should I say ride back down the Chimney Pond Trail. The other two got a kick out of it when I told them I would be riding my pulk down, and if they happen to hear any noises off into the woods, to look for me. The aluminum fins on my sled were definitely not good for turning, but I did have some fun going down, and I got down pretty quickly. On the way, I stopped where the phone got some service, and was able to call home and talk about the great news. While reviewing footage from descending Chimney Pond Trail, I may have caught some sort of animal, possibly an otter, crossing the trail, when I didn't notice it at the time (SEE VIDEO). After getting down, I settled in, helped feed the stove, and enjoyed another night. It was so nice just relaxing, knowing that I have already accomplished my goal here, and I had another whole day and night after this nights sleep. Ahhh....

I was up around 8ish, since they were preparing for their haul out. (It's now Sunday). Shortly after they left, the Ranger came in, and we chatted about my climb, and he asked for a description of the summit and trail conditions. I got the day's forecast, and I said where I might be if I wasn't here at the bunkhouse. Once he left, I would see no one else for the rest of my time here. I fired up the stove and chilled out for a few, trying to decide what to do next.

Of course I wasn't going to sit around all day.  I decided to go check out the Sandy Stream Pond Trail (Loop). South Turner Mountain was teasing but I only brought my microspikes, water, and whiskey on this one, no more climbing this weekend.  The trail was unbroken all the way, but it was almost hard enough that I didn't break through it very often. It snowed the whole 2.8 miles. I didn't hear or see anything other than the snow falling and the streams going by. I was hoping to see some moose, since there were signs of them around.

Ahhhh! Cheers!

I arrived back at the bunkhouse after a couple of hours, still snowing, right away I stocked up the bunkhouse with wood. It was nice having that baby roaring all afternoon and evening as I tinkered around doing nothing but relax. I had everything ready to go for the early morning haul out, and I just ate a bunch of my food. Some things I enjoyed on this trip were Shin Ramyun Noodles, Hot liquid jello, hot hot chocolate with Reese's Fast Break bars melting in it, warm oatmeal cereal, and lots of cookies: nutter butters and soft batches. Lots of yummy winter trail snacks!

What an experience, thanks for reading! 
At 6:30am, I was ready to go, finally got to test out my LEDs on the pulk!
Cruisin' out in style under the full moon, still havin' fun
EEEEEK Where is it, and what is it? 
Some nice fresh snow for me! 
12 miles...... 
The awesome tracks I followed all morning
A nice Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Baxter State Park 
Did I really get to see this view as I reached my car?

Hike Stats
Trails: Abol Stream Trail, Baxter Tote Road, Roaring Brook Road, Chimney Pond Trail, North Basin Trail, Hamlin Ridge Trail, Saddle Trail. Also hiked the Sandy Stream Pond loop on Sunday.
Distance: 43.8 miles
Elevation Gain: 8,291 ft.
Actual Book Time: 36:12
GPS Track: Garmin Adventures


  1. Dan thanks as always for the detailed trip reports. Fascinating as always.

    I've been to Katahdin once in the summer ages ago. Did you hike the knife's edge on this one? That would seem a little hazardous in the winter but I wasn't sure. Seems like something the bolder adventurers might take a crack at.

  2. Hi Jim, thanks very much for reading this one following my adventures. No Knife Edge on this one, I went out-and-back by Hamlin Ridge, going over Hamlin first. I did, however, get a front row seat at viewing the Knife Edge in winter. Wouldn't ever do it solo. Happy Trails!

  3. Hi Dan,
    My wife and I are thinking of doing this exact trek in March for my 30th birthday. I was wondering if you needed any additional technical gear? Crampons? Ice Ax? Rope? In the video, it looks like you were just doing it with snow shoes and poles. ?? Thanks for posting this awesome trip!