Friday, January 17, 2014

Baxter Blast 12/27-12/30/13

Working title: Magnificent Miscreants

Way back in October, shortly after I returned from my last foray into Baxter, I got the email I'd been waiting for. A winter assault on Katahdin was in the works! There would seven of us, Michael and Monica (from my last winter trip), my friends John and Brenda, and two wildcards, Larry and Peg. This is our story of magnificence.

Friday 12/27:

Trails: Abol Stream Trail, Nesowadnehunk Tote Road, Roaring Brook Road

Mileage/elevation: ~13 miles, ~900' of gain

The rest of the group spent the night in Millinocket on Thursday, but I was unable to join them. This led to me getting up at 3am, in order to make it up to the AT Cafe by 7:30. Long story short, the driving sucked! Pulling up to the AT Cafe, I witnessed a man in shorts... it could only be Michael. Who else wears shorts in the winter?! Exchanging greetings with the group inside, we set about eating and chatting. From the get-go, I liked the wildcards, and the phrase "it's going to be a long four days", was uttered several times.

We had a chance encounter with Dan McGinness (of DMOutdoors) and his brother Bill, who were headed into Nesowadnehunk for an attempt on North Brother. It was nice to run into you guys! Foodening complete, we headed out of town, onto the Golden Road, a veritable logging highway that stretches all the way to the Canadian border. Pulling into the parking lot, just before Abol Bridge, we set about preparing ourselves, and our sleds, for the trek into the park. Unlike the warmer months, the roads in Baxter are not maintained for winter travel, perhaps to weed out all non-hackers. This left roughly 13 miles of trail and road, between us, and our first destination, the Roaring Brook bunkhouse.

Everyone else had donned snowshoes, but I had to be different. As we crossed the road, I stepped into my skis, and we set off. The first couple of miles would be on the Abol Stream Trail, as we crossed the park boundary, passed Abol Pond, eventually reaching the Nesowadnehunk Tote Road. Clouds prevailed for the most part, though the sun broke through occasionally. The general lack of scenery kept me focused, trying to keep a rhythm, one foot in front of the other. The pain began somewhere between reaching the road, and the summer gatehouse. At first it was my heels, then it worked its way to my arches, then to my toes. Super. We took a break at the gatehouse, where I threw my skis into the sled, and put on snowshoes. Maybe I should have just sucked it up and gone with it, but in retrospect, I'm glad I didn't.

Katahdin in the clouds, as we rounded the corner by the gatehouse

Now began 8 miles of torturous ups and downs, with more of the same around every corner. My ski boots never got any more comfortable, as we trudged onward. We were passed by Ranger Rob Tice, who was going to attempt to get his snowmobile up to Chimney Pond. I say attempt, as he apparently hadn't been able to get one up there yet this season. Fingers were crossed, all around, as failure would mean a very difficult second day for us. He half jokingly said, that if we found his snowmobile overturned on the trail the next morning, that we turn it upright, and that he might well be under it! The group spread out along the road, as the miles slowly ticked by. Shortly before sunset, we mercifully rounded the corner at the top of the hill above Roaring Brook, and trudged down to the bunkhouse.

Welcome to the middle of nowhere, bub

Late afternoon light on Roaring Brook Road
Gear was hauled inside, water retrieved, and bunks set up. We settled in for dinner, and warmed ourselves by the woodstove. I was just relieved to be out of my boots! Little did I know, that this night would feature the most sleep of the trip... I should be used to sleep deprivation by now!

Saturday 12/28:

Trails: Chimney Pond Trail, Saddle Trail

Mileage/elevation: ~5.3 miles, ~2600' of gain

We awoke to clouds, and a few inches of fresh snow. Packing our gear back up, and loading it back on the sleds, we got started up to Chimney Pond. I decided I'd ski up, and that proved to be a generally good idea, except on the really steep sections above Basin Pond. If I hadn't been towing the sled, I probably would have had less trouble, but the extra weight made for some interesting maneuvering. The winds were whipping as we climbed, and the crossing of Basin Pond was made quickly, bracing against the cold violence from above. After arriving at the Chimney Pond bunkhouse, we had lunch, and decided as a group to break trail up to treeline, to save ourselves some work the next day.

Drifts and cornices along Chimney Pond Trail
Heading up the unbroken Saddle Trail, we took turns up front. I feel the need to mention, that John is an absolute animal! To think, this is the same man who broke his ankle, in June! As we climbed higher, the snow became deeper and deeper. It was light and powdery, a blessing and a curse, all at the same time. Reaching the point where the trail opens up at the base of Saddle Slide, we turned around and headed back to the bunkhouse. Our work for the day was done.


Once down at the pond, we ventured across to get water for the night. While the pond itself is the water source, the only place you can get water from it in the winter, is on the far side! It was fun? Nah, it was super cold and windy, not exactly the most enjoyable water gathering experience. Back at the bunkhouse, we got to making dinner, and generally killing time. Some games were played, stories swapped, and many laughs had, probably much to the chagrin of the other three guests. Eventually we all set off for bed, but it was to be a restless night for us all.

Sunday 12/29:

Trails: Saddle Trail, Chimney Pond Trail

Mileage/elevation: ~7.7 miles, ~2300' of gain

Up well before the sun, not that we'd see it. We readied ourselves for the onslaught. None of us had slept well at all, the bunkhouse was too hot, if you can imagine that! Once out the door, some of the group went back across the pond for more water, and I got creative.

Thankful for our pre-broken trail, we started up, spreading out some as we approached the cloud-topped walls of the Great (South) Basin. Beyond where we'd stopped was more deep, unconsolidated snow, and the trail breaking continued anew.

We were passed by the (opportunistic) French-Canadian couple that was staying in the bunkhouse, and they made their way to the top of the Saddle. Instead of heading directly up the slide, where the trail goes, we angled left, around the rock outcrop at the top, avoiding possible avalanche conditions. Steep snowshoeing! Two to three steps, break, repeat, all the way to the top. Some views could be had to the east, along Hamlin Ridge, and the flanks of Pamola. By the time we reached the top of the Saddle, it had begun snowing, and the views disappeared into the white.

Regrouping, we made our assault. In a bad case of deja vu, I quickly became able to see exactly nothing. Heavy riming conditions existed on the Tableland, and the right side of our bodies quickly became encased, along with my glasses. What followed was a blur of white, and what looked like cairns looming out of the white, most of which turned out to just be rocks. I followed behind Larry for most of the way, and was thankful for his guidance in the whiteness. After what felt like an eternity, we crested the summit, and the famous sign loomed, covered in at least 6-8 inches of rime. We had done it!

The first group to summit Baxter Peak in the 2013/2014 winter season!
Chipping away at the ice, we got our summit shots, and retreated. Michael led the way, navigating by GPS, back to where he had left his ice axe, to mark where we had come up. Now came discussion of whether or not to hit Hamlin. Everyone else in the group was up for it, but the lack of sleep, general fatigue, and lack of vision, had done a number on me... I was simply out of gas. I was the lone voice of dissent, and as a group, we descended. That just means we have to come back... like we needed an excuse!

After a short snowshoe descent, it was time for some glissading. Of course, someone found a spruce trap, and that someone happened to be Larry. In circumstances like these, there's only one thing you can do... document their issues.

Pictures first. Help second.
Some more glissading action, and a nice snowshoe back down to Chimney Pond (with some childish writing in the snow to boot), we arrived back at the bunkhouse around 11... early! We talked to Rob, and asked if we could head down to Roaring Brook, instead of staying another night. He said the bunkhouse down there was empty, and gave us the green light to get a head start on our exit. Back at the bunkhouse, we warmed up and packed up. Another group came in, thankful they wouldn't have to spend the night in a lean-to, as the temperatures were forecast to plummet to -30 the next day. One of the guys even had the same ski boots as me, and that spurred me to ski down to Roaring Brook. Another one of them referred to skiing down, even with skins on, as the "snowplow of doom". Comforting.

The ski down was very much stop and go, as the sled was wildly out of control behind me. I'm thankful that it didn't hook a tree! I nearly took John out, but was able to work around him and his sled, at speed. Pretty sure the both of us nearly soiled ourselves! Many "uh oh" moments were had, the sled dumped my gear no less than 5 times, and flipped itself over a few times as well. This was by far, the most interesting ski descent I've ever had, in my nearly 30 years of skiing. Good times.

Back down at Roaring Brook, we hung clothing to dry, and settled in for the night. Brenda, John, Peg, and myself played cards, well into the evening. John broke out the whiskey, and some of us imbibed, celebrating our not being shut out this year, even if it was by the skin of our teeth!

Monday 12/30:

Trails: Roaring Brook Road, Nesowadnehunk Tote Road, Abol Stream Trail

Mileage/elevation: ~13 miles, ~200' of gain

With 4 to 8 inches of snow forecast for the night, we were somewhat apprehensive about our trek out. However, we awoke to a mere dusting, and a muted sunrise. Packing up, we cleaned up the cabin, and readied the sleds for the slog out. There was no way I was wearing my ski boots, as my feet were in some pain from them. We set out, the cars our destination. I won't say it went quickly, but it went. Katahdin even revealed itself, for a couple of fleeting moments. The hike out wasn't without pain, but was much easier than the hike in. Never did I think, that the sound of logging trucks would be welcome, but they were. Civilization!

A front moving through, drop those temps!

South Peak peeking out from near the gatehouse

We'll be back!
I managed to get my car somewhat stuck in the parking lot, but a bit of reverse, then gun it, got me out. We then cruised back through Millinocket, where we stopped at a gas station diner in Medway. The food was great, and we ended up making them 86 three items from the menu... that's how we do.


Peaks: 1 (better than none!)
Miles: ~39
Elevation gain: ~6000'

Thanks to all six of you, for a most memorable trip, it won't be soon forgotten. Let's go back for Hamlin next year!

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