This term I joined a trip to hike Mount Katahdin. Katahdin is the tallest peak in Maine and is 19 miles deep into the Baxter Wilderness. In order to get to our base camp, 3 miles from the summit, we needed to ski in 13 miles, and hike another 3 miles with snowshoes for the first 1.5 miles then crampons for the rest.
In order to carry in enough food, we all pulled sleds. It was a long haul to our first camp, but we were reveling in being outside vs in the classroom. We pulled into camp after dark and began making copious amounts of food and rehydrating. The next morning we left our ski’s and boots, put on microspikes and started the haul up a well packed, but steeper 3 miles of trail. With dropping temperatures our water bottles were starting to freeze. A full moon was peaking over the mountain by the time we set up camp.
It was a freezing cold crystal clear night, and the moon reflected around us in a beautiful blue hue. We crawled into our lean to shelters trying to keep warm. With the wind whipping straight through the cracks in the walls and my half frozen water sucking the heat out of my bones, it was quite the struggle. I left the shelter and tried to warm up by shoveling snow against the side of the lean. I paused once I was slightly warmer to look around. Every contour in the snow was illuminated in moonlight and every footprint had a shadow stretching into the distance. This scene could have been pulled straight out of a picture of the moon’s surface. If I wasn’t shivering, chilled by my frozen water bottle and the biting wind, I could have more thoroughly enjoyed the beauty.
The next morning we woke up to a crisp, clear, still morning. There could not have been better weather for a summit attempt. Granted, with a group of 12, if we didn’t have ideal weather we may not have moved more than 100 yds. The coordination involved in making that many people breakfast alone is quite the feat. To summit Mt Katahdin in winter, it is necessary to climb straight up an avalanche slide path to gain the ridge then hike up the windblown, icy ridge to the summit. After we dug a test pit on the path and deemed it safe enough, we started up. I hiked behind Max, one of the bigger guys on our trip, so every so often, even with snowshoes, he would posthole and let out a stream of expletives. You would think that after 16 miles, 3 would seem easy. But it just so happened that those last 3 were the neck craning, straight up type of miles.
Once on the ridge, it was a crampon adventure to the top. Crampons are really amazing things. They turn a sheet of ice into your favorite surface and grippy rocks into your enemy. We weaved our way through the rock and ice field to the top, as the minutes ticked closer to our turn-around time. We made it with fifteen minutes left in our scheduled allotted time. This left us time to take a few well deserved looks at the view, summit pictures and celebration!
From there it was all downhill back to camp, which is almost harder than going up. Crampons are slightly terrifying on an icy decline, and many of us opted for the backwards waddle for the icy part. After the saddle, we heel kicked steps while staring the entire way down the 50 degree pitch that we could tumble down with one wrong step. Once near treeline, we took off our crampons and switched to a glissading technique. Glissading is glorified sledding with an ice ax as your emergency brake. You sit on your butt, slide as long as you deem safe, then roll into a self arrest when you want to stop, say before you run into the entire group at the bottom of the slide path. In lieu of jumping up and down to celebrate we all jumped into a pile back at camp and devoured food until it was late enough to go to bed.
Since we summited on our first attempt we might have had an extra day exploring the wilderness. The only problem was that we had eaten all of our food. When I say all our food, I mean that during our 16 mile, sledding, skiing and hiking trek back to the bus, we ate the remainder of our peanut m&m’s, including an m&m breakfast. It was an excellent adventure, sledding dangerously down the steeper first 3 miles of the trail, then hiking across a lake and skiing the last thirteen. I can remember mile ten, coming into a state where I could no longer spell my name from exhaustion then dancing when we gained sight of bus. The first stop we made on the drive back to Hanover was a sub shop where we (including the vegetarians) ordered giant meatball parm subs. There is nothing like a challenging adventure and nothing like that first shower afterwards!