Ski Katahdin

October 26, 2016
ski Katahdin
Brian Mohr/EmberPhotoSkiing Katahdin, Maine’s highest mountain, requires some avalanche training and plenty of guts.

Getting to Katahdin is as much of an adventure as being there. Just ask the countless Appalachian Trail thru-hikers who have ended their 2,185-mile journey on the 5,268-foot summit that doubles as the AT’s northern terminus and Maine’s highest peak.

For our little crew of four skiers, reaching Katahdin meant delaying our trip twice due to lean snow conditions; a seven-hour drive from Vermont; and, ultimately, 16 miles of backcountry skiing with pulks in tow. To say there are easier places to ski, even for off-trail enthusiasts, is an understatement.

What made us want to go to such lengths? Most of us—my wife, Emily Johnson, with whom I have been mountaineering since we met in 1998, and our friends Heidi and Ian, with whom we have been skiing for several years—had explored Katahdin before, but this was the first time some of us would ski the mountain’s steeper flanks. I suppose, in part, we were looking for more remote territory than our usual haunts: New York’s Adirondacks, Vermont’s Greens, and New Hampshire’s White Mountains. While Katahdin is similar in scale and grandeur to Tuckerman Ravine on Mount Washington, it is considerably wilder and, in winter, significantly harder to reach.

Located in the heart of the Maine Woods, a 3-million-acre region that’s part giant tree farm and part adventurer’s paradise, Katahdin is a diamond in the wild rough. Countless lakes, rivers, and peaks dot the forested landscape of Baxter State Park, which surrounds the mountain. Henry David Thoreau described the place as “a mirror broken into a thousand fragments,” and its raw appeal hasn’t diminshed in the 150 years since. Just this past August saw the creation of the new Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, an 87,000-acre area just east of Baxter. In addition to the landscape’s vast scale, there’s the mountain’s mind-boggling height. Its true apex, Baxter Peak, along with the secondary summits of South Peak and Pamola, form the Knife Edge: an east-west ridge that drops precipitously for more than 2,000 feet.

But Katahdin, arguably the first point in the United States to catch the sunrise, is more than the sum of its statistics. The indigenous Penobscot have long believed that Pamola—the God of Thunder, with the head of a moose, the body of a man, and the wings and feet of an eagle—inhabits the summit. Many people still feel venturing there is taboo. Thoreau knew of the myths, but he couldn’t resist the wild character of the mountain. When he climbed Katahdin on a dreary September day in 1846, he discovered a place that was “savage and awful, though beautiful…the fresh and natural surface of the planet.” The mountain inspired him to call for “preserves of nature…in which the bear and the panther…may still exist…and not be civilized off the face of the earth”—this some 20 years before the creation of Yellowstone, the first national park.

Like so many before us, we found the mountain’s pull irresistible. And when better to experience its wildness than winter?

*****

By lunchtime on a cloudy late-March day, we were approaching Baxter when a break in the clouds gave us our first view of mighty Katahdin, soaring above the town of Millinocket. We left our cars at the Abol Bridge trailhead and began the 13-mile slog to the bunkhouse at Roaring Brook, our one-night stopover on the way to Katahdin’s Chimney Pond. Aside from a small group that would be leaving Chimney Pond the next morning and a few rangers, the reservations staff at Baxter had told us we would likely be the only humans in the park.

With temperatures approaching 40 degrees, the snow was soft, cornlike, and slippery—perfect sled-hauling conditions—with the route packed for us by recent ranger snowmobile travel. We all had relatively wide, metal-edged skis and telemark or alpine touring boots. This sturdy yet versatile setup is ideal for downhill performance but is relatively comfortable for a long cross-country approach. For traction on the way in, each of us relied on climbing skins under one or both of our skis.

Our midday start left us just six hours of daylight to complete the trek through prime moose, black bear, and bobcat habitat. We made it to Roaring Brook, relieved and hungry, by nightfall. We were the only ones booked into the 10-person bunkhouse, and we luxuriated in the peace and quiet.

A cold, starry night led to a bluebird morning, and soon we were 3 miles up the Chimney Pond trail, enjoying views of Katahdin’s three major cirques: the South, Great, and North basins. With a beautiful day upon us, we pushed on to Chimney Pond, hoping the sun would make for a fine afternoon of skiing. “This place has totally changed the way I think about the Northeast,” Ian said. “I can’t believe this is here, in Maine.”

Surrrounded by the sheer walls and ice-strewn slopes of the South and Great basins, Chimney Pond is an impressive place—the centerpiece of perhaps the most striking alpine environment in New England—despite being only a few hundred yards across. We found a ranger cabin, a bunkhouse, two composting toilets, and several empty lean-tos scattered in the treeline forest around the pond, which appeared to be frozen solid. We again had the bunkhouse to ourselves as we settled in for lunch.

Katahdin’s north face, which forms the main wall of the South Basin cirque, is riddled with highly technical rock and ice routes reaching more than 2,200 vertical feet, from the sheltered pond to the Knife Edge. A few skiable lines stripe the South Basin, but they generally require a rope and mountaineering gear to navigate safely.

As we were craning our necks upward, eyeing the routes, Park Ranger Rob Tice returned from lower-
elevation duties on his snowmobile. About 40 years old, Tice has been with Baxter for more than a decade. When asked for a physical address, he lists, “1 Chimney Pond Lane”—a nod to his distinction as the only year-round resident of Maine’s unincorporated T3R9 township.

“I’m the mayor, the superintendent, and the principal here,” Tice said as we we stoked our fire in the bunkhouse’s wood stove. “Today we are going to study Climbing, followed by some lessons in Backcountry,” he joked. “Reading for the weekend will be Wilderness First Aid.”

Tice quizzed us on our plans, made sure we had the basic equipment and knowledge for the alpine zone, and asked us to sign out for the afternoon. In addition to having visitors complete a registration form in advance, sharing an itinerary with the on-site ranger helps the park minimize the risk of folks getting in over their heads.  “Rescues are expensive,” Tice told us ominously.

On a brighter note, he said, “Your timing might be just right with this window of high pressure.” He agreed the calm winds and intense rays might soften the most sun-soaked slopes, but the rest of the terrain would be glazed with an unusually slick crust caused by a recent freezing-rain event. We would follow the Saddle Trail on its climb away from Chimney Pond toward treeline in the adjacent Great Basin, reaching the rim just north of the summit, nearly 2,000 feet and 2 miles above. Starting with the relatively straightforward 35-degree Saddle Gulley, a series of steeper gullies wraps around the southeast face of the basin. This is where most of the steep skiing on Katahdin takes place and where, historically, it all began.

It was March 1926 when the New England climbing and skiing pioneer and AMC member Arthur Comey made the first recorded ski descent from Katahdin’s summit. Accompanied by his friend and Appalachia editor Robert Underhill, Comey summitted and skied via the Saddle. For the next 50 years, very few skiers attempted Katahdin’s remote flanks. It wasn’t until the 1970s that an emerging community of backcountry skiers revived steep skiing on the mountain. One highlight from this period was the first recorded ski descent, by the backcountry guru Dickie Hall and his friends, of the beautiful Chimney Couloir, a line in the rarely skied South Basin that normally requires rapelling a significant ice bulge. Sporting skinny skis, leather boots, and three-pin telemark bindings, Hall and his buddies had wandered toward the bottom of the Chimney after a nice day of Great Basin skiing in the very snowy winter of 1986.

“Suddenly we found ourselves right under it,” Hall recently told me. “It looked good, so we climbed and skied it. We had to spend half a day convincing [the rangers] that we had just as much steel on our skis as a pair of crampons. Eventually, they let us ski.”

*****

With our own skis underfoot and crampons in our packs, we managed to find some softening snow at treeline under the midafternoon sun. Higher in the gullies, the snow was firm and barely edgable but still fun. For the next several hours, we climbed and skied a few conservative lines, soaking up our surroundings. Across the basin, the Chimney Couloir sparkled, looking more like an ice climb than a ski chute. The windless air was filled with the roar of a creek far below; a few chickadees sung for us; and we reveled in the beauty of Katahdin on a winter afternoon. As the setting sun laid its shadows across the Great Basin, we slid into a streambed leading back to Chimney Pond.

“Much of this stream was open before everything froze up last week,” Ian said. “Let’s hope we can ski it.”

We found some snow in the streambed, as well as numerous sections of solid ice and others of open water.  Pulling every imaginable Vermont-honed skiing technique out of our hats, we linked surprisingly consistent turns and slid home safe, laughing and feeling hopeful that tomorrow would be warmer.

While we were preparing a dinner of spicy curry and noodles back at the bunkhouse, Tice stopped by to say hello. “Man, are those things fat!” he said, noting our skis. “We don’t see many dedicated backcountry skiers up here—maybe 10 percent of winter visitors. There’s hardly any terrain that’s easily accessible. And it’s so rare that the weather and snow combine to offer conditions that are both fun and safe to ski before the park closes.”

Starting April 1 and until conditions allow in May, most of Baxter’s higher-elevation terrain is closed to the public in order to minimize pressure on wildlife. The same goes for October 15 through December 1.

“The animals are moving around a lot that time of year,” Tice said. “Closing the park is what makes Katahdin different.” With preservation taking precedent over recreation in the park’s management policy, some of the best weather and snow conditions for steep skiing on Katahdin are left for us to dream about—and for the animals to enjoy.

“They give it back to the animals,” Dickie Hall said on the phone with me later. “It’s one of coolest acts of stewardship that any park has going.”

*****

We awoke to another clear winter day, and within hours the snow was softening in the sun. We chased the strongest rays around Great Basin, climbing and skiing lines that dropped nearly 1,500 feet from the tablelands above. Exploring above the rim of the basin, we discovered a sea of wind-drifted snow and ice dotted with boulders of pink granite and banks of krummholz. Although we were lured by an easy route to Katahdin’s summit and back, we feared our window of sun in the basin was closing. Pamola (4,919 feet) was also in our thoughts. We slid over the top of Hamlin Peak (4,756 feet) and enjoyed delightful turns down a narrow chute, catching the last rays of afternoon sun.

That evening we digested a warm pasta dinner with games of speed-Scrabble, hot drinks, and the usual bunkhouse banter. Temperatures dropped into the mid-20s overnight, and a cold start with cloudy skies tested our optimism the next morning as we headed for the scenic but relatively snow-free Hamlin Ridge that separates the Great and North basins, just east of Hamlin Peak. Ascending with skis on our backs, crampons on our feet, and axes in hand, we hoped the day would warm enough above freezing to enable us to ski into one of the basins.

Still, the winds picked up. We had heard a group of skiers had enjoyed beautiful skiing in North Basin just a week ago, but on this day, the snowpack was dangerously firm. We should have planned for a day of ice climbing.

“Even with self-arrest poles, we wouldn’t want to ski this,” Emily said. “I think our weather window has closed.”

We lingered in the windy alpine zone, mentally skiing a few attractive lines in North Basin and soaking up views of the distant Penobscot and Allagash watersheds, the peaks of Maine’s Longfellow Mountains, and the rough outline of Maine’s inner coast some 100 miles away. Closer in, low clouds hovered over Chimney Pond. Itching to make some turns, we backtracked on foot down Hamlin Ridge then skied carefully down a low-angle ramp into North Basin as a few snowflakes dotted the air. Humbled by the grandeur and beauty around us, we called it with a speedy descent from the basin to our trail home.

*****

Spotting the sun while packing up the next morning, we were tempted to beg Ranger Tice for some food and to put us up in the lean-tos for another few days.

“Next year,” Heidi said wistfully. “At least a week.”

Towing our pulks away from Chimney Pond, we survived the bobsled run that was Chimney Pond Trail back to Roaring Brook. En route, we bumped into our friend Jesse from the Adirondacks, who was arriving for the park’s closing days. Jesse was sporting his big boots and fat backcountry skis, but his sled was chockfull of ice-climbing gear.

I thought about something Jesse had once said to me, half-joking: “The best thing about skiing in the Adirondacks is the ice climbing,” alluding to that region’s great deal of mediocre skiing accessed primarily via very enjoyable climbing.

“How’s the skiing?” he asked.

Ah, Jesse. Here, only the awesome mountain overshadows the skiing.

You’ll love it.


HOW TO SKI KATAHDIN

General Info, Rules, and Reservations
Baxter State Park (207-723-5140) is an independent entity guided by a different set of rules and regulations than those governing other Maine state parks. It is imperative you understand and respect Baxter’s regulations, especially if you’d like to plan a return adventure there. To climb Katahdin or to camp in winter, you must submit a winter solo camping form along with a reservation form. The park is not open for winter use until December 1, but visitors can begin to make reservations on the first business day in November.

Before embarking on an overnight skiing adventure on Katahdin, Baxter officials request that you thoroughly review the winter camping page on their website. Then, at least seven working days in advance of your trip, you must deliver a winter reservation form to the BSP office. It’s also a good idea to contact BSP by phone or check the website to confirm availability of your preferred dates and locations.

Fees for the bunkhouses at Roaring Brook ($19) and Chimney Pond ($38) are per person per night; lean-to fees are $15 at Roaring Brook and $40 at Chimney Pond. There is no park entrance fee in winter, and parking, which must be coordinated as part of your reservation, is also free in winter. Bunkhouses are equipped with bunk beds, as well as wood stoves for heating and limited cooking. Visitors must bring their own sheets or sleeping bags, cooking equipment, and gear for staying warm, dry, and safe.

Weather and Guides
Weather and snow conditions on Katahdin can be unpredictable and extreme. Avalanches are common during storm cycles and throughout the winter on steeper terrain near and above treeline. Should you prefer a guided adventure, Synnott Mountain Guides  and Acadia Mountain Guides, among others, run backcountry trips to Katahdin.

Are You Ready for Katahdin?
Although Emily and I each have nearly 20 years’ experience leading backcountry skiing adventures, anyone with solid winter backcountry experience can enjoy Katahdin’s Chimney Pond. Most visitors travel with lighter-weight ski-touring gear or snowshoes; there are numerous options for exploring on- and off-trail without venturing into steep terrain. Some avalanche awareness is crucial. AMC’s Best Backcountry Skiing in the Northeast, by David Goodman, offers additional advice on ski routes within the park.

If conditions are challenging, the 3-mile descent back to Roaring Brook via Chimney Pond Trail can be an adventure. Leave time to navigate safely. I recommend spending a few days and nights in mountainous backcountry before attempting a winter visit to Chimney Pond. As a stepping stone, AMC huts in New Hampshire’s White Mountains are great options. An overnight tour to Baxter’s Roaring Brook or Daicey Pond are also good preparation for building up to a bigger Katahdin adventure.


 

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Brian Mohr/EmberPhoto

Brian Mohr lives in Vermont’s Mad River Valley with his wife and two daughters. Together, they have logged more than 1,000 nights in tents and backcountry cabins. View his photography at emberphoto.com.