If It Were 60 Degrees Warmer, It'd Be Freezing Out Here!

Mt. Katahdin, the highest point in Maine and the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, rises dramatically above the surrounding lowland lake country. Named by the Penobscot tribe, it means “The Greatest Mountain.”  A New England classic, Katahdin has been on my tick list for a long time, and especially as a winter mountaineering ascent. So I enlisted a few buddies: my colleague - Skyler Williams, long time friend - Bob Vilter from CT, Charley Mace - who has been with me to summits around the world, and our local guide and cold-weather expert  - Dick Chasse. 

The mountain is located deep in Baxter State Park. Because it is accessible only on foot, we pulled heavy sleds loaded with essential gear and food with plenty of sticks of butter to keep our body-furnaces burning. Our first day was a long 13-mile ski approach on a rolling summer trail to the Roaring Brook bunkhouse. The wood fired stove inside provided a welcome reprieve from the frigid winter conditions as we strategized our plans and weather for the next several days.

Photo Credit: Skyler Williams

Photo Credit: Skyler Williams

The next morning we set out for our next camp at Chimney Pond. The  packed down trail winds its way through dense Maine forest that gradually shrinks as the conditions become more alpine.  At one point Dick pulled off the trail and said, “You guys are gonna want to bundle up. we are about to  be in some full on conditions.” After putting on a puffy jacket, neck gator,  and goggles, we emerged from the trees onto a frozen lake  and were immediately hit with an arctic blast that I hadn’t felt since climbing in Antarctica back in 2000.  Katahdin’s notorious weather was becoming apparent as we staggered across to the shelter of the forest and on to Chimney Pond.

Photo Credit: Skyler Williams

 

Photo Credit: Skyler Williams

Well known for bone-chilling temperatures, Chimney Pond is the staging point for the ice and alpine routes that ascend to the peaks that form the Massif of Katahdin. The forecast for the next several days was bitter cold and relentless wind, and much of the East Coast was under a Winter Weather Advisory. This made us think twice about a summit attempt; we knew we’d need to bundle up and keep moving.

Photo Credit: Skyler Williams

It was -10 degrees when we slowly marched out of camp early the next morning. Our objective was the Cathedral Ridge, a beautiful steep alpine route to the summit of Baxter Peak, the true summit of  Katahdin (5,268 ft). After hacking our way through some shrubs and wallowing in waste-deep snow, we finally found the wind-scoured ridge that offered 2000 ft of perfect cramponing on hard Névé snow. It is a delicate balance of working hard enough to stay warm, but not to sweat since being wet is the last thing you want when it is so cold. Managing our pace, we still made good time, and after a few hours, we came up and over the ridgeline that leads to the summit dome. We were immediately hammered by intensely cold wind. Dick said my nose was going white, a sign of frost nip, and it was a reminder to cover up all bare skin. At these temperatures, skin exposed to the elements for even a minute will be frost bit, so I made sure my fleece face-mask was tucked into my goggles, and my hat and hood was pulled down and tucked in as well. We pushed up the broad wind-scoured dome to the summit and all stood beside the tall rock cairn (a tall pile of rocks placed to orient climbers in the wilderness). Our time on top was short - the temperature was –30 below zero with windchill factored into it as well. Before we headed down, my partners peered over the edge of the steep north face, several thousand feet directly down to Chimney Pond where we'd left from that morning. That's when Charley said his classic line, "If it   were 60 degrees warmer, it'd be freezing out here."

Photo Credit: Skyler Williams

Photo Credit: Charley Mace

Descents are often tricky, especially if you are blind and have a balaclava, hat and two hoods pulled up over your head to stay warm.  I could barely make out the sound of Dick who was in front of me, clicking his poles and eventually jingling the famous “blind bell.” We quickly made our way off the summit dome and down a snow chute on the Saddle Trail that would have made for some decent skiing with the blown in snow. Eventually we wandered back down to the hut. We drank cider in front of the wood-burning stove and regaled each other with stories of our crazy alpine day and the ferocity of Mt Katahdin.

Photo Credit: Skyler Williams