Mt. Katahdin Expedition
Date:[/b] January 25-31, 2000
Location: Baxter State Park, Maine
Participants:[/b] Bill 'I wont sleep in a snow cave' Finger, Mike 'strawberry' Friedman, Robert 'wipe the cream cheese off the knife' Zeithammer, and Hector 'safety' Briceno
Photographers: Hector Briceno and Robert Zeithammer
Author: Hector "Safety" Briceno
UPFRONT AMERICAN DISCLAIMER: This was not an official MITOC trip (although all participants are or have been trip leaders). This is not an undertaking to take lightly. It is required to have previous winter experience before such endeavor. We are not responsible for any actions, opinions, suggestions, innuendoes, data, information, statistics taken from this report that causes any adverse conditions onto yourself or others.
First the short version of the trip report: A group of us wanted to go to Katahdin, Maine. We got a permit. Drove up on Tuesday January 25th; summitted Katahdin at 1pm on Friday January 28th; and summitted Pamola Peak at 10:30am on Saturday. Were back in Boston on Monday at 4:30pm.
Now a more elaborate version of our adventure: (you can find this trip report in http://graphics.lcs.mit.edu/~hbriceno/climb/katahdin2000)
It all started sometime ago, when we toyed with the idea of doing a long committing winter trip. A group of us had been in Katahdin in the summer of 1998. Pat Brown and I thought that the logical choice for New England was a winter ascent of Mount Katahdin...
The group slowly took shape and the interested parties went on trips together. Initially we had consolidated a group of 6 strong hikers, but in the end two would not be able to make it due to pressing commitments. Pat was also going to come, but a sickness prevented him being in shape in time for the trip. This state park is different from most state parks in that during winter, a permit has to be obtained. Additionally the distance from civilization, (one FULL day) makes self rescue mandatory. For this reason, they required a minimum group size of 4 and some proof (hiking/climbing resume) of winter experience. Incidentally the park recommends to gather a group of 6 just in case 2 people cannot make it (they were right on the dot).
The group was formed. It would be Bill "I wont sleep in a snow cave" Finger, Robert "could you wipe the cream cheese of the knife" Zeithammer, Mike "Strawberry" Freedman, and yours truly Hector "Safety" Briceno. Gamma Luke Sosnowski and Chrissy "Marathon Runner" Guth would not be able to join us.
Since this was more than a day hike, we took this trip seriously and decided to due a multitude of winter hikes including overnights to prepare. I will not go into details of this trip, except that the weekend before our departure, we did a double overnight trip to test the sleeping system (double bag system, which I would rate good, down to -30F), and one of the most important and key pieces of gear for the trip: The Sleds. This hike into the Pemigewasset, ruled out the Turbo-boggans as our cargo vehicles for the long approach, making us scramble for a replacement. At last the Pelican-boggans would suffice. Another important detail to point out, is that it is crucial that team members be socially compatible, since we would be spending 5 days together, and nights can sometimes be long. Luckily have grown to understand the way the Czech mind of Robert works, the quirks and perks of Mr. Friedman and the humor and entertainment that Se~or Finger provides. (I can say from the outside, that the other team members were not apparently displeased with the ways of Monsieur Briceno, he can be sometimes annoying, pathetic, etc...(and God, those bad jokes).
The day of departure came. We packed the cars to the rim and started the pilgrimage to Millinocket, Maine. A few days before, I had reserved a room to crash in at night, sort out the gear, and pack the sleds. I recommend this option since it gives you full confidence that everything will be packed, and gives you a chance to double check on gear. The alternative option (which we might use another year); is to do the full gear check and pack the sleds in Boston, drive up, and bivy at the parking lot.
The drive up proved to be very long. Under optimal conditions, the drive to Millinocket Maine from Boston is 5.5 hours (340some miles); We were greeted by a snowstorm that made that drive rag on for about 8 hours. We almost lost two of our members. Since Robert needed to pick up his gear at home; Mike and I in one car were going to wait for Bill and Robert at the first government sponsored highway stop (rest area, liquor store or toll booth) in New Hampshire. Mike and I arrived at the first rest stop in New Hampshire (which coincidentally is right on the state line, so this is actually a good place to meet on I95; for the record, there is a liquor store and a tollbooth few miles down). They were one hour late due to the closing of Route 1. I had worried because Mike and I had just seen a car on the opposite direction splash into the median. This was going to be a winter trip in all respects.
Our next stop was for gas; in addition to gas, we obtained one crucial piece of mountaineering gear: THE MUG. For just two American dollars we acquired "Mr. Mikes" insulated mugs with a free fill of coffee or soda. These Mugs being of 16 ounces capacity, with a lid that can be easily opened and closed, are vastly superior to the meager 12 ounces of the REI mugs that some of us (I) had. I strongly recommend a high capacity Mug as a winter eating container; as it is well-known, plates or bowls do not fare well in the winter since food goes cold at a very rapid pace due to the higher surface area exposed to the wind in comparison to mugs.
We arrived at the Big Moose Inn at around 10pm. I love Rural America: I had made the reservation (basically gave them my name) two days before. I called them up from Burger King on the way up, telling them that we were going to be late, they said alright, and gave me directions to the cabin were we would be staying. The night we arrived, I knocked on their door and met Bruce (the inn keeper), and he just showed me to the cabin. We stayed there, and the next day just paid cash; we never signed anything nor checked any ID!!!
The amount of snowfall and ice-cold conditions made our thoughts of the next day 12 mile cross-country ski-in terrifying. The first thing our snow expert Robert did as soon as he got off the car was to touch, feel, grate, smell, and sense the snow; he turned around and did not look too thrilled; we were in denial. Would we have to ski on deep snow with a thin layer of ice crust on the surface? Bruce mentioned to us, that rangers go up the road (that we would ski on) and groom the trails every so often with snowmobiles. With this information we decided to move our alpine start from being at the trail head at 7am to 9am.
In the cabin, we unpacked everything, repacked all the food. I was actually impressed with all the group gear we had. 96 pounds in all: 18 in tents (2 normal 2 person tents, and one small tent for day trips as a bivy shelter), 33 food, 21 fuel, 7 stoves+pots, 15 in small climbing gear (just in case we did knife edge or some ice climbing), 2 for the shovel (very convenient) plus miscellaneous. We packed the sleds. Robert, although not holding an engineering degree, I must say, had the best packing and design technique. His sled looked very trimmed (it boggles my mind how he managed to obtain no bulky group items...). Mike, on the other hand, got the short stick. His sled looked like Mad Dog from Backpacker magazine, with a bunch of big stuff strapped onto it. His sled must have been two stories high. I thought I had my sled well packed; but I was proven wrong on the first 500 feet of the ski in.
Day 1: The ski in
The comfort of the cabin allowed us (or at least that was one of the motivations for staying at a heated shelter rather than bivying at the parking lot) to get out of bed early. A last wholesome civilized breakfast ensued. Robert, being somewhat perky impressed us when he borrowed a knife from Mike and said "would you please remove the cream cheese from the knife?". Here we were few hours from violating all health codes for 5 days, and Robert was picky about the knife!!!. The drive to the trailhead was short, we drove up the Golden Road (parallel to Millinocket Road) for about 8 miles. On the left side of the road, there was a huge parking lot, with a minivan already parked on it. Having learned from previous trips, I parked as close to the road as possible (in case of snow) next to the minivan. Bill, on the other hand, drove straight off the plowed area. Noticing that he was stuck but parked ok, we unpacked knowing that on the return we would have to dig him out.
After dropping the sled, and testing the skiing conditions, we were greeted by the sound of a snowmobile. Generally, snowmobile sounds are not attractive or entice happiness. This case produced a good sensation since it would mean that some section of the road would be plowed. A ranger greeted us, told us that the trail to Tongue Pond Gate (4 miles) was packed. There are two ways to approach the mountain from the south in the winter. One is via the Tongue Pond Bridge (the one we did). You ski in 4 miles (2 miles on a small trail leading to the summer car road, then 2 miles on the road) to Tongue Pond Gate, then it is another 8 miles to Roaring Brook from there. The other option is to have someone snow mobile you directly into Tongue Pond Gate shaving 4 miles off your trip.
We then proceeded to attach the sleds to our packs or harnesses and started the ski in at 9:30am. I was very frustrated because my sled was like a person that did not like sleeping on his or her back, it always turned sideways. I was going crazy, luckily, Robert the expert XC skier, was doing laps and checks on us (It is great to have a professional skier among us, if at anytime you wanted someone to ski back or ahead a mile to check on someone else, no one would hesitate to call on him...). Robert and I redistributed the weight on the sled. The important thing is to keep the heaviest items inside the tub of the sled, this usually means just keeping the pack in the tub. We then attached the snowshoes to the sides of the sled, providing a wide but low center of mass lean mean sled (named the red dear). The most important lesson here is to take your time packing your sled for the lowest center of gravity and the most compactness. The first 2 miles of the ski in take you through a cut-off xc ski trail. That brings you to Tongue Pond Road. From the road, it is about another 2 miles to Tongue Pond Gate. We kept together as a group for a while; unfortunately Bill was having trouble with his sled; at this point the convenience of carrying the TalkAbout (tm) radios proved useful. We split into two groups, but still kept track of each other's progress. Robert and I reached the gate at 11:45am. We did not see anybody on the trail, this is one of the beautiful things of going to Katahdin in the winter. The frozen ponds are absolutely beautiful.
Tongue Pond Gate is where the fun ended. The trail was only broken in up to here. We would have to break in the remaining 8 miles. For the record, the trail is normally broken in by snowmobiles, every few days, but since we had just arrived after a major snowfall, it had not been broken in yet (The next day, a ranger met us at roaring brook, and hence the trail was broken in the next day, chucks had we only started a day later). At the same time, a virgin trail provides some benefits no to be had by a used trail. The view of a naked untouched wilderness pristine road was amazing. Robert and I started breaking trail for the benefits of others. The trail is not bad, fairly flat except for some uphills (of course I could be lying). Overall, it has about 1300 feet of elevation gain in 8 miles. The tricky part of breaking trail is really finding the old packed trail under the snow; as soon as you diverge from this unseen covered trail one would dip 6 inches in the powder. This is an obvious problem on the downhills. Although one can steer oneself to a certain section of the trail, the sled (if rigged with only one connection point) with a mind of its own will wonder around sometimes dipping into heavy powder and bringing you to a full stop faster than air breaks. The opposite case is equally bad: if the sled does not pull you from behind, it can speed up faster than you, and since most of us had a single point of attachment to the sled, namely to the harness haul loop right above the gluteus, the PVC tubing would tend to probe the deep parts of the inner spirit if you know what I mean.
At last, we made it to roaring brook at about 5pm; Mike and Bill joined us at 6pm, they had actually snow shoe some of the steep portions of the trail (which, in retrospect, is not a bad idea; steep climbing with XC skis can be tiring and annoying, to only be doing it due to some stupid ethic or idea that XC skiers don't take off their skis). As soon as we got off the skis did we really notice how much snow was on the ground; the first step was greeted with a "thump", the snow was to my thigh. We then proceeded to make camp. Due to the fact that this was supposed to be a wilderness trip, we had forgone the use of a lean-to (that was already set-up) just 10 feet from us!! We were also rewarded by running water (literally running water, a stream). I had expected that we would have to melt snow all the time, fortunately we found water sources at roaring brook (the roaring brook itself) and a small hole at chimney pond. It was pretty neat being able to hear the roaring brook, its like those nice nature CDs (oh wait, we were in nature). The trip to this brook, which was only 50 feet away, is another story. It is a 45 degree snow descent and climb...Our campsite was great. One of the beautiful things of winter camping is the possibility to explore the architects within us. We took time to carve out a little kitchen, wind protectors, paths, closets, telephone booths (now I am exaggerating).
One lesson, we learned that day, is the beauty of vapor barriers. By putting a plastic bag sandwiched between your liners and insulating sock, your feet stay warmer during the day. The principle is that once the liner is drenched with sweat (70%), the feet will stop sweating, and the insulating sock will be dry, and hence insulate better. Some people even put another plastic bag outside the insulating layer (in case their XC boots were not fully waterproof, which they were not). The only caveat to this is to treat your feet well afterwards (i.e. massage it a bit, let it breath out into the air for a while). For the record, try this before under a controlled environment, such as an overnight hike not far from civilization. Another lesson (from Murray Hamlet), is to let your body breath before getting into the sack. This allows one to get rid of moisture and reduce condensation.
Day 2: Up to Chimney Pond
We got plenty of sleep, since this day would be fairly easy. We would leave our XC skis at roaring brook, and bring up the sleds to chimney pond, a 3.3 mile hike with just 1500 feet of elevation gain. One thing we learned quickly is that it takes a lot of time to take down a winter camp. As Robert said before, it takes about 2 hours. We got up around 8 or 9, and really did not start going up until 11am. It is important to note, that there are sanitary facilities at this campsite. (as well as few other spots along the way, namely the avalanche campsite and chimney pond). One of reason that the Park those not allow people to camp in places outside designated campsites (barring an injury) is the fact that they don't want any human waste in the wilderness. Baxter Park is one of the few parks that operate in the principle "Preservation before Recreation" (the ranger Steward would be proud of reading this...) We'll admit upfront that we took the wilderness part very seriously and avoided using any unfair means, but we did use the loos as opposed to doing number twos in the woods (all of course due to conservation).
Since the trail was packed in by a snow mobile few hours earlier that morning, we just used our boots with no crampons or snowshoes. The hike up to chimney pond is wonderful, it gives you the first few close panoramas of the mountain. I strongly recommend, taking advantage of the view points (we almost missed one if it wasn't for the sharp and sage eyes of one of our team members). The view of the whole range was breathtaking.
Dragging the sleds on the flat ground the day before had given a false sense of weight. On flat ground you, it does not matter much the weight one is dragging; but dragging it up a steep incline makes all that weight come to bear. I will admit using first gear in many sections of the climb. I also tested one of my new gorps to great pleasing. These are the Ritz Cheese sandwiches, they are great.
We reached chimney pond in 3 hours. Now, the best view east of the Rockies is found here, no doubts about it. The breathtaking paralyzing shocking astonishing jaw-dropping tongue-rolling mesmerizing spellbinding views of the Mountain and Knife Edge is impressive, not to be forgotten. If you were only to reach chimney pond, see this, and head back, the trip would be all worth it!!!.
Well in addition to this, we got to stay two more days. The first order of business was to setup camp. Here is where the shovel came in handy; there was so much snow to be moved, that we even borrowed the ranger's shovel. We probably moved 4 or 5 cubic meters of snow, to make space for two tents, a spacious kitchen area, and a storage room among other spaces. We were pleased to find out that we were the first people to camp outside in this winter!!! (all others had stayed in the cabins).
After setting up camp, and cooking dinner, we headed towards the Ranger's Cabin to discuss the next day's plan. Unfortunately, the cabin was heated, and we lost all the cold we had gained during the day. You must remember that we are trying to simulate wilderness conditions to the extreme (for the record, we are thinking for extreme wilderness experience we can even forgo the tents... more on this later). The ranger, Steward, is a very nice guy. We talked with him about our plan to go to Baxter Peak (Katahdin) Summit the next day. We would go up Cathedral trail (very steep), and come down Saddle. We would register with him, the equipment and safety gear we were bringing (2 qts of water, one tent, two sleeping bags, two first aid kits). You can also get a better idea of how long things take, and any recommendations for route discovery. He agreed with our plans. We hurried back to the tents to avoid losing more coldness in the cabin. We want to avoid as much as possible any external sources of heat, which would be considered cheating....
Day3: Summit of Kathadin
The day started by me saying "Guys is 5 o'clock, get up"..."Guys is 5:15 get up"..."Guys is 5:45 get up" (then Bill responds "you liar, is 5:30"). This proceeded for a long time. Our fake alpine start was delayed by our laziness or cozy sleeping bags (at least for Bill and I, Mike and Robert were ready 30 minutes before us). Theoretically we should have been on the trail at 6 or so am. We ended up starting at 8am (of course, I had secretly made accounted for this, so we were not late according to my internal time :-). One of the difficulties is that in a two-person tent is difficult for both people to get dress at the same time. Bill and I played reverse-strip-poker. I would say "Ok Bill, I have my thermal underwear on, now is your turn", "he would put his on, and then another layer", of course while he is doing this I am resting or sleeping, "is your turn now", then I would put on a fleece layer, and raise him a pair of socks.... This went on for 40 minutes until we were dressed. Then came the boots. Pretty much only one person can put on the boots at a time if done at the edge of the tent (this allowed me to sleep 15 extra minutes!). We had 4 pop tarts for breakfast to save the time of cooking. Before leaving, we hung our food on the Bear line. Although bears are (suppose to be) asleep, there are weasels that would eat your food if left outside.
We checked out at 8am, and donned our snowshoes. Being the only ones in the mountain also means that you have to break more trail. The first quarter mile is just a flat walk until the beginning of the steep unrelenting ascent to gain the Cathedral Ridge (1.75 miles and 2500 ft elevation gain to the summit). The trail start with a 40-degree snow climb. Here, we learned the basics of steep snow shoeing. It is actually pretty impressive the steepness of things you can snow shoe. About and hour or two later we reached the point where snow shoeing was not necessary and switched to crampons. Here the memories of my summer hike up this trail began to come back. This winter trail requires some scrambling beyond the usual high-step. You had to do mantels, counter pressures, pull ups, stems. All this while carrying winter day packs with emergency gear!. Although overall it was not so bad, there were only 2 or 3 times where if I had slipped I would have broken any ones, other than that most falls would have produced cuts and bruises.
I queried the comfort level of all team members, to make sure they were comfortable scrambling up this trail. Fortunately (or so I think) they would have told me otherwise, if so they felt. We reached the upper section of the mountain a little before noon. This upper section is not as steep as before; just a little bit more exposed. At this point, we all had a full wind ensemble. Unfortunately, goggles are very had to keep from fogging (or at least cheap ones). I honestly try to keep mine on, but they were fogging so much that I had taken them off. Before they fogged, I was barely able to follow just the broken steps in front of me. The wind was not bad, perhaps 25 or less miles per hour steady with gusts of 40 mph. We pressed on and finally summitted at 1pm!!! We had reached the end of the Appalachian Trail, in full winter conditions. We had achieved the first half of our trips objective, so we were happy (the second half, is returning unscathed).
After only having been at the summit for 5 minutes, we proceeded down. Reaching the summit is only half of the way. It is incredible how fast the wind erases or makes hard to recognize our footprints. We walked half a mile on the summit ridge and saddle plateau until we reached the beginning of saddle trail (from summit down saddle trail is 2.2 miles, 2500 elev. loss). This walk is gorgeous because there are no trees to block your views, and it is really an expanse terrain. Right before heading down we had some tea. I have not mentioned one of the luxuries (or perhaps a real good item) of this trip, was Robert's Thermos. It keeps water or tea hot for really LONG periods of time. Robert was the trip mom, taking care of us, and feeding us tea throughout the whole trip.
The beginning of the saddle trail is very impressive, is about a 45-50 degree slope!!. My first words where "Whoa, we are going to go down this?" and my second words where "how is everyone's self arrest technique?"; I will not describe in this trip report the answers gotten. We proceeded walking down carefully this slope. Fortunately for us, there was little avalanche danger as the snow was very firm. After half way down the saddle, I decided that it was safe to butt glissade. So I took off my crampons (as it is well known that any form of glissading with crampons is dangerous to the ankles and foolish) and finished the steep part of the descent in no time (I should have started to glissade sooner).
The end of the slide, asked for some route finding for getting back on the trail (there are no cairns in the 500 feet slide...) Fortunately I spotted some broken trail ahead of us (of course Mike has actually seen a blaze and orange ribbon on a tree some minutes earlier, and hence secured the sure way to the trail much before me). We got back to camp at about 3:20pm.
The nice thing about winter camping are the early dinners and early bed times. As soon as we got back, gorging time started. Although I was not really tired, I was hungry, I professed to the cook Robert, what could possibly become one of the trip's quote "I would eat anything you put in my mouth." Ahh nothing like gorging after a long day hike. Dinner was rice and mashed potatoes; this was really a treat. The Winter Hiking Cuisine rates it "A wonderful after-hike meal, to make you lick your fingers", it was delicious (I would say that no matter what dinner would have been, I still would have found it delicious). Curiously, the butter was missing. We could not locate the butter, although we looked everywhere. Fortunately we had done the hard part of the trip. I would like to point out that butter is sooo good, you just drop bars of it into your boiling pot, it does wonders for heat generation and a warm toasty sleep (we pretty much used a bar or two per day before losing it).
It was time now to plan the next days activities before talking to the ranger and heading to bed. The hike had been arduous, but I we had saved juice for the next day. The views of the classic knife edge called to me; Robert had also expressed interest. Mike and Bill were pleased with the day's success and were not really eager for a long technical day. After discussing the options for other hikes and making sure everyone was happy, we decided for the next day to climb up to Pamola Peak via the Dudley trail. The Dudley trail is somewhat shorter than Cathedral and has a little less elevation gain (1.5 miles, 2000 feet evel. gain); but still is very sustained and steep. There Robert and I, if conditions were right, would press on over knife edge; and Mike and Bill would return back to base camp.
The ranger cabin was again warm (actually a little too warm for my taste); and we sweated a bit. We brought the plan to the ranger. The knife edge is the ridge connecting Pamola Peak to Baxter Peak; it is really a beautiful ridge. The way I have been recommended of traversing it, is from Pamola to Baxter, since most of the hike/climb would be uphill (there is a 300 feet elevation gain from Pamola to Baxter). The most difficult part, fortunately, is at the beginning; it is going from Pamola to Chimney Peak. These peaks are about 100 feet a stone throw away from each other, but with a 60 feet notch in between them. This notch is semi-technical, some people do it with rope, and some people without it. The steepest part is going up to Chimney.
The first order of business was discussing the technical gear we had for the climb. I felt slightly embarrassed since I really just brought a _tiny_ rock rack and ropes (when I brought the gear I was really thinking of perhaps doing some ice top roping). The ranger was somewhat hesitant, but approved the idea assuming we used good judgment, and added some pointers on ways of protecting the route with natural gear (like draping the rope over rocks such that rocks could catch the rope on a fall). Additionally the ranger considering that the knife edge is a technical plan, okayed the two two-person team plans. I it my impression that they prefer four people groups for hiking, and allow two person groups for technical climbs (for safety reasons since a two person team is faster). The next order of business is setting up estimated departure and turn around times. I think this is very important to set at the beginning and to stick to them. It really gives you a foolproof deterministic way to make trips somewhat safer. For administrative purposes we divided into two groups, Team A: Mike and Bill; and Team B: Robert and Hector. We made a commitment time for knife edge of 11am, that is by that time we would decide to go for it or not; and turn around time of 1pm if we did not reach Pamola. In addition to planning our last day's climb, we also got the scoop on P&P, park and policy. We then retreated back to our artificial shelters, for the next day's alpine start.
Day 4: Summit of Pamola
This time we got closer to alpine start. We woke up at 4 or 5. And were actually on the trail at 6:30am. What I learned is that you have to suck it up, and just get dressed in one short push, as opposed to little bit and pieces. I will admit that I was not too thrilled by the previous day 4 pop tart alpine breakfast. I mean I think pop tarts are great for winter (expedition proven), but you can only have so much. I had mini bagels and pepperoni for breakfast (I had to sleep with the bagels in order to keep them warm for the next day). The preparations ran smoothly, I think in part that we had most of the gear already packed from the day before.
Snowshoes proved invaluable again. The Dudley trail was not broken in (I think only two people had gone up in the winter before us), and the snow was deep. Again we impressed ourselves with the technical snow shoeing - using the snow shoe's claws on rocks, stemming...For this hike, steep snow shoe climbing is crucial for the first third of the hike. The trail follows the ridge leading up to Pamola. Once you leave the tree line, the trail is very aesthetic; reaching the ridge is so hypnotizing... one knows that once the ridge is reached, the rest of the hike would be on easier, thinner, packed snow; rather than the deep puffy powder snow at the basin. Slowly we make progress and reach the ridge in 30 minutes or so. Ahh, rest at last. We donned our crampons and leave the snowshoes here. Should Robert and I decide to do knife edge, then Mike and Bill would carry our snow shoes back to camp (I really like this idea, because going down the Saddle trail would be so much easier than going down this trail).
The trail was more or less what we expected, rocky, steep, and snowy. Although it had some surprises. At one point Bill decided to search his own way between blazes, little did he know we would be stepping into a huge hole. Suddenly, he was waist-deep into snow, with his legs on hard snow. He pleaded for help "Hector do not leave me here...". I proceeded to help him... no actually not really, realizing that he did not have any emergency gear (I had the emergency sleeping bag), and his gorp mix was alright... I decided to avoid the snow trap and use the Army technique to get around him and towards the next blaze; I would pretty much swim on top of the snow (and hence maximize my surface contact). Bill, as expected, freed himself in few minutes and carried on. The use of radios, clear skies, and direct line of sight visibility of each other allowed each other to move at our own pace. Secretly, Robert and I were concerned about making it to the summit by 11am, otherwise we would not commit to the knife edge traverse.
We reached the beautiful summit of Pamola at 10:30am. It is a true summit; unlike Baxter which is somewhat rounded summit, Pamola is steep and sharp until the end. The clear skies provided an unmatched panorama. I actually recall the ranger saying that in terms of visible area, Katahdin provides the maximum visible area in the lower 48 (Denali has more). The wind had picked up a bit. Robert and I decided to take a look at chimney peak and the notch in between. I at one point took off my gloves to fumble with some gear, and was greeted by a gust that picked up a lot of snow. The temperature was great is was 30. But this also meant that the snow was warm. I quickly got freezing water snow on my hands. This made me scream "Aoh Aoh Aoh Aoh, hands freezing cold Aoh..." Ok I decided to put on my full arctic attire, and went back to look. This time prepared (at least weather wise). The steep wall on the other side to chimney peak looked steep, and my tiny weenie rack seemed barely adequate. Luckily a gust of high wind, made the decision of forgoing the traverse easier. To convince myself, I did the one leg test; I was not able to stand for long on one leg. Without hesitation the "no go" decision was agreed between Robert and I.
At this time, it was getting cold, we had been at the summit for about 30 minutes. We all proceeded down the summit together. The sunlight cast our long shadows on the land. A rock christened index rock, because it was very protuberant and noticeable, provided the backdrop for some award winning photography. Robert was feeling pretty good, and even did some posing for an European eyewear company. Undoubtedly the release of those photographs will bring paparazzi to MIT campus. Finally we reached the point were we had left the snowshoes. I feeling the young Hector inside of me, decided not to wear the snow shoes and butt glissade the way down. This turned out to be really fun, except that the downhill took sharp turns, which I did not take (did I mention that pine trees smell great?). We were all pretty much down by 1pm.
It was very strange being down so early, almost as if we had a rest day. We did not know what to do. Well, being one o'clock means lunch time!! we started the feast. The next day we would be in the cars, we had lots of food, little time, we had to start the consumption process. we all got extra rations of sausages, and Ramen. After a delicious lunch, we partially took down camp to save time the next day. It is important to note that our camp was beyond the minimalist just tents camps. The kitchen area was actually covered by a tarp over a structure of PVC tubing (from sleds).
To pass time and reduce testerone poisoning, Robert suggested that we tough guys sleep outside (to prove how tough we are or something like that). At first I dismissed the idea, thinking he was bluffing. An hour later, as he and Mike were half way done with their snow alcoves, he decided to take down the tent, as not to have the possibility or temptation to cheat at night. I thought this was very cool and courageous (and would save us 15 minutes the next day). Bill pointed out to Robert that his grave hole with chambers on the side did not constitute an snow cave. These are the philosophical arguments that one is bound to have in the woods. I decided to follow on the task, although my bourgeois background did not allow me to sleep in such small confinement as Robert's and Mike's. I took an extra 30 minutes, and built a very spacious snow cave, even with plants (big branch of pine tree sticking out); it was BIG, about 9 feet by 3 feet. It is important to note that a good small maneuverable shovel is key to building a snow cave. I think with practice one can be built quickly an efficiently (Next year when we go to Katahdin, we might not bring tents and save ourselves 14 pounds!, this is Robert's idea of winter minimalism). Bill, on the other hand, was not so eager (or rather was eager to have his huge tent for himself).
Dinner came, and the feast continued.
Bed time came, and we all proceeded to our respective alcoves. I was slightly hesitant at first. Mike had spoiled my confidence, by saying what would happen if a moose walked over my snow cave (and mine was a certified snow cave); it would crush me!!, I worried about that for 15 minutes, and then dismissed it by the fact that our polypro smelled so bad that no moose would come near our campsite. Now I will point out the greatest advantage of snow caves!! you don't need a pee-bottle (tm). If you need to go to the candy-can, you simply unzip your bag, roll to the side, and turn on the fountain. The hole one the walls are self-sealing, and hence you practice no-trace hiking which is advocated. I had a nice warm night of sleep.
Day 5&6: The Return
The day was going to be long, but just downhill, so we got out of bed late. I took on the task of being the morning's cook, the first batch of Oatmeal was great. Now I was discharged from the second batch because I was a little behind in my packing. Robert, after eating all trip from dirty plates, the floor, the soles of boots, decided that he did not want the second batch of oatmeal from a dirty pot. Woman who understands them, Oh wait...
After breakfast, the artful craft of sled packing continued. This time, the packing would be crucial, since we would be sledding the way down from chimney pond to roaring brook. First, we had to resort group great, since food and fuel had been consumed. Mike who carried most of the food, got the short end of the stick, he got stuck with all the bulky group gear items!. I, having carried only non-consumable items, had my pick of what to get rid off. Robert, by some magic or witful exchanges, was able to have the slimmest sled. (I give him credit in the art of packing, it was really a masterpiece of sled). He had rigged his, as to be able to sit in the middle, very close to the ground and ride it like a pony. Mike and Bill managed something similar albeit less professional. I personally thought that I had a good setup for sledding, but proved later to be wrong.
At 10:30 we departed and the fun began. Robert "snowplow" Zeithammer went first catching some high speeds; Bill and I followed, and Mike joined few minutes later. I unfortunately was very frustrated, my high center of gravity made it extremely difficult to stay upright. I said to myself "Great, I am going to be the only fool that will walk down this trail, all of my friends will have to wait for me". To further make my life more difficult, I found Bill's poles on the trail. After a quick radio exchange, Bill was way down, and I decided to carry his poles which made my sled more difficult to maneuver. After 15 minutes of fighting with my sled, I remembered that I was wearing a helmet, and so I had not tried one thing: head-first lugging!!, I got on top of that puppy, pushed it and lied on top of it.. this made my center of gravity lower, and my aerodynamic profile slimmer. I was soon catching some serious wind (and of course winning in the wipe out contests, at one point while falling into a powder bank at high speeds, the spit me more than a body length from it); fortunately (or unfortunately) I was alone (with a radio for safety and Mike behind me), so no one would see it or record it.
We reached basin pond. This is a beautiful flat pond that affords some majestic views of the mountain. We were all together again. Robert queried me how his sled has 200 yards in front of us. I thinking of my wipe outs, replied "you were coming really really fast and fell off the sled?", he corrected "no, I put a sail on it!!!". I was impressed, I think we have a plethora of wilderness-technologies, that will make our next trip a breeze. In another half an hour we were down at Roaring Brook. I cannot stress how fun is to be able to sled 3.3 miles, 1500 feet elevation loss in 45-60 minutes (and I have heard of people who have done better time...had I done my lugging earlier...)
The sun was out in full strength. The temperatures had risen to high 30's, low 40's. Fortunately it was in the end of the trip. Had it been this warm earlier, I would have cancelled the trip (I mean is suppose to be a winter hike). Now we would have to master another technique, skiing downhill with sleds. The trick I learned is to keep the legs slightly bent (otherwise the sled poles can push you from behind), and push with your poles like an animal, if the sled passes you, you lose. We had some excellent displays of wipe out technique from Mike and Bill, fortunately for them, they were too distant to be caught by a camera.
The day proceeded with the "woosh-woosh" of the XC skis. It was better going, since there were a lot of downhills and the trail was packed by the rangers. We each proceeded at our own pace. We took a scenic-detour at Rum Pond. This pond affords other complete views of the mountain. Although it does have some really steep sections of skiing. The day was made a litter more pleasant with Hot Tea provided by mama Robert. It is so nice to carry one of those on trips...
We reached the parking lot at 5:30pm. And proceeded with the expected: To pull Bill's truck out of the snow, luckily we had shovels. A dig here, dig there allowed us to move the truck a bit but not too much. Robert had the smart idea of fetching some dirt and putting it on top of the snow, I must add that this works wonderfully. (I think this is what Scott's usage of carrying kitty-litter in the car is). After 45 minutes of pushing and shoving we got the car out.
Being safe people (and the presence of Hector 'safety' Briceno) we decided we would not head all the way to Boston that night. Having seen an Olive Garden in Bangor (Bangor mall exit, 51?), the dinning place was agreed upon (I had been dreaming of salad and pasta all of the hike back). We had a small discussion of the largest plate with the waiter. There was the "Colors of Rome" with ravioli, chicken parmesan and cannelloni al forno and then there was the "Tour of Italy" with lightly breaded chicken parmesan, hearty homemade lasagna classico and creamy fettuccine alfredo. I went with the later and was completely satisfied. We slept in the Motor Inn across the street; To pass time, we rented a movie called "Midnight Tease", I was somewhat perplexed by the hotel attendant commenting that it was a very bloody movie (that was not the comment I was expecting). The movie revealed Bill's cunning brain to break down and discover the plot very quickly (could it be that he had seen it before?). Bill also discovered the ineffectiveness of soap as a substitute for shampoo.
The next day, we were greeted by a snow storm (great another long drive back to Boston, I still have not figured out who of the other three is the one who brings such storms...). A breakfast stop at Denny's provided some time to wait out the storm. We had large breakfasts: The Lumberjack, three pancakes, three eggs, sausages, ham, and hash brown. I finished all of mine (I will not say about the others). We also discovered Mike's resemblance to Meg Ryan (did you see "When Harry met Sally"). He wanted his egg turn slowly over the grill, not too fast, the hash browns in little small half-inch pieces, sausages lightly brown (of course I am exaggerating a bit, but you get the picture). He also incriminated himself in the butter disappearance crime, by accidentally revealing the fact that he does not like butter that much. Had we only known this before!!!.
The storm had ceased a bit, and we proceeded back to Boston. We got back at 4:45pm, to notice that no one was working the desk (and that we would have to). In the next two hours, we unpacked the sleds sorted out gear, had pizza, and played cards (we never played cards in the mountain, it is a myth that people do...).
I must say I really enjoyed the trip and the company, Katahdin is really a photogenic and beautiful mountain, enhanced by the fact that you have to work to get to it.
I would like to thank our sponsors, Luke Sosnowski and Matt Reagan for procuring the TalkAbout (tm) radios; Rob Jagnow for participating in Pemigewasset preparatory hike and in the planning process at Elvios; Toys'r'us for provided the first version of the Turbo-boggans; Walmart for providing the second generation sleds, the Pelica-boggans; Star Market for providing the vapor barrier socks. The park ranger and reservation attendant for the help and advice; Kraft for providing the 12 sticks of butter (which we only used 7 or so); And the MIT Outing club for giving us support and gear.
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