This is part one of a two-part story about a winter expedition in Baxter State Park.
My last winter trip into Baxter State Park three years ago was a disappointment for me. Suffering with arthritic hips, I was in constant pain when pulling a gear-laden sled, and both attempts to summit Katahdin were turned back by hazardous weather. Since the trip to and from Chimney Pond requires hauling a sled for about 24 miles, I believed my winter adventures in the park were over.
When my son, Adam, invited me to join him and a group of ice climbing friends for a six-day Baxter expedition to Chimney Pond beginning Feb. 1, I wanted to go but was skeptical that it would work for me. My doubts were twofold: concerns about my hips and COVID-19 safety while traveling with six companions young enough to be my children. Since Adam and I had shared several previous Baxter winter trips that included three successful quests of Katahdin, the prospect of a final winter outing in the park together was a strong motivator.
The health care profession delivered for me. I was able to obtain cortisone injections in both hips a few days before the start date. Ancient, I qualified for a coronavirus vaccination. The entire group tested negative for COVID-19. Two questions remained. What did Mother Nature have in store for us, and could this old man keep up with the kids? Not an ice climber, my primary goal was to ascend Baxter and Hamlin peaks of Katahdin. Surviving was a strong second.
Our journey began at Togue Pond Gate, the southern entrance to the park. The first day entailed an 8.3-mile sled pull on Roaring Brook Road to a bunkhouse at Roaring Brook Campground. Except for snowmobiles operated by park rangers, no motorized traffic is allowed to Chimney Pond. Hiking, snowshoeing or skiing was required for the entire excursion.
Our sleds weighed in the 60 to 80 pound range. Mine was lighter than most as I wasn’t toting heavy ice climbing equipment. Ominously, a snowstorm was forecast for the following day. The intensity was unclear.
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An initial dilemma was whether or not to take skis. The trek is predominantly uphill to Roaring Brook and then continuously steep to Chimney Pond. I’ve found it very difficult to get adequate traction with skis when ascending while towing a heavy sled. Skiing down the precipitous, narrow, twisting Chimney Pond Trail with a bulky sled following a few feet behind is a scary proposition for a timid senior citizen. For me, the only advantage of carrying skis is for backcountry skiing in the Chimney Pond area and during the return from Roaring Brook. The disadvantages are added weight and the need for both hiking and ski boots.
I opted to leave skis behind. Some made the same choice, while others began the outing wearing skis. By the time we arrived at Roaring Brook, everyone was hiking, some with snowshoes.
From left: An expedition member pulls his sled on the Roaring Brook Road in Baxter State Park in early February; Members of a Baxter State Park expedition retrieve water from Roaring Brook. Credit: Courtesy of Ron Chase
Park snowmobile traffic provided a hard-packed surface, which facilitated a relatively easy pull to Roaring Brook. I mentally break the undertaking down into three waypoints: Rum Brook, Windy Pitch and Avalanche Field. While much of it is a gradual upward incline, several substantial hills constitute Windy Pitch at about the midpoint. My time to reach the bunkhouse was just under four hours.
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We soon had a warm fire going in the woodstove, a water supply was retrieved from Roaring Brook and seven of us — six guys and one gal — relaxed in the comfortable cabin. Since the snowstorm was predicted to arrive the following morning, we resolved to be on the trail early, hoping to avoid the need to break trail in deep snow. Minor calamity struck during the night as one member of the group decided to refrigerate some of his food outside. The pine martens loved everything except the maple syrup.
It was snowing steadily and the wind was blowing when we departed the campground for the 3.3 mile climb to Chimney Pond. Fortunately, only a few inches of snow had accumulated. After leaving Roaring Brook behind, the path began ascending abruptly. There is no escaping the reality, hauling a sled up Chimney Pond Trail is very arduous.
A little beyond the halfway point, the winter trail which crossed blustery Basin Pond provided temporary relief. The most consequential pitch of the day soon followed. Arriving at Chimney Pond Campground was a welcome deliverance. After settling into the bunkhouse, one of my young companions joined me for a 1-mile snowshoe to Blueberry Knoll at the bottom of the North Basin. We didn’t stay long, as the winds were gusting to an estimated 50 miles per hour.
The ranger reported that as much as 2 feet of snowfall could be expected. Undaunted, the ice climbers were planning to scale the Pamola Ice Cliffs while I was contemplating an ascent of Hamlin Peak the next morning.