The mid-December drive from my home in Topsham to Grafton Notch in western Maine was typical for early winter. The terrain in the coastal plain was dry. Entering the foothills, a shallow layer of snow blanketed wooded areas. Snow was more prevalent after passing Bethel and motoring north on Route 26 toward Puzzle Mountain.
While progressing, I speculated about what would be the appropriate footgear for my hike. Packed in the car were three different types of boots, including a pair specifically for winter mountaineering. Beginning in November I always carry microspikes, and snowshoes are stored in the cargo carrier on the roof. I considered myself ready for any hiking eventuality.
Still, I wasn’t prepared for what was encountered at the Puzzle Mountain trailhead: The entire parking lot was covered with a thick layer of hard ice. Alas, I hadn’t brought full crampons or ice skates. Given my inventory of footwear alternatives, winter boots and microspikes were the best choice available.
Since it was a Penobscot Paddle & Chowder Society club hike, four retired Chowderheads joined me for the outing. Initially, the trail was in better condition than the parking lot. A thin carpet of snow and patchy ice coated the path as we hiked gradually uphill in a predominantly hardwood forest. Following a couple of easy stream crossings, the ice and snow diminished to a dry surface concealed by a plethora of fallen leaves.
Angling left, the trail steepened and turned to switchbacks as we progressed up a confined route in a conifer forest. A unique granite formation called Split Rock marked the beginning of a series of serpentine ledge ascents. Although quite manageable under normal circumstances, an abundance of ice rendered them too treacherous to surmount, even with microspikes. To continue, we were forced to tediously bushwhack around the precarious impediments.
Shortly after, we arrived at an overlook on a northwest facing cliff that provided a stunning panorama of northern Grafton Notch. The views of Old Speck and the Baldpate Mountains were phenomenal but so was the extent of icing. The overlook was inundated with ice and obviously hazardous. We took the obligatory photos, but everyone stayed safely away from the rim of the escarpment.
Recurrent icing was endured as Chowderheads proceeded steadily up the boulder-strewn pathway. Every turn presented a new challenge. Sometimes we left the trail thrashing through brush on the side. A common technique was to grasp onto trees and pull ourselves up while adopting the moniker “tree huggers.” Careful placement of our microspikes was essential to ensure a firm grip. Full crampons would have been preferable.
After ascending 2.6 miles to the Woodsum Spur Trail junction, we stopped for rest and reassessment. It seemed probable that ice would continue to be a hindrance for the remaining half mile to the summit. There was some discussion about turning back, however, the consensus was to continue while agreeing it was an option if conditions worsened.
The circuitous path was increasingly precipitous and constricted as we persevered upwards. After turning easterly and climbing over and around a succession of icy boulders, we emerged at the base of a steep lengthy slide. Most of it was dominated by ice, but an attenuated dry route allowed for safe passage to the top.
Pervasive ice persisted when Chowderheads entered stunted vegetation and proceeded steadily higher toward the summit. While only a short distance remained, our progress was painfully slow negotiating through a maze of ice. Fortuitously, the final scramble up a rocky bluff to the barren mountaintop was partially dry.
The climb had taken more than three hours, far longer than normal. We found a location sheltered from the wind to savor the spectacular views while enjoying lunch. The primary topic of conversation was the reality that we still had to return. There was some discussion about attempting the longer Woodsum Loop itinerary, gambling that there would be less ice. Clearly an unknown, the risk was deemed too great.
While descending is almost always more perilous, we had the advantage of knowing the safest routes around the worst sections. Taking our time and carefully plotting strategies at each problematic location, five seniors not acting their ages completed the entire trek without a solitary fall. The memorable 6.4-mile undertaking had taken more than six hours, two more than anticipated.