Katahdin Trip Report
by John Wargo

KATAHDIN, MAINE – MARCH 2nd-8th 2007

The road trip northward started on a rainy Friday morning. As I proceeded east on route 78 into New Jersey I had the first thoughts of what this drive might be like, slow and wet. Little did I know I would not make the destination until the next day? After fighting rain that changed to snow around the New Hampshire/Maine boarder, then finally to a moderate to heavy snow that covered the road north of Portland, ME I realized I needed to stop short of the destination. Thirteen hours after starting out I ended up in a motel in Bangor, Maine ready for some rest. After speaking to Szu-ting and Yaroslav who were coming from the west via New Hampshire, Alex, Heather and Pasha who were several hours behind me, we decided it best for all of us to stop when we had enough of the terrible driving. We would meet the next day in Millinocket, Maine.

Saturday, March 3rd-The day dawned sunny and breezy, a much better day to continue northward. Arriving in Millinocket mid morning it would be several hours till the others arrived. Time to try and get in touch with Baxter State Park rangers and let them know of the change in plans. We originally planned to start the 12-mile sled pull to Roaring Brook today (Saturday). Well no luck, it seems impossible to get in touch with them any time except normal business hours. Winter hours are M-F 8-4. Szu-ting and Yaroslav arrived later in the morning and Alex, Heather and Pasha early afternoon. We checked into the Pamola Motel and made plans for the upcoming trip to Katahdin. We all enjoyed a meal at the Appalachian Café. Pasha especially enjoyed the selection of jelly. Returning to the motel after stopping at the local Hannaford’s it was time to separate group gear and pack the sleds. The hallway of the Pamola was ideal for sled packing. After a briefing of details by our leader Szu-ting about safety, the route, avalanche beacons, and such it was time for bed.

Sunday, March 4th-Alarm’s going off about 5am it was finally time to head to Baxter State Park. After a short stop at Dunkin Donuts and the 18-mile drive to Baxter we were finally on our way. Temperatures were not bad, around 20 degrees and the sky overcast. The 12-mile sled pull into Roaring Brook was going to be a challenge. Our first encounter with the rangers came about 2 hours into the trek. We explained to him why we were a day late and thought we would not have a place for us in the bunkhouse. He radioed ahead and informed us the bunkhouse was full for that evening but we could stay in one of the shelters nearby, just what we figured on. We then came across four more guys on the way out. We were supposed to share the bunkhouse with them the previous night. After a short chat we continued on. At the Tongue Pond Gatehouse (four miles into the trek) it was time for a short break. The temps were rising and the snow getting a little sticky. While on our break, a group of Canadians on skis stopped where we were, little did we know that they would become sort of a lifeline for us at Chimney Pond. After a mostly uneventful 8 more miles, with passing groups going out and reviewing their many types of sled contraptions, we arrived at Roaring Brook late afternoon. Tired and hungry we needed to find water, shelter and set up camp for the evening. A brief look around we found what we needed. The area was beautiful, covered in about two feet of snow, an ideal winter setting. We decided we would all fit in the shelter. After we covered the entrance with tarps from the sleds, camp was set. Before dark we had a visit by another ranger. He gave us some details of the pending addition to the park; potential visits by a local pine marten and of course the ominous weather forecast. The plan was to get a good nights rest after a long day and for the next day’s 3.3-mile uphill trek to Chimney Pond.

Monday March 5th– repacking the sleds and starting the trip up to Chimney Pond. With some tough steep sections the sled pull was hard work. Fortunately it was only a short distance. Soon through the snow and clouds, we would get veiled glimpses of what we came for, Katahdin, not one peak but a series of peaks (Baxter, Pamola and Hamlin) connected by ridges. Katahdin rises from the surrounding tableland that creates an awe-inspiring scene. It has been described as the premier Alpine playground in the Eastern US. We arrived at the bunkhouse and were greeted by one of the Canadian’s occupying it. She invited us in for a warm up. We decided we needed to find our shelter. The ranger told us the evening before to take one of the shelters to the left side of the trail leading to the ranger station. They are further into the woods and more protected from the elements. Temperatures were already falling and the snow blowing. The winds were already picking up. We were debating about fitting all of us into the shelter. It was smaller than the one at Roaring Brook. We thought it would be warmer if we all stayed in one shelter, we set up one tent as a gear tent .The ranger from the previous evening came by and advised us of the forecast. Along with the fact that the wind direction would change and come from the NE, temperatures would be falling into the negative teens with 30-35 mph winds with higher gusts. He suggested we erect a wind wall for some protection from the wind, which we did. He also gave us some options for other climbs if we were not able to go above tree line. Szu-ting and Yaroslav went to find water where the water source was in the frozen pond. The ranger’s keep an area of the pond open. Heather, Alex, Pasha and I started construction of the wall and made warm drinks.

We were all cold and tired at this point. There was also a mountain rescue unit staying at the crew cabin for the week doing training exercises. After we had the shelter set up and ate some food it was toward evening and we went to visit the Canadians staying in the bunkhouse. After getting to know them and enjoying the warmth and hospitality we went for a visit to the Mountain Rescue Team. They gave us much information about which trails we could potentially use for our climb, and also the avalanche danger and weather. They considered the avalanche danger to be high. There had been no slides this year and with 18 inches of new snow since Saturday, severe wind loading possible from the northeast winds and an unstable layer of depth hoar…. High danger. We told him we would like to get an early start, maybe 6am. One of the guys said he would go to the ranger station later and get us an updated forecast, stop by the shelter later and let us know of any changes. We retreated back to the shelter and settled in for the brutal night ahead. Our tracks from the shelter to the bunkhouse and cabin were already covered with drifting snow. Later that evening, the rescue team member came by and gave us the forecast. Same as before, negative teens, 30-40 mph wind, blowing and drifting snow, which was to continue until Wednesday morning. It proved to be a very accurate forecast. He also told us of the Canadian’s plans to follow the Cathedral trail to the top and go over the knife edge and down Pamola. Our thoughts were to follow them. With more people in the group and the proper equipment (avalanche transceivers, shovels, probes, ropes) we would be able to make a good decision about the danger when we got to the suspect terrain. So, that was the plans…follow the Canadians.

Tuesday March 6th– the previous night proved to be the worst weather I have ever been out in. Through the night we discovered that we had shingled the tarps incorrectly and spindrift was blowing in through the lap, covering the sleeping bags and everything else with snow. The situation was turning dangerous. Around 4:30, Szu-ting’s alarm went off. I turned to her and suggested we abandon plans for climbing and come up with another plan. Yaroslav and I got up and fixed the tarps, which gave temporary relief from the wind and snow. But with wind blowing over 30 mph and the outside temp of –18 the wind-chill was –44, everyone was uncomfortable. After fixing the tarps I never warmed up till we retreated back to the bunkhouse. That became our quick fix plan; we would all retreat to the bunkhouse and come up with another idea. Upon reaching the bunkhouse we discovered the Canadian’s abandoned their plans too, the only reasonable thing to do.

Plan “B”; Wait at the bunkhouse till one of the rangers made his way to Chimney Pond and see if the Roaring Brook bunkhouse was available for the night. None of us wanted to spend another night exposed to the ferocious weather. As we waited and warmed, our gracious friends from Quebec offered us room in the bunkhouse. If we could not stay at Roaring Brook we would take up that offer. After a while one of the mountain rescue guys came by to see what was going on with us. I believe he was relieved to see we all decided to stay put. Probably thinking, better they remain than having to rescue some people stuck out in the severe weather.

The ranger made it up about mid morning, I asked about the bunkhouse at Roaring Brook, said meet him at the station in 10 minutes and he would let us know. We all hoped to stay in the warmth of the cabin. Meanwhile we were quickly retrieving gear from the shelter to pack the sleds for the return to Roaring Brook. I stopped by the ranger station and he said the RB bunkhouse is all yours. What a relief! We thanked our Chimney Pond host’s and made our way the 3.3 miles down in the tempest. Pulling the sleds through the drifted snow was difficult in spots but we made our way without much problems, well at least to the Basin Pond. Crossing the frozen ponds proved to be the most dangerous part of the trip. The pond was blown clear of snow except for a narrow track where the route crossed. With the wind whipping across, it literally picked up some of the sleds and toppled over the person pulling. Pasha in the lead, not pulling a sled helped those who were blown over. We crossed as quickly as possible and gathered in the woods on the other side to assess the damage. No one injured just some gear blown out of the sleds. Yaroslav somehow managed to collect the gear off of the pond. Alex had his video camera rolling during the crossing. Once across the ponds the travel became less intense as we made our way down. We arrived at the Roaring Brook bunkhouse about 3pm. Happy to have a place to stay, out of the fierce weather. The outside temperate at the bunkhouse was still –15 and only 10 inside but it felt warmer.I immediately started a fire in the wood stove. Everyone was hanging wet clothing and sleeping bags, starting stoves, drinking hot drinks. Shortly the cabin warmed up and I believe we all felt much better about our situation. Any venture outside reminded me how lucky we were to finally be inside. Although the snow seemed to stop the wind continued to howl into the night. I had a much better night’s sleep than the previous one.

Wednesday March 7th– the last leg of our trip, the wind was still blowing outside, but not as hard as before. The sky was crystal clear with temps still well below 0. The 12-mile sled pull from Roaring Brook to Abol Bridge was still ahead. With the cold temps and frozen snow we made the trip in less than 7 hours, stopping only briefly for food, water and to chat with some folks heading into Roaring Brook. Heading out we had great views of Katahdin in the azure blue sky. My thoughts were…I really want to try it again and for a second I was ready to turn back and try now. By 2:15 we were back at the parking area, packing cars for the trip back to Millinocket. Once we returned to the Pamola Motel we retrieved extra gear we had left there. The decision was made, since it was early to head south now and shorten the trip back to Pennsylvania the next day. Szu-ting and Yaroslav were traveling west back to North Conway NH to return avalanche transceivers. Alex and Pasha in their car and Heather and I in mine headed south. We stopped about 7:30 pm in York, ME. Got a room at the Econo Lodge. Heather, Alex, Pasha and I went for a good meal to celebrate our experience.

Thursday March 8th– an uneventful drive home, just one little problem was a communication breakdown on the way. Heather, driving with me was supposed to change cars around the Interstate 78 and 287 interchange to make the final leg back to Philadelphia. I would continue on rt. 78 to Allentown. It worked out fine after all. We all made it safely home by Thursday evening.

I feel I have learned a lot from this trip. Although we did not make our goal of the summit the conditions did force some hard decisions. While the day (Tuesday) was considered a “red” day by the rangers and we were advised against climbing that was the only choice that made any sense. I personally would have liked to stay another day (Wednesday) and give it another try; others were not in a position to make that commitment. Another thought was about what others have to endure while climbing in such severe conditions on much more difficult mountains. Overall I believe our group worked well together, more experience together would greatly improve the team. One thing I believe helps is the ability of team members to anticipate the actions of the others, something learned with time spent together. I would like to have our team do more together in preparation for another possible attempt next year. I am hopeful we will have the opportunity for that. I think the most memorable was Tuesday morning, waking up knowing we would not be able to climb, also knowing we had a situation that could get serious quickly if we did not react soon. Another was the pond crossing on the way out, which required our undivided attention given the severe circumstances we faced. I also felt good on the trek out from Roaring Brook, not one of defeat but of accomplishment for just being able to endure the forces of nature we encountered.

I would like to thank everyone, Heather, Yaroslav, Alex and Pasha for all their contributions and especially Szu-ting for her leadership and organization of this trip as well as Bill Steinmetz for his insight, advice and support.

John Wargo

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