The dormitory at Chimney Pond is shrouded in darkness and absolute silence when I get out of my warm sleeping bag at 4 am, half an hour before waking up. Wide awake for an hour already, I feel like a kid on Christmas morning eager to sneak up on the gifts under the tree. And why not, because the gift of a Katahdin summit awaits us on this February morning, if we can do it.
Dragging myself into the common room, I add a few sticks to the glowing embers of the woodstove, then light the camp stove. By the time the fire has roared back to life and the coffee is ready, the rest of the group is up and cooking breakfast and gathering gear. The mix of excitement and apprehension for the monumental climb ahead of us is palpable.
Soon there were eight of us through the gate and walking down the crowded path, the lights of our headlamps dancing here and there among the trees at the edge of the path. Hamlin Ridge is bathed in alpine glow as we hike to the treeline, and shortly after bursting into the open we turn to witness the rising sun peeking through the narrow chimney crack between Pamola and Chimney Peak.
Rather than dealing with the ledge Saddle Slide, we opt for the steep but straightforward ravine to its right. Our team has varied mountaineering experience, from beginner to advanced, and we make slow but steady progress over what climbers call “no-drop” terrain, vigorously slapping crampons and plunging ice axes into the slope as we climb one careful step at a time.
Emerging over the Tablelands we are greeted by light winds, blue skies and a sea of snow capped peaks, from Hamlin and Howe peaks north and Brother south to Coe, OJI, Barren and Doubletop. We cross the vast expanse of rock and ice to the Saddle Trail junction and gather there to add layers and enjoy food and water.
Baxter Peak towers 1,000 feet above and a mile away. Fortified now and jazzed up beyond measure, we begin the final ascent, the abyss of the Great Basin to our left, and in the distance, the jagged ridge of the incomparable Knife Edge. During an incredible hour of climbing, the famous summit sign comes into view and with a few more steps we arrive at the mile-high summit of Maine.
Emotions run wild. There are high-fives, huge smiles and bear hugs all around. And photos, photos and more photos. Only then can we truly relax and enjoy the unique, top-of-the-world panorama of the majesty that is Governor Baxter’s Wilderness Park and far beyond, through the glorious landscape of the deep green Maine Woods. .
Wispy clouds from the predicted afternoon storm begin to gather just in time, so after 45 minutes of circling the summit, we dutifully pack our things and head down. That’s good too, because the corridor turns out to be all the more difficult and time-consuming on the way down. And by the time the last of the group is back at the cabin, the snow is falling.
Humbled by the day’s experience, we are also grateful for the window of good weather that allowed us to summit Katahdin and return safely to base camp. As we settle in, snacks and booze accumulated just for this moment are spread across the table, and late into the night (until 8 p.m. at least!), we celebrate our success, play cribbage, and talk about past and future adventures.
Our journey started three days earlier at the Golden Road near the Abol Bridge. From there it was a grueling 13 mile ski on unplowed park roads to the Roaring Brook campground bunkhouse, each of us towing sleds loaded with five days worth of gear and supplies. The next morning we strapped on snowshoes (two chose to ski) and hiked up the trail to Chimney Pond, crossing the wild pond and windswept pond en route to our camp for two nights at the pond south under the imposing walls of the Katahdin massif. .
A winter hike in Baxter State Park is the adventure of a lifetime, and climbing Katahdin is just one of many great options available to snow-loving explorers. Find everything you need to plan, prepare and organize a safe Baxter backcountry expedition at baxterstatepark.org/winter-basics.
Mount Desert Island’s Carey Kish is a seasoned adventurer and freelance writer. His latest book, Beer Hiking New England, will be available this spring. Follow Carey’s adventures on Facebook @CareyKish