“I looked with awe at the ground I trod on, to see what the Powers had made there, the form and fashion and material of their work. This was that Earth of which we have heard, made out of Chaos and Old Night. Here was no man’s garden, but the unhandselled globe. It was not lawn, nor pasture, nor mead, nor woodland, nor lea, nor arable, nor waste-land. It was the fresh and natural surface of the planet Earth, as it was made for ever and ever …”
— Henry David Thoreau, “Ktaadn,” 1848
Laura Rushfeldt and her faithful companion, Wylie, a 5-year-old Husky-Australian Shepherd mix, were driving on a perfectly clear day to Fort Kent, Maine, for the Can-Am Crown International Sled Dog Races on March 5 when it appeared. Katahdin. The 36-year-old architect from Arlington, Mass., was awestruck.
“I’ve just seen Katahdin for the first time. Cannot explain the jolt of electric joy that coursed through my body,” she tweeted from her @lrushfeldt account.
Rushfeldt’s excitement came from knowing she would be climbing Katahdin in the near future to complete her thru-hiking goal along the Appalachian Trail. She and Wylie already have traversed 272 miles of the Long Trail in Vermont together, along with Rushfeldt’s sister. Now, they’re trekking their way through New Hampshire and, ultimately, to the AT’s northern terminus — Katahdin.
While Wylie will have to sit the final section out (pets aren’t allowed within Maine’s Baxter State Park), the prospect of climbing Katahdin sent shivers down Rushfeldt’s spine.
“I’ve never driven north of Bar Harbor before,” she said. “I’ve seen big mountains out west but when I saw Katahdin, it was pretty unmistakable. I was just ‘whoaaaaa.’ It stands alone, you can see it from the highway.”
The highest mountain in Maine, Katahdin stands 5,267 feet and is the centerpiece of the 209,000-acre Baxter State Park. The Penobscot called it “Katahdin,” meaning “greatest mountain.” There are more than 40 peaks and ridges besides Katahdin in the park, which is surrounded by thousands of miles of remote forest land, valleys, rivers and lakes.
The establishment of Baxter State Park was the dream of Percival Proctor Baxter, Maine’s governor from 1921-24, and he achieved it over the course of 32 years (his final land purchase was made in 1962). In addition to acquiring all the land, Baxter left $7 million in trust to ensure the park’s maintenance into the future without burdening state residents. He famously declared: “Man is born to die, his works are short-lived. Buildings crumble, monuments decay, wealth vanishes. But Katahdin, in all its glory, forever shall remain the mountain of the people of Maine.”
Today, Baxter State Park is visited by about 60,000 people annually, most during the summer and fall. In a typical winter, a few thousand trek into the park on skis or snowshoes, as Katahdin offers some of the best wilderness skiing on the East Coast.
Katahdin isn’t the spring skiing destination that Tuckerman Ravine at Mount Washington is for the simple reason that the official “winter season” at Baxter State Park runs only from Dec. 1 through March 31. Skiers aren’t allowed outside the winter season, much to the dismay of backcountry enthusiasts who are left imagining the turns they are missing out on in April and May. “Wilderness first, recreation second” is the explanation park authorities offer, as the policy is designed to minimize pressure on wildlife.
So, if you’re thinking about adding a backcountry Katahdin ski trip to your calendar — and you should — it must be done during the winter season and it is imperative to familiarize yourself with Baxter State Park procedures. Unlike Tuckerman Ravine and so many other Northeast backcountry destinations, planning a ski adventure to any of Baxter’s summits cannot and should not be done in a single day. Adventures into the summits for steep descents will require many days, even a week.
“Very fit skiers/hikers traveling in ideal conditions may be able to ascend Katahdin via the Abol Trail in a single day, but this is generally impractical,” Baxter’s staff states. Anyone venturing into the park for skiing between Dec. 1 and March 31 must make reservations to stay in the bunkhouses, lean-tos or campsites, all of which fill up fast.
The park features numerous options for exploring without venturing into the steep terrain. Day users are welcome and encouraged to explore lower elevations in the park after checking in first at its headquarters in Millinocket, where they can learn the latest information on trails, access, weather and avalanche conditions.
Those embarking on multi-day adventures into the heights of Katahdin should have a firm grip on their abilities and inabilities. “All backcountry users have a personal responsibility for their safety in the wilderness and should always base their decisions on getting back on their own,” the staff advises. “Consequences are magnified in winter. Rescue may be days away. It is your responsibility to minimize hazards by using good judgment gained from experience and education.”
Katahdin ski trips start with a 13-mile approach from Abol Bridge, ascending 1,000 feet to the bunkhouses at Roaring Brook. Trekkers will follow in the steps of Henry David Thoreau, who explored Katahdin in 1846 and wrote about his adventures in “The Maine Woods.” Most skiers will stop at Roaring Brook on Day 1, though some might press on another 3.3 miles and 1,400 feet in elevation to Chimney Pond. Most will use climbing skins or snowshoes on this steeper section from Roaring Brook.
Bunkhouses at Roaring Brook (capacity 10) are equipped with beds and wood stoves for heating and limited cooking. Visitors must bring their sleeping bags, cooking equipment and gear. Bunkhouses also are available at Chimney Pond (capacity 10), along with lean-to reservations — though less protected from the weather. Open fires are not allowed at Chimney Pond at any time of year.
As a Katahdin ski adventure normally requires several days or a week, skiers typically will load their gear onto sleds that they will pull behind them. Planning and execution are critical.
“Heavily-laden parties often drag their gear in kiddie sleds, which works reasonably well if you are only going as far as Chimney Pond (the flimsy sleds are unsuitable in deep snow elsewhere in the park),” David Goodman wrote in “Best Backcountry Skiing in the Northeast.”
“Ski pulks work even better. Bring wax for this part of the tour; plodding across the flats using climbing skins makes it painfully slow going. And remember to bring blister gear for the inevitable hot spots on this long haul.”
Most of Katahdin’s steep skiing is accessed from Chimney Pond, with alpine routes leading to descents in the South, Great and North basins.
The South Basin: Chimney Pond lies in the South Basin and is framed by Pamola Peak, Chimney Peak, the Knife Edge, Baxter Peak and Hamlin Peak. Park staff advises those wishing to hike to the summit of Baxter Peak carefully consider starting time, weather, fitness and the competency of the group as a whole in making decisions. They recommend hikers have, and know how to use, an ice axe and crampons. The Saddle Trail is the most common approach, but this route is exposed to avalanche hazard from the steep slopes to the south and west.
“Surrounded by the sheer walls and ice-strewn slopes of the South and Great basins, Chimney Pond is an impressive place —the centerpiece of perhaps the most striking alpine environment in New England — despite being only a few hundred yards across,” Vermonter Brian Mohr wrote for the Appalachian Mountain Club in 2016 after a backcountry excursion to Katahdin with his wife and friends. “Katahdin’s north face, which forms the main wall of the South Basin cirque, is riddled with highly technical rock and ice routes reaching more than 2,200 vertical feet, from the sheltered pond to the Knife Edge.”
The traverse across the Knife Edge to Pamola Peak and descent of the Dudley Trail is a full-day trip that frequently requires the use of climbing rope for the short and steep section at Chimney Notch. Only expert backcountry skiers and snowboarders are advised to attempt the steeper snow gullies. Less demanding but challenging terrain can be discovered on the lower slopes of the South Basin.
Filmmaker and backcountry skier Mike Whelan wrote about the Knife Edge in “Treasured Heights.” “At only a few feet wide, the east ridge of Katahdin drops off on both sides with wicked couloirs and gullies famous among ice climbers and notorious among eastern skiers. Local skiers can patiently wait years for many of the aesthetic steep lines to come into skiable shape. Skiers more often go north of the summit to two large cirques with 2,000 vertical of gully skiing.”
The Great Basin: The south face of Hamlin Peak, the Great Basin, is adjacent to the South Basin, and features several 30- to 40-degree descents. The best approach to the top is via the Hamlin Ridge Trail. From the bases of the chutes, you can ski the drainage back to the Chimney Pond Trail. Intermediate skiers and riders can find appropriate terrain by ascending the drainage.
“My favorite moment was getting up to the top of Hamlin Ridge at 3 o’clock in the morning,” photographer Jamie Walter told Down East Magazine in its February 2019 account of the Katahdin ski trip he made with friends Chris Bennett, Andrew Drummond and Chris Shane. “We turned our headlamps off and saw the Milky Way perfectly. It was maybe 15 degrees, no wind, and the most surreal experience to be on top of the mountain with perfectly clear skies and literally all the stars aligned. We slept in our bivvy sacks for a couple of hours, then caught this spectacular orange-and-pink sunrise. It was probably the coolest moment I’ve had on any mountain in the world — I may never be able to top that experience.”
The North Basin: The more remote North Basin is approached from Chimney Pond via the North Basin trail to Blueberry Knoll. Above, several rock and ice climbs ascend the North Basin headwall. These gullies also are attractive to skiers and climbers. For skiers, the best approach to the top gullies is via the Hamlin Ridge Trail.
Katahdin, south side: The winter trailhead at Abol Bridge and the increasing use of snowmobiles allow better access to the south side of Katahdin. Most parties prefer the Abol Trail because it ascends directly to the summit. Trail conditions vary greatly from deep snow to ice. The trail, which is in the leeward side of the mountain, follows a landslide path. There is significant avalanche danger on this trail.
While treks to Katahdin’s summit draw the majority of winter users, other areas in the park also are attractive for skiers. Bunkhouses are available at Russell Pond (capacity 8), South Branch Pond (capacity 8), Trout Brook Farm (capacity 4), Togue Pond (capacity 4) and Nesowadnehunk Field (capacity 4). Cabins at Daicey Pond (four cabins with a total capacity of 16) and Kidney Pond (four cabins with a total capacity of 16) are outfitted with wood stoves, firewood, propane lights and mattresses.
Additional ski touring suggestions listed in the Baxter State Park winter camping handbook include:
Russell Pond: Ideal for skiers and snowshoers seeking solitude and gentle terrain. You can make a multi-day loop by staying at Trout Brook or South Branch the first night, then heading into Russell Pond for an overnight or two, then heading back out via the Pogy Notch Trail.
South Branch Pond: This campground makes a nice base to explore the north end of Baxter State Park. There are several nice mountain winter hikes from the campground, including South Branch Mountain and the Traveler, as well as valley skiing opportunities and abundant wildlife. The road into the campground from the Park Tote Road features a dramatic downhill run with extensive views south down through the valley toward Katahdin. The cliffs overlooking Upper South Branch Pond offer some ice climbing.
Trout Brook Farm: The first campground encountered after the park’s northern entrance, Trout Brook Farm is ideal for first-time winter campers to enjoy winter camping without being too far from the beaten path.
Matt Boxler can be reached at [email protected].