Monday, March 10, 2014

Winter Ascent of Katahdin

I have climbed Katahdin, Maine's highest peak 15 times.  It is my favorite area to hike in the eastern US.  I have climbed or descended the mountain on every trail at one point or another.  I have climbed it on clear days, rainy days, and days where the visibility was near zero.  I even climbed it a couple days in the fall where there was some snow on the summit.  I have never climbed the mountain in winter though.  The picture at the top of my blog is Katahdin.

I wanted to climb Katahdin in winter but never got around to it.  The J Man, my occasional adventure companion and fellow Katahdin veteran, and I have been talking about climbing in winter but never made plans.  Besides the added challenges of winter trips, there is a permit process involved.  At one time the permit process was more challenging but now the red tape has eased and it's not as difficult to get winter access.  J Man took the initiative to fill out the application and we got our opportunity to do a winter climb.

Katahdin is possibly the most challenging mountain to climb in the east.  All of the routes to the summit are extremely rocky and quite steep.  While the mountain is not quite a mile high, all routes gain 4000 vertical feet.  Treeline is under 4000 feet in elevation so there are long periods of exposure.  The shortest route to the summit is nearly 8 miles roundtrip while other routes are more than 10 miles.

A winter ascent of Katahdin is an even more challenging endeavor.  Winter weather in Maine is intense.  In the alpine environment of Katahdin the weather is much more extreme.  Cold, usually windy, and often snowy weather makes for frigid conditions at best in winter with long periods of exposure. To make an already challenging hike harder, road access to the trailheads of Katahdin are not plowed in winter.  This adds at a minimum of four miles to the beginning and end of the shortest summit approach.  Because of the cold weather there is more gear needed to stay safe in the harsh environment; more warm clothing, crampons, and an ice ax to name a few.  Skis or snowshoes are also needed to cover ground over the snow.

First view of Katahdin on the drive to the trailhead

Most people will climb Katahdin in winter as a multiday trip.  The shortest trip involves climbing the Abol Trail via a rock slide.  This trip is about 16 miles roundtrip.  This is the route the J Man chose on the permit application.  Our plan was to do the trip in one day.

On Sunday morning we arrived at the winter parking lot at Abol Bridge.  It was a beautiful morning with clear skies and above zero temperatures.  Along the way we caught several views of snowy Katahdin.  The first leg of our trip was 4+ mile cross country ski jaunt to the beginning of the Abol Trail.  Normally this wouldn't be to bad but the trails were very icy.  Despite the ice we made it to the trailhead with no issues.

The climbing begins on the Abol Trail.  We ditched our skis and switched to crampons.  The first mile or so we didn't need crampons but the trail was firm enough that they weren't a hindrance.  The trail gains little elevation for the first mile so we used our poles until we reached the Abol Slide.  The Abol Slide is a long rock slide on Katahdin that is free of trees.  It is the shortest but steepest route to the summit.  The climbing begins fairly quickly on the slide and we switched to our ice axes.  In the summer the slide is full of rocks.  Now in March with a winter's worth of snow on the ground most of the rocks are covered and travel is easier.  Because of the steep pitch on hard snow and ice, you have to take caution because a fall could lead to a long slide. 

One of the first views of the mountain from the Abol Trail

Near the beginning of the Abol Slide

J Man climbing the fairly steep slide

Me ascending the snow

Climbing the Abol Slide

The actual slide is just over a mile.  While many rocks were exposed, it was easy to pick a pack along the smooth snow most of the way.  As we approached higher on the slide the rocks are generally larger and there are a few brief sections where we had to step on the rock.  For the most part though it was easy to pick a line on the snow to avoid the rocks.  The weather was comfortable on the slide as the mass of the mountain blocks the wind.  I climbed the slide wearing just a base layer for a shirt.  Just before the slide reaches the Tableland, we stopped for a snack and to add layers. 

Travel was easier lower on the slide with lots of hard snow 
covering the rocks

Higher up the slide has large rocks that aren't all snow covered
and you have to pick your path

The top of the slide just before the Tableland

Hunt Spur from the top of Abol Slide

The Tableland is a large and relatively flat plateau on Katahdin at over 4000 feet in elevation.  In the summer the Tableland is a jumble of rocks with some tundra grasses here and there.  In the winter is a large field of snow with just the tops of rocks poking through.  It was easy to make good time without rocks to slow us down.  Because of the cold weather and lack of recent snow, the snow was very hard and often icy.  As we entered the Tableland the wind was much stronger and a jacket, goggles, and face protection was needed.  The temperature was in the low teens Fahrenheit with steady 20-25MPH wind, a windchill in the -20s.  Since it was a clear day,  the views are far flung once you are on the Tableland.

Looking toward the summit from the beginning of the Tableland

The windchills in the -20s required extra clothing on Tableland

You can see the flatness of the Tableland looking toward 
Doubletop, Coe, and the Brothers

Another view across the Tableland

Endless lakes in the Great North Woods

J Man approaching the summit

The last climb toward the summit

The summit is just ahead

After a mile on the Tableland, we reached the summit of Katahdin.  With the proper clothing, I was never cold on the summit but I probably didn't want to linger too long either.  The views in all directions were stunning in the winter wonderland.  The visibility was amazing.  You could clearly see the ski trails on Sugarloaf Mountain.  We were on the summit a good fifteen to twenty minutes enjoying the views and taking pictures.  Nobody else was on the summit.  We had hiked nearly four miles and skied a little over four at this point and it was time to head back to the start.

The obligatory summit photo

Hero shot with the ice ax

Looking toward the Northwest Plateau and Hamlin Peak

Looking across the Great Basin toward Hamlin Peak

The Knife Edge

Another view of the Knife Edge

One last shot of myself in front of the Knife Edge

The descent followed the same route as the climb.  The bright sun softened the snow on the slide and made it a little less icy.  We were able to plunge steps at some of the softer spots.  Where the ice remained we moved with a little more caution to avoid a long fall with many rocks.  We made it back to the start of the Abol Trail and switched to skis. 

The view looking back along our route

Northwest Plateau with the Brothers beyond it

Mt Coe (with slides), Doubletop Mtn., and Chesuncook Lake in the distance

Looking down the Abol Slide from the top and our 
route down the mountain

Me descending lower on the slide

The four miles of skiing back to the car were treacherous.  The conditions were much icier than the morning.  The section of skiing on the Baxter State Park Perimeter Road involved sections of downhill.  Although not too steep, they were long and difficult to traverse with the ice.  The road is a jumble of snowmobile tracks with no good line to ski.  The J Man opted to take his skis off and walk with his weary legs.  I continued on skis and took a nice hard spill after my speed built up and I was unable to turn or stop with any great precision.  The last leg on skis follows a narrower trail through the woods.  This trail, now completely in the shade, was all ice.  Luckily it was fairly flat.  At this point I had much more energy than the J Man and was staying ahead of him.  After nearly 8 miles of hiking and more than 8 miles of skiing we made it back in one piece.

The very icy section of trail that we skied

I was very impressed with Katahdin in winter.  I have done other alpine winter hikes of nearly the same distance but Katahdin was by far the most impressive.  The weather remained clear and sunny so we could fully appreciate the beauty of the mountain.  Despite chilly temperatures, this area can be much more brutal so we lucked out and had an all round great day.  Because of the added challenges of a winter trip and permits we only saw two other people near the beginning of the Abol Trail that appeared to be leaving.  It was great to have this mountain practically to ourselves. 

Despite my three days downhill skiing a few days ago and this trip I still feel pretty strong.  I got away with just a couple of blisters from my boots that I don't wear too often.  The J Man on the other hand may have to call out sick a day or two after this one as he was dragging pretty badly near the end.

The Tableland without snow from a previous trip

Snow free Katahdin at base of Abol Trail from a previous trip

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Three Days of Skiing in Northern Vermont and Southern Quebec

With March upon us, I was eager to get in another few days of downhill skiing.  My destination this trip was northern Vermont and southern Quebec.  A ski voucher that I purchased early in the season had several ski areas that I could ski.  I chose to ski Burke Mountain on Wednesday, Jay Peak on Thursday, and Owl's Head just north of the border in Quebec on Friday.

My trip started about 4AM Wednesday morning with the four and a half hour drive to Burke Mountain in Vermont.  With little snow the past couple weeks I was expecting conditions to be icy.  I was very pleasantly surprised with the skiing at Burke.  I started the day with a couple of blue groomed runs to get my ski legs.  The groomers skied nicely.  I headed to some ungroomed black diamond trails.  These trails were quite bumpy but the snow was still in good shape and there was very little ice considering the cold temperatures and no recent big snows.  By mid morning I ventured into the glades.  The snow in the trees was tracked out with not a lot of powder but the snow coverage was pretty consistent with just a few rocks or roots.  Birches, a glade on the outer edge of the mountain, was the only glade that had consistent rocks or roots showing.  Wayne's World, a glade just below Birches, had crusty snow which didn't ski great.  With the so-so conditions on Birches and Wayne's World, I passed on The Jungle, which is in the same vicinity.  I had a great time skiing the rest of the glades.

The wonderfully named Throbulator Glade

Birches Glade

Looking back up Birches

I skied from the time the lifts started turning until the lifts closed at 4PM.  With the exception of the Vermont state slalom races, the mountain was quite empty.  All the racers were based out of the Mid-Burke Lodge and the Poma lift so they never were in the way.  The mountain was 100% open and over the course of the day I managed to ski nearly all the blue and black terrain.  The skiing remained solid throughout the day although the busy Powderhorn and Big Dipper trails started to ice up a little, later in the day.  With over 100 acres of glades, I had a fun day skiing the trees much of the day.  With a little more snow, Burke seems like it would be a great destination if you like skiing the trees.  Liftline/Rerun under the Mid-Burke was one of my favorite runs.  Despite a couple of easily avoidable bare spots, it was a fun run.  Upper and Lower Willoughby were fast and fun groomed runs.

Looking up Rerun from the Mid-Burke Express lift

A half inch of fresh snow fell before I arrived.  This didn't add much to the skiing, although I guess a dusting is better than nothing.  Light snow spitted throughout the day but it didn't seem to accumulate.  The cloudiness caused by the snow showers kept the day on the cold side. There was very little wind however so the day was not too uncomfortable.  The skiing was much better than the last time I skied Burke.  The snow was quite slushy last year when I skied there and there were quite a few bare spots on the trails and woods.  My one complaint with Burke is the flatness.  A couple of sections approaching the Mid-Burke chair are flat and require quite a bit of poling and traversing to get back to the lift.  For the trail map at Burke click the link:  Burke Trail Map

After stopping in Newport, Vermont for a quick meal, I headed to Jay Peak.  I lingered around the resort with nothing better to do until I turned in for the night at my luxury lodging at the Subaru Inn.  The Subaru Inn was just two miles away from the resort at a Long Trail/Catamount Trail parking area along the road.  The temperature was forecasted to be in the -20F range that night.  To anyone that read my last blog post about downhill skiing, I spent two nights in similar accomadations with temps in the -10 to -15F range.  I slept well with my appropriate camping gear.  I don't know how cold it got that night but different reports from the area ranged from -13 to -20F. I had a couple minor problems from the cold. My doors froze causing some difficulty initially getting out of the car.  The other problem was my ski boots.  The plastic was so cold that it didn't expand to get my boot on.  After warming them in the lodge for a bit, I was able to cram my feet into the boots.

The cozy lodging at the Subaru Inn

Last time I skied Jay Peak it dumped 14 inches of snow throughout the day making for unbelievable conditions.  You could barely see the next chair in front of you on the lift however and the wind blew quite hard making some of the lift rides interesting.  This time there was not a cloud in the sky and zero wind.  I was a little worried about icy conditions.  The mountain skied very nicely however.  I skied once again from opening at 830AM to last lift at 4PM.  I managed to ski every blue and black trail and glade at Jay Peak with the exception of the trails accessible from the top of the tram.

The mountain was busy for a Thursday.  Jay Peak is just a few minutes south of the Canadian border and Quebec had a vacation week so the mountain was full of the sound of more French than English.  The lifts generally weren't too crowed with the exception of the tram which had a fairly lengthy line.

Looking up Jay Peak from Tramside Base

I began my day skiing  the terrain off of the Jet Chair and worked my way across the mountain.  I was quite surprised at how well the mountain skied despite not having a big snow storm recently.  Despite some hard pack conditions there was basically no ice except for a few patches late in the day on Ullr, Goat Run, and other busier trails.  Even steep trails like Can Am remained mostly free of ice throughout the day.  Ungroomed runs with steep pitches like JFK had icy patches that could be avoided by skiing the steeper bumps.  The glades were tracked out for the most part but skied well considering the prior traffic.  Some of the bigger glades still had stashes of fresh snow at places.  The only trail that gave me a hard time was Vertigo, a steep and narrow wooded trail.  It was one of the few trails that had hard to avoid rocks.  With its steepness, lack of good lines, and prominent rocks; it was one of my less graceful runs.  Upper Exhibition and Upper River Quai were two challenging ungroomed runs that I had found enjoyable.  It's hard to pick a favorite tree run since they all skied nicely. 

Looking up Upper River Quai

Can Am from the Bonaventure Chair

Because of the crowds, I avoided the tram except for one ride.  I did one run from the top following Vermonter off the summit.  Perhaps the best part of the tram was the summit view on a cloudless day.  The view extended across Lake Champlain into the Adirondacks to the Presidential Range in New Hampshire and well into Quebec. 

The Tram approaching the summit

Looking at the trails of Jay from the summit
(I didn't realize my camera's lens cover didn't open completely in the cold)

Looking toward Lake Champlain

Mt Mansfield in the distance

The Presidential Range in New Hampshire with Burke Mountain in front of it

Jay Peak is one of my favorite northern New England ski areas, perhaps second only to Sugarloaf.  There is a lot of terrain variety.  For the advanced skier there are a lot of woods and challenging trails.  The tree skiing is perhaps one of Jay's best features and what it is known for.  It is also the snowiest ski area in the east.  With lift ticket prices sky rocketing, Jay is still one of the least expensive walk-up ticket prices among bigger ski areas in the east.  For bargain hunters, it's still relatively easy to find a discounted ticket at Jay through various outlets.  For Jay Peak's trail map click the link:  Jay Peak Trail Map

Timbuktu Glade

Another view in Timbuktu

I believe this is Kitz Woods

I spent the evening at the resort before heading back to the Subaru Inn.  The night was downright balmy and my warmest night this season sleeping in my car with the temps only in the single digit negative numbers.  In the morning I left for Owl's Head in southern Quebec.

Owl's Head is a decent sized ski area.  It has nearly 1800 feet of vertical and 50 trails.  I skied here last year and had fun with excellent spring conditions.  This time I wasn't so lucky.  The trails that weren't groomed were very icy.  Because of the ice, skiers stuck to the groomed trails.  This led to some heavy traffic on these trails and caused the groomed trails to get icy.  Being Quebec vacation week, the mountain must have been skied heavily all week and snow showed it.  By the time I left at mid day it was getting quite crowded.

The pointy peak in the middle of the view is Owl's Head from Jay Peak

Again I managed to ski all the blue and black trails.  The groomers skied well early but like I said many iced up after a few hours with the crowds.  The woods skied decently but there were more obstacles showing than at the other two mountains I skied.  Most of the ungroomed black diamond trails had large bumps with lots of ice.  Although you could still pick your way through and avoid most ice.  It took a lot to pick the right line without hitting some ice.  The worst trail was probably Colorado, a steep double diamond.  At the steepest pitches, the trail was a sheet of ice.  The only thing that made the trail passable was skiing the bumps on the edge of the trail.  I put in a solid half day of skiing with no breaks.  After my two previous days with good conditions, I didn't have as much fun. 

Despite the less than stellar conditions, Owl's Head didn't let down completely.  It was a clear day and the views from the mountain are among the best for eastern ski areas.  Thirty mile long Lake Memphremagog sits at the base of the mountain and makes for some great scenery.  The lake isn't the only nice view.  To the south you can see the snowy summits of the Presidential Range.  From the top of the Peak trail there are excellent views looking at the trails of Jay Peak.  I know from experience, Owl's Head can be a fun mountain and well worth the trip.  This day just didn't have the best conditions at the mountain.  To see the trail map click on the link:  Owl's Head Trail Map

Lake Memphremagog from Lilly's Leap

Skiing down to the lake on the Upward Trail

The lake to the south extends into Vermont

Willoughby Notch in Vermont, Burke Mountain is in the distance just to the left of the pointy peak (Mt Pisgah) in the middle

Jay Peak from the Peak trail

Close up of Jay Peak from Owl's Head

After leaving Owl's Head I returned back home.  Having never traveled in Quebec, I decided to return to Maine via Jackman traveling through the Quebec countryside.  This section of Quebec is very rural once you get past the city of Sherbrooke.  It really does feel like you left North America.  Unlike other parts of Canada that are signed in English and French, this was 100% French.  It was an interesting cultural diversion only a couple hours from home.  Oddly enough at Owl's Head, just a few miles north of the border, some of the staff speaks English among themselves, others French; and many of them went back and forth between the languages.  About five hours after leaving Owl's Head, I was home.