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


  1. Nice report. I really don't have a strong desire to do Katahdin in the winter but it is ure a magical place. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Congratulations, a winter climb of Katahdin is one of the biggest alpine type endeavors in the east.