Last weekend’s adventure was a success- my friend and I reached the summit of Baxter Peak on Mt. Katahdin and made it down with nothing more than extreme soreness and a severe dislike of flies/gnats/mosquitoes. I am breaking this into two parts: the first (here) will detail the trip in and the path to Chimney Pond at 2,914 feet. The second part (later) will detail the route from Chimney to the Summit and back down.
The weather forecast was iffy from the start. By early in the week (still a few days out), the forecast called for rain on Friday and Sunday (Friday was arrival day, Saturday was climbing day). As we got closer (and by the day of) the forecast had worsened to rain all three days. But given the commitment we had already made, we decided to continue with our plan. We had the ability to be flexible with our chosen route up the mountain, but timing was tight due to my flight out early Sunday morning.
Getting off the plane in Boston, the weather was perfect: sunny with a nice breeze. But the weather slowly worsened as we drove north towards Maine and Baxter State Park. Setting out from Logan airport in Boston around 1100, we made pretty decent time, including our stop in Bangor for a quick lunch (a quick shout-out to Otto’s Pizza for being ridiculously good). I-95N into Maine looks like it does across much of the East Coast as well, it’s all green. This didn’t really change until we left I-95 and headed west, deeper into central Maine towards the park along 157. This is where the weather began to turn in earnest. The darkness we once just saw in the distance was now directly over our heads. It stayed like this as we drove through the towns of Millinocket and East Millinocket…the last vestiges of civilization before heading down the road leading to the park. But it was just as we were leaving Millinocket that the rain started. Light at first, we thought little of it. But it picked up to the point that driving suddenly became dangerous. We took our time in the final 25 miles or so to ensure that we didn’t kill ourselves driving down the small winding forest roads towards the park.
Arriving at the Ranger shack at the Gate, we handed over our previously made reservation and got some basic guidance from the Ranger. At this point the rain was still coming down, soaking the driver side interior with the window down. It was here that we got our first taste of the gnats as well.
Once passed the Ranger shack, we had to drive a surprisingly far distance (at least 10 miles) to get to the Roaring Brook Camp Ground. Once parked, we checked in with the Ranger.
Ranger Russ was a nice guy- he seemed to have a good knowledge of the mountain and the routes up. We detailed our previously discussed plan: alpine start from camp, Helon Taylor Trail up to the Knife’s Edge, Knife’s Edger over to the summit…then traverse the saddle over to the summit of Hamlin Peak, before heading down Hamlin Ridge and back to Roaring Brook to our car. This plan sounded good in our previous planning. Sadly the rain was going to force us to make a change. Helon Taylor is a tough path up, but the Knife’s Edge is what we were concerned about: a thin ridge of granite to cross, mostly bouldering and some climbing, at some places only two to three feet wide….with an exposure of about 1,500 foot drops on either side of you. On a sunny day with no wind, this would have been our plan. But with the rain, our concern was with the wet granite. In addition, the Edge was shrouded in clouds and with likely pretty heavy winds. In our discussions with Ranger Russ, we were still 10 plus hours from our start of the trek up, but he cautioned that if the rain continued through the night (as forecast) and through the morning (as forecast), the level of danger would have simply been too high. His recommendation was to instead take the Chimney Pond trail to the Saddle Trail, then Saddle Trail up to the Saddle, over to Baxter Peak, then traverse back over (doubling-back half way) to Hamlin Peak, and down Hamlin Ridge. The Ranger station had a great mock-up of the mountain and the routes on the porch, so he walked us through his recommendation. After a short discussion, we decided to go with the recommendation and stay away from the Knife’s Edge.
Here’s a short video (courtesy YouTube) of the Knife’s Edge:
With that, we returned to our car and moved over to our designated campsite. We got a fire started (thanks to my colleague’s Boy Scout experience), which was no small feat thanks to the rain. It took a lot of wet twigs and small pieces of wood, wadded up paper towel, and matches to get a fire going. Then we got the tent setup It was small, but big enough for the two of us to get a few hours of sleep. Soon, dinner (jambalaya with sausage) was cooking and we were just relaxing. The sound of the Roaring Brook (about 100 yards behind us) was nice- the sound of the rain as we tried to cook and eat…not so much. But dinner was a success, and we eventually made it into the tent for what would have to count as a good night’s sleep.
Surprisingly, first light was around 0345. We had planned a 0430 wake-up, but the brighter than expected sky roused us earlier than planned. Once up, we broke down camp and packed everything up. We got our packs ready, and at 0445 we were off onto the Chimney Pond Trail.
Rocks…lots of rocks. The trail was “flat” for no more than 100 yards before it become more like a dry river bed, full of softball-sized and bigger rocks. It made for a slow going, lest we rush and someone destroy their ankle. Along the way we met a frog
and ran into one of the basin ponds. It was about 3 hours before we finally made our entrance into the area around Chimney Pond, complete with it’s Ranger Station. The Ranger here had us sign in, and gave us an update on the weather. Now, up through this point, the skies had been mostly clear. Though on the darker side, the sky was cloudless as we made our way from camp. In the 20 minutes before arriving at Chimney Pond, the rain started. It stopped relatively quickly (in the time it took us to eat a granola bar and make our way to the Ranger Station at the Pond). We signed his sheet, and he gave us a weather update. “It’s supposed to rain this afternoon” he told us. Well, it was about 0700 at this point, so we figured we had some time. Despite our relatively cloudless sky at the start, the skies ahead looked darker and more ominous. The clouds shrouded the peak, keeping our ultimate goal out of our view. The views of the mountain from here were stunning and terrifying, and the view of the route we were about to embark on looked steeper than either of us had imagined.
In total, the day would be nearly 12 hours long. This part of the trip, described above, was only three hours or so of it. I think we both found the route to Chimney Pond challenging (due to the rocks) but not overly challenging. The little bit of rain made it a little damp, but we were warm and excited as we made our way up towards the base of the mountain. It was the view in the last photo that let us in on the fact that the real challenge was yet to come.