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- The Trip
Few people have any concept of what the winter hiking and climbing experience really is. Many of my acquaintances who know that Steve Ward and I actually enjoy being out of doors in winter are mystified by the fact; those few who understand the draw of a mountainous winter wonderland are most likely out there slogging through the snow and ice with us. When I began "peak bagging" (collecting high summits by ascending them on foot) in the early 1980s, I never expected to continue the adventure throughout the year, but when I acquired some Sorel boots and Sherpa snowshoes in the late 1980's, I began to explore the woods in winter. Quite beautiful, I thought, but I would never peak bag in winter. Then I met Steve and a whole new world opened up!
I completed my winter conquest of the forty-eight White Mountain Four Thousand Footers in March of 1997 on Mount Monroe and found I had but 13 summits left to climb in order to complete the 65 New England Winter Fours, an accomplishment claimed at that point in time by only 70 or so people. Most of the summits are quite accessible, but three—the two summits of Mount Katahdin (Baxter and Hamlin Peaks) and North Brother—are deep within Maine's Baxter State Park. BSP is located in the far northern reaches of the state, and entering the park in winter is an adventure to be planned well in advance—one can not simply wait for a good weather forecast and decide to run up to the park for a couple of days.
In the summer of '97 Steve and I began to talk to our winter climbing friends about a Baxter trip over the New Year's holiday. We soon had a strong group all lined up and set to go. Steve volunteered to make the trek up to Park Headquarters in East Millinocket on the first business day after 11/1/97—the first day the park will accept applications for winter travel within the park. Steve was on the office doorstep at 3 am and when the office opened at 8 am, he was at the head of the line to request (and pay for in cash or bank check) our four nights in bunkhouses at Roaring Brook and Chimney Pond. Along with money one must submit applications which fully document the group's membership (names, addresses, age, weight, next of kin) and, most importantly, the qualifications and experience of the trip leader and two co-leaders. No greenhorns allowed!
Because we were going in for several nights, we each had a lot of gear, food and supplies to bring in. BSP requires that each hiker be well prepared with snowshoes and/or skis, proper clothing and emergency gear. There is generally too much "stuff" to carry on one's back for long distances, especially since we hoped to eat well. (The trip is a long one. To go into Chimney Pond, one must, per Park requirements, spend the first night at Roaring Brook, located 12 miles from the Abol Bridge parking area, one of the usual winter entry points. The following day one hikes about 3.5 miles with about 1500' of elevation gain into Chimney Pond.) The usual solution to the gear hauling challenge is the use of a gear sled, such as the Mountainsmith Armadillo, or homemade facsimile. The important features are rigid traces (so the sled does not run you over on the downhill), stability (so the sled does not flip frequently), and some way to keep the load dry (with a zippered cover, waterproof duffel or other creative arrangement). The sleds are generally affixed to a hip belt for towing, although some hikers prefer to wear a pack and fasten the sled to the pack in some manner.
Only two of us making this trip had never been in the Park in winter and I was one of the uninitiated. After considering making a sled or borrowing one and trying to rent one, I opted to purchase a Ziffco Tow-boggan. It had plenty of capacity and worked well for my needs. (I learned of this sled by searching the Internet and saved more than $100 over the price of the Armadillo. Gear sleds can be very hard to find in your local area!)
I began my trip preparation by making lists of clothing, food, first aid supplies and medications, gear (such as crampons, ice ax, snowshoes, skis, goggles, hand heaters, collapsible ski poles, sleeping bag). I asked experienced friends to review these lists. I am pleased to report that I had very little with me that was not used, with the happy exception of emergency items. I did have a bit too much snack food but that was due in part to the fact that we were able, by virtue of the weather, to make only one major climb, and that proved to be a relatively short one.
The day before my departure, I prepared the group meal I had volunteered to make and packaged up the 16+ pounds of bean stew for travel. I was fortunate in that my meal was being consumed at Roaring Brook, so I did not have to freeze it and I would be rid of it before the climb to Chimney Pond. My next step was to have a dry run to see if I could fit everything into my sled and find a way to strap my pack and skis onto it. All my gear packed well and I was ecstatic! But the sled weighed a ton, it seemed to me.
Final preparation was going on madly on Sunday night, 12/28, and I felt like I was getting a sore throat. Just stress, I told myself, until I woke up Monday morning at 3 am, unable to breathe or swallow. Too late to back out now—everyone was counting on me. So off to work I went, drugged up with assorted pills to treat the symptoms. I went home at noon to pack up the truck and head from my home in NH to Steve's place in Maine.
As I got out of my car in the garage, I heard a noise coming from the house and hurried inside— my carbon monoxide detector was screaming and the cats were terrorized. I was very worried and called the Fire Department immediately after silencing the alarm. I was thinking to myself that this was not an auspicious start to my adventure and wondered how I was going to deal with this problem. The Bedford Fire Department sent someone over immediately to measure the CO levels in the house and found them not to be immediately dangerous. So I cracked a few windows, made an appointment to have the furnace rechecked, packed up the truck and headed east. On my mind now was the weather—the forecast was for a nor'easter to hit late Monday night and Tuesday. Could make for a challenging trip!
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