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We met up with the rest of our group at the Hamlet Motel in East Millinocket that night and found that most of us were sick—either getting over, in the middle of, or coming down with colds. What a bunch of troopers! We double-checked our group gear and supplies and decided who would carry what. We met for breakfast in the morning, ate heartily and did not hurry because several inches of snow followed by freezing rain had made for slippery roads. Everyone gassed up their vehicles, repacked gear for the wet conditions and headed to the park. We were on the trail at 8:30 am under a sky showing patches of blue.
Those blue patches were not to last, however, and we had snow, sleet and rain on and off all day. The trip to the perimeter road (about 1.5 miles) was a period of sled adjustments, clothing changes and just getting into the rhythm of the day. We soon reached the Perimeter road and were at the Togue Pond gatehouse by 11 am. From that point on, the trip seemed endless to me. Since it was my first time walking this road, I had no idea of what to expect and had not realized how few landmarks there are along the way. No signs with mileage, so you could only "guesstimate" how far along the eight-mile stretch you were.
Three of us were walking, the rest skiing. I was feeling very tired from my cold and found myself seriously running out of steam about 3 miles from Roaring Brook (although I had no idea at the time where I was). I realized I had better eat and drink something more and told my two fellow walkers I was stopping to down a Thermos® bottle of soup. Not too much further along we finally came to Avalanche Field, a spot we knew to be less than two miles from Roaring Brook. At last! We began to hope our spouses/significant others would have reached the bunkhouse, dropped their loads and be on their way back to offer some relief to us. Soon, we saw our heroes approaching and were only too glad to graciously accept assistance. We all finally made it to Roaring Brook shortly before 4 pm and found that the early arrivals had the stove stoked up and the cabin toasty warm. We unloaded gear, draped clothing from strings stretched the width and breadth of the bunkhouse and changed into dry clothes. What a relief to finally be "home."
The bean stew I made heated nicely right on the wood stove, so we did not even have to fuss with our backpacking stoves. Everyone just helped themselves and ate stew and fresh bread until they were quite full. We had brought a couple of collapsible 5-gallon water carriers in with us, so filling those and three 6-liter "Dromedary" bags once a day gave us enough water for all our daily needs. We purified the water at Roaring Brook by filtration and/or tablets but skipped this practice at Chimney Pond. Although the park regulations say all water should be treated, past experience of my fellow hikers and the winter rangers has been that the Chimney Pond water in winter is quite safe. We also had pots of water simmering on the wood stove all day, so water for soup and hot beverages was readily available to everyone. We had three single-mantle lanterns for lighting the common area and used headlamps or candle lanterns for finding our way around the bunkrooms.
That night the temperature dropped sharply and the precipitation turned to snow. By the time we packed up and left for Chimney Pond Wednesday morning, the temperature was in the teens and the air dry. Most of us left our skis on the porch of the ranger cabin at Roaring Brook, since the trail was too steep for anyone to ski up and too steep for most of us to ski down with a sled. I also wrapped up several pounds of leftover bean stew and left it on the porch, figuring that if the animals got it, at least I would not have to carry it out!
It took about 3+ hours to climb to the bunkhouse at Chimney Pond. Snow conditions were good (no ice) and we snowshoed the entire way. I had new Sherpas for the trip, with the new Prater step-in bindings that Steve had given me for Christmas. These bindings have very aggressive crampons, excellent lateral control and go on my mountaineering boots in a snap. Just the thing for someone whose hands become painfully numb and useless in the cold. I found the trip to the pond less difficult than I had been expecting, though it was certainly no easy feat to haul a loaded sled up some of the steeper terrain.
When we arrived, we found that the bunkhouse had not been used for several days at least and was very cold indeed—about 20°F. It took some effort to get the ice-cold stove to draw properly and clear the cabin of smoke. But once it was going, the temperature climbed quickly and soon we were opening windows and shedding layers of clothes. The temperature outside plummeted through the afternoon and night, while we relaxed and recovered from the long hike of the previous day. We listened to the weather on a weather radio and invited the ranger on duty (Lester) to dinner. He told us it would be cold and windy on New Year's day. We celebrated New Year's eve on Baxter State Park Time. (We all set our watches four hours ahead because we knew we would never last until midnight EST.) By 9 pm we were all down for the night!
Sleep—how it eluded me! We had a snorer in our bunk room and I am a light sleeper under the best of circumstances. I had a prescription for Ambien sleeping pills (reserved for backpacking trips) and generally took one or two every night. I managed perhaps four hours of sleep a night…it had to be enough.
Next morning we were in no hurry to get going because, though the day was crystal clear, it dawned at -15°F with a raging wind. The latest time at which the Park regs permit a summit climb to begin is 9 am, so we hit the trail at that time and headed for the Hamlin Ridge Trail via the North Basin Trail, a total distance to Hamlin Peak of only 2 miles. But it is not a two-mile trip to be sniffed at, especially at sub-zero temps in high winds. Nine of us started the trip, three turned back at a very windy spot on the ridge and six of us (me included) made the summit. Going across the open ridge to Baxter Peak (the terminus of the Appalachian Trail and the summit usually referred to when folks speak of climbing Katahdin) was not feasible. So down we went after the documenting summit photos were taken. The round trip took only four hours and we had the afternoon to play cards, take photos and plan the next day's activities. We would try Baxter Peak if the weather permitted.
We took turns fetching water from a spot across the pond that was open. The first trip I made with Steve across the frozen pond was cold and windy; the next day, however, there was slush on the surface and we were very careful to watch where we were stepping. One slip completely through the ice could mean certain death—the body can not take such cold temperatures for long. The slush turned out to be only a covering on top of very solid ice and had resulted from the pond level dropping and water flowing over the resettling surface. It was nonetheless disconcerting to see Steve's foot disappear beneath the surface on the trip over to the watering hole.
Another feature of our Chimney Pond accommodations was the outhouse. It was located only about 50 yards from the bunkhouse and the path to it was well packed—as long as you did not step too far to either side. A mis-step meant postholing to one's thigh! I had to shovel the wind- whipped snow out of the outhouse when we first arrived and it was truly a cold place to visit. No books or magazines were carried to the toilet by anyone on this trip!
The regular ranger (Stuart) was back on duty Thursday and we invited him to join in our chili dinner. He also filled out the extensive paperwork required before we left on the next day's climb (we had forgotten to do this with Lester and were properly contrite about our omission—since we had told Lester our plans in great detail, we had figured we were covered.) We sent Stuart home with all the leftover chili because we did not want to carry it, and he had been living on three-week-old soup for too darn long!