Every year in the fall, a group of friends get together to hike up a mountain in New England. In the past, it’s been Mount Washington, up in New Hampshire. This year, the seven of us made the trek up north to Baxter State Park in Millinocket, Maine. Eight hours in the car later, we made it to the Katahdin Stream Campground. Baked beans and hotdogs o’ plenty were all set for the weekend. After a night around the campfire eating and star gazing into the beautiful, clear Main skies, we set off for our tents as the cold-front came in overnight, dropping the temps below freezing.
Waking up to frost covering the tent, we dawned on all our layers, filled all our packs, and made our way up to the trailhead. As we signed the group in, the Rangers warned us about the icy, whiteout conditions above the tree lines. And also stated that most people turned back the prior day. Even though the outlook on the day’s hike seemed quite pessimistic, it really didn’t matter. We weren’t there to summit a mountain, but to enjoy the time with friends in the outdoors. Link to Trail Map
As we pushed up the Appalachian Trail, the clouds covered us overhead and the rain came down. Normally not an issue, but we knew that it only would get worse the higher up the trail and out of the trees. And unfortunately, we were right. Almost immediately after we got above the tree-line, the rocks we were covered in a thin sheet of ice. Luckily for us, you constantly have to climb up and over six foot high sections of rocks that require you to use your hands anyway to pull yourself up and over. This gave us a little comfort knowing we were forced to stabilize ourselves anyway. As you make you way along the ridge, the summit disappears into the clouds and along with the hikers ahead of you. This route requires you to climb up iron rung ladders in order to get over larger, steeper sections, much like the Precipice Trail in Acadia National Park.
The ridge was such an awesome climb, allowing you to view an incredible amount of the park on both the east and west sides of the mountain. If the visibility was better would it have been more surreal. After we made it over the shoulder, we were into the clouds with a visibility of less than 100ft. Single file through the trail, we finally made it to the last push over some boulders where the visibility kept dropping with every step up. The wind whipped snow came in from the south and chilled us down to the our wet clothes right down to the bones. Our hands began to lose sensations in them and our conversations dropped to a minimal word here and there.
But then it was right there, boom! We made it! We all stood around the sign at the summit of Baxter Peak. Elevation 5,270 feet. The end of the Appalachian trail and the highest point in Maine, second tallest in New England. This was a well deserving time for lunch as we all huddled together on the north side of the summit, right under the lip to get out of the wind. Our time up, 3 hours 15 minutes. After lunch, we made our way back down the way we came. But we weren’t “out of the woods” quite just yet. We were still soaked and in blizzard white out conditions. We all began sprinting down from the summit as quickly as we could. Sliding and jumping across the frozen rocks leaving footprints that lasted only a few minutes before the snow covered them again.
The craziest part, as we look back on it now, was the trail makers being white stripes on the rocks, which did not bid well for us with most of the trail covered in snow. We got separated for 15 minutes while making our way down from the summit because half the group went off the “trail” that was no longer visible. Luckily we were able to regroup and just as the visibility came back and the rain lifted. I was definitely worried our traverse down the ridge was going to be treacherous with all the ice on the rocks, moving down this time. But we lucked out once again as the temperatures rose just above freezing, allowing the icy rocks to be reduced to wet ones. We made it down safely and took a break at an incredible waterfall that dropped some thirty feet.
Without fail, we reached our camp only to turn around and see a perfectly visible summit from the base as the clouds disappeared into the afternoon. But without a little danger, where would we find adventure? We all headed into the woods and found enough firewood to last us through the next ice age. Which we shared with our neighbors later in the night when we realized we had way too much. Beans and dogs were had by all, even a thru-hiker that stopped by our camp. His trail name was Spider Man, which came from a hilarious encounter he had with a spider early on in the trail that almost sent him back home to Michigan prematurely. He had so many interesting stories about the beautiful summits he saw, getting caught between a mama bear and her cub, and of course the interesting people he met along his journey.
The next morning, we packed up the cars, headed off to a diner in Millinocket for some a well deserved, and well cooked breakfast that wasn’t cooked over a campfire. It was an incredible trip that contained stories I’ll always take with me. I cannot wait until next year’s trip.
Adventure Doesn’t Find You… you have to seek adventure.