Prepping for the Appalachian Trail: Physical (Part 3 of 3: Winter Katahdin!)

In which I spoil the ending for the purpose of communicating a critical concept: bailing is not failing.

Now That’s A Spicy Katahdin!

The capstone of the AT training was the winter expedition to Katahdin I mentioned in my last training post. A trip devised and planned by a fiendishly clever and adventurous group of hiking friends, we had a window of dates in late February where we got lottery placement at Baxter State Park’s winter camping facilities.

Accommodations Are… Varied

The only issue was that our first night would have to be in a lean-to. In February. In Northern Maine. So there was that to think about.

The Katahdin ascent was also going to require mountaineering crampons and ice axes. So this would be a totally different experience than doing it as part of the AT. The winter route is also different than the AT. I had done some winter hiking before, including outdoor overnights, but nothing quite like this.

I was pretty stoked for this trip.

The idea of doing this as a precursor to the AT, in a totally different set of conditions, was super appealing to me. I figured it would also help me gauge my general ability to haul a bunch of heavy shit around. And the challenge of the conditions and using new gear was exciting.

The Plan

The red line is our anticipated route. We would head to Roaring Brook the first night and Chimney Pond after that. The yellow dashed line is the AT route to the summit, the northern terminus of the trail.

The overall idea was to cross-country ski up the park access road (which is closed to vehicle traffic in winter) to our first campsite and stay in the lean-to overnight, then hike the next day to the campsite at the base of the mountain, where we had reservations at the cabin there. From there we would either summit that same day or the next day, depending on which day had better weather. Because of the amount of gear we needed, we’d be pulling sleds of gear (which are known as pulks).

The Gear

Some members of our group had some of the required gear, but I and others needed to rent:

  • -20 degree sleeping bags for the overnight in the lean-to
  • Mountaineering boots
  • Crampons and ice axes
  • Snowshoes
  • Cross-country skis and boots
  • Avalanche gear

Yes, part of the route was in avalanche territory; this year there was relatively little snow so the risk was low, but we had to practice using avalanche gear, which was a first for me. In brief: it’s really much better if you just don’t ever get caught in an avalanche at all.

We also needed pulks. A couple of the group got used ones, and a few industrious members rigged up some sleds to use as pulks. They were pretty sweet.

We were outfitted.

The Plan, Revisited

Once we got close enough to our dates (which we couldn’t shift), we could see what the weather was for the night at the lean-to.

It didn’t look good.

-35 wind chill was just really, quite literally, not giving anyone the warm and fuzzies. We decided that we’d use the first day instead to test everything, then fine-tune what we needed to.

It meant, though, that we would have to do the entire distance up to the cabin in one day. Perhaps more importantly, it meant that we would only have one day to attempt the summit. We prayed that the weather gods would be merciful.

The Trip!

Day 1 – Testing

Our group descended on Bangor to pick up the rental gear, then stayed the night. In the morning, we drove to the trailhead to test the gear.

Shakedown ski.

Good thing, too. Part of the rigging on the pulks kept coming apart. We retreated to our hotel and the engineers re-rigged them with a rope system that worked much better. The day was incredibly helpful overall to identify that issue and fix it. If that had happened to us halfway up to the campground we would have had to try and fix it there in the field, which would have been… unpleasant.

Day 2 – To the Cabin

Setting off just after sunrise.

The weather our second day was astounding. Endless sunny skies beckoned and we set off to try and hit the cabin at Chimney Pond in one day, about 16 miles with full backpacks of gear and pulks.

The trip in was amazing, and challenging. The views of Katahdin were riveting; you couldn’t take your eyes off of it. The park was an absolute winter wonderland. And I thought I was going to kill myself on the skis on the first short downhill.

The conditions on the access road were pretty icy, so it made for treacherous going on the skis. Plus the main road into the park eventually went all uphill, which was easier to do on foot. We all eventually switched to boots and hiked in. It was a long day. Curse words were uttered.

But we sure saw some stuff.

Crossing a frozen Chimney Pond with this view was one of the highlights of my hiking life.

Up at the cabin, the mountain dominates.

The kitchen in full swing – and the testing grounds for my prepared food!

We hauled ourselves into the cabin, where the accommodations were great. The caretaker came and talked to us for a long time about conditions for the next day’s ascent. In short: windy – really windy, like 45-50 mph windy – and cold. The shorter route up would require a steep climb on a section of sheer ice. The longer route up would be no picnic in the wind.

After he left we sat around to discuss our options. Most people were either too beat up from the long trip up, were too uncomfortable with the conditions, or both (one member had not planned to attempt the summit and was just there for the experience).

I was pretty energized by the fact that overall I felt pretty good. And Katahdin was so close, it was right there.

I still wanted to go, but I wanted to try the longer route. I wasn’t really digging the idea of climbing sheer ice my first time using crampons and an ice axe. In the end, Maddie and I decided to try the longer route in the morning, with James as a maybe.

Day 3 – The Summit Attempt!

James rallied in the morning, so the three of us set out. Down at the cabin it was mostly calm, but the wind was absolutely howling over the ridge above.

There’s a mountain up there somewhere…

Not many chances for retakes when the wind wants to knock the phone out of your hand.

We started our climb up Hamlin Ridge Trail. As soon as we got above the trees we started getting hammered by the wind. We had stopped to adjust gear below, but up here it was so much more difficult. As it turns out, my crampons hadn’t been fitted correctly, so we had to adjust them there on the slope, which was less than ideal.

The trail was hard to find in spots because it had been blown over with snow by the wind overnight. The gusts would come bringing swirls of snow like miniature tornadoes. We hunkered down each time one passed.

Maddie and James ascending. Shortly after this we went with full face coverings and goggles due to the wind.

Maddie said (or actually, yelled), “This wind is more than 50 miles an hour.”

“How do you know?” I asked.

“Because I have trouble standing up in anything more than 50, and I’m having trouble standing up right now.”

We continued on a little further. At one point I was leading and stopped to check in with the others about the route. As I turned around, I felt a stinging lash across my cheek and a forceful shove that sent me to the ground. I rolled over to see that Maddie and James had also both been knocked down. A gust had hit us from an unexpected direction; it was, who knows, maybe 70 miles an hour, maybe 75, maybe more. A particularly animated spiral of snow danced away down the slope.

We actually did go a little further after that, but after a little while I saw James look at Maddie and slowly shake his head, and who could argue? It was clear that this was not our day.

Bailing is not Failing

There’s a phenomenon known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which very broadly stated is the tendency for one to overestimate one’s abilities at a task, especially early on. A person with low competence but high confidence will reach a point in their skill development charmingly known as the “Peak of Mount Stupid”:

I was pretty high on the idea of reaching that summit and was feeling like any challenge was surmountable. And despite the early conditions, we could potentially have made it just fine; the wind was supposed to decrease throughout the day and the sun was supposed to come out. But in a place and situation where bad outcomes can happen quickly, you can’t put all your eggs in the “potentially” basket.

I learned a lot that day. About layering for cold weather, and route planning, and timing. But most of all, I was reminded that good decision-making involves hard decisions. If it’s not your day, you have to accept that, and come back another day. Bailing is not failing. This was the gift I got from Katahdin that day.

We went down to our cabin for the last night. While there, we had room for a couple of people who were staying out in the lean-to. A hiker, Wayne, who had come to summit the next day with a local guide.

“You’re gonna do the AT?” he asked, when it came up in conversation.

“I’m gonna try,” I said.

“No, you’re gonna do it. Don’t give us any of that weak shit.”

Our group, safe and happy at the end of an epic trip.

And he’s right. I am gonna do it. But if I do have to bail, I won’t have failed. And I still did, in a way, get to tip my cap to the mountain and say, “See you in seven months or so, friend.”

The mountain saying goodbye on the way out – which was an absolutely gorgeous day, a bluebird day, a perfect day to summit – but not our day. Today was Wayne’s day.

Now I just need to get there.

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Comments 1

  • Rob Waltemyer : Apr 1st

    I absolutely love this post. I’m going to remember Mt. Stupid and the Valley of Despair—so applicable to my experience with sailing.

    Best of luck with your journey! Thanks for letting us follow along.


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