The Katahdin Problem

James had a foolproof plan for the Appalachian Trail (AT): reach Katahdin in Maine by the end of April, then start on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in mid-May…

That was before running into Crux and PowPow, two thru-hikers, on March 5th.

“Your plan won’t work. Baxter State Park closes in April and May, every year, for the thaw.”

I think his heart must have stopped for a second when he heard that…

The thaw… The idea that a national park could completely shut down during this period had totally slipped our minds.

“Come on!”

It threw everything into question…

The last thing we wanted was to pause one of the big three trails only to return later. It would involve too much back and forth for our liking, not to mention all the mountains that need to be crossed before the early onset of winter, which at high altitudes can start as early as late September.

So, keen to avoid shuffling between trails, the solution seemed obvious: attempt the climb before the park closure, hoping the snow had melted enough. It was in our favor that this year, there was little snow.

We went through all the steps to get our winter climbing permits for Katahdin. We got the green light for March 28 and 29.

Plot Twist

Everything seemed to align in our favor. Just a week before we were to leave the trail in Pennsylvania and head to Maine, Mother Nature surprised us with a huge snowstorm on March 23.


Our only hope was that the temperatures would rise by our arrival and that other hikers might have already broken the trail. Otherwise, our adventure was seriously jeopardized.

We were in wishful thinking mode until James got news from LostBoy, another Calendar Year Triple Crown contender, who had tried his luck a few days earlier…

“It was a huge mistake. For me, it’s a no-go my friend. I don’t want to create panic, but honestly, it’s beyond my skill level. Maybe with snowshoes or skis, it would be feasible.”


Let’s just say we were hoping for better news…

At the moment, the idea of giving up the whole Katahdin briefly crossed our minds, especially since the weather continued to act up, forecasting rain for the two days we’d be there. Rain, cold, and three feet of snow on the ground… A winning combo, right!

The disappointment was immense… even more for me, who avoids hiking in the rain like the plague.

However, after letting the emotional storm set off by the news from LostBoy, we decided not to throw in the towel, especially since we also planned to spend Easter with family in Quebec afterward. Canceling would have meant facing a double disappointment.

Preparing for the Worst

So, we hit the road, heading for adventure. First step: equipment. Snowshoes for James and waterproof boots for me. At that moment, I was still hesitating about joining the expedition.

Finding climbing snowshoes in late March on the East Coast? Good luck! But it was in Portland, Maine that we found the last MSR Lightning Ascent, already put away for the season. Convincing the seller to fetch them took a bit of persuasion!

We finally arrived at Baxter State Park and despite the dreadful weather, I chose to embark on the adventure. Why, you might ask? I believe it all boils down to an immense need for adventure.

As strange as it may seem, the Appalachian Trail doesn’t fulfill this need. Honestly, I get quite bored. The hikes are monotonous and repetitive… Leaving Quebec for the challenges of the Rockies in Alberta made sense to me, but the AT… ***big sigh*** What can I say, traversing the Appalachian Trail is an inevitable step for anyone aspiring to conquer the Triple Crown.

What really decided me was the prospect of our base camp at Katahdin Stream. Being able to leave dry clothes there for after the ascent was reassuring. With that assurance that I was going to survive, I plunged in.

The Ascent of Baxter Peak

The goal for the first day was to reach the camp. James estimated about 4 hours to cover the 9 miles of flat to get there. So, we left after lunch, with a 1-hour delay, around 2:15 PM. How naive to think we’d advance at 2.5 mph with snowshoes! As soon as we started, it was clear that even on flat ground, moving with snowshoes was not going to be easy.  

We had called the park to inquire about the trail conditions and were informed that the trail was broken to the treeline. Bullshit. No trail had been broken. Furthermore, upon our arrival, a notice posted on a sign informed us that reaching the camp via the Appalachian Trail was impossible, a bridge having collapsed.

We then turned to an alternative path, 4.4 miles shorter, dotted with small ups and downs, which took nearly 4 hours in light rain. The snow wasn’t very deep, but we had streams to cross. Definitely not ideal in snowshoes. I can’t imagine what time we would have arrived if we had gone via the AT. We narrowly escaped that one!

Once at the camp, we set up our tent under the shelter to gain a few extra degrees, the temperature flirting with the freezing point. We devoured our freeze-dried meals and went to bed promptly.

The next morning, after a hearty breakfast of powdered potatoes, parmesan cheese, milk, butter, and bacon bites, we set off for the ascent of Baxter Peak of Katahdin via the Hunt Trail, which is also part of the Appalachian Trail. According to the register, no hiker had ventured there for weeks.

That meant breaking trail for 6 miles and 4265 ft of elevation… in persistent rain. Even with lightened backpacks, the task was daunting.

As we climbed, the snow got thicker, and the snowbanks steeper. At that moment, James regretted not having taken walking sticks. I was glad to have mine, which I had equipped with winter baskets.

Knowing When to Quit

The wind became stronger, and the rain turned to snow. We were plunged into true winter conditions. James, tired, told me he couldn’t continue to break trail if the conditions remained so extreme. His energy expenditure was enormous. I had the easier part behind him…

Four hours later, arriving at the treeline, the scenery was worthy of the North Pole. Monstrous snowbanks, unleashed wind, and zero visibility welcomed us. James, facing yet another snowy obstacle, sighed and said: “We can’t make it.” His voice betrayed his fatigue. We had covered only half the distance and elevation. Crossing these snowbanks was already a challenge, but finding our way in this white out was impossible.

“We’re turning back,” he decided. While the adventurer in me wanted to persist, I knew he was right. It was pointless to risk more in a venture doomed to fail. His decision wasn’t about giving up, but sheer common sense. A pity, but wise.

Back at camp, we decided to beat a retreat and pack up to avoid another night in the cold. Ironically, despite my aversion to rain, I was the one who ended the day dry, protected by my Goretex and waterproof pants, purchased to survive my hiking guide training last year. James, on the other hand, was soaked to the bone, despite his usual ease in the rain.

On the way, as if misfortune never comes alone, I broke one of my snowshoes – the first-generation MSR Lightning Ascent that had survived so many adventures until then! I had to resort to crampons, but fortunately, the snow, weighed down by water, had sufficiently packed down to ease our progress. Otherwise, we would have really struggled.

A few hours later, it was with profound relief that we rejoined the van. James because he was wet as a duck, and me, because I didn’t think I could take another step, half dead from exhaustion.

That evening, we devoured a cheese fondue meant for 4 people while reflecting on our strategy for the rest of the adventure.

“James, there are two days left before the park closes. You need to try again.”

We were considering the Abol Trail, reputed to be more manageable in winter. However, advice from a hiker we met the next morning, who had himself given up on this route, cooled us off. Too much snow, even for someone used to winter conditions.

It would probably take a gang of strong guys taking turns to break trail to succeed in these conditions.

Finally, we headed to Quebec to recharge with family for a few days, leaving behind an unconquered Katahdin and a delay in our journey that would be difficult to catch up on.

As I write these lines, we are back in Pennsylvania near Delaware Water Gap. Just when James was just starting to relax on the trail… Pressure is back baby.

Oh! And guess who went straight to Mountain Equipment Company as soon as we set foot in Quebec? A certain gentleman determined never to be wet as a duck again. Guess what he chose without even looking at the price? I’ll let you imagine the model…

Trail Lessons: Essential insights for Thru-Hikers

The Wins

  • All the rain gear from MS: her Aspire II waterproof jacket from OR, her Torrentshell waterproof pants from Patagonia, and her HOKA Kaha boots.
  • James’ Sealskinz waterproof socks.

The Fails

  • James’ Orvis waterproof windbreaker that clearly wasn’t designed to withstand 8 hours under the rain.

Trail Revelations

The trail taught me an invaluable lesson: preparing for a winter expedition like Katahdin is a world apart. It requires specific skills and a distinct approach to preparation unlike a classic thru-hike. Looking back, I regret not being more involved in planning this adventure.

I have skills that complement those of James and could have been valuable. Although I doubt it would have changed the outcome, I am convinced it could have refined certain aspects of our journey.

**There was a substantial delay between writing and publishing this article. We are now at the Massachusetts border.**

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Comments 7

  • Frank Hott : Apr 21st

    I am approaching 75 and wish, as a much younger man, that I did certain things differently. Among activities in my “do-over” would have been hiking the triple crown. That would conflict with my first wish of marrying my wife young and raising our family together.
    Enjoy and relish each moment together. Continue to make good memories. Take care of each other and be safe.
    Thank you for your magnanimous generosity of sharing your travels with those of us who vicariously enjoy being with you.
    Best wishes for your safety and joy,
    Frank Hott

    • James and Marie-Soleil : Apr 24th

      Hello Frank,

      Thank you for your kind words and for sharing a glimpse of your life with us. It’s heartwarming to know our adventures resonate with you. We cherish your encouragement and send our best wishes for your continued joy and well-being. James & M-S

  • David Groce : Apr 22nd

    Wow! I had no idea about any of this. What an ordeal! Given the lag in time, I imagine you’ve come upon another plan by now. Looking forward to hearing about it. Stay true. -David

  • Warren Edward Doyle : Apr 23rd

    You certainly didn’t know much about the conditions you would encounter on the Appalachian Trail.
    Let this be yet another cautionary tale of naive, or uninformed, planning.

    • James and Marie-Soleil : May 1st

      Hello Warren,

      Thank you for your feedback. Indeed, every trail, like every story, has its unforeseen challenges, and the Appalachian Trail was no exception for us. We share our experiences, both the missteps and the triumphs, in the hope that they inspire and educate. Perhaps what might seem like naivety to some is often the courage to embrace the unpredictable. Safe travels and happy trails to you.

      Best regards,

      James & MS

  • K'taadin : May 3rd

    Hi –

    Katahdin is a state park and the rules of governance have been laid out for years. Wilderness first, Maine second, everyone else, third. Hopefully the hike was registered and not done stealthily as the rules at Baxter change in the winter. Good luck getting it next time when you are more prepared and understanding of the park.

    • James and Marie-Soleil : May 3rd

      Hello Karen

      Thank you for your interest in our journey and for taking the time to comment. It’s important to note that while we ensure compliance with all park regulations and thoroughly prepare for our hikes, sometimes unexpected challenges such as weather conditions and inaccurate information do arise.

      We share our experiences to inspire and connect with fellow adventurers, not to invite judgment. We appreciate constructive feedback, but kindly ask that it be offered with full awareness of the complexities involved and without assumptions.

      We welcome support and shared enthusiasm for adventure, as these are the foundations of our community.

      Best regards,

      James and Marie-Soleil


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