The Winter Summit

Mike Blanchard started hiking in junior high school. Guidance counselors there had started an outing club, and one of the excursions was a hike up Mount Katahdin, Maine’s highest peak at 5,267 feet. The trips became a regular thing, and he liked it.

After junior high Blanchard kept hiking Katahdin, adding other peaks along the way. Meanwhile, the reel of life sped along, as it does—college days, jobs, family. But still he hiked.

Blanchard still hits Katahdin regularly, but now it’s with a twist: for the past 11 years, he’s been one of the hundred or so brave souls a year who seek Katahdin’s icy peak in the dead of winter.

Like its distant cousin Mount Washington to the southwest, Katahdin’s not known for its forgiving ascent or pleasant weather. Northbound AT thru-hikers regard it with a blend of elation and dread. As the final hurdle on their journey, it sports about 4,200 feet of steep elevation gain and notoriously rocky terrain. To tackle it in the winter takes a special kind of brass.

“When we climb up there, it seems to a lot of people like, ‘Wow, you guys are crazy’ and all that,” said Blanchard. “You know, maybe so, in a certain way.”

First, some semantics: hiking is not climbing, and neither of them are mountaineering. They all share similarities, but purists will tell you that hiking is essentially walking over terrain and climbing is essentially literally climbing it. Mountaineering can involve both, but almost always involves traversing snowy and icy terrain in the pursuit of some high peak.

While hiking and climbing involve specialized equipment—boots, packs, and ropes come to mind—mountaineering tends to conjure images of the most extravagant. Indeed, it takes a lot of equipment to mountaineer: the Baxter State Park website recommends ice axes, crampons, avalanche gear, ropes, and more for winter ascents. Then there’s the clothing, the boots, the packs, and the sleds to carry it. In all, it could weigh up to, and over, 100 pounds.

If you’re going to tackle Katahdin in winter, you need to be prepared.

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Prior to 2010, a winter summit of Katahdin involved a lot more red tape. Baxter State Park required a minimum of four people per party and a strict list of equipment. Rangers would review each party’s equipment upon arrival; those not prepared were turned away.

Today, a winter ascent of Katahdin is more accessible. Taking a cue from trends in western parks, Baxter State Park relaxed their regulations in 2010. Group sizes were eliminated (making solo attempts possible) and the equipment list is now “recommended” rather than “required.” Parties must still register with the park (solo hikers, in particular, must complete a detailed itinerary). Responsibility for the trip’s safety and success, however, now rests much more squarely on the party’s planning ability.

Mike Winslow, an enforcement ranger at Baxter State Park who supervises Katahdin’s Chimney Pond region in the winter, said some prospective mountaineers are still unprepared for the effort it takes just to reach the base of the mountain. Because roads aren’t maintained in the winter, access to Katahdin starts at Abol Bridge, a 13 mile trek under full load to Roaring Brook campground, Katahdin’s popular summer trailhead. There begins a 3.3 mile ascent to Chimney Pond, Katahdin’s waypoint, before tackling the approximate 2.5 mile scramble to the summit.

“There's a lot of education required,” Winslow said. “People are coming in, they’ve been to the White Mountains, they do a couple of hikes or whatever, they think, ‘Let's go do Katahdin [in the winter],’ and the next thing you know they get in and they're like, ‘I am in so far over my head.’

“There's really nothing else on the east coast that's got an approach like that, to get that sort of alpine environment.”

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Mike Blanchard is quick to downplay the undertaking: “It's not like we're in the Arctic, where we have to survive,” he said. “We have a cabin with a wood stove, warm bunks, great food...so when you go out in these blizzard conditions and you have goggles on and it’s thirty below zero...if you’ve had enough, you can get back to the cabin.”

Indeed, Blanchard and other Katahdin mountaineers enjoy comforts that wouldn’t be found in harsher environments. His own party frequently comprises members of his family, including his children. It’s reasonable to surmise he prioritizes safety. Still, he acknowledges you’ve got to have a firm grasp on your limits: “If you push it and you're on [Katahdin’s notoriously precarious] Knife's Edge or you’re on the summit, it may take hours to get back. You have to watch yourself and...the weakest link in your group.”

Winslow concurs. He said about 2,315 people spent the night in Baxter State Park last winter. Out of those, somewhere between 100 to 200 attempted to summit Katahdin. Due to various factors, only about half succeeded.

“A lot of people attempt it,” he said, “and they'll get above tree line and they’ll be like, ‘No way.’ It’s either way over their head, weather conditions aren’t what they want, winds are too high, maybe a storm rolled in.”

Blanchard recalled a trip three years ago where the weather turned bad. “We were ice climbing on the wall, and the ranger said it was 49 below with wind chill,” he said. “Yeah, that's really cold. Any exposed skin is freezing in seconds. You have to be completely covered. But it's also quite fun to be in conditions like that.”

Baxter State Park doesn’t maintain a dedicated search and rescue team. Park rangers themselves typically compose the emergency response team, said Winslow, with support from volunteer search and rescue teams when needed. Fortunately, it’s not often. The most typical emergency situations aren’t really emergencies at all—a hiker’s family hasn’t heard from them on schedule, for instance (usually due to spotty connection), and rangers hike in to check on them. Basic stuff.

Winslow said the park’s relaxed regulations haven't resulted in an increase in rescue calls. “People are coming in with less experience, but they also know their limits. They get to a point where it’s enough, they don't get in over their heads. You give them the information they need and they make their own decisions. Self-preservation is an amazing thing.”

When The New York Times asked George Mallory in 1923 why he’d want to climb Mount Everest, his famous reply was “Because it’s there.”

Katahdin is no Everest, yet the sentiment rings true for many who, like Blanchard, look toward peaks and feel a peculiar call.

“I guess it's the adventure,” said Blanchard, a Winthrop native and the owner of a cabinetry business there. “It's exciting to get out into the wilderness. It's completely stunningly beautiful, I think far more beautiful than in the summer, in its own way. We climb the mountain, there's camaraderie, and every year...we know that we do this challenging thing together.”

After 11 years, he hasn’t experienced a serious incident on the mountain. He knows it’s dangerous. Not Everest-level dangerous, but he acknowledges similar risks—avalanches, falling, freezing, even show-stopping blisters. And there, somewhere in the risk, lies the beauty:

“Why do people ride a motorcycle really fast?” he said. “It can be really dangerous. But they get something out of the exhilaration that you can’t get in any other way. It’s like that.”


This article originally appeared in BDN Outdoors Winter 2017.

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