In March 2015 I visited Katahdin in Northern Maine for a climbing trip in part supported by a Mountaineering Fellowship Grant from the American Alpine Club. The benefits of AAC membership are many, but the grants stand out. This is the story of that trip and a few thoughts about my experiences. Many thanks to the AAC and everyone who joined me, specifically Jeff Longcor for his logistical wizardry. Cover photo by Dan Meer.
Pulling off the interstate in central Maine, the lonely mountain rose before us. Over three years we’d driven to Baxter State Park through fog and snow, but never saw Katahdin from thirty miles out. The year before I joked that we were ‘Team Preparation,’ ready to tackle anything, and we sat in our sleeping bags for five days.
“March rocks!” Jeff decided. Ryan and I agreed.
Team Preparation rolled into the parking lot in the early afternoon and spent the next hour deciding exactly what, besides our climbing hardware and winter camping gear, we should pack. This year’s essentials included a bottle of cough-syrupy brandy labelled ‘Mr. Boston,’ one thousand Magic cards, and a lot of sausages. We loaded up our sleds and skied fourteen miles into Roaring Brook campground through the March twilight. When we arrived, sleep came quickly.
We woke to frigid temperatures and one of our two stoves not working. We scored a replacement pump from a man named Steve who’d just finished skiing around the Katahdin massif with his oldest friends. An hour later – full of sausages, grateful to Steve, and inspired by his trip – we skied up to Chimney Pond, our basecamp for the next week and a half.
After we arrived we claimed a lean-to and cooked a pizza lunch. But pizza wasn’t enough to satisfy our hunger because the weather was perfect. Cheese and pepperoni fueled the way as we climbed the Cilley-Barber in six hours back to camp, belaying on the first ice bulge and the crux pitch. We’d already done more climbing than in the past two years, yet we had eight more days to go.
The climbing on Katahdin is bound in two large, east facing glacial cirques – the South Basin and the North Basin. The walls of the South Basin are buttressed by ridges and veined by gullies, including the most popular Cilley-Barber (so named because it was first climbed by Henry Barber and Dave Cilley in 1973). The Cilley-Barber is arresting, but it is just one of many features, some climbed often and others ignored for the classics. On the floor of the basin a dense pine forest surrounds the pond, and a few small cabins and lean-tos nestle among the trees. From the frozen surface of Chimney Pond, the view north is of Hamlin Ridge. On the other side of Hamlin Ridge lies the North Basin.
After we woke up the next morning, I decided to ski into the North Basin while Ryan relaxed and Jeff recovered from a consumptive hack. A few miles through the woods from camp, I emerged in a knoll at the foot of the basin. The wind raged, thrashing snow about. Pointing my skis towards where I thought I should go, I started forward without much visibility. In contrast to the friendly, pine-fresh feel of the South Basin, the North Basin is bouldery and sparsely vegetated – as I travelled into the cirque, I imagined the ice planet Hoth. I knew that standing above the barren heath was the nearly thousand foot Taber Wall, easily the tallest, steepest piece of rock on Katahdin. I skied around for an hour before I laid eyes on it. Then all of a sudden, it rose through the whiteout. For a while, I stared upwards, trying to pick out possible lines. Snow swirled, obscuring corners and cracks. Eventually I found a rock, hunkered down for a cup of tea, and then went home.
The following day dawned cold and clear. Jeff and Ryan, properly rested, agreed to come check out the Taber with me. We arrived at the base and discussed the line I thought we should take, following a corner system that makes up the rock climb Hanta Yo. Near the top and to the left of where I thought Hanta Yo continued, we would traverse or pendulum onto a wide ice smear and top out from there. We planned to attempt the climb over two days, by fixing lines to the ground at the end of the day and ascending them later. Though the climb is short enough to push in a single day, we didn’t think we could do so. Besides, Baxter State Park has stringent climbing regulations – climbers are expected to check in at the end of each day. We agreed, our plan made sense.
I started climbing at noon, and after a short rock step established myself in a broad gully. We followed this for several hundred feet to arrive at the corner system of our proposed line. I led one pitch, following iced-up cracks that offered good gear. At the top of this pitch, we fixed two 70-meter ropes to the ground and hiked back to camp.
The next day brought us back to the North Basin, but high winds convinced us to stay on the ground. That night, the winds died out and a high pressure system settled in. In cold and sunshine we packed for the climb. We hiked out and geared up in silence. We ascended our ropes, pulled them up after us, and then Jeff led the next three hundred feet while Ryan followed and I jugged.
I came up to an anchor two hundred feet below the top of the wall and cast off, looking for a way to the ice to our left. Breathing to focus, I climbed up a slab where I found purchase for tools and crampons in frozen wads of grass, then pulled onto a ramp. I inched up on a frozen veneer until I was about twenty feet right of the waterfall. A tiny ledge angled down to the ice. I placed a small cam above and started the traverse. Going was slow as I searched for solid holds on the rock. As I hooked behind one block, it tore free and trundled away. Instead I scratched grus from a thin seam until I found purchase. One foot followed the other until I was just next to the ice, twenty feet from my last piece of protection, one tool ready to sink into security. The thought was calming.
I brought it around and swung into the ice. Cracks spiderwebbed in every direction. Again. A dinner plate shattered away. The pace of my breaths increased. Further left. A piece of ice the size of a tabletop thundered away. Shit. The entire waterfall was a half-inch delaminated from the face. There was no way forward.
I looked down. Jeff and Ryan shivered at the belay. While I climbed, night fell cold, getting colder. ‘I’m reversing!’ I yelled down.
‘Woo-hoo!’ They yelled back. I traversed back across the ledge, slung a pinch in the rock, and cleaned my gear while I lowered back to the anchor. We rappelled off into the dark. As I went down I saw grainy horns and knobs and imagined them snagging our ropes as we pulled them. I built an anchor around some perched blocks and clipped in. Jeff and Ryan came down, clipped in, and pulled the ropes. They stuck. Shit. Somehow, we managed to free them. I threw the ropes for the last rappel and they snarled on a ledge. It took me a long time to untangle them.
As soon as my feet touched the ground, the stress that boiled higher up evaporated. Jeff and Ryan came down; we breathed a collective sigh of relief. The rope snagged on the last pull and we left it for the following day. By a full moon we packed up and hiked back to camp. Friends who’d come in for their own five day trip greeted us back in our leanto, nestled deep in their sleeping bags to ward off the bitter cold.
After our time on the wall, the days passed quickly. I was excited for the clear weather of the next day and Dan, a good friend from college who’d flown in from Chicago, was ready to go. We walked into the North Basin with the hope of retrieving my rope and continuing up a gully to the east of the Taber, then swinging around and hiking back across the entire massif. I opened my bag to rack up and discovered that I’d forgotten my crampons. We retrieved the rope and walked back to camp. The following day, Dan and I climbed the first two pitches of a climb called Waterfall Gully and then traversed out onto a ridge to the right, climbing to 300 feet below the summit ridge. At this point the snow became unconsolidated – sugary, hard to protect, and scary to climb, so we rappelled into the gully and finished the climb.
On our final day I convinced Dan we should return to the North Basin and attempt a climb called Black Fly. I tied into the rope at the base but ten feet off the ground I had flashbacks to the top of the Taber, ice shattering to pieces under my picks. What looked like fifty feet more of unbonded ice instantly seemed too much, and I backed off. I was exhausted from a week of climbing and winter camping, and frustrated I had not acknowledged it this morning. Dan agreed to head back to the South Basin, where he was able to recruit someone else to go climbing. I called it a day, warming up in the cabin where some of our group had scored a two-night stint.
That evening, I learned that Bob Baribeau, a prolific Katahdin climber, was staying with a group in a nearby cabin, preparing for a rescue training the following day. We visited with them for a half hour or so. Bob asked us about our trip and told us stories about some of his favorite climbs on the mountain. Naturally quiet, he did a lot of smiling and nodding, and soon our group was out of questions.
I hung back for a moment. When everyone had gone, I asked him, ‘Is there anything I shouldn’t include in writing about this mountain?’ He’d spent a lot more time here than me.
He thought for a moment then responded ‘Don’t share specifics. Say you climbed this and you climbed that, but try to preserve the adventure of this place.’ We shook hands and I took my leave. Back in the cabin, I mulled over the trip while Mr. Boston was passed around. It tasted awful.
The next morning, halfway through the ski out, I stopped for a moment and turned around to look at the mountain. Clouds obscured the massif. I turned away and skied the rest of the way to the car with a smile on my face.
My attempt on the Taber was predicated on a few pictures taken from far away and the encouragement of some close friends. Altogether, they made me think, this sounds feasible. This is an at-least-okay idea. Getting a grant was a stronger statement. Suddenly, there were other people out there, people I didn’t know, who thought that I could do this. That I should try it.
I went to the mountain brimming with excitement, uncertainty, and fear in the pit of my stomach. I came away with no less, but slightly more: an experience that formed the nucleus of a sea change in my relationship with the mountains and an accordant change in my identity as a climber. It’s hard to pin down exactly what has changed – a lot, I expect. Confidence, for one. Conditions dictated that I would not reach the top, but I think it’s important to observe that it was not an ascent that sparked the change; it was the effort of one. Now there are are moments when I feel fear, and in the halls of my memory I relive the feeling of tension high on the wall. With it rolls the thought, You can do this. You should try it. And I commit.