Ascent of Katahdin on 2014-09-01

Climber: Michael Berger

Other People:Solo Ascent
Date:Monday, September 1, 2014
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
    Elevation:5268 ft / 1605 m

Ascent Trip Report

#63 North Brother
Fort Mountain
#64 Katahdin Hamlin Peak
#65 Katahdin Baxter Peak
Katahdin South Peak

On Labor Day weekend, I went to northern Maine to climb the three most remote 4000'ers in New England. The three peaks are all located in Baxter State Park (BSP). The real challenge in climbing these three peaks is actually getting to the trailhead. First, BSP is about a six hour drive from home with an additional 1/2 hour drive to get to the trailheads once in the park. BSP strictly limits entrance to the park. You have to make advance reservations for camping and even for visiting for the day. Maine residents get first shot at the reservations, so it can be tough to get in for out-of-staters. On busy weekends, there can be a big line of cars waiting at the entrance to take over any day-use reservation that haven't been used by 7:05 AM - if everyone shows up for their reservations, you're out of luck. The best place for a hiker to camp is at Chimney Pond which is right at the base of Katahdin with a great view of the mountain. I started looking for reservations about a month ago and there were only a few spots available for the rest of the "summer" season - only one on a weekend and it was for Sunday of Labor Day. This was a perfect solution for me because when you have a camping reservation, you don't need a day use reservation for the day of the camping reservation and the next day. So, with one reservation, I got two day access to the park and the best spot to spend the night; and, best of all, on Labor Day weekend!!! Although it can be a pain to get into the park, once in, it is one of the nicest, well-maintained, clean, pleasant, and uncrowded parks I've ever been in. Even the backcountry camps and outhouses were immaculate. Also, Katahdin is the most geologically striking mountain I've ever climbed.

Of course, when you make reservations that far ahead of time, you take your chances with the weather and the forecast was for very heavy rain on Sunday and showers on Monday. However, mountain forecasts are notoriously unreliable and thankfully they were unreliable in my favor - a few short, heavy showers on Sunday and just a couple light showers on Monday. Unfortunately, it was very cloudy both days, so views were limited, but I did get some views on Monday.

Because Sunday was going to be a lot of hiking, so I wanted to be on the trail as early as possible. So I drove up Saturday night and "car camped" at a rest area on 95 nearest to the BSP exit. I woke up early and drove to the park and was the first person in line at the gates at 5 AM. Gates open at 6 AM and I was on the trail to North Brother by 6:45. I and a couple were the only ones at the trailhead and we signed the trail register at almost the same time.

It was a very cloudy day, so I knew the views would be limited or non-existent. It rained just enough to get me soaking wet. I was wearing my old hiking boots that have lots of holes, so I was walking in puddles inside my shoes. The hike up to North Brother is a little unusual. You have two long flat sections and three steep sections. The highlight of the first climbing section is walking near a steeply descending brook. All along the way, you can hear the running water and you catch many glimpses of cascades - I love the sound of a rushing stream. At the first flat section, you walk through a great Birch forest that is just gorgeous. You then arrive at a large pond at the base of a cirque. You then steeply ascend to the top of the cirque where you get another flat walk to North Brother where you make the final steep, rocky ascent to the summit. It was windy and socked in on top. I ran into another hiker who had just come from Fiort Mountain. He had spent the night at Fort Mountain and bushwhacked over to North Brother. There is no official trail between Brother and Fort, just a small herd path that is overgrown and hard to follow in many places. He said the 3/4 mile bushwhack felt more like 10 miles since he wasn't able to find the herd path and had to follow a compass straight throught the woods to Brother. I had decided at the last minute to try to reach Fort. I was pretty confident that I could follow the herd path. It wasn't easy, but I was able to stay on the herd path all the way to Fort Mountain. Since the herd path is overgrown, it is still a lot of work to get through it. I reached Fort Mountain and it was cloudy and very windy, so I didn't hang out long. It turns out there is a plane crash site nearby, but I had no idea where it was. On the way back, I lost the herd path and found myself in some extremely thick woods. I had my GPS with tracks, so I kind of knew how to get back to the path. The woods were so thick I couldn't even see the ground and ended up falling into several holes. It took me about 20 minutes to go 100' back to the herd path - that was a bit nerve wracking. Now I understand why that guy said it felt like 10 miles without being on the path. I was very happy to make it back to Brother.

When I arrived back at Brother, the other couple I had seen at the trailhead had just arrived. They had taken a different trail up which hit an additional two peaks. They were heading to Fort and I gave them some tips and pointed the way to the herd path. We wished each other good luck and parted ways. I was thinking about going back the way they came, but I was exhausted from the bushwhack to Fort and needed to save some energy as I still had a 3 1/2 mile hike into Chimney Pond after this hike. So, I ended up skipping the other two peaks and went back the way I came. On the way down, I got a bit of a bonus - the clouds lifted as I reached the cirque, so I got a great view of the cirque with the pond at the bottom and the striking mountains across the way.

When I got back to the car, I dried off, cleaned up, and changed. Then drove about an hour to the parking for the campground. I re-packed my day pack and also packed for the overnight stay at Chimney Pond. I made myself some dinner and then left for the hike to the campground. I was really glad I had decided to not do the extra peaks earlier today, because I had a miserable time hiking into the campground. I thought it was supposed to be a very easy hike and it is if you haven't already done a lot of hiking that day. Not only is it 3 1/2 miles, but it is also about 1800' of climbing and almost the whole trail is rock hopping. About 1 1/2 miles in, I was pretty well spent and almost turned back, but I still had almost two hours of daylight, so I just slogged on slowly and finally made it. My reservation was in the bunkhouse and it was awesome. There are two separate bunkrooms so men and women could have a little privacy. There is also a large common room with a table, a cooking area, a wood stove for winter stays, and lots of hooks to dry out wet clothes. It also has an enclosed porch. Nice digs and very clean! I set up in my bunk and talked to my roomates for a while, then I passed out.

I was up early, ate breakfast, and hit the trail at 6 AM. I decided to do a reverse "lasso" going up Hamlin Ridge Trail to Hamlin peak, then across the table lands to Baxter peak, across Kinfe Edge to South Peak, then back across Knife Edge, then back down by the Saddle Trail back to camp where I picked up my overnight stuff, then back down Roaring Brook trail to my car.

The climb up Hamlin Ridge was great. The sun was just coming up and I got to watch late sunrise between the trees at the lower elevations. Shortly after that, the ridge becomes exposed and it's a rock climb the rest of the way. It started out cloudy, but the clouds lifted just as I got past treeline. This gave me a great view of all of Katahdin and the areas west. The climb is a lot of rock hopping with a lot of four-point climbing, but the footing is decent. There are several false peaks, but if you expect them and accept them, its not so bad.

I was surprised when I got to the top of Hamlin - there is a lot of table land up top. I was expecting more rim walking like over at knife's edge, but it looked more like a flat plain. The walk over to Baxter peak was fairly easy, but rock-hopping most of the way. The final ascent to Baxter is all rock - brought back memories of the Northern Presis.

When I got to the top of Baxter, there was only one person there - a through-hiker who had just finished his AT journey. I'm pretty much in awe of anyone who finishes the AT, but this guy had started at Springer in March, took two weeks off to hike the Long trail, finished at Katahdin, was spending the night in an AT hostel, then going to a hardware store the next day to pick up his bike that he had drop-shipped and was biking down to Florida where he was then going to hike the Florida trail. Wow!!! He didn't have a camera with him, so I took the iconic photo and will e-mail it to him. Wow again!

Given that the winds were calm, I had to experience the Knife Edge. So, I hiked the Knife Edge trail out to South Peak and back. The BSP website tells you to always plan for more time than you think for any trail. I thought that was a warning for the inexperienced, but I think it also applies to experienced hikers. There are no easy trails in Baxter. All the trails I hiked had the ever-present boulders most of the way which adds a lot of time and effort to every hike. My biggest surprise was that the trail I thought would be the hardest and most terrifying - Knife Edge - actually turned out to be easier than expected. It's hard, but not nearly as bad as I thought. Yes, you have a straight drop on one side and a steep drop on the other, but I always felt like I had good footing. And there are sheer drops on one side, so if you are afraid of heights, this is a bad trail. My wife made me promise to "not do anything stupid" while up there. I didn't feel like I was being stupid except maybe that picture I took of my feet hanging over the edge of a drop that disappeared into the clouds. One of the coolest things about the Knife Edge hike was the clouds. Because of the way Katahdin is shaped, one side of the Knife was completely socked in with clouds but the other side was clear - it was like a wall that was bisected by the Knife. Very cool - the best thing about the hike.

I made my way back to Baxter Peak, then headed back down to the Saddle Trail which I took back down to Chimney Pond. They say that the Saddle Trail is the easiest way on and off Katahdin, but I'm not sure. About 2/3 of the trail is a very steep rock slide which is an adventure going down, but looked pretty difficult going up too. Met lots of people heading up the trail - it may be the easiest trail on and off the mountain, but is is not an easy trail. I finally got to camp and picked up my overnight gear which I had left on the bunkhouse porch for the day. I then made that final hike down Roaring Brook Trail out to my car. It was tough the night before but it just seemed endless now that I was heading out to the car and I was tired of rock-hopping and ready for the hiking to be over. The trail is appropriately named as part of it runs along a stream full of glacial boulders and is incredibly loud compared to its size as it rushes over and around all those boulders. The water is crystal clear and it is really beautiful.

I finally made it back to the car and then a 6 1/2 hour drive home. Despite all the effort needed to get there, back, and in, this was my favorite hiking trip I've had. I know everyone talks about the Bonds and Franconia Ridge in NH, and I loved them too especially since I had perfect weather for both. But even with clouds and rain all weekend, my trip to BSP is my favorite.

Summary Total Data
    Route Conditions:
Maintained Trail
    Gear Used:
Hut Camp
Ascent Statistics
    Route:Hamlin Ridge - NW Basin - Saddle - Knife Edge
    Start Trailhead:Chimney Pond  
Descent Statistics
    Route:Knife Edge - Saddle - Roaring Brook
    End Trailhead:Roaring Brook  
Ascent Part of Trip: Baxter State Park (1 nights total away from roads)

Complete Trip Sequence:
1North Brother2014-08-31 
2Fort Mountain2014-08-31 
3Hamlin Peak2014-09-01 
5Katahdin-South Peak2014-09-01 

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