A two day Katahdin intro is an action-packed 48 hours of alpine apprenticeship. We meet in the quite town of Millinocket, Maine, promptly at 8am and drink our coffee as we drive the first thirteen miles into Baxter State Park (we have to ski this road in winter!). At the parking lot, we do a final gear check, including tips for packing climbing hardware and ropes, and we're off. A moderate trail ascends 3.3 miles past beautiful lookouts to Chimney Pond, our base camp.
By noon our camp is in place and food hung from trees (bears), so we grab a rope, helmets, and headlamps and are off to the Pamola cliffs. These walls, a popular practice area for ice climbers, provide an excellent introduction to fourth class scrambling mixed with fifth class steps. We will dive right into the principles of route finding and assessing, especially how to determine when to belay a pitch traditionally. This isn't a class in the rock gym: we will be focused on climbing quickly, moving together at times on moderate rock. Steep sections will require traditional multipitch technique, but with the added difficulties of an alpine setting. Terrain belays, hip belays, short-roping, and rope-drag management will all be covered. Also, this is one of the few places in the East where one can practice slinging plentiful rock horns!
If we time things right, we will crest the ridge leading up to the Pamola Peak of Katahdin as the sky turns to purple, and yellow rays cast long shadows. But instead of running down to camp, we can relax and have a snack up here, or hike to the summit, until the stars come out. Now our descent, down a steep rock ridge above tree line, takes on new importance. The ability to safely navigate above tree line, at night, can take years to master. Using map and compass, we will follow the ridge down carefully, arriving at camp for a late dinner.
Day Two starts early with light packs. Ever wonder what sharp ridge climbs in the Tetons, Rockies, or Cascades feel like? The Knife Edge Ridge at Katahdin is scarily analogous, replete with stiff winds and some insane views! We rock hop up the trail to Pamola peak, before breaking out a short, ultralight rope for the next bit. The 40-foot descent from Pamola Peak into a col isn't especially hard, but its position high above the ground has given more than one climber pause. Next comes 30 feet of pure horizontal knife-edge. Depending on the wind, we sometimes throw a leg over each side of the ridge and ride it like a cowboy, scooting across. Ascending 50 feet of fourth-class rock gets us onto Chimney Peak, where we stow the rope. The next mile of ridge is simply breathtaking, and brings us to Baxter Peak - 5,270' - the Northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. A final ridge descent drops us into the trees, and we break camp. The three miles out of Chimney pond can take two hours after an already-long day. We aim to be fully out of the park before dark.
Want more technical alpine climbing? Need more? Ask for a three, four, or more day adventure; you will simply get more out of it! Alpine climbers spend years honing their skills, and we never do stop learning. Let's sandwich an ascent of The Armadillo (5.7, six to eight pitches) between our first and last days. This classic alpine rock route is a real gem, and its position is stunning. The night before the climb, we go over our entire climbing rack piece by piece, determining exactly what we need. At first light, we are already out of our sleeping bags and done with breakfast. We follow a stream to a long, steep, rocky slope, which we ascend to the headwall. Third and fourth class traversing brings us to the start of the Armadillo Buttress, where solid granite juts out into the sky against a backdrop of choss. We now change into rock shoes and start up pitch after pitch of awesome cracks. The route traverses across seemingly blank rock faces and even climbs a wide chimney to boot! A full day's effort brings us to one of the most spectacular top-outs ever; pull the last move and you're on top of the ridge, surprising all the hikers.
The advantages of trying a long, technical climb like the Armadillo (or others at Katahdin) can’t be overstated. Whether you’re a 5.2 or 5.20 climber, a multipitch climb here will give you firsthand knowledge of the challenges we face on big mountain routes. Preparing for the ascent, we will go over every single item that goes in the pack, and why we need it. On route, we will cover belay anchors and their positioning, avoiding rockfall hazards, using horns, boulders, chock stones, and natural threads for protection, plus when and how to retreat. Let’s turn those “what if’s” and Worst-Case Scenarios in your mind into lesson plans, and work through problems together.
Other Routes we can climb include Pamola IV, an even longer, steep ridge climb. This route is ideal because it involves so many types of climbing in a single line. From third class scrambling at the base into roped pitches, bisected by moderate fourth-class terrain in the middle, and more roped climbing high up, it’s a true adventure climb. This route ends in a super cool spot right at Pamola Peak.
We could also take on Waterfall Buttress, a rarely visited route that connects steep rock walls with scrambling terrain, up the center of Katahdin’s headwall. Perched directly above a misty cascade (which is an awesome ice line in winter), Waterfall Buttress is a perfect escape on a hot summer day.
Mount Katahdin simply has so much terrain to be covered; most people just hike around the margins. While some outfits march clients to the summit and back, you should experience the place with those who have spent time tackling technical routes here. As with all mountain environments, trips to Katahdin will be worked around the weather we are given. Storms, especially lighting, can often keep climbers down low. Baxter State Park rangers can restrict climbing above tree-line for reasons of weather or safety. But with some flexibility and patience, a trip to Mt. Katahdin can be a highlight of any climber’s career.
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