We meet in the quiet 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.
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