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Big Wall Fun in Baxter

The Tabor Wall - Early season in Baxter State Park

The Tabor Wall – North Basin, Baxter State Park, Maine – 12/3/13

by Doug Millen

We arrived in Millinocket early Saturday evening with bare ground showing but woke to snow plows and about 2 inches of fluffy snow. Not good sledding snow to cover the gravel road that would take us to Roaring Brook. Sizing up the situation, as I filled my wagon tires at the gas station, Kevin ran across the street like a kid to buy a wagon at the tractor supply. Nothing was going to stop him from getting to the mountain and the wall he had dreamed about.

Early season in Baxter is a crap shoot. You never know what the conditions will be, for the road or the ice climbing. Most years the ice climbing is great, but the way in, not so great. How you get in is the question. Wheels are usually involved. Many times it is a ski in with a sled to Roaring Brook. Some years we have driven in. Mountain biking in before the snow covers the road is popular. We had sleds, wagons, skis, a mountain bike and Kevin Mahoney. Everything we needed to get to Chimney Pond and back. We were well-prepared.

The early season modes of transportation - Baxter State Park

This year it was a mix. We were able to drive in to the game preserve gate, saving us about 6 miles of sled and wagon hauling. We dropped the gear at the gate and Kevin took the van out to the winter parking area with the bike for the return journey. We made short work of the 5 miles to roaring brook over about 1 ½” of snow. Kevin caught up with us after about an hour. Wagons or sleds, it was not much of a difference. They both worked well with the thin snow cover.

The modes of transport at Roaring Brook - Baxter State Park

Arriving at Roaring Brook early, we took advantage of our spare time and ferried loads up to Chimney Pond for our week-long stay. On our return to Roaring Brook, a light snow fell and the temperature was dropping. Our spirits were high and the liquor flowed in the cabin that night.

The next morning we brought the rest of our gear up to Chimney Pond…with foggy views of the north basin, our minds ran wild. What would this next week bring? Our proposed ice line up the wall looked in! Were we ready? Would it go?

We settled into our new home. We had the cabin all to our selves. Tools were sharpened and we readied for the battle ahead. At 4am the stoves roared and we packed for the day. Kevin and Michael broke trail over the newly fallen snow to Blueberry Knoll, and then we began the ¾ mile bushwhack to the base of the Tabor wall. The day was clear and still as the sun came up over the vast pine forest to the east.

Sunrise - North Basin, Baxter State ParkWith the sun peaking though the early morning clouds we could see the biggest alpine face in the northeast in front of us. Bayard said “good thing we get the foreshortened view from here.” This face was huge, over 1000 feet high, and we needed to get to work.

The ice did not come all the way down to the base so we looked for a way up to the ice. Bayard and Michael took a line to the left and Kevin and I took the direct line just to the left of the ice. The cliff was full of rime ice and reminded Bayard of Scotland.

Kevin starting up the big wall - Baxter State Park

Kevin starting up the big wall

Kevin forced his way up and into a chimney. He was too big for this icy entrance that would take us higher. He removed his pack – not good enough. He removed the rack, then a layer. But the chimney was still too small, despite such determination to get up this climb. Looking for another way he climbed out onto the arête for some spectacular climbing on thin flakes to a good stance above. I followed the pitch. One down and how many to go we could only speculate. From this belay we could see the ice. It looked thick enough, but how to get to it? Kevin headed up a thin corner placing a single gold cam on the way. From there he headed up into no-mans land. Struggling for pick placements and protection, he finally got a small hook in a crack 30 feet up. With the pump meter going, he headed for the ice. Moving right on very thin friction moves, his feet cut loose and he was left hanging by only his tools. Struggling not to fall, he gained control and moved quickly and deliberately onto the ice.

He fell 20 feet in a blaze of sparks from his crampons and tools scraping over the frozen rock
The ice was not what it looked like from below. It was delaminated, dry and brittle. Every swing and kick just breaks the ice away. I see the determination in Kevin as he heads up and then down, taking the pulse of the ice and the risk involved. Kevin wanted this climb so bad. But the ice only got worse and no gear in sight. With good sense he made a plan to come down: “I am going to down climb as far as I can then jump.” OK, I said and prepared to catch his fall, wondering if the gear above would hold. Kevin down climbed until both feet cut loose and then his tools popped. He fell 20 feet in a blaze of sparks from his crampons and tools scraping over the frozen rock. Rolling over once and swinging towards the belay he landed just 5 feet above me with a smile saying “The hook held!”

With no other way up, we rappelled to the ground to regroup. There must be an easier way to the top. Kevin started up a ramp system to the left with easier ground. Fun climbing lead us to a stance near where Bayard and Michael were doing battle. They were not having much more success than we had. Bayard took 3 whippers on the first pitch alone. They forged another ½ pitch higher then rappelled to the ground. They had had enough for the day.

Kevin climbing out of the chimney - Baxter State Park

Kevin climbing out of the chimney

Kevin and I committed to another pitch. Some fun climbing took us to easier ground, but with a steep head wall above, the end of daylight coming fast, and no real hope of getting to the top, we rappelled. As we hiked back to our comfortable home at Chimney Pond, we were treated with views of the cliff as the fog moved in and out. What a spectacular wall. That night we nursed our wounds with Scotch, Fireball, and Moonshine. We gave it a good a shot, as well as anyone, but the conditions were not right. We probably missed the window by a couple of days. No mater what, it was a good effort and great to be with friends in this special place with no one around for over 20 miles.

The next day we wanted something different. Bayard and I headed to the Pamola Ice Wall. Michael and Kevin had their eye on the ‘Cilley Barber”. At 9am when we signed out at the ranger’s cabin, they were already 9 pitches up. They were back at the ranger’s cabin in no time. 4 ½ hrs round trip. Rob the ranger commented, “they smoked that climb”. Kevin said they were greeted with 40-50 mph winds and blowing snow as they topped out and headed to Baxter Peak. True alpine conditions. This was Michaels first time on the Cilley Barber and first time summiting Baxter Peak. Does it get any better?

Bayard and I found some great ice on the Pamola Ice Cliffs. We climbed “Frost Street” and “Walk on the Wild Side”. Bayard made the grade 5 ice look so easy. But I guess, compared to yesterday, it was.Pamola Cliff - Baxter State Park

The next day was our last climbing day. The conditions had not improved but the boys wanted to give the Tabor Wall another go. I elected to take a rest day in preparation for the long journey out tomorrow. Let the young lads have at it!

Bayard on "Walk on the Wild Side" - Baxter State Park

Bayard on “Walk on the Wild Side”

We partied late into the night (8pm ;-)) and consumed the remaining liquor. Bayard and Michael tried to sneak off to bed earlier but Kevin and I would have none of that for our last night at Chimney Pond. With a few choice comments about masculinity and heritage they felt the pressure and joined us for a night cap, and we all reflected on our trip and laughed into the night.

At 4am the routine began. Off they went for another adventure. I enjoyed being able to sleep in and spend the day doing chores around the cabin and preparing for the hike out.

The boys were back early. The conditions limited their 2nd attempt on the wall. They tried working a line right of the main flow. The warm weather and sun was just eating the ice making progress difficult. All and all they had a great day of mixed climbing and got to know the wall a little better. They vowed they would return!

Humping out big loads - Baxter State Park

Big Loads

After some hot soup we packed up and started down with our heavy loads to Roaring Brook. The wind picked up and it started to snow. The trail was icy but snow covered and we made short work of it. 5” of snow lay on the road at Roaring Brook. Looked like a good ski out the next day.

In the morning we woke to rain and 2” of slush on the road. Again, wagons or sleds, it really didn’t matter. Kevin headed out an hour early so he could pick up the bike and ride out to get the van, another 6 miles. He is the man…taking several good diggers on the snowy, icy road before reaching the van.

It poured rain on us the whole way out and we hesitated to stop – the wet & cold kept us moving to stay warm. We were soaked to the core. We passed the gate and within 500 yards, Kevin showed up with the van, a welcome sight. We packed the van, and toasted with PBR’s:  A Great Trip. We will be back!!! Off to Millinocket and we were having breakfast before 10 am.

Photos by Doug Millen – Click to Enlarge

More photos from our trip

Photos by Bayard Russell Jr. Kevin Mahoney, Michael Wejchert & Doug Millen


Area Map

Interactive Map of Baxter State Park – Zoom & Pan. Click Icons for Info


The Crew

Doug Millen

Kevin Mahoney – Mahoney Alpine Adventures 

Bayard Russell Jr. – Cathedral Mountain Guides

Michael Wejchert – See his blog post of the trip 

* Many thanks to Ranger Rob Tice and Baxter State Park for all the hospitality and a well run operation.


Relates Stories

Early Season Luck On Katahdin

Katahdin Tales

Mt. Katahdin Maine – A trip Report

Early Season Luck On Katahdin

Game ON!

Condition Report – October 13, 2012
Mt Katahdin, Baxter State Park, Maine

Alfonzo enjoying great early season ice on "Piggy-Wiggy", Katahdin, ME

Alfonzo enjoying great early season ice on “Piggy-Wiggy”, Katahdin, ME  10-13-2012

You never know when it will happen….so be ready!

And we were!

Alfonzo made reservations at the Roaring Brook campsite over a month ago knowing it is hard to get campsites over consecutive days this time of year. We were planning to rock climb, but with the forecast calling for cold weather, the ice tools were packed along with the rock gear. You never know when you might need your ice tools.

We arrived Friday night to light snow showers. Rock climbing still seemed possible to some with the forecast . Our friends Mike & Cassy packed for the Armadillo. Alfonzo and I packed for ice. We had a good feeling about the conditions leading up to Saturday.  And with the forecast calling for low teens at 4000′ overnight we committed to ice climbing and packed light to move fast.

We were greeted with clear sky’s and temps in the 20’s Saturday morning. As we walked up the trail, the ground became more frozen and signs of solid ice were everywhere…our pace quickened for we knew climbable ice would be found.

As we walked into the Chimney pond area, the grandness of the South Basin with a winter look welcomed us. There was ice everywhere. Better than we expected and better than last years trip in early December. And the Cilley-Barber was in! All the planets had aligned. With pure luck we had impeccable timing, creating the perfect early season situation.

After checking in with Mark the ranger at chimney pond we headed UP! We chose the biggest moderate line we could see. This was the start of the “Chauvin-Cole” route up to “Piggy-Wiggy” and then to the ridge. The gift of early season ice was given again, for in the winter most of this climb would be a snow slog. We had water ice, tail to tip.

We climbed about 1500 ft of good and sometimes challenging water ice on a spectacular day. This was the best early season ice I have ever climbed. We were so lucky!

Many thanks to Baxter State Park,  a great park with excellent hospitality. And special thanks to Ranger Rob and Mark for being so excited about early season ice climbing.

~ Doug Millen

Photos by Doug Millen & Alan Cattabriga

 

Mt. Katahdin Maine

Petzl_logoThe Power of Light

A Trip Report

katahdin-5

December 16-21 2009

It wasn’t long after Doug caught wind of the rule changes in Baxter State Park that I got a phone call from him. His question was a no brainier……. Read the Full Report

New winter rules for Katahdin

Baxter State Park, Maine

Baxter_south_basin-AOCSolo climbers allowed, no minimum group size

Great news! I am packed and ready to go. Maybe I can find some ice up there.

See the park web site for more information. winter rules and regs and the NEice forum for discussion.

Source: post by greenmtnboy

Photo: South Basin from Chimney Pond by AOC

More info from apaulcalypse:

I just got off the phone with Baxter State Park (not sure if it was a ranger, just whoever picks up the 207.723.5140 phone line). According to the woman I spoke with,

a) There is no ‘gear inspection’ on arrival. You do not need to, say, have every item on a checklist, and the rangers will not deny you climbing based on what’s in your pack.

b) Climbing on Katahdin CAN still be closed down in bad weather. I asked for some examples of what constitutes ‘bad weather,’ and she listed wind chills significantly below 0, whiteouts, high avalanche danger, “things of that nature.”

c) Yes, you can climb any route as a party of two. There is no longer a minimum team size.

d) As far as she was aware, there were no designated start / end times for climbs; that is, you can climb whenever you want. She did caution that is inadvisable to be out climbing after the sun goes down, though.

e) Ropeless, technical, free-solo climbing IS allowed. If you want to hike or climb alone, there is a winter solo camping and climbing form to fill out, along with an itinerary. You can climb ropeless alone or with partners. There is no specific hardware rack required, just gear appropriate to the terrain.

– Also see the article By Steve Prettyman Winter Climbing on Mt. Katahdin


Winter Climbing on Mt. Katahdin

By Steve Prettyman

cathedrals

The Red-Tape

It’s true. Baxter State Park, in northern Maine, has a registration process and a set of rules that rival just about any other climbing area in the country. It ensures that properly equipped teams of climbers have a thorough knowledge of just what their getting themselves into. Although it might not be the intent of the park, it also contributes to the relatively small number of ice climbers who visit this amazing alpine playground.

Contacting the Park and requesting their Winter Procedures and Information packet is the first step in putting a trip together. This free information will bring clarity to the winter party application process, the camping reservations, and the required equipment list. Most of the information in this packet is also available on the Parks website, www.baxterstateparkauthority.com

Building the Team

One of the major obstacles involved in climbing Katahdin must be tackled well before the mountain is even in view. It’s no small feat to assemble a group of four or more individuals (the minimum team size that the park will allow is four) that are willing to make the trip a priority. Scheduling conflicts, ability levels and transportation solutions are just a few of the many logistic details to contend with. Start by selecting a trip leader. This individual should begin the process of gathering information and communicating with Baxter State Park four to six weeks prior to visiting the peak.

When to go?

The next piece of the puzzle will be scheduling the actual trip. The length will be affected by many personal variables but six to eight days would be ideal. Depending on where you’re coming from, you’ll want three to four days just for travel. This includes traveling to and from the park, plus the 24 mile round-trip ski tour. Another three to four potential climbing days make the overall investment worthwhile. Because of the extensive planning involved, you’ll most likely be choosing the trip dates well before Mother Nature reveals her winter plans for the area. Snow pack, precipitation, temperature, and wind play a large role in the daily route conditions as well as the approaches and descents. Most of us here in the Northeast have grown accustom to scoping route conditions from the warmth of our vehicles. We don’t like the look of a particular climb; we drive to the next pull-out and check out something else. On Katahdin, be prepared to spend some time waiting for the weather to cooperate with your intentions. Teams who are able to schedule their trips in mid to late season will have longer hours of daylight, a substantial snow pack for the ski tour, and potentially milder temperatures.

Gearing Up

Once the team is assembled and the dates locked in, thought should be given to the mound of equipment that you’ll need. For a list of the mandatory gear, visit the Park’s website and look under the Winter Visitor Rules and Procedures section or check out the extensive chapter on Katahdin in An Ice Climber’s Guide to Northern New England by Peter Lewis and Rick Wilcox.

Instead of repeating the information found above, I decided to use the space for offering ideas and a few tips concerning some of the individual pieces of equipment.

pam ice cliffSleds

The benefits of hauling a sled usually outweigh the drawbacks. This is especially true when the majority of the terrain on the approach to Chimney Pond is perfect for hauling. Most climbers will carry a pack and drag a sled with a duffle bag in it to contain the load being hauled.

Making a sled is relatively cheap and easy. Below are two links that you might find useful in designing and constructing your rig.

TimHorvath_waterfallpitch1

Skis

There are two basic schools of thought here. The first one involves the use of Alpine Touring (A.T.) skis, bindings and plastic double boots. This set-up’s main advantage is that your climbing boot will work for the ski approach. The second option consists of using a lighter set-up all together. Backcountry skis, bindings and boots usually offer a significant savings in weight. Although both will work, it will pay to figure the pros and cons of each set-up. For the ski tour involved with climbing Katahdin, a set of lightweight backcountry skies with metal edges and flexible backcountry ski boots would work fine. The Tote Road up to Roaring Brook Campground receives a lot of snowmobile traffic from the rangers who use the winter months to shuttle supplies and materials. So this eight mile section can very easily resemble a groomed cross-country trail with many small climbs and enjoyable downhill’s along the way. I know what you’re thinking… this means carrying another set of boots for the technical climbing. I justify this by realizing the benefits of the lighter skis and boots that will be shuffled thousands of times on the approach. Plus the added advantage of keeping your climbing boots totally dry until you start the climbing.  Whatever set-up you choose, a pair of skins will be useful for the final three miles to Chimney Pond.

Snowshoes

Even if you plan to ski, which is by far the best way to go, consider bringing snowshoes. The last 3.3 miles to Chimney Pond climbs 1400 feet. Add the steeper terrain with the extra traction needed to haul a sled and some climbers might be more comfortable with snowshoes. Another situation where snowshoes might be a bonus is during the approaches and descents from the actual climbs where post-holing can be a harsh reality. If nothing else, consider bring them to the trailhead and making your decision there after talking to the rangers or getting a current conditions report.

chimney 1

Bunkhouse, Tent or Lean-to?

For those willing to pay the extra cost of sleeping in the bunkhouse at Chimney Pond you’ll have a warm, lighted, dry place to spend your evenings.  Just be sure to make your reservations as soon as possible to ensure availability. The other options include sleeping in one of the traditional three sided lean-tos or in your tent. Because each designated camping site has a lean-to as well as space to pitch a tent, using the two in combination seems to be the norm. The lean-to provides plenty of space for cooking, gear storage, and hanging out. Making the extra-large 4-season mountaineering tents overkill. Save weight and bring a smaller 4-season tent that’s just big enough for sleeping. Snow walls can also be built in front of the lean-to opening to provide better protection from the wind and snow. A lightweight 10’ x 8’ tarp might also work, just be sure to leave adequate ventilation for the stoves.

Vapor Barrier Socks

If you’ve never used VB socks before, now might be the time to experiment. The initial ski tour will generate enough foot sweat to saturate your boots on just the first day. And keeping moisture in check is the first step to alleviating frozen boots. Unless you’re staying in the heated bunkhouse, you’ll want to be overly concerned with keeping things like clothes, boots, ropes, etc. as dry as possible. The main thing here is to experiment before your trip. I usually grab a dozen produce bags from the grocery store and sandwich them between a pair of liner socks and a pair of thicker insulating socks. Don’t expect to get more than a day of use from these super thin bags, but they do the trick.

BenKurdt_AndyGilpin_Knifeedgetraverse

Water and Food

Water is usually available at both the Roaring Brook and Chimney Pond camping areas. So factoring in fuel to melt snow shouldn’t be an issue. The rangers at Chimney Pond cut a hole in the ice to scoop water out of. MSR Dromedaries make hauling larger quantities of water back to camp easier. Bury any unused water in 10” to 12” of snow overnight in covered pots for use in the morning. The insulating properties of the snow will keep the water from freezing, although you might get a thin layer of surface slush.

Pine martens, the weasel like creatures that live around Chimney Pond, should not be underestimated. These things can grab your food bag and drag it down one of their many deep lairs below the lean-to faster than you can shred a new pair of gaiters. In a few short minutes, we lost 24 sausage patties, numerous packets of GU, some crackers and a cell phone. Although the cell phone was later found deep in another stuff sack it was a devastating loss none the less. Hang your food! Even if you’re only leaving it for a few minutes use the nails in the lean-tos. There is a cable and hook type set-up located in the middle of the camping area for overnight hangs.

The Rack and Ropes

The perfect alpine rack seems akin to those mythical creatures like Big Foot or the Yeti – people swear they exist but I’ve never seen one. That being said, here is a general list of stuff for each rope team.

Bring 10 to 12 sharp ice screws, a few more if you like to keep the run-outs to a minimum. Keep in mind this is alpine terrain (i.e. no trees) so you’ll be using a portion of your screws for belays.

Assorted slings and biners

Unless you’re planning on tackling a mixed or thin ice route that requires rock gear, you can get away without bringing a substantial rock rack. A couple of pins, six assorted nuts, and two to three assorted cams up to 2” should be plenty for supplemental rock placements.

In my opinion, 60 meter dry treated half ropes provide more security and easier retreat options than a single rope system.

While most routes are climbed to the top and then walked off, rap rings along with webbing and a v-thread device should definitely be kept close at hand. Don’t plan on finding established rap anchors if the need to bail arises.  Practice your v-threads beforehand on frozen wind blown lakes or at the base of obscure ice routes.

knife edge 1

The Climbing Rangers

These guys are probably your best resource for up to date information but they can be hard to track down until you’re actually in the Park. The ranger cabin at Chimney Pond has a small collection of resource books, as well as the current third edition of Lewis and Wilcox’s guide to Northern New England. A weather report and forecast for the mountain is also available from the rangers on a daily basis. It’s a good idea to stop by the ranger station in Millinocket for detailed trail reports, directions to the trailhead and parking information.

Pre-Trip Preparations

Before any extended trip, especially those involving winter camping and climbing, it’s a good idea to do a few system checks. Take your newly designed sled out for a test drive. Go skiing and practice putting on and removing your skins. Fire up that new stove a couple of times. Ignore those convenient tree belays so common on Northeast ice routes and get proficient in building gear only anchors. Review rope signals. Learn about snow pack stability and the factors that increase avalanche activity. Last but definitely not least, go climbing on really cold days. These are just a handful of things that will contribute to your overall experience and success on Katahdin.

Off Mountain Information

Millinocket is a pretty small town. It does have a Hannaford grocery store, a McDonalds (located near the ranger station), Rite-Aid pharmacy, and a handful of restaurants, bars, and gas stations. A few hotels in the town are able to be booked using online reservation sites. The Appalachian Trail Café, on the main street in Millinocket has good food, big servings and really great prices.

If you’re traveling to Baxter State Park from the south, you’ll pass right by the town of Freeport, Maine which has North Face, Patagonia and Cloudveil outlets right in a row. As well as the L.L. Bean store which is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.  You might find great deals on clothing, skis and snowshoes but don’t expect to find much technical climbing hardware.

Want more Information?

Check out the following books for specifics on routes, great pictures and other useful advice.

An Ice Climber’s Guide to Northern New England by Lewis and Wilcox

Selected Climbs in the Northeast by Lewis and Horwitz

DeLorme’s Map & Guide to Baxter State Park and Katahdin

Rock and Ice Magazine Mountain Guide Special Issue No. 123

F.A.Q.

What does “a minimum of four people in a climbing team” actually mean?

A ranger explained it to me this way – Baxter State Park will only allow teams of four to ten people to venture above tree-line. This doesn’t mean that all members of the team must climb together on the same route. An example: two members of your team climb the Waterfall Route and two members climb an adjacent route like the Cilley-Barber. Both rope teams must have a shared knowledge of the others intentions, such as descent plans, turn around times, etc. Although if the rangers sense you might be stretching your teams limits, they will probably suggest a more conservative option.

Do I really need to bring a saw and an axe?

Yes. Gerber makes a pretty light weight short camp axe. For the saw, find what’s called a cable saw; its super compact and weights considerably less than most small camp saws.

How much climbing can I expect to actually get in?

Depending on the weather, your team might get shut down completely or have the opportunity to climb a few classics. Even if the conditions keep you off the longer routes, there are a few days worth of climbs on the lower Pamola Cliffs. To give you and idea, we spent four nights at Chimney Pond and climbed the Waterfall Route, the Chimney with a traverse of the Knife Edge to summit, and a couple routes on the lower ice cliffs.

Is it worth it?

Without a doubt yes! The planning, the expenses, the details and the travel are worth the chance to climb some of the Northeast’s greatest ice routes. Standing on the frozen surface of Chimney Pond and looking up into the South Basin by the light of countless stars is a memory that will replay in my mind for what I hope is a very long time. Good luck!