Words and images by WWA Ambassador Brody Leven.

JUNE 18 2018 — Breathing a sigh of relief after visiting the beautifully strange country of Georgia, a puzzle piece between Azerbaijan, the Black Sea, and Russia. In a little over three weeks, I was able to make the first ascent and descent (on skis) of the SW Couloir (16030 ft) on Shkhara West (C) (16,627 ft), a subpeak of the country’s highest peak, Shkhara (F) (17,037 ft).

Image courtesy American Alpine Club.

 

It is a giant and striking couloir that I spotted from satellite imagery last year, then learned had been attempted twice before. Jason Thompson (@jason_n_thompson) had put in two very worthy efforts in 2008—when he and a strong team skied from about 2/3 of the way up the couloir—and again in 2015, when it was totally out of condition. He was generous with beta and wished us luck. I scoured any @americanalpine American Alpine Journal articles that might have offered a glimpse into the couloir, landscape, or hint of possibility.

Lost luggage, rockfall, avalanches, warm temperatures, rain, hail, sleet, grauple, and fog kept our attempts at bay until the eleventh hour, when it popped out of the clouds, and I saw it through binoculars for the first time. I was able to climb and ski the line the day before we were scheduled to ski off the glacier and start making our way back to civilization.

 

This one attempt proved successful, though I ended up solo after my partner, Mary McIntyre, decided to turn around halfway up the couloir, near the technical crux. I only measured the steepness once, a reasonable 53°. The most surprising and difficult part of the line was when I found the isothermic manky snow of 2AM had somehow transformed to ice in the afternoon sun (a weird version of radiation recrystallization?), making the bottom half of the route extremely icy and dangerous.

 

Words and images by Mike Whelan, Treasured Heights

[Note: This post was revised June 26 to reflect local input.]

The Knife Edge, Chimney Pond and Hamlin Peak are names that invoke a smile for those who’ve been to the distant flanks of Maine’s highest peak. For many years I’d wanted to get on the peak, especially in the winter. After skiing 21 of the 24 snowy state high points I went back East to take on the region’s hardest and most remote mountain.

While New Hampshire’s Mount Washington may be the called the “Beast of the East,” Mount Katahdin is the largest independent massif with the most rugged terrain in the Northeast. The peak is located in the far north of Maine in Baxter State Park, and adjacent to the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. In winter, the peak’s big vertical and 39 mile round trip distance makes it more difficult than most of the peaks in the Rocky Mountains.

The Long Tour

While the origin of backcountry skiing has been in long tours, today most backcountry skiers average under 8 miles in a day. Not only are the most popular peaks short on distance, but they also allow for gravity to make the trip out easy, skiing right back to the car. Even the giant Rainier allows for a bailout option and a gravity-fed escape to the comforts of civilization.

Longer tours on peaks like Gannett Peak (WY), Kings Peak (UT) and Katahdin are a totally different animal. There is no easy out and planning is critical. On Katahdin we started with a 13 mile mostly flat approach. Snowmobile traffic by the rangers makes it a smooth tour most of the time. The mental grind of a long woods slog with heavy sled is the first hard part about the peak. The vertical for Katahdin including ups and downs on the approach was over 5500’.

On the summit day we passed the amazing ice above Chimney Pond, and drooled at the gaggles of gullies found in the cirques between Hamlin Peak and Katahdin. After discussions with the resident ranger it was clear that avy conditions would not allow for descent of the steeper lines this trip. We stuck with doing laps in the Saddle Slide gulley and stood on the remote rime-covered summit 19 miles from the car.

Routes on Katahdin

There are plenty of gullies and cirques on the peak and it boasts the coolest natural feature of any Appalachian mountain: the Knife Edge. At only a few feet wide the east ridge of Katahdin drops off on both sides with wicked couloirs and gullies famous among ice climbers and notorious among eastern skiers. Local skiers can patiently wait years for many of the aesthetic steep lines to come in to skiable shape. Skiers more often go north of the summit to two large cirques with 2k’ vertical of gully skiing.

Most of Katahdin’s skiing is accessed from the Roaring Brook and Chimney Pond from the East. However you park to the South of the peak and have to wrap around the mountain first. The bunk houses with wood stoves here are excellent for drying gear on multi day trips. This is great when travelling in the humid and frigid maritime air.

Planning and Red Tape

Bunk houses with wood stoves are excellent for drying gear on multi day trips.

If you are used to federal lands or state parks you’ll notice a different management style at Mt. Katahdin, this is because even though it is called “Baxter State Park”, it is run by a trust and through private funding. In the past they have had odd rules, which older skiers have told me about, such as list requiring carrying along an ax, outdoor thermometer and wind chill chart. In recent years they have modernized, however a few rules from that era remain that could be improved.

Reservation System

Skiers are required to reserve spots in lean-tos or bunkhouses by mail at least one week ahead of time. Just as we encounter in the West with tourists flying in for an ascent of Rainier or Hood in a short, inflexible window, this can lead to people ascending in bad conditions do to scarcity of other date options. I witnessed skiers going in on our last day as we were escaping a storm. Since spots are tough to get the group remained committed to skiing anyway. That storm resulted in avalanches that caught two people in the nearby Whites. Allowing for credit card payments and an online waiver form could allow for more spontaneous reservations which can take advantage of safer weather. This won’t solve the weekend problem but would help push things in a more fluid direction.

Skiing Prohibited after April 1st

The best skiing and safest snowpack happens in April on good snow years in the Northeast, and I have yet to see a solid explanation for the April closure. Unlike the Chic Chocs there are no caribou here competing for the same alpine terrain. Even if areas are sensitive after snowmelt, having a rigid date does not help the wildlife, changing to a cutoff date that can be extended on high snow years makes much more sense. At a time when conservation is under attack on a mass scale we need to cultivate more responsible and passionate users of the park.

More Than Just Baxter

The more people who are inspired by Mount Katahdin, the more people will care about this special place, and can resist efforts to challenge needed extensions of protected land around Baxter. As it is Baxter State Park is only 209,644 acres and active scars from the extraction industry are clearly visible on nearby lands. Ryan Zinke’s recent threat and retraction of the threat to Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument illustrates a close call which could have required a national and full mobilization of all people who love this region, including skiers. Park managers must run the balance of protecting pristine nature and accommodating tourists like us to help the long term survival of the great north woods of Maine.

Katahdin is a place you visit and always dream of returning. Despite bad weather the magic of the mountain permeated through the clouds and our souls. Even with perfect weather we could have only scratched the surface of the countless gullies on this massif. At least once in a lifetime every East Coast backcountry skier should get up to Katahdin and see the wildest side of New England.

Check out this short film about the experience:

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Photos and videos of state high point skiing:
Instagram: @ski_TreasuredHeights
Website: http://www.TreasuredHeights.com

Winter Wildlands Alliance ambassador Thomas Woodson photographed (and survived) a self-supported traverse of the Arctic Circle.

In March 2018, Winter Wildlands Alliance Executive Director Mark Menlove, ambassadors Kt Miller and Rich Meyer, and friends ventured deep into the Smokey Mountains of Idaho for pristine powder, spiritual renewal and to support our Keep Winter Wild campaign. (Words and photos by Kt Miller.)

SMALL TALK ENSUED as we began working our way up the skin track with hut packs full of ski kits, sleeping bags, and local micro brews. Most trips begin with these formalities, as we shake off the bustle of our everyday lives. The rhythm of the skin track soon settled in, along with our comfort with each other, quiet, and solitude.

As we crested the ridgeline of Little Round Top the views opened up. Mountains stretched in all directions, and shadows danced in the sun underneath a blanket of burned trees from a forest fire not-so-long ago. A huge grin on the face of Sun Valley Trekking‘s owner, Joe St. Onge, hinted to the turns to come. With a joyful hoot and swift glide he led us down 1200’ vertical feet of perfect sunlit powder— and so began our four days of revelry in the Smokey Mountains.

We settled into yurt life, powder skiing during the day, and a rotation of good food, good conversation, and sauna sessions at night.

I wandered the path slowly, stopping multiple times, breathing in and out, taking it in. It had been far too long since I gazed at the stars.

Like many, I felt the weight of 2017, and although 2018 renewed my hope, the challenges have not ceased spiritually, personally, or professionally. The first evening I woke in the middle of the night to visit the ladies room— it’s always hard to crawl out of my sleeping bag on the first night, but as I tiptoed out of the yurt into the darkness I was overwhelmed by a deeply bright, starry night. I wandered the path slowly, stopping multiple times, breathing in and out, taking it in. It had been far too long since I gazed at the stars. I wanted to lay there staring up at the glowing sky forever, refilling my soul with the mystery of nature’s delight.

Winter Wildlands Alliance Executive Director Mark Menlove getting after it.

It felt as though our souls were starved for the walking meditation of the skin track. No one seemed to be able to get enough. The days began to blur together in a multitude of perfect powder runs through burned trees, again and again, ebbing and flowing and weaving our way across the landscape. Tired legs begged for more, eager to feel the weary satisfaction of a long day in the skin track, and a quiet mind in the mountains— to let go of the strife of daily life, to simplify, just for a moment— or perhaps to make that feeling linger longer. There was silence and laughter and gratitude and glee as we let ourselves surrender to gravity and bonded over our common love of wild places covered in snow.

As we packed our things on the final day it felt as though the trip had just begun. We celebrated our new friendships, and danced through the forest for a few more runs before heading back to the world below— renewed, restored, and rejuvenated— anticipating the next opportunity to both lose and find ourselves again in untracked powder snow.

“To let go of the strife of daily life, to simplify, just for a moment.”

At midnight on Friday, March 23rd, Taylor Schefstrom and Hallie Holland (aka the Wild Winter Women) will take on the Grand Traverse to benefit Winter Wildlands Alliance. They will leave Crested Butte on skis to travel 40 miles through the night to Aspen, Colorado as part of the classic backcountry race, the Grand Traverse. Help Hallie and Taylor reach their goal and pledge your support today!