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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Instagram: @ski_TreasuredHeights
Website: http://www.TreasuredHeights.com

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.”

Guest post by Michael Whelan  |  Photos by Xhedral

A long time ago, in a desert far, far away I was skiing a beautiful line in the La Sals near Moab, Utah. There I met a local who told tales of great powder in a rarely visited mountain range called the Abajos. Part of this range is now within Bears Ears National Monument. This week I finally decided to go ski some of the last lines of the season in the range.

This week is also a critical week for the fate of the Bears Ears National Monument. The Trump administration is taking the first steps towards potentially shrinking or rescinding Bears Ears and 26 other monuments designated in the past 21 years. Bears Ears has become a focal point in the national struggle to defend the West’s last wild places.

Bears Ears National Monument includes the western half of the Abajo Mountains, with the highest point being the 11,014 foot Unamed Peak. The eastern side of the range is the most popular for skiing and features an old ski area and 2,000 foot gully runs. Multiple 10,000 foot peaks with steep tree and gully lines can be accessed from near Monticello, Utah. My goal was to ski the highest peak in the range and scout lines on the Bears Ears side of the peaks.

Unnamed Peak, at 11,014 feet this is the highest point in Bears Ears National Monument

The Abajos are so quiet that no one had published a report on late season skiing in the region before. I was imagining some real bottom-of-the-barrel gully skiing, and it was hard to find any partners on short notice. Arriving in the area I found only local hunters with packs of hound dogs. I felt far from the bustle of tourists that buzz around Moab. A recent snow made it possible to start skinning from 8,800 feet and it wasn’t long that I was up in the heart of this little range. Around me steep wooded lines dropped off of ridges.

When I gained elevation it became apparent that Unnamed Peak, my original goal, had seen its best skiing go by a month ago. I opted to ski a few gullies and the North Face of Abajo Peak instead and I found deep snow and beautiful tree lines. Both Abajo Peak and Jackson Ridge have quality north facing lines. North Creek Road skirts close to the peaks and gives excellent access to several valleys. While the La Sals get all the attention, the Abajos seem to have better access to a broad cross section of the peaks.

The north face of Abajo Peak

Bears Ears was designated as a monument to protect the archaeological and cultural sites contained within its boundaries but the region holds fantastic recreation opportunities as well. Much has been written about the world class climbing, mountain biking, and hiking within Bears Ears and, as I learned, the monument holds great ski terrain as well. However, Utah politicians and extractive industries are fighting to undo the monument. The monument was designated after years of public discourse involving all stakeholders and only happened after efforts to protect the area through Congressional designation failed. All Americans, not just those who live in southeastern Utah, have a stake in the future of Bears Ears. These lands, like all public lands, belong to all of us and monuments protect our collective national heritage.

The Abajos feature some very accessible terrain

Make your voice heard before Friday May 26th, 2017: use the Outdoor Alliance’s letter writing tool to tell Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke that you support the Bears Ears National Monument as it stands.

[Trip Report] Unplugged and On Skis in the Lower 48’s Largest Wilderness

The plane sputtered (like small planes do) as we lifted from the Boise airport, soaring north above the rolling hills of the city. I’d departed Bozeman far too late after meetings and a dinner party, arriving in Boise in time for a one-hour nap in the airport parking lot. Relief hit as we coasted in the air, leaving the bustling world behind and entering the wild landscapes of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness.

There is nothing quite like a bird’s eye view of a wild landscape — ultimate eye candy.

The Middle Fork Lodge is an in-holding nestled in the middle of the largest wilderness area in the lower 48. The Middle Fork of the Salmon River snakes alongside beautifully renovated, yet quaint, buildings. Turquoise pools of natural hot spring water welcome visitors. The silence and views are divine.

Our crew was excited to bring along ski touring gear and explore the glisse potential of nearby terrain. We had three days, and ample energy and motivation.

That afternoon we split into two groups and headed out for our first tour above the lodge. Ski conditions were marginal, but the wildness more than made up for the sandwich of crusts. With any luck we’d time our tour just right and have a touch of corn on the descent.

My group made our way up a hill just above the lodge with phenomenal views of the river below. Along the way we spotted numerous tracks; mule deer, elk, and possibly a bobcat, among other smaller critters. We skinned until the slope became too steep, and switched to booting up the variable crusty snow. As we topped out on our intended knoll we realized this was one of those places where each ridgeline goes on and on — you think you are reaching the summit, only to realize there is yet another one ahead, and then another. The vastness of the place began to trickle in.

We found decent corn snow and even a touch of leeward powder for some turns towards the river below, marveling in the beauty.

We decided to ski as a larger group on the second day and explore some terrain to the south of the lodge (with north facing aspects, that might hold nice snow). Tricky snow made for a variable ascent alternating between skinning on firm snow and boot-packing. Despite the marginal conditions camaraderie was high, and conversation meaningful. As a group there was a deep appreciation for wildness and wilderness — a kindred mindset instantly connecting us all.

From the top of Scarface Mountain the views were spectacular. How could they not be with 50 miles of wildness surrounding us in every direction? We parted ways again, one group headed for the hot springs, another for an adventure ski (unknown conditions, questionable exit, and high bushwhack potential).

Each afternoon returning to the lodge was a bit surreal. A hot soak, a delicious meal, and incredible company made me feel like I was in Never Never Land. “Where am I?” I kept thinking to myself, “Is this real?”

Our final day was forecasted to be rainy. I could hear the pitter-patter of raindrops as I awoke. We decided we ought to try to ski anyway, because well, why not? There are a lot of things in life worse than skiing in the rain. And when you have hot springs to come back to you have absolutely no reason to complain. As we made our way higher and higher, climbing up and out of the isothermal snow, the surface began to firm up and become coated with an increasingly deep layer of snow. Slowly we climbed into winter, cresting a windy ridgeline, and eventually finding ourselves on top of a small peak with 4 – 6” of fresh powder! Our perseverance was rewarded (kind of) as some of us surfed above the crust and others broke through to challenging isothermal snow. But it was still fun, and beautiful! We returned to the lodge for another delightful and insightful evening.

It was such a treat to be surrounded by a group of like-minded people — celebrating and sharing skiing in such a unique place. Quality time with WWA Executive Director, Mark Menlove, and fellow ambassador Forrest McCarthy, with whom I’d conversed but never shared the skin track with, was wonderful. I felt so honored to listen and learn from everyone around me, and from the wilderness.

It’s important to remember to unplug and to re-center; to remember why we do the work we do, and why we must protect wild places like the Frank Church Wilderness.