Skiing Mount Katahdin, Lone Wolf of the East

Words and images by Mike Whelan, Treasured Heights

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. The good news is that 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

Katahdin is legendary, and skied by few. 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. To the north of the summit is a large cirque with 2k’ vertical of quality gully skiing.

Most of Katahdin’s 40+ gullies and couloirs are accessed from the Roaring Brook and Chimney Pond access points 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.

A Tangle of Red Tape

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

Baxter State Park is zealously committed to safety, but some of the rules actually make the mountain more dangerous. There is a reservation system and an official list of gear derived from historic times. Skiers are required to reserve spots in lean-tos or bunkhouses by mail ahead of time. Users boxed into a reservation system tend to push their luck during bad weather and avy conditions because of the limited chances to do the peak.

Skiing is also prohibited after April 1st. This rule is crazy given that slopes prone to avalanche become safer as April and May come along. Katahdin has some of  — if not THE — best steep skiing in the East, but some years that terrain won’t come in until after the cutoff date. People have mentioned “mud season” as an excuse for cutting off skiing, but this seems nonsensical given that skiers naturally seek to both ascend and descend on gullies with the deepest snow. There is a world of difference between summer hiker’s boots and skis and snowshoes atop feet of snow.

Neighboring nonprofit Granite Backcountry Alliance, with support from the national Winter Wildlands Alliance may be the best way to alter Baxter’s bizarre rules. With some luck in the future, Baxter State Park could have more functional winter regulations that are actually drafted by winter users, not politicians who only do summer hiking.

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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