Day Hikes in Baxter State Park, November 6-8, 2015
Day 2: Failed Attempt to Reach Baxter Peak from Roaring Brook via Chimney Pond and Cathedral Trail
14.4km, 7:35 (moving 4:39), Gain/Loss 859m
Day 1 was a successful short hike to South Turner mountain. Day 2 was to be our most ambitious hike of the weekend.
We had been watching the mountain weather forecasts closely in the days leading up to the trip, and from what we could tell there was minimal precipitation on Baxter Peak and the Knife Edge. Even though it was November, we had to set our sights high – weather permitting, we would hike from Roaring Brook to Chimney Pond campground, up Cathedral trail to the summit, then along the Knife Edge and back down Helon Taylor trail to the car. We knew this was a long shot, best-case scenario for November, but we also knew that we had options – we could skip the Knife Edge and return down the Saddle trail if there were any concerns. Wade and I have crossed the Knife Edge twice previously, but hiking up Cathedral trail would be new to us all.
We wanted to optimize the daylight hours, so we arrived at the gate just a few minutes after it opened at 6am. There is no cell service in the area so we hadn’t seen a weather update in about 24 hours, but the friendly ranger at the front gate passed along a report of sunny skies and less wind than had previously been forecast (for her area). We were in high spirits as we set out for the 20 minute drive through the park, bolstered further by seeing the sunrise behind us reflected in a bright red Mount Katahdin visible through the trees.
Clouds started to appear in the sky as we neared our destination. In the Roaring Brook campground parking lot we spoke briefly with a lone hiker who was setting out on an even more ambitious trek, hoping to climb up Hamlin Ridge and back around across the Knife Edge. He had been pleased to hear that the ranger expected his route to be clear of snow, and he set off moving quickly, wearing sneakers. It looked like he was heading out for a trail run. The ranger had made it clear that at this time of year they rely heavily on fellow hikers to report the trail conditions. During the week there are few hikers so reports are limited.
There was a brief period of light rain while we were making the final preparations, and occasional sprinkles accompanied us on the first part of Chimney Pond trail. From the very start of our hike, it seemed colder and windier than we were expecting. Shortly thereafter, the sky turned grey and sprinkles gave way to flurries.
We passed a group of two hikers heading back to the parking lot as we approached Chimney Pond campground. They had decided that with the deteriorating conditions, it was time to turn around. Aside from the lone hiker heading up Hamlin, we were now the only people in the area. Our ambitious route was looking less likely by the minute, but we weren’t prepared to give up yet and that’s the beauty of a fluid plan. Plan A was probably out, plan B/C/D… maybe.
We stopped at Chimney Pond campground for a quick snack. The sky was continuing to darken with intermittent flurries, though we kept hoping that they would blow through before we started to climb. Even at this elevation, the wind was fierce, well above the predictions we had seen for the day. Knife Edge was definitely out for today, but we were still hopeful that we’d be able to make it to the peak.
As we set out up Cathedral trail the snow quickly returned, with a few heavy squalls. As long as the rocks remained dry we climbed higher, mindful of the fact that we needed to leave ourselves an option to come back down if the conditions worsened (Cathedral trail is not recommended for descents even on clear days). For a few moments here and there we could see patches of blue sky off in the distance.
About half way up the trail, just at the level of the first Cathedral, Mark paused just below a huge flat expanse of rock. The snow was starting to accumulate and the rocks were starting to get icy. We all agreed that this was the time to turn around, before the descent became any more treacherous. We were fairly confident that we could have made it to the top of the trail, but it would have been very slow going and we would have likely run out of daylight before making it back down below treeline. We have previously crossed the tablelands in a summer rainstorm and it was very slippery and slow going. Given the uncertain conditions and potential for rapid deterioration, we didn’t want to take the chance. Luckily, we were still all smiling as we started the descent.
As soon as we started the descent, blue sky appeared again off in the distance, though the clouds and snow were pouring over the tablelands in the other direction heavier than ever.
Back at Chimney Pond campground we stopped again in the relative shelter of a lean-to for another snack, to dust off the ice, and to adjust layers.
Though there was no snow at this point, the ceiling remained low and the wind was bitter cold, blowing whitecaps and creating mini water spouts across Chimney Pond.
We were thrilled to run into the solo hiker back at Chimney Pond. He made it up Hamlin Ridge but then unexpectedly encountered some deep pockets of snow up top. Luckily he’d been able to make it across and down the Saddle trail without too much trouble. He seemed equally pleased to see that we were also back down off the mountain.
It was a cold hike back down to Roaring Brook with frequent stops to adjust layers as the wind and our speed changed.
Mountains are unpredictable at the best of times. Sunny skies returned on the drive back to the South Gate, and the Ranger was surprised to hear about the conditions we encountered higher up (it had stayed sunny where she was). A quick chat and we headed back to the Togue Pond Visitor Center where we couldn’t resist stopping to admire Mount Katahdin from its sunny side.
We won’t try for Baxter Peak and the Knife Edge again until next summer, but we still had one more day of hiking left on this trip. Since it was an unexpectedly early finish, we decided to drive back into Millinocket for a hot supper and to review our maps and guide books to decide where we’d hike on Day 3 of our weekend adventure.