Cilley-Barber - WI4 IV
A Walk On the Wild Side - WI5 II
Writing: Peter Hoang
Photography: Peter Hoang
Climbers: Peter Hoang, Dave Donaldson
Relative to the West coast, the East is quite flat. We have many plenty of short and steep terrain, but lack the mountainous scale - this is why Katahdin is a bit of an anomaly.
I first heard of Katahdin on Andriy’s annual ice report. The routes offered length, technical difficulty, and remoteness, making it the perfect objective for anyone on the East coast looking to wet their alpine whistle.
One of the things you might first notice when planning a trip to Katahdin is the amount of red-tape. Laura and Guy Waterman write about this extensively in their essay "Mt. Katahdin: Time For a Change."
There's a very strict set of rules that one must follow, many of which appear to be arbitrary to a climber and only set for liability purposes. To ensure a spot on the season's climb list, you'll have to book months in advance to pass a screening - pretty wild for something sub-14k - and even then. Thankfully, much of this has changed, and many of the restrictions have now been lifted.
A trip to Katahdin will begin in a little town called Millinocket, with a population of a little over 4000. There's only two main streets, Central, and Katahdin, so it's hard to get lost.
The town is known for their logging economy (and accompanying reality TV show), and location - being at the end of the Appalachian Trail. One of the few restaurants in town, the Appalachian Trail Cafe, opens up quite early for loggers and hikers alike, featuring an interesting roof that's signed by groups who have finished the trail.
It's worth noting that Millinocket's the last location to pick-up groceries or supplies before heading into Baxter State Park. It's also not hard to choose which place to shop at, since there's only one store.
The hike into Katahdin begins at the Abol Bridge parking lot. Winter travel requires climbers and hikers to use smaller side trails to access the main one a little further in, adding a bit of distance.
The main trail in is combed by the rangers regularly when they drive to and from their hut on snowmobiles. A nice gesture no doubt, but I found with fresh snowfall, the post-holing all the same anyways without skis or snowshoes.
From the Abol Bridge lot to the first major campground, Roaring Brook, it's about 21km of relatively flat terrain. Only snowmobiles are only permitted for rangers on the main trail, so relish the hike.
Previously, Baxter State Park required a mandatory overnight stay at Roaring Brook before continuing up to Chimney Pond(base of Katahdin). Unbeknownst to me, this rule had changed, so Dave and I hunkered down at Roaring Brook quite early into the day and spent the rest of it stretching our sore hips. It's been some time since I'd hiked that distance in snow, and I forgot how sore the hips can get from all the slippage that occurs when you hike in snow.
Having the early night before, Dave and I woke up quite early for the final short, but steep, 5.5km up to Chimney Pond. The trail isn't groomed here, and only wide enough for one hiker/snowmobile. If you hear a ranger plowing down on a snowmobile, be prepared to jump off the trail. Visibility is quite poor here with the thick tree-line and winding trail, rangers may not see you in time. Unfortunately, jumping off the trail can land you in some chest deep snow, resulting in an interesting swim back.
Upon arrival at Chimney Pond, you'll be placed in a maze of trails that will eventually lead to your lean-to. If you're baller enough, you only need to follow the main one to your heated cabin.
When Dave and I arrived, we were lucky to have the ranger present for help. After filling out a form for our climbing itinerary, the ranger gave us the general direction of where our lean-to would be.
The lean-to's themselves vary in size. Ours happened to be one of the larger ones, and featured an brush to help clean out snow. After setting up our new home, our pine martin neighbour paid a visit.
The next morning was a cold one. I always found the pre-dawn starts to be especially difficult in the winter - hard to leave one's cozy sleeping bag when it's dark and cold out. Thoughts of climbing the Cilley-Barber that day were enough to get Dave and I up and out of bed though.
We wake up at 0100, get dressed, and make our way to the other end of Chimney Pond to gather water to boil. The full moon was especially bright that day, so no headlamps were needed for our earlier activities.
We travelled up some steep snow and arrived at the base of the first pitch, a three-dimensional WI3. At the time it wasn't fully-formed, so the ice looked more like a strange sculpture than a flat curtain. The brightness from the full moon also provided additional aesthetic charm.
The Cilley-Barber route is basically ice, separated by some steep snow-fields. Belays are a mixture of pickets, screws, and rock gear. The climb is relatively straight forward up until the final crux pitch, so Dave and I were able to move at a steady pace.
When we arrived at the final crux pitch (WI4), spin drift was consistently flowing down the wall. Foolishly, I set the belay in one of the runnels, and Dave had to deal with the spin drift as I led the final pitch. In retrospect, it would have been better to set the belay off further to the right.
After the final crux pitch, it's mostly steep snow and 4th class scrambling to the ridge. From there, we decided to make a detour to the summit-proper since we were well ahead of time - and the weather was balmy.
To descend the route, Dave and I reversed the knifeblade ridge and scrambled our way down back to base camp. To this day, the descent ranks as one of my favourites - aesthetic and exposed the entire way down.
We arrived back at base camp before noon and had a celebratory meal before reorganizing our gear for the next day. It had been awhile since my day ended so early, so there was quite a bit of spare time to kill - taking photos and shuffling around the pond to scope the next day's objectives.
The next day Dave and I wake up a little later and find ourselves in a whiteout. The snow continued to dump at a pretty steady pace, so we decided to make our way over to Pamola Icefall to climb A Walk on the Wild Side before things got out of hand.
We had enough screws, so we decided to do the climb in one long pitch with our 70m rope. The climb offers some steep and sustained vertical climbing, with stemming options depending on which side of the icefall you decide to take up. Good fat ice was present the entire way.
The climb ends when the ice flow flattens out to a bulge where you can rappel off a v-thread. By the time I had gotten to the top, the snow arrived in full force and we were in whiteout conditions. It's something else to climb a good long pitch with only 10ft of visibility.
The next morning, Dave and I woke up to find our lean-to covered in several inches of new snow. Several parties had just arrived, unfortunately, hoping to climb the Cilley-Barber the next day. With high avi dangers, many of them opted to climb around Pamola instead or run the ridge traverse.
Before the hike out, Dave and I had one final meal. I boiled up some water and poured it into my backpacker's pantry to cook. To help preserve the heat, I decided it was a good idea to put it inside the puffy jacket I was wearing. Unfortunately, the seal broke and my food poured out everywhere.... It was quite a hit to morale. I would spend the rest of the hike out smelling chana masala on the straps of the backpack I was sitting on.
The hike was much more enjoyable on the way out than in - you can ride your gear sled down the steeper sections! With no wind and only a light snow, it was quite pleasant.
Dave and I ran a bit low on food, but we made it back to the car in high spirits. We figured we both could have done with only 1 extra energy bar each - not bad for food planning!
Overall, the trip was great, and went much smoother than expected. The Cilley-Barber truly provides a great alpine experience for anyone on the North-East coast!