Climbing up the Abol Slide, my mind reverted to the story from the Bangor Daily News: “Holden man died Saturday after falling more than 1,000 feet down the icy surface of the Abol Slide.”
I was thinking, maybe we should just take a break. There was great purchase on the ice with our microspikes and the rock holds were giant, secure and not that steep. What was the rush?
“Come on, we’re doing this, let’s go!” my climbing partner and cousin Dusty Kline yelled to himself as he looked up and proceeded through the next gap in the rock stack.
Kline, a Madison alum, is a little shorter than my 6-foot-1 frame, but way more muscular and we’d been climbing together for close to a decade. His pace was speedy but I was feeling like a 40-year-old climber: slow, out-of-breath and without an intense drive to push forward no matter what.
With every climb team approaching the tabletop plateau through the same Slide on that east face of the mountain, we eventually ran into a Boston-based group. The standard route up the east side is also popular, as it is the northern terminus of the infamous Appalachian Trail.
“This slide has some really wicked pahts to it,” the last man of their four-person team said.
“I can go home happy now, since I’m in New England and heard someone say, wicked,” I said.
“Really?! OK, heees anotha one: ‘you gotta be shi**ing me.’ We saw that ahh lot,” another member of the team said.
After leapfrogging the linguistic elitists, we still had a half-mile of the boulder maze to get to the plateau that led to the summit.
When you looked up to the top of the slide, it was impossible to gauge how far away it was and how big the rocks were. Little climber ants could give you perspective, and we had at least another hour to go. The irony was, climbing up was nothing compared to sketch moves and issues on the descent.
Above the treeline there were great views into the northern Maine wilderness. The trees below were bare, but so tightly packed that it looked like there wasn’t snow on the ground.
In reality, there were many feet of powder under the blotches of tree black. I kept trying to pick out our snowmobile, but it all looked the same — frozen lakes with a cream-top finish and forests that continued to connect all the way to the horizon.
It was just one more mile to the summit with a -22F windchill.
They stop plowing the roads at a certain point in northern Maine -– it’s just impossible to keep up with it and ain’t nobody tryin’ to go there anyway. For the locals, it’s no big deal; instead of putting on winter tires, they gas up their snow machines.
The outdoor “purest” prefers to hike or cross country ski to the trailhead of Abol Slide and Mt. Katahdin’s east side. That was our plan, too. All we had to do was learn how to cross country ski in Ohio before the trip.
In January, I called Karen at Snow Biz in Bellville to see about skis. She gave me the number of Steve Webster, owner of Webster’s Mountain Sports in Lexington. How crazy that in the middle of north central Ohio, if you count Snow Trails, there are three ski shops?
Webster was very patient with me as I asked a million questions and got fitted with some skis. Shortly thereafter, I was at Charles Mill Lake, doing 100-yard tracks in my new skis. Man, you could really fly on them, cover a lot of ground, but just like Source Sports Reporter and Katahdin-summer-summit-er Curt Conrad told me, “Cross country skiing is a lot of work. A lot.”
There was an intense stabbing pain in my groin and I was pretty sure I pulled a muscle while skiing, but unfortunately, I was not that lucky. The pain never went away over two weeks of icing and resting, half training. Time to see a doctor.
At 7 a.m. I was at the Cleveland Clinic Wooster offices talking to a surgeon about the injury I picked up.
Y’all ever have a hernia? It’s really cool and fun –- a piece of your intestine pokes through a thinning stomach lining and causes all kinds of uncomfortable situations. Don’t do an image search of what happens when the intestine goes too far, which is a real issue for men with inguinal hernias.
The only surgeon I could see on short notice told me to take down my pants for an exam. Again, super fun. Was stressed about being too injured to climb (plane tickets already bought), wondering was my intestine going to explode through my body, half naked, vulnerable and all turtled up as she did a very professional exam.
“I would not recommend surgery at this point,” she said.
“Will I make it worse if I keep exercising?” I asked.
“No, you won’t make it worse, but the pain can increase. If you are concerned about the pain and recovery, you should take it easy for three months,” she said.
“I’m climbing in Maine next month,” I said.
From Skis to Snowmobiles: the hernia prevented us from considering skiing in, which meant we’d have to hike with extremely heavy packs, camp, summit and then break camp and have a brutal hike out after the summit attempt. Not hernia-friendly, either.
Then I remembered emailing a company in Maine back in 2015 about renting snowmobiles to get closer to the mountain. Yes, 2015. Every year I try to put an expedition together for Maine in the winter, and for the past 7 years, I’ve always chickened out.
The rangers around Baxter State Park must have been a running betting pool going as to whether I will ever actually show up. One can’t just go climb Katahdin during winter whenever they want, you have to apply for a permit. It’s not like the permits you apply for in Washington state, the Sierras, etc., where you send in money and if the time is available, you’re in. For Maine, you actually have to submit your climbing resume, your gear, approach, timeline, what types of tools you have, etc.
In the years prior, I sent in my paperwork, paid my fees, got approved, and every time I went coward and backed out of the expedition. The route is physically grueling, but with the new Slide side route it’s probably only a Class II in winter. It was the isolation I always feared.
You can picture the outline of the United States. Florida juts out at the bottom right, and there’s Maine in the top right. Maine is more north than Montreal and Toronto. It features moose the size of horse trailers. The landscape is lake, woods, woods, lake, lake, woods. On the approach hike there was a sign that read, “You are entering Maine’s largest wilderness. Your safety is your responsibility. Rescuers can be many hours in arriving.”
Buttttt, it turned out, there was plenty of human activity. There were tons of “sled heads” snowmobiling from town to town, bar to bar. Hikers, snow bikers (imagine giant tires), cross country skiers and more were all inside Baxter State Park.
Replying to the same email from 2015, I wrote to Edwina of the New England Outdoor Center (NEOC) about what it would be like to rent a snowmobile. She was really great to work with on the logistics, having eyes on the ground is huge.
In order to get an early start, we’d have to get up there Friday night to do all the paperwork and go over the sled.
Early Friday morning flight from Columbus to New Jersey with the New York skyline below the clouds. From the distance, One World Trade looked like the tallest building in a city lego set.
Flight two to Portland, Maine. The second time I’ve flown into a Portland for a highpoint. On the flight, Dusty seemed to really connect with this flight attendant. Seemed like love-at-first sight between the two of them.
Mid flight, this overweight older lady with cotton candy-poofed hair and spots missing started yelling about apple juice. Getting up with her cane, she proceeded back to the drink cart and procured a can of juice and a full glass of ice.
Returning to her seat, she stumbled a bit and tossed the ice on Dusty and the ground around him. She looked down, didn’t clean anything up and went to her seat.
Couple minutes later, Dusty’s future wife, the flight attendant, came down the aisle, looked at the ice on the floor, looked at Dusty, shook her head in disgust and kept walking as he was trying to explain it all. That’s the way love goes I guess.
The Portland coast was like a New England puzzle picture: watermelon-sized rocks on the beach, coastline that was super jagged and indented all over the place, endless lighthouses to deal with all the little protruding land masses that would crash the ships.
Once we landed around noon, it was the same process for every trip: grocery store for water, snacks, PB&Js, bars, then get some pizza or subs something that could be packed for dinner, camp fuel and lighters (can’t fly with them) and then driving some crazy extra amount towards the range.
In the grocery store, there was a coffee station and I asked the barista, “I’m from Ohio, I’d like something local, do you have any Maine coffee?”
“Ummm, what do you mean?” the young teenage male asked.
“Coffee from Maine. Wait. Guess you don’t grow coffee here. Nevermind. Just like, a medium, like, coffee,” I said.
Camp fuel was procured at Eastern Mountain Sports, the company that taught me mountaineering on Mt Washington nine years earlier. They still had my phone number saved as a rewards member.
From Portland, it was three hours north, past all the bald eagles surrounding the capital of Augusta, around Stephen King’s home in Bangor and to the little village of Millinocket.
Do you know what a bald eagle sounds like? You can hear the cry in your head, right? What if I told you Hollywood uses a red-tailed hawk scream for the sound of a bald eagle? I found out the truth:
Outside getting gas and it was in the single digits and just too cold to exist and I remember having deep regrets about every aspect of the trip.
At NEOC around 7 p.m., Edwina wasn’t around but Sara(h) Brown was happy to help us through all the paperwork.
“I climbed Katahdin a long time ago and it took all day. In summer. Are you sure you’re going to have the snowmobile back by 5 p.m. tomorrow? It’s $75 an hour after five and we’ll have to send a recovery team out for you at some point,” Brown said.
Edwina and I had worked out a 7 a.m. departure, but Brown called over fellow worker Matt Race and explained the situation. They both were going to ensure the sled was ready to go at dawn the next day.
Race had lived in Michigan and understood the snowmobile culture and was surprised we were planning on wearing mountaineering gear instead of sled bibs and extra protection. He hooked us up huge with some extra gear and pulled the sled to the end of the property. All we had to do was show up and go in the morning.
Back to the motel in Millinocket, with peeling wallpaper and cracks everywhere but hot water, for a couple of hours of sleep, having only gotten 2-3 hours the night before. Dusty opted for shrimp from the Chinese place next door and he paid for it all evening, running to the bathroom to ensure complete dehydration for tomorrow.
At some point I caught a cold/cough and my nose wouldn’t stop running and I was blowing into tissues all night.
The snowmobile approach: It was 5F degrees and windy when we fired up the Ski Doo Grand Touring 600. Pink sunrise hues were coating the pale glow of the frozen lake beside the building. It was like riding in the back of a pickup truck during winter, but we were warm thanks to Brown and Race. Alone on the wide trails in the thick leafless woods — lot of white birch and pine.
“Hey, stop!” Kline yelled to me from the back second seat.
Our gear, that we thought was secured to the back compartment of the snowmobile, fell off. Good thing he caught it quickly or that would have been some serious time loss doing a recovery mission.
Navigating and controlling the Ski Do came naturally, as my father raised us on Kity Cats, John Deere 340/440s and Yamaha Phazers. Even though I was always the weakest snowmobiler in the family, mom included, I still could do trail riding no problem. I can change a belt (well, in theory, seen it done 100 times lol), lean with the turns and always have remembered what my brother MF used to say: “You control the sled, not the other way around.”
I cut the engine after 17 some miles of riding when we saw the signs of Abol Campground, aka the trailhead.
Some fellow highpointers were there that had camped Thursday night and made a summit attempt yesterday. The winds were too severe and they had to turn back close to the summit.
The first few miles of the trail were through a stair-stepping pine tunnel with no views. I was tired and grumpy and didn’t like the endless snow hiking. Before we left, we received beta from the rangers that the trail was packed out, so we didn’t need snowshoes.
The plan was to use microspikes the whole time, as we thought crampons were an overkill. Yes, to other climbers reading this, that was not smart. 45 summits in, and I still go moron from time to time.
There were two main parts/pitches/cruxes on the route. A mile of the boulder Slide, where the guy fell 1,000 feet to his death at the start of this story. And the second, is the plateau or table top, that was known for extreme winds that lead to the final summit hill.
Pushing through the Abol Slide was challenging, but we were never in any real danger. The whiteout emergency rope stayed in my pack and Kline led most of the way through the maze with clean, confident moves and really left me no choice but to follow and finish the slide.
The reason the flat table top is such a challenge in winter is because of the wind chill where no skin could be exposed. Leading up to the climb, the weather was checked once a day, and then two weeks before, twice a day.
Consistently, we saw insane winds that would not allow us to summit -– can’t walk let alone climb if the wind literally blows you over. On Feb. 22, the forecast was -33F windchill and 45 MPH winds. Next check the temperature improved, only 3F windchill, but 60 MPH winds and 7 inches of snow.
On March 2, three days before the climb, the forecast for summit day was -20F windchill and 30 MPH. Finally, a weather report we could actually climb in, although with some misery, and that forecast stayed pretty true.
Training for Maine, I would get up at 6 a.m. on super cold days in Ohio and go walk the hilly country roads around Mifflin with a full pack, but you simply cannot replicate the true tundra.
That said, we were never cold. When you are working non stop for hours, as long as you have solid base layers and a shell, you would be fine.
At the 5,269-feet summit, pretty sure I hugged the Katahdin sign like it was a lost child gone for seven years.
With the amazing bluebird sky, we could send endlessly but still got turned around on the plateau before making it back to the top of the Slide.
Falls happen so instantaneously that you’re pretty much on the ground before you have time to think or react. Very fortunate that my fall happened at the top crest of the Slide, where it was still flat. Cracked my elbow pretty good.
The sun melted the ice, and as the water ran down, the wind re-froze it, making it like someone poured olive oil all over a slanted ice rink. This is where crampons were needed, as the micros didn’t have the bite in the spike to make the purchase needed on the ice. I brought crampons with me on the snowmobile. And the micros were fine, like I said, no real danger.
If there weren’t good rocks to scrabble down, we’d just get on our stomachs or butts and slide down five feet and catch the next boulder. Not ideal but if we missed the boulder we’d crash into the next rock, but you wouldn’t die, just get a little bloody, maybe sprain a wrist or ankle, but you’d get out.
Every state highpoint, east of the Dakotas, has now been done in winter conditions, which was a big goal of mine from the start of this campaign.
The Maine sun was setting on our snowmobile ride back, and I thought a lot about my family, about how with state highpoint #46 completed, I was so close to never leaving them again. But then again, there are a lot of mountains on this Earth and I’m a scumbag so we’ll see…
Four States Left
Washington: my early lottery application has been sent in for Rainier. It’s highly competitive but I hope to secure a permit for June. It would be a two-person unguided assault with a doctor that lives in Seattle.
North Dakota: Easy 3,506 foot hike to White Butte. Maybe try and squeeze that in in July???
Texas: waiting to complete Rainier first, as I don’t want to be in the 48 club without being sure I can get all the states in the lower 48. Guadalupe Peak is 8,751 and can be done in a day, while Rainier may take a couple attempts.
Alaska: got about 8 years before I attempt that. The kids need to be in college when I leave.
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