Hikers: "Team Tester:" Matthew Reagan, Randy Weinstein, Joanna Dinaro, Brian Phenix, Phil Marrone, Matthew DiPippo, and friends.
"Team Tester" plus many friends arrived at the south gate of Baxter State Park at about 5:30am after a night in one of Millinocket's fine lodging establishments. The early start time was necessary due the the limited number of cars allowed into the inner parking lots each day. We had a tough ten mile hike as it is, so walking into the park was not an option! We began our hike from the Roaring Brook campground and ascended via the Helon Taylor trail. The trail climbs moderately up a minor wooded peak, descends into a minor col, and then heads steeply up the ridge towards Pamola Peak. As we reached treeline, magnificent views into the valley below opened up to the north (first photo--click for full sized version).
The trail then began a steep ascent straight up Pamola (second photo, left), with full exposure and views north toward the Maine wilderness, south toward the Penobscot, and east to the coast. Fortunately, the weather was perfect, with plenty of sun and only a light breeze, allowing us to seriously consider a crossing of the knife edge. From the summit of Pamola Peak, we stood at the brink of the great South Basin of Katahdin, with views across the giant cirque to Baxter Peak (third photo, right), the main summit, and the steep cliffs that form the Chimney and the northern wall of the Knife Edge.
After a brief rest on the Pamola summit, we followed the trail south and west toward the Chimney. This formation is a narrow cleft in the ridge-top capping a steep, chute-like gully that plunges down into the basin. The trail passes down into and then up out of this cleft, with only natural handholds available. The view into the Chimney cleft itself is spectacular and somewhat frightening considering the exposure.
Once past the Chimney, we headed out onto the Knife Edge itself. The trail snakes along the north side of the ridge with just enough footing for single-file passage, and then attains the ridge top with awesome views and ridiculous exposure (fourth photo, left).O At some points, the trail is only two to three feet wide, and is "paved" with loose, often tilted, rock slabs. A steep, scrub-covered slope heads down to the south (for several thousand feet), and ledges and hanging cliffs line the basin to the north. Don't try this in fog, ice, windy weather, or with people who are afraid of heights.
We followed the ridge west for about one mile and two hours, and soon approached the broader shoulder of Baxter Peak. Footing in this area is less certain due to smaller, looser rock, but without the cliff on the right, it's not much of a problem. Several minor summits must be crossed along this section of the ridge, and we gained the last bit of vertical to reach the summit cone.
On the main summit, the trail meets up with the northern end of the Appalachian Trail at a wooden marker and metal plaque (fifth photo, right). An enormous summit cairn adds twenty feet to the height (5260' as it is). We spent an hour on the summit (which was surprisingly crowded for such an inaccessible place) enjoying the 360' views and a well-earned lunch.
From the summit, we headed south and west along the A.T. itself, onto the broad alpine plateau that forms the southern foundation of the peak. At the low point of the col, we turned north and descended rapidly down the Saddle Trail, a steep slidepath of sand and loose rock that drops into the scrub along the lip of the basin. We had one close call at this point, as one climber lost her footing on a loose rock and took a ten foot header into the scrub. A well-placed backpack cushioned the fall and helped us avoid a long, long, long evacuation attempt. At the bottom of the slide, we entered an airy section of pine forest along the floor of the basin, and about a mile below reached the campground at Chimney Pond. The views across the pond to the Chimney and the Knife Edge cliffs were remarkable (last photo, left) and unlike anything I've seen in the Northeast.
As wonderful as this spot was (if you ever camp in Baxter, I highly recommend it), we still had nearly four miles of hiking to get back to Roaring Brook. The trail from here was a moderately graded but rocky hike through pine woods, birch woods, and finally hardwood forest. The last mile followed the bank of the brook itself, although few of us clearly remember exactly what that part of the hike was like.
Total time: 13 hours. Oh, my.
photos by Matthew Reagan
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