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New member
Dec 27, 2012
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Colonie, NY
(Photo Credit: Rebecca Swem)

My enduring friend and hiking partner, Becky, has been working quite hard at her Winter NE111 (or W115, as some call it), of which fewer than one hundred people have achieved. With only three remaining - Katahdin, Hamlin, and North Brother (the northern-most peaks, all in Maine’s Baxter State Park) – she asked me last year if I could go with her to climb North Brother, so I obliged. I am not working on the W115 but did North Brother twice in years past, so I thought it would not be a terribly big deal to do it. Oh, the two of us got far more than we bargained for!

On Sunday, we pulled a pulk with all of our belongings for up to a five-day stay to the Cozy Cabin in Nesowadnehunk Field Campground. No electricity. No Internet. Wood stove. Propane light. Outhouse. Retrieve water (and boil it) from the nearby stream. Away from civilization. GOOD! We saw hardly a soul, save for a couple of XC skiers. We had a long chat with the forest ranger passing through, who said one person recently attempted North Brother but turned back at the Marston Trail/Mt Coe Trail junction (from which it is 0.8 mi to the summit) because of difficulty finding the trail and falling into spruce traps. In the end, Becky and I found out that this year, three people before us attempted to summit North Brother but failed; we would be the first, and perhaps the only ones, to summit North Brother this year in the winter. The ranger also told us that the trails in Baxter S.P. are not blazed-out for the winter. The trails in BSP have blue or white paint blazes for markers; in the case of deep snow, such are often hidden (which would be the case for us). Our plan: do a recon hike on Monday, breaking trail as far as we can to North Brother, summiting if possible. If we fail to summit, then attempt again on Wednesday, when the weather is supposed to be clear and much less windy.

On Monday, we snowshoed about 3-1/2 miles from our cabin to the trailhead, a long walk which would prove to be our “death march” at the end of the day. With the summits ensconced in the clouds, it was evident there would be no views if we were to make it to the summit. We took turns breaking trail, necessary drudgery if you want to work on some winter peak-bagging list. The blue blazes on the Marston Trail were apparent for the most part up to the first junction. We lost the trail a few times but, having an “instinct” for trail patterns, we managed to find our way. By time we arrived at said junction, it was snowing and our base layers were damp with sweat (yes, we are smart enough to bring dry base layers in our pack). With the deep snow, branches of the trees that would normally be above us were constantly hitting us in the face, and any reprieves we got from open areas were short-lived; this would be the case for most of our hike. When we reached the unnamed pond at the western base of South Brother, we could see that where the cirque around the pond plateaus was in the clouds. From the pond, our steepest climbing and hardest of the trail-breaking that day would begin. Several steep sections made for difficulty getting traction, as we tried pounding out steps with our snowshoes; one step forward, three steps back. A very tiring, laborious process that only someone who’s done trail-breaking on steep trails can appreciate. I am fortunate Becky is tolerant of my colorful use of expletives! Upon reaching the plateau of the cirque, we could not see the pond below us (which you normally can, when its clear). From that point on, we lost the trail more often, as the blue blazes were easily hidden by the deep snow. Spruce traps snared us on occasion. When we lost the trail, we either looked around and forged ahead on a clear stretch (what seemed to be a trail), or we leveraged my GPS with a track of North Brother loaded to lead us in the right direction. We were less than a tenth of a mile from the Marston Trail/Mt Coe Trail junction when a heavy downpour of small-pellet hail began. Becky and I were both cold and wet, and losing the trail was becoming a constant, so we decided to end our recon right then and there. North Brother is a very remote peak, and with only two rangers in the field in Baxter S.P., there was no sense in aggravating our condition further to the extent where we would be in serious trouble. Besides, even if we were not wet, we would be climbing in dangerous white-out conditions on the summit cone. We back-tracked, got back to our cabin before nightfall, and discussed our plans for Wednesday – our final chance to summit North Brother. The winds picked up further, battering our cabin; we could make out the occasional snow-devils whirling about outside our cabin. (Round-trip: ~14 mi. Elevation gain: ~2620 ft)

Tuesday was our day of rest. Stretch. Hydrate. But having to return to the trail we broke out (to an extent), and what laid beyond where we stopped, was on our minds. That Wednesday would be a clear, windless day would be (we hoped) our saving grace.

On Wednesday, we hit the road again, this time in the dark. As twilight started to announce itself, the silhouette of Doubletop Mountain could be seen through the trees on our right, following us all the way. At around 7:05AM, we started back on the trail. Doubletop Mountain and its patchwork of slides was in clear view, and there was not a cloud in the sky. We made very good time up to the point where we stopped on Monday, due to our trail-breaking efforts. Granted, we were feeling the strain in our legs from Monday’s hike, but the weather heightened our spirits. You could not get better weather for winter hiking than we had that day! But, alas, the trail-breaking and route finding resumed. The Marsten Trail/Mt Coe Trail junction was inconspicuous, except for being marked by orange flagging. Again, we faced the frequent battering of our faces by branches. The trail was lost even more frequently. Often, we would look around but could not find ANY discernable trail. Everything looked the same. I used my GPS to gain some general direction as to where to go. The rest of our trek up to above tree line was essentially a bushwhack. We were breaking trail on steep slopes, in dense stands of trees, trying to overcome the gauntlet of branches that abused us. I became more “creative” with whatever expletives came to mind, thankful that Becky did not mind. After much time-consuming labor, we finally reached tree line. It was a beautiful sight – and a relief. There was a hard crust of snow, which we dug into with our snowshoes as we made our way to. (NOTE: only a tenth out of the 8/10ths of a mile of trail from the last junction to the summit is above tree line). Our pace and confidence picked up, as we knew we would achieve our goal. Finally, at 11:59AM, Becky and I reached the summit of North Brother!

The panorama about us was absolutely, indescribably spectacular. Distant mountains and lakes could be made out as far as the eye could see. The clarity was incredible and, I contend, rare. The peaks about us were Becky’s audience, for if they were human, I would imagine them saying, “Congratulations, kid! You made it! Just two more to go!” To the southeast, we could make out Hamlin Peak and, in all its glory, Mount Katahdin, with its serrated Knife’s Edge extending from it. They would have said, “We will be here to welcome you when you seek us out.” Becky seemed to be on Cloud Nine and seeing her make it to the summit of North Brother was my reward for the week. I was glad all went well, that we persevered and made it, and made it back down safely. I am happy.

North Brother is a very, very tough peak to get in the winter, and folks should not be so naïve to think that a hike up a “mere” 4.4-mile long trail to the summit will be easy. Of the peaks I have done in nine years of winter hiking, the climb of North Brother ranks in the top-five most difficult. Becky would concur in regard to her Winter 115. The climb was far more exhausting than our 19-mile hike of Mount Allen almost two weeks ago!

On a final note, one does not “conquer” a mountain (or “crush it,” or other egotistical term one would like to apply). A mountain can flick you off like an annoying flea. If you summit, you conquered whatever fears, frustrations, exhaustion, pains, etc. you had. You managed to handle very challenging weather or trail conditions. In the end, you may have learned more about your limitations as well as how much further you could push yourself to achieve the goal. Always, and I mean ALWAYS, respect the mountain and the weather.

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Wonderful report! You went not for your own sake, but for your friend. And it looks like you were richly rewarded.

Congrats to both of you!
W00t! Congratulations - Any of the Baxter Peaks in winter is an accomplishment!

Can you share where you parked / how far you had to pulk to get to Nesowadnehunk?
When you say Cozy, presumably this is new, 8 person (2 bunkroom) edition?

(Been there, done that)
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Definitely sounds like it was a well earned summit especially with only two folks.