Keith texted me asking if I would be interested in climbing Katahdin in two weeks. He's taking his Alpine Guide Exam in September and needed practice short roping clients up thousands of feet of terrain. Katahdin is the obvious choice of venue in the northeast. It was difficult to find a reason not to go.
I met Keith and his friend Brenden in Augusta, Maine, about 2.5 hours south of the park. We hopped into Keith's car and made good time on I-95, passing thick Maine pine trees on our way north. We got to Roaring Brook Campground at noon and were on the trail for our approach at 12:20; far later than most parties would consider starting such a climb.
We cruised up to Chimney Pond, took a short break and then skirted along the pond hopping on rocks until we came to a small river drainage. After following the drainage for a minute Keith stopped short immediately in front of me.
"There's a moose."
"Right in front of us."
Indeed, one of Katahdin's permanent residents was staring intently at us from only 20 feet away. So we backed up and skirted around her on the other side of the drainage.
Eventually the drainage opened up and we could see all of the South Basin, including our intended route up Pamola IV.
It was early July but there were still patches of snow in the basin, including at the base of our route. It's always fun to find mini glaciers in New England during the summer.
A small amount of scrambling brought us to the base of Pamola IV. Keith roped us up and we climbed a short section of 4th class and lower 5th class rock and then ran into some bushes. About 40 yards of thick Maine alpine shubbery ran straight uphill and separated us from the rest of the ridge line.
After some vertical bushwhacking we were able to start the real climbing. Over 1000' of beautifully exposed 4th and 5th class rock in one of the most spectacular locations on the east coast. Keith kept the pitches short and we moved quickly.
About 1/3rd of the way up the ridge we came to our crux pitch. About 40 feet or so of a dihedral split down the middle by a fist-sized crack. I would guess it was 5.6/5.7ish. There were plenty of other variations to the route that would have upped the challenge but our goal was to move quickly and efficiently.
The rest of the route went smoothly. Mostly 4th class interspersed with some easy 5th class moves. All the while Keith kept the momentum up and we were able to top out Pamola with plenty of light to spare.
We made a quick jaunt down the Helon Taylor trail back to Roaring Brook campground and decided on what the next day's mission was going to be while refueling on Good To-Go food.
We had already made one trip up to the Katahdin ridgeline. Would we have the legs to make another? Keith wanted to get home to his wife and kids in New Hampshire before 5 p.m. and I was keen to not drive the 4.5 sleepy hours home in the dark. To complete our preferred objective, the Armadillo route, we needed to get on the trail no later than 4 a.m. Which meant we would get about 4-5 hours of sleep in a noisy bunkhouse before we put another 4000' of elevation gain on our legs. "Let's do it!"
The alarm on my watch went off way too early and were on the trail well before twilight. The trail to Chimney pond was familiar now, even under headlamps, and we made good time. At the pond the sun had started to peak over the mountains and we took the same route around to the drainage. Our friendly moose hadn't left and Keith wasn't thrilled to have stumbled upon her again. But all was well and we kept moving.
After breaking out of the drainage above the pond we met our first real obstacle: 1000+ feet of broken, wet rock slab intertwined with dense alpine brush. It was brutal. Whenever we thought we found a weakness in the wall above us some new patch of slimy wet rock with no chance of protection had us traverse through the bushes. But we moved upwards. We had plenty of daylight and the thought of rappelling through that mess to bail was even less appealing than continuing up through it.
Finally we found our way to the objective: a narrow grass ledge that traverses the base of a huge rock face that leads to a massive, broken flake that just touches the face. Keith led us up the flake to an ominous fist crack that went on for 2 pitches.
All of the beta said that at least one #4 camalot was needed to protect the crack. If you only bring one you can bump the piece up as you go. Keith struggled to move the #4 smoothly as he went up. They were such tight placements that they fought him every time he tried to bump it. Not ideal when you're trying to move the only piece of gear that's keeping you from a huge whipper and potentially smacking a ledge. But he moved onwards and upwards and we otherwise made quick work of the crux pitches.
The rest of the climb moved along the ridge on a knife edge that dropped into the Katahdin abyss. Awesome exposure and easy scrambling. We topped out just south of Baxter peak into the clouds and got to watch the crowds of hikers milling around on the summit. We packed up, moved up and over Baxter peak and then descended the Cathedral trail. Traditionally an uphill route only, the Cathedral trail has some steep boulders and rock scrambling. But after what we had done the past few days it was easy.
We had climbed Katahdin via 5th class routes twice in a span of about 26 hours. We got it all: rock, snow, moose, inquisitive hikers and tons of vertical!