These peaks are prized winter mountaineering goals

By Ron Chase

Six of us awoke early in the bunkhouse at South Branch Pond Campground on the second day of our recent winter expedition into Baxter State Park with the goal of climbing North Traveler Mountain.

If conditions and time permitted, some intended to complete the famed Traveler Loop. Coping with an arthritic knee, I would consider myself fortunate to summit North Traveler. The long trek over three peaks was an objective too far for me. 

The Traveler Loop is a prized winter goal for many mountaineers. Traveling clockwise, it consists of three peaks: North Traveler, Traveler and Peak of the Ridges. 

All higher than 3,000 feet in elevation, the allure is not just the altitudes, but also their remote location, difficulty of access and majestic beauty. At 3,541 feet, Traveler is the highest in the range, the most distant and rarely climbed in winter. 

Photo courtesy of Ron Chase
NORTH TRAVELER – The cliffs on North Traveler in Baxter State Park provide a scenic location for lunch.

Deep snow and stormy weather thwarted an attempt to complete the loop during a winter expedition last year. During our ski into the hut the previous day, departing members of the team who preceded us said the trail was broken and they had completed the loop.

We were optimistic about the possibilities.

We finished breakfast before first light. When the sun rose, the crew was delighted and surprised to have partly sunny skies, light winds and temperatures in the 30s. 

The snow accumulation was thin and hard-packed in the campground and at the trailhead.  Recent storms had brought unusually heavy rainfall to the area. After some deliberation, we decided to forego carrying snowshoes and chose to wear micro spikes instead.

The North Traveler Trail begins a short distance east of the cabin. Intently focused, six of us started our quest hiking on patchy ice and snow in a mixed hardwood and conifer forest. The trail quickly steepens and soon transitions to a narrow twisting precipitous path.

Micro spikes were effective initially on the predominantly icy surface, but extended sections of barren rocks and boulders necessitated removing them. Subsequently, we scrambled over a continuum of treacherous ledges wearing bare boots while experiencing trail conditions that varied between exposed rock, ice and hard-packed snow.

On a positive note, the open cliffs and rocky crags provided marvelous views of South Branch Pond, Peak of the Ridges and the Katahdin Massif in the distance.

The imposing exposed ridge was interrupted by a seemingly magical white birch forest, soon followed by a dense stand of conifers. Modest snowpack had accumulated in both. Had we carried snowshoes, they would have been temporarily beneficial while negotiating through the two wooded areas. Instead, we endured sporadic post-holing.

Just beyond, we arrived at the barren, snow-free and rounded summit where a spectacular 360-degree panorama was our reward. 

A view of prominent Bald Mountain to the east was particularly intriguing. We discussed a possible future bushwhack there.

The anticipated deliberations about completing the remainder of Traveler Loop ensued. There was adequate time, so Bruce Weik and Shawn Higgins decided to continue while the rest of the group chose to return with me and my elderly affliction.

During a leisurely descent in remarkable spring-like conditions, we took the time to enjoy the wonderful vistas and lunch on the cliffs. 

At one prominence, we were able to get an updated weather forecast. The news wasn’t encouraging. One more day of excellent weather followed by three days of rain, mixed precipitation and possibly snow was the prediction. 

Bruce and Shawn had a successful trek on the rest of the loop. They experienced magnificent views and only minor difficulties finding the trail on Traveler and Peak of the Ridges. The determined mountaineering duo lost the trail descending from Peak of the Ridges and bushwhacked down the sparsely wooded ridge to Pogy Notch Trail on South Branch Pond.

We formed plans for the next day during a delicious meal that evening. If the forecast held, a climb of spectacular Barrel Ridge was the choice. 

The temperatures were unusually warm so some decided to sleep outside. 

My book, “Maine Al Fresco: The Fifty Finest Outdoor Adventures in Maine” relates the challenges encountered on an earlier winter traverse of the Traveler Loop and winter expeditions to Mount Katahdin and the high peaks in the northwestern part of the park.

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