Bigelow Mt., Maine, 4,145 ft.
A Trip Reprised – 42 Years After
-20°F, 70+ mph wind
The Horns on Bigelow
It seems like an impossible thing to say, but the last time that we did this trip was 42 years ago, we were a lot younger, and the weather was a lot better. I was recently sentenced to spend some time on a winter climbing expedition in New England by Alaska Mountaineering School (AMS) – the guiding service that I’m using on my upcoming climb of Denali this spring. They require a fairly tough training program, and I had suggested that I might do some training by climbing some of the 18,000 ft. volcanoes in Mexico this month, while Martha is down there teaching. Their reply was, “Wes, we have no doubt that you can climb a tall volcano – you need to spend some time on a self-supported expedition, in freezing cold, in a tent, eating freeze dried food and suffering. That is what you will do on Denali, and your climbing CV indicates that you have not done this for a very long time.”
Sugarloaf from Stratton Brook Pond
Yup, that sounds like a recipe for suffering, and they were right – I have tried to avoid that particular mixture of unrelenting misery since college in my igloo on Mt. Moosilauke. On the annual Prouty Kilimanjaro trips the crew brings us coffee in bed in the morning – and the AMS folks knew this. They will not bring me coffee in bed on Denali, and they clearly expected some anticipatory suffering. I knew just the place to go – Bigelow Mountain, Maine. And I knew just the guy to invite along – my old pal Rudy Rawcliffe, who last did this with me in 1973. And I knew just when to go – January 31st through February 1st, 2015, the coldest damn night since they cooked up old Sam McGee up in the Yukon.
Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows.
Why he left his home in the South to roam ’round the Pole, God only knows.
He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell;
Though he’d often say in his homely way that he’d “sooner live in hell”.
The Cremation of Sam McGee, Robert Service
Coming as I now do from Tennessee, I knew pretty much how old Sam felt, but as the gold of Alaska pulled Sam into the infernal cold, the mountains of that frozen State, were drawing me in; either way it meant spending some time in the cold.
Rudy Rawcliffe in the Taliban Mountain Hat
The last “winter” expedition that we did on this hill was actually in April of 1973, with a big crowd of high school buddies. That expedition featured the building of a spruce bough lean-to (an environmental depredation now regarded as heresy) and a gigantic amount of beer. Rudy was the last of the crew still available and willing to answer the bell, and there was no beer – it would have frozen anyhow. Our modern equipment included a single wall mountain tent, fancy cook stoves and ibuprofen for analgesia instead of beer. The only indisputable advances that the intervening 42 years brought us were: 1) Double layered plastic boots, 2) Light weight plastic snow shoes, and 3) Rudy’s Taliban Mountain Hat – a prize that one his daughters brought him from a trip to Pakistan. In any event, none of the equipment would have been unrecognizable to Sam McGee – except maybe the hat.
Bigelow Mountain is named for Colonel Timothy Bigelow, who first climbed the mountain in 1775 on Benedict Arnold’s failed expedition to capture Quebec City. Arnold and his men traveled on the north side of the mountain along the Dead River. They had been given fraudulent maps by a Loyalist map maker, which showed 180 miles as the distance from the Maine coast to Quebec, instead of the actual 350 miles. Bigelow climbed the mountain to see Quebec – which was still over 100 miles distant. He brought his dog with him up the hill, but was later forced to eat it to avoid starvation prior to arriving in Quebec.
Cliffs on the south side of Little Bigelow
Bigelow is a 10 mile long ridge – which when done as a day hike is rated one of the top 10 toughest in the US. We climbed the south side, entering in the Stratton Brook Road, and heading up the old Fire Warden’s Trail – then onto the spur toward the Cranberry Peak camping area. The south side of Bigelow is quite steep, due to a phenomenon called glacial plucking. As the continental glacier (2 miles thick in this area) passed over the top of Bigelow, it caused enormous compression fractures in the rock, allowing water to enter and generating huge fractures. The friction of the glacier dragged these fractured slabs of rock off the back-side, causing fairly pronounced cliffs. This phenomenon can also be noticed on the “steep and deep” backside of Sugarloaf which sits just across the valley.
Bigelow Mountain Trails
Bigelow has a number of small glacial tarn ponds on the summit ridge, which are normally a nice place to camp, but were a little too breezy for the night we were out. The wind was blowing from the northwest, portending more cool weather and a stiff breeze throughout the evening. Because the wind accelerates as it is forced over the ridge, we decided to camp on one of the ledges a few hundred feet below the summit ridge. This proved to be a good decision.
A fire scaled to the needs of Sam McGee
He turned to me, and “Cap,” says he, “I’ll cash in this trip, I guess;
And if I do, I’m asking that you won’t refuse my last request.”
Well, he seemed so low that I couldn’t say no; then he says with a sort of moan:
“It’s the cursed cold, and it’s got right hold till I’m chilled clean through to the bone.
Yet ’tain’t being dead — it’s my awful dread of the icy grave that pains;
So I want you to swear that, foul or fair, you’ll cremate my last remains.”
The Cremation of Sam McGee, Robert Service
Rudy loves a healthy sized fire, so in honor of the gone-but-not-forgotten Sam McGee, we built a real monster. This was great aided by Rudy’s “Big-Boy” hand saw, which allowed us to use some cord wood to ensure adequate warmth, light and entertainment. We mutually agreed to use the giant fire for the “Sam McGee Solution” if fate so determined over the evening – which was fortunately not required. As good as the fire was, the high-tech stove proved a real disappointment – unable to provide adequate warm water for our freeze dried beef stew or tea.
Preparing the meal by the exotic mountain tent
The wind blew incredibly hard all night – it sounded like a 747 was coming in to land on top of us. We were using a 2 man tent that I had purchased at a year-end sale a couple of years ago, which was sealed as tight as a drum. Given the terrible cold and wind, we agreed to not open the vents – contrary to recommended usage. The tent captured all of our body heat, as well as all of our exhaled moisture – and around midnight it began to snow inside the tent. In recognition that we did not want to sleep covered in snow of our own making, we opened the vents – dropping the temperature to -20° – the temperature outside.
Rudy had a +20° sleeping bag – a cause for some consternation. Fortunately he came up with an ingenious solution to this obvious equipment deficiency – multiple hand and foot warmers. The morning brought with it the promise of the return to externally generated warmth, but only after getting out of bed. This exit from the sack is actually physically painful at 20 below, and the first guy out has to start the stove and stoke the fire – adding insult to injury. Much to Rudy’s delight, the unrelenting demands of my 60 year old prostate drove me out first, and he emerged late, smug, warm and victorious for a Kili style coffee service.
Rudy beside a snow covered glacial erratic
Crossing the new bridge over Stratton Brook
Bigelow is a magnificent place, albeit a bit cold in January. I was personally delighted that after 42 years we could come back here, climb and still get it done. I hope that the suffering was adequate training for Denali, as I have no intention of any more until the real thing is called for on Denali this spring. It is for sure that I prefer Martha as a bunkmate, and the Buckhorn Inn outside Gatlinburg as base camp; but this trip to Bigelow was one for the ages. Like Sam McGee suggests posthumously, I like the warmth at home in Tennessee – but this trip sure was fun.
I do not know how long in the snow I wrestled with grisly fear;
But the stars came out and they danced about ere again I ventured near;
I was sick with dread, but I bravely said: “I’ll just take a peep inside.
I guess he’s cooked, and it’s time I looked”; . . . then the door I opened wide.
And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: “Please close that door.
It’s fine in here, but I greatly fear you’ll let in the cold and storm —
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it’s the first time I’ve been warm.”
The Cremation of Sam McGee, Robert Service
Adios, from Bigelow Mountain