Making the Final Choice on Katahdin
Yankee classic from February 1980
On Thursday evening, January 31, 1974, a fierce winter storm cut a swath of destruction across northern New England. It tore roofs off of mobile homes and tossed them into nearby trees, and sent tree limbs crashing into power lines, leaving thousands of homes without electricity. And it trapped six men on a tiny ledge below Pamola Peak on Mt. Katahdin, 4,600 feet above sea level, yet still 300 feet below a ridge that offered escape.
They awoke that day to a breathtaking vista from their camp at Chimney Pond in Baxter State Park in northern Maine. Mt. Katahdin, 5,207 feet at its summit, was bathed in a red glow, a beautiful yet ominous warning that within the next 12 to 18 hours the unseasonably balmy weather of the past week would change, though to what extent was unknown.
They were six men who had come to Katahdin to climb its ice and snow gullies, which for size and grandeur were unparalleled in the Northeast. They had met at the Pinkham Notch headquarters of the Appalachian Mountain Club, where three of them now worked. Bob Proudman, the leader of the expedition, had come to Katahdin twice the previous winter. He was 25, a highly skilled technical climber (requiring ropes and specialized equipment). He had climbed since he was a teenager and like most good climbers was competitive, taking special satisfaction in being the first to scale a mountain in winter. He had earned the reputation of being somebody who would try anything, once trying to climb Cannon Mountain in a hurricane. But now, after taking a bad fall, he had toned down, and the closer he came to a climb, the more cautious he became.
Paul Dibello, 23, had come to Pinkham Notch in 1971 to ski. and found that climbing “put me more on the edge than anything I’d ever done.” The delicate movements necessary on fragile ice reminded him of ballet, and in summer he ignored the bare granite cliffs and strapped crampons (climbing spikes) to his boots, and went looking for dead pine trees to climb.
Michael Cohen, 30, had climbed ice for two years, often with Bob Proudman. “We never hesitated to tell each other we were frightened,” he says. To Michael winter climbing was the perfect blending of mind and body; he had never seen anything so beautiful as a wall of ice close up. He was steady and cool. “Nothing gets Michael down,” his friends would say.
Doug George, 23, a student at the University of New Hampshire, had skied since age three. He was serious and deliberate, a careful planner. With Bob, Paul, and Michael he had climbed on Katahdin the year before, and had writ- ten Bob saying, “If you’re planning another Katahdin trip I’d like to be included.”
Page Dinsmore, 19, was the youngest. He had grown up only 17 miles from Pinkham Notch in Shelburne, where scrambling on rocks was as natural as breathing. He had never climbed big routes like those on Katahdin, but had gotten out of a lot of tough spots in winter. While taking a semester off from Dartmouth he had worked at Tucker- man’s Ravine, where he met Paul. Invited in December to join the expedition he had declined, saying he would be back in college. However, early in January he reconsidered.
Tom Keddy, 26, was the least experienced climber. An avid skier, he had endured Navy duty in the Gulf of Tonkin by telling himself, “This winter I’ll be skiing Wildcat!” When discharged he moved into Pinkham Notch, a half mile from Wildcat, and began climbing with Paul. “I have a natural ability on ice,” he wrote his parents. When a more, experienced climber dropped out of the expedition at the last moment, Paul, who had been impressed by Tom’s calmness on a recent hard climb, invited him along. Tom reassured his parents, “One thing we’re not planning to do is to have accidents.”