Making the Final Choice on Katahdin
In the frozen grips of a fierce storm on Mt. Katahdin, each man’s choice was his own.
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.”
They would climb two steep, long gullies on Pamola cliff, 2,200 feet to its summit. It would be their first real climbing after a week of supply packing and wet weather. At 8:30 it was sunny and mild. They had no radio, unreliable in Baxter’s rugged terrain; unknown to them, the Portland Weather Bureau up- dated its forecast to read:
“HIGH WIND WARNING IN EFFECT LATE TODAY. MOSTLY SUNNY THIS MORNING. IN- CREASING CLOUDINESS THIS AFTERNOON WITH A CHANCE OF SNOW BY EVENING FOLLOWED BY CLEARING. HIGHS AROUND 50. MUCH COLDER WITH LOWS 5 TO 10 TONIGHT.”
They arrived at the base of their gullies by 9:30. Because of the warm day they traveled light, expecting to complete their climb in eight hours or less. In addition to the standard climbing outfit (double boots, wool pants, wind pants, gaiters, hats, wool shirts, and windbreakers), they threw sweaters and down vests in their packs, except for Page and Bob, who also carried down parkas. They would climb in teams of three, linked by a rope. Paul led Page and Tom up a steep gully packed with dense ice from refrozen water, the most challenging ice to climb. To Paul it would prove exhilarating, “the best ice of my life,” but also unexpectedly difficult and slow. Meanwhile, Bob led Mike and Doug up a more moderate gully filled with more snow than ice, which made for faster climbing.
Soon Bob lost sight of Paul’s party as the gullies deepened and by 5 P.M. he had chopped from the snow a small ledge, three feet wide and five feet long, while Doug and Mike waited at the end of the rope 150 feet below. He was in the clouds, and it was growing dark rapidly. He wondered how far he was from the ridge where Dudley Trail, a popular hiking path, led to their base camp. Peering into the mist with his headlamp, he tried to see the route above but saw only the glare from the mist. He grew anxious waiting to hear from Paul’s team, sensing the storm’s approach. “It was so still, like before a thunderstorm,” he says.
There was a shout from the other gully. It was Paul saying he would hook up soon, but not until three hours later was Mike able to lower a headlamp to Page coming into view. With no warning the storm hit, pinning everyone in their tracks. “It was like someone just hit me in the face in a dark room,” Page says. Tom and Paul flattened themselves against the slope, pressing their faces to the ice. Bob crouched on his ledge, his face to his knees, unable to look up because his face would fill with snow.