Making the Final Choice on Katahdin
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.
As it snowed, the sky rocked with thunder and lightning flashed. Through the snow and furious gusts they inched their way towards the ledge where Bob waited, his rope held taut. Two hours after the storm hit, the snow abated; stars shone painfully bright through the swirling snow and the winds intensified. In nearby Millinocket temperatures plummeted from 40 to zero in a few hours. First Doug, then Page, followed by Mike, Paul, and Tom, climbed to the ledge where they tied into anchoring pins placed by Bob. Bob was frightened, especially upon seeing Tom stumble onto the ledge after falling several times, while Paul quickly lapsed into dazed exhaustion. Options swirled in his mind: he knew their strength would never be greater than it was at this point. Soon they would face a wind chill of 80 degrees below zero, and if they did not keep warm and awake they would die.
But to leave now would mean climbing in the dark, in the raging wind with tangled ropes, onto unknown terrain, where if the leader fell he could pull ropemates with him. They opted to stay, and they huddled together, embracing each other for warmth.
At Chimney Pond, Baxter Park ranger Arthur York had come on duty. He was troubled, but not deeply worried to find the men had not returned. The rangers had all been impressed by the group’s knowledge of mountains, and had granted them blanket permission to camp out on the mountain so that they could climb some distant gullies. He called on his radio for other rangers to see if Proudman had mentioned to them about overnight plans, but failed to reach anyone. He decided he would give them until Friday morning.
There was no place to turn on the ledge. Packs and ropes crowded their legs. They struggled for 45 minutes to put Tom’s windbreaker on him; it became impossible in the wind to search for sweaters in the packs. Except to gulp food they could only crouch together, yelling their names over and over, making certain nobody dozed. They tried singing but the wind drove their voices away. With faces pressed close, they yelled “Endure!” a hundred times. But the wind and cold tore confidence from them, and as the night wore on, their shouts lessened, and enduring became each man’s private war with cold.
Mike pressed himself into a narrow crack in the ledge until he felt he was part of the rock. Concentrating on every part of his body, he willed himself to stay warm. He told himself he had been uncomfortable before, that the storm would pass, and he’d be needed to make decisions in the morning.