[This Mountain Profile essay about Katahdin, Maine, originally appeared in Alpinist 84, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 84 for all the goodness!–Ed.]
In 1981, my climbing partners and I believed that an all-women’s party had yet to climb Katahdin in winter, based on correspondence we’d had with park officials. Some of us winter climbers saw this as our opportunity, one that grew out of a moment in history when women were striking out on their own, looking to carry the entire responsibility for their own mountain adventures.
The winter before, 1980, I had been with two other women, good friends, and we had made a crossing of the Presidentials in winter, which we believed to be a first for an all-women’s team. But, in general, I was unaware of other groups of women doing major winter trips. This was more than forty years ago; there weren’t many winter climbers in the mountains, especially women.
This particular all-women’s winter ascent of Katahdin was the brainchild of Louise Price, a strong New England climber who led summer and winter trips in the White Mountains.
A role model for me was New Englander Miriam O’Brien Underhill, who had set the bar high for all-women ascents—called “manless” at that time—with her climbs in the Alps from 1929 to 1932. “I have grown to recognize the fact that when a man lets a woman ‘lead’ it is, for him, just a pleasant little fiction,” she later reflected in Appalachia. “A woman cannot really lead if there is any man at all in the party. And so if she wants to lead, she must climb with other women.”
Miriam had climbed to the summit of the Katahdin massif with a mixed-gender group in the winter of 1926. Now, with her inspiration, we aimed to make the first recorded all-women’s ascent.
Echoing Underhill, Molly Burns wrote in a letter to me, dated February 22, 1981: “We chose to hike without men because we wanted to learn, to prove our ability for self-reliance. To whom? To ourselves.”
Louise had initiated this Katahdin trip by inviting a few women to join her, including me, and she asked us to suggest others. The park’s rules stipulated that all parties needed to include four people. Since we felt it would be good to have backups in case someone had to drop out, we ended up with ten—a large group, too large according to us, though within the bounds of the park’s rules. Louise proved to be excellent at handling the bureaucratic regulations set by the Baxter State Park Authority.
About half the group had climbed to the summit, Baxter Peak, in summer. I had climbed the mountain in winter, as had Helen Curcio Koch and Penny Markley, both strong climbers, good friends I had brought to the team, though each was unknown by most of the others.
We left on February 15 and it took us the better part of two days, snowshoeing with heavy packs—thirteen miles in total—to reach the bunkhouse at Chimney Pond, with this monument of a mountain looming above and beckoning.
On our first full day of climbing, February 17, we went up Hamlin Peak (4,756′) as a warmup, a two-mile ascent from Chimney Pond via the Hamlin Ridge Trail, using snowshoes and our ice axes as walking sticks. It was windy and foggy on top. Helen and I wanted to continue on the Saddle Trail to the summit of Baxter Peak, thus fulfilling our goal by climbing Katahdin that first day, but we were vetoed by the rest, who objected to splitting up the group. This was hard on me and unexpected. I exchanged a look with Helen, picking up that she was not happy with this decision either. As it turned out, this was the first sign of the disparity within our group in terms of experience.
Early the next morning, we all headed off for the summit of Baxter Peak (5,267′), the highest summit in the Katahdin massif and our goal. The foggy weather continued, with the temperature right around freezing. We ascended by way of the Cathedral Trail wearing snowshoes but changing to crampons as the trail steepened, becoming icy and rocky. Louise wanted to lead from the front but it became clear to me that she was having difficulty picking out the route. From my position near the end of the line, I could see that whenever she hesitated, others would take the initiative to go around her, then would wait while she gained the lead again. In places the ridgeline narrowed, adding to the challenge. Clearly this terrain was nervous-making for some and made for a slow ascent.
As we moved higher, the fog thickened. Nancy Rich, Helen and I began putting in wands on the off chance we’d be descending this route. As the trail gained the summit plateau, called the Tableland, flat and featureless, the grade eased off and the route was marked by cairns. Nancy and I began knocking the rime ice off the cairns on the uphill side to make them more visible on a potential descent. Not long after, we reached the summit amid much cheering. We knew this was the summit by the large wooden sign announcing “KATAHDIN, BAXTER PEAK,” giving the elevation and featuring arrows pointing to other destinations. We could see nothing other than the dense fog. Louise knelt by the sign and Penny snapped a photo.
The original plan for the trip was to cross the Knife Edge and return to Chimney Pond via the Dudley Trail. Some were put off by the extremely low visibility and were ready to retreat. Five wanted to cross, but as on Hamlin there was resistance to splitting the group. However, the ridge walk by its nature is well-defined, and it was agreed that the five of us could at least start out. But we were slow, some uncomfortable on this rocky ridge, fighting a strong wind, and I could now see we were too slow to make it across and descend in daylight. We returned to the summit, and to our surprise, the rest of the party was still there. It was l:30 p.m. Since most of the group wanted to avoid the steep descent of the Cathedral Trail, we agreed to strike off on the Saddle Trail that connects Baxter Peak to Hamlin Peak across the Tableland, hoping to pick up cairns that would lead us to where the Saddle Trail descends to Chimney Pond, in the col between Baxter and Hamlin.
So we started out, following Nancy, who thought she saw crampon marks. We were basically heading into a void. The group stuck close together. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say you could not see your hand in front of your face. Eventually, we reached a steep slope that Helen and I felt was where the Saddle Trail descended.
But one member strongly objected to this descent. Since there was no trail sign, we had to give in. I remember feeling pretty disgusted with the group, and as Helen and I became impatient, the leadership somehow landed on Penny, the least known member, but the one with perhaps the strongest mountaineering background.
We agreed that heading upward while keeping the downhill to our right should get us to the summit of Hamlin, where we’d been yesterday. (We were not using the compass for this part of the descent since some of our guidebooks suggested there may be an anomaly in the saddle.) So we trudged upward and onward and at last spotted the large wooden sign. We were on the summit—not of Hamlin, but of Baxter. We had walked in a circle in the whiteout! The time was now 4:15 p.m.
We knew where we were—a big relief, filling the group with new energy. Our only choice now, however, was to descend the steep Cathedral Trail. We were tired and some had little experience on steep, icy descents. But everything fell into place with surprising speed. We found the trail using Nancy’s compass bearing. We felt safe doing so, rationalizing we were far enough away from the saddle. Besides, we had little choice. Helen and I took over the lead and kept the party moving at a steady downhill pace, while another group member stayed at the end to prevent losing anyone in the unrelenting mist. We reached the trees in fading light, got out our headlamps and were at Chimney Pond by 6 p.m.
From the beginning in our planning sessions we had seen the trip as a group effort, and so surely the responsibility for the lack of leadership can and must be shared. We were never in serious danger; we were prepared to spend a night out if it came to that, but it would have been most embarrassing for all of us.
In her letter to me, written upon our return, Molly concluded, “The lessons we learned about ourselves and about leadership were painful…. We were self-reliant … but we failed miserably at stepping forward and making good decisions for the group. That’s what we learned at Katahdin. We now know what we need to know. Now we need to practice that skill.”
Forty years later I find myself agreeing with Molly’s observations. Though for me, it ended up being a disturbing trip. In conversations afterward, the others I talked to felt the same. Our uneven skill levels were part of the problem, evident from the beginning on Hamlin. Yet, I wouldn’t have missed this for anything. Looking back at it positively, we accomplished our goal, avoided accidents and, for the most part, came back as friends.
I continued to find myself eager to be in the winter mountains with another woman or two—small parties, good friends—putting into practice what Katahdin had taught us. Particularly, it was exciting to come across other all-women’s parties in the mountains, and when that began to happen I knew a bright future had opened for women leading themselves in the woods and on the heights.