Sugarloaf via ski resort to Spaulding to Abraham, back to Spauling via the AT North to South Crocker to North Crocker, back to South Crocker to Redington via a mean bushwhack.
Or at least that was the lofty plan running though my excited mind at 1000mph as I made the drive from western New Hampshire to Central Maine Saturday morning at a cool and calm 2:45am. The sun would not rise for many hours, which would allow my mind to race, jump, hop and skip all the way along the 186 mile commute – heck, I was even convinced for a brief moment that I had actually witnessed a goat walking down the side of Rt 16 in pitch darkness.. “what the heck even was that doing out here..?“.. I never will find out what creature of the darkness was I had just witnessed.
As I sit here in a post-weekend haze with bruised legs still dotted with dried blood, hearing fellow hikers reiterate all of the ‘do not even attempt to cross the Carrabassett River‘ warning signs, I am still not even sure that a trek like this was possible.
Relieved to pull into the Sugarloaf Ski Resort parking lot to find that the morning onslaught of frigid rain drops had tapered during the preceding 5 minutes – I grabbed for my larger of two running packs that this weekends trail-fest would see, laced up the almost-still-pristine Altra Lone Peaks, once the two beeps signaled from my watch indicating that both GPS signal and my heart rate were found (sometimes its the smaller accomplishments in life that we need to focus on.. like having a pulse this fine morning!), hit Start, and with trekking poles in hand – I began up that hill.
I stopped several times during this initial 2,553 foot climb; not far into my day and I could still look back.. I could nearly reach out and touch the bottom of the cloud layer, like a whisping cotton candy awaiting my entry. Once in, however, my beautiful post-fall-foliage mountain scape was replaced with gusting winds, the unbearded spots on my face bombarded with sideways travelling snow and ice chunks – I desperately wanted to reach for my sunglasses, but hoped I could just topple over the summit rocks before removing my pack.
The 4,237ish (look around – each source you check will list a different elevation..) summit cone offered little to no escape from the torrent of weathering ice pellets, with squinted eyes I tried to discern some indication of where the path dove into the cover of the forest and henceforth to the Appalachian Trail.
Once on the Sugarloaf Side Trail, time slowed down and the one half mile trek to the AT south seemed to last an eternity. A lifetime of frosted over boulders and trees shrouded in glistening hoarfrost. Just to add a little consequence to this mornings outing, the winterized trail of course would not be complete without the ice water trickling down the middle of my path – “dunk a toe now and you will be wearing ice bricks for the remainder of the day, you won’t make it anywhere..”
Still I managed to enjoy my time in this Northeast Winter Wonderland, bear bells jiggling, all I needed now was to recall a few good carols to keep the wildlife at bay.
Admittedly, I was completely unsure if my day would be what I had hoped, I was busy readying my mind for the ‘abort mission‘ phase and retreat back to the warmth of my heated Subaru seats.
Up ahead, the burnt orange hue rang through the blinding plainness of all-white-everything.
SPAULDING MTN. 150 YDS. M.A.T.C.
Steep, bouldery, more steep, super slick rock, still with the steep, and here is a bit of a view finally over to the Crockers.
Precisely how the so called 150 yard jaunt up to Spaulding went, in fact the summit was so unremarkable that I continued on.. completely unsure of when I had reached the summit until the trail topped out and began steeply once again – descending the other side.
I had found my second summit of the day, when I returned from the frost-covered boulder descent I was faced with the next question.. push on down the white trackless trail into even deeper wilderness, far from the safety of any rescue mission, or turn back now with the hopes that I could retrace my footsteps in the morning, perhaps with warmer temps and more sunshine?
My legs, still brimming with early morning energy, made the decision for me and with no time lost at the junction – I was on my way deeper, heading toward a peak containing the largest alpine zone in the state, second only to that found on the highest reaches of Katahdin.
I was now fully immersed in moose country, later in the day many hikers asked enthusiastically if I had seen any bear. If I had ran face to face with any large wildlife, I would have been spooked.. but ready for it, I was tip toe-ing through their front yards, after all!
With about a mile to go south on the Appalachian Trail, my gaze was struck from straight down to one more cast in the distance, through the trees I now saw the massive ice-covered bare granite rock faces that adorned the northern slopes of Abraham. Just then it hit me, there was no option – I was going over to that mound of rock.
I met the junction with open arms and excitedly joined the Abraham Side Trail, remnants of footprints in the grass that harked back to the wildest herd paths of the Adirondack Mountains. I wanted to run these trails, but decided to save the effort for the return trek, agreeing to focus on my footwork over the still frosty boulders.
My frozen herd path soon opened up to a jagged boulder-field, which I wasted no time auto-piloting up. Only a handful of foot prints were laid down before I glanced to my left.. the massive rock cairns continued left, not straight up this mount of shattered rock.
“Ohhhh… I see now”, I thought to myself and to my disbelief what I saw appeared to be dozens of miles in the far distance – Abraham was over there, not over here.
Over some rocks and through some woods found me now on the side slopes of Abraham where I found the hiding wind, I had not even experienced wind thus far into my day until I began up the final ascent of Abraham.
Putting my trekking poles to good use, I found myself bracing at every step ‘three points of contact at all times‘, I reminded myself before taking each well-thought out step onto frozen boulders, not a single step on this peak was flat or easy going – and I adored this mountain for that!
I would admit in hindsight that I hung out on the summit cone for a few minutes too long – but the incoming wildly whipping cloud layers were absolutely mesmerizing; initially I had my first officially clear views of the day, all the way to Spaulding and beyond to the second highest in the state, to where my day had begun.
More than once I had almost been blown away like a rag doll from the rocks high atop Mount Abraham, and somehow deep inside, I remained calm to this fact – I was where I wanted to be, I was in the right place at the right time.
The return trip was more of the same in reverse, employing my trekking poles every step along the way to keep what little balance that I still had, retracing my Lone Peak foot prints back down to treeline.
Now was the time to throw some coal to fuel the fire; coal that is, in the form of dates washed down the hatch with several gulps of water. By now the sun had rose to an angle that warmed the icy white hats atop every tree around, each second that passed found swatches of ice and snow falling to the earth which, to my heightened senses had me assuming that moose and bear were now coming at me from every angle – not in a paranoid sort of way, but now the forest simply breathed the sound of life.
One would think living in rustic New Hampshire, where I have had many black bear and moose using my driveway to reach the other side of the forest, that I would have experienced the sound of a moose call – I had not, until Saturday morning at 11:40am, that is. I don’t think I have ever experienced something that has raised the hair on my neck so abruptly, what a true treat of nature – the way its call just echoed through the valleys, I knew I was not in its path – but I had just witnessed the magic of nature, 110%.
Then, to even further my surprise this morning, I heard yet another rarity this far into the depths of pure wilderness – people. Thinking it was only a quick encounter, I simply told Ryan and Yvonne about the ice and wind, but incredible views that awaited them, and just as soon as we ran up on each other, our paths widened. Once again I was alone with the sound of creaking trees straining to remain upright from the weight of ice and snow in their boughs.
1:13pm, mile 15
I was quickly approaching the most important decision of my day: continue following my beloved Appalachian Trail north, or call it a day; retrace my steps back up the steep slopes of where my morning had begun – to retreat up and over the mighty Sugarloaf?
I was not afforded the time necessary to debate with myself the options, ‘see you in a couple of mountains!!‘, I greeted and sped by the intersection: my feet had subconsciously made the call: I was now headed AT North.
Not an inch shy of 1,000 feet is all I now had to descend to reach the river crossing, run across the old logging roads and quickly make the 1,800 foot ascent up to South Crocker.
That’s all I had to do, with what I had already tackled.. those miles didn’t seem so bad!
This is where I really hit the line of traffic; kids, parents, friends, a thru-hiker, plus several pups slowly crawling up the flooded trail as I tip-toed cautiously from rock to rock, avoiding the chilly foot bath below me at every well placed step.
The Carrabassett River thundered from down below in the ravine, all of the melted ice and snow finally making its way and adding their droplets to the white capped roar slamming down the river bed.
I had heard reports of a plank now spanning the river, creating a tight rope of sorts and an extreme sport on top of this pre-winter climbing! To my delight, the plank remained in place, held by a series of cables on one end.
One foot onto the old weathered plank. As soon as I found myself mid-span along this old piece of drift wood, it was evidenced that neither end of this plank was fastened to anything!
Left foot led as the plank began to roll, completely off kilter – the rogue waves crashed underfoot as I tried to escape my mind from the sights and sounds below; I was off balance and there was nothing I could do about it.
Using a trekking pole, I jammed that sucker into a nearby rock as hard and fast as my reflexes could muster up – pushed off and began to run using pure, raw instinct. No way was I going into that ice bath below – because had I not regained a slight smidgen of balance, I’d be washed away for sure far down stream!
Once on the distant side of the river, I stopped to thank whatever forces helped me traverse this mess – I did not even want to think about my return trip, all I knew was that I had to cross back while there was still daylight – that gave me about five hours to cover the next twelve miles over three summits.
I had my bail out options, but none of them were easy: ascend South Crocker to North Crocker and bail out by continuing north along the AT and add far too many miles to my day vs. return now back across the river and pick up my trekking in the morning vs. ascend these three linear peaks while following the logging roads back to civilization.
I continued weighing my options during the coming miles.
I was greeted by many hikers now descending the South Crocker trail past the Cirque as I pressed my way from one boulder to another, through the mud and frost, clawing inch by inch to the next summit of my day.
Every step higher brought this hiker closer to views where I could see the surrounding peaks, Sugarloaf now appearing to be light years away!
As the trail topped out and leveled off, I found myself super relieved to finally reach the summit signs:
SOUTH CROCKER MTN. ELEV. 4010 FT.
As the ice continued to pelt down around me, I took a chunk to the top of my head.. stood there momentarily in disbelief and thought: “hmmph.. so this is how I get broken on this trek, I bleed to death from my scalp by falling ice.. oh the irony!“
To my delight, I did not bleed much and the wack did next to nothing to alter my determined pace, South Crocker had been checked once and what appeared too far away must have been North Crocker; “they call that a mile?!”
Turns out this mile absolutely flew by, concentrating on one step at a time – the trail was covered in fresh soil from the waterbars that trail crews had recently dug out in anticipation of the ‘nor-easter’ only days prior.
Fresh blackened soil, decorated with a delicate white layer that resembled permafrost and strewn with softball sized rocks made up the trail, steep down for half a mile, steep up for half a mile – with some upper body use to crawl up and over some erratics blocking my path.. that’s really all it was!
NORTH CROCKER MTN. ELEV. 4168 FT.
The summit of North Crocker was not quite the open views that I had read about, in fact.. I really quite enjoyed the enclosed peak! Took a walk down a short spur path to get the Northwest vistas while I chewed up the remaining dates that became my afternoon snack. All trees that encircled the orange signage indicating I had indeed reached the highpoint of this loop spur were encrusted in ice and snow, which continued to crackle, pop and drop into the surrounding forest – it sounded truly alive and not so lonesome in that moment!
The run back to South Crocker was exactly that, I had fuel back in my belly and several swigs of water from what I had been conserving (of course I had my Sawyer water filter had I actually run out, and plenty of sources along the trail from which to filter..), and I was jamming right along. Concentrating on not catching a toe on any rocks or roots, it was more like a fast cadenced dance than an actual run for the one mile back to the main junction.
My intuition told me to head out toward a herd path that was labelled as “view point”, turns out I had actually gone past the cut off for the bushwhack over to Redington! Glancing back over my shoulder, I caught glimpses of orange surveyors tape strung up in one of the trees, this lone tie indicated the start of ‘into the deeper woods’.
Initially the trail zig zagged, a few branches reaching out in attempts to jab eye sockets and tear flesh – several branches had their way with me as I could feel the sting of sweat mix with fresh red blood – simply battle scars, I suppose!
To my utter surprise, I met another couple on the return bushwhack who boosted my confidence even further as they assured me the path ahead was certainly ‘followable‘, just what I needed to hear as the sun crept even lower still in the sky above.
The so-called bushwhack actually reminded me of some of the ‘unmarked’ herd path trails that I had hiked on my pursuit to becoming an Adirondack 46er, certain seasons might require better route finding skills – but today, simply being aware and looking around provided all the evidence one needed of a trafficked pathway.
Reaching the col between South Crocker and Redington, the bushwhack spat me out to a dozer-wide old logging road; there was absolutely no question of which direction to trek though, with all of the arrows and cairns made from rocks and logs guiding the way!
Perhaps a quarter mile had passed and I began to wonder if I had missed the junction to where the bushwhack re-entered the mountainside and leaves old road, I had not. Spirits were super high as I shot a few more photos and picked up my pace into the woods once again, my day was going okay!
Weaving through standing trees, zigging and zagging, trying to keep flesh away from each sharp pointy thing, that sense of seeing the blue sky over the horizon crept in once again and I knew that the infamous summit canister should be looming very near!
Of all places, I heard voices yet again. Which really should not have been a surprise as it was Saturday in the 4000-footers of Maine, but what really perked me up was the sound of: “HELLOOO AGAIIIIN!!!!“.
Nobody but my old pals from the other side of the river, Ryan and Yvonne, making their way down from the summit – we talked for longer than I would have liked, but they were such amazing and kind folks! They confirmed that the summit was just up ahead, told me all about their terrible bushwhack down from Spaulding Lean-To up to Redington.. best part of all: Redington was officially the final, 67th summit for Yvonne – and just like that another NE67er was birthed!
Once at the summit, I found a wooden “Redington 4010” sign that had seen many snowstorms and probably more terrible storms than I had years! Just off to the right, through yet another herd path was where I located the white summit canister strapped to an old tree.
All the years that I’ve seen pictures of this hidden gem, wondering if I was capable of such a feat as reaching this coveted location boiled down to this instant, the fact that I did it. This was a huge moment for me, that canister, as simple as it is buried deep in the forests of Maine, on a summit with no official trail, represented so much for me. I did it. I did it for me. I took each step in that unmarked forest for each day that I struggled. These are the moments I live for, the mountains that take me home, the mountains that help me breathe life.
I stayed long enough for some photos, trying to forever burn this image of this summit into my memory bank – and then I turned to leave, so quickly and it was over.
Running back down the trail, I had a rad couple of trail runners to catch up to! My new friends informed me of yet another side trail that led more directly (once hacking my way through super dense forest that had grown back in!) down to the logging roads. Before we went in opposite directions they had suggested that, “if you are not trying to reach a certain mileage today.. we are more than happy to show you to our car.. and give you a ride back to yours!”
Eventually, turn by turn through this thick canopy, I began to hear their voices. Once caught back up, we re-entered the openness of old logging terrain, running off and on, the two strangers of the woods told stories of hiking this area almost a decade prior, truly an entertaining bunch!
The low trickle of the river soon turned into a roaring river once again, indicating that we were nearing the gate of the old logging road, and thence their Subaru hatchback.
They stopped their watches: 13 miles for the day.
I stopped my watch and yelled out “Nooooo!!! I have to jump around for TEN more feet!!”, was my response when I read 9,990 feet of elevation gain for the day.
Joking of course, I humbly tucked my muddy Lone Peaks onto their sides as to not get the hearty black Maine Mud all over Ryan’s Subie interior.
Super thankful for helping me along with the final miles of my day, we all talked of seeing each other some day, somewhere out on the trails. They invited me to a celebratory BBQ, I politely declined, opting instead for the spinach salad with bread and garlic hummus that I had stashed in my trunk.
I had accomplished in a round about way, what I had set out to do and quickly settled into my home for the night with dinner and a change of clothes in my near future. Life in the backseat of a Subaru Impreza was not so bad as the sun quickly set and the frigid evening temps quickly set in.
Sugarloaf, Spaulding, Abraham, South Crocker, North Crocker, Redington.
This was my day, this is what I drove 186 miles for, this is my time with nature that I craved.
Now I settle into my sleeping bag, try to stretch out stiff limbs and get ready, for.. tomorrow I will do it all over again.
Tomorrow I will be in the Bigelow Forest Preserve for the first time, and certainly not the last time.
What a wild, wild ride I had in these hills – and I wouldn’t trade it for anything!
Overall stats for the day:
Recorded with COROS Pace
- 27.55 miles
- 9hr 54 minutes
- 9,990′ elevation gain
- Sugarloaf Mtn – 4,250′
- Spaulding Mtn – 4,010′
- Mt Abraham – 4,050′
- South Crocker Mtn – 4,050′
- North Crocker Mtn – 4,228′
- Mt Redington – 4,010′
*summit heights provided by AMC