Monday, February 2, 2015

Maine in Winter, Part II - Sugarloaf, Spaulding, Abraham

Date of Hike: Jan. 3, 2015
Route: Ski Trails, Sugarloaf Spur, Appalachian Trail, Spaulding Spur, Abraham Side Trail, Firewarden's Trail
Peaks: Sugarloaf (4250', NE4K), Spaulding (4010', NE4K), Abraham (4050', NE4K)
Mileage: ~15mi (trail distance is actually closer to 14.5mi, see report)
Elevation Gain: 4700ft
Time Taken: 9hr 15min

(see Chris's report, Tim's report)

With the weather for our second day in Maine expected to be good, with diminishing winds and clear summits, we were ready for another big hike. Again, since we had good snow conditions and only a couple-days-old beta, we decided that going for the other 3 peaks around the Caribou Valley Road would be a good use of time. Sugarloaf and Spaulding are fairly straight-forward to do as an out-and-back using the Sugarloaf Ski Trails (you must purchase a $10 non-lift pass, though no one ever asked to see ours). Adding Abraham turns this into a ~20-mile hike, and even more if one opts to drop down from the Abraham Side Trail/Appalachian Trail junction and bushwhack to the CVR to save the 1000-foot re-climb of Spaulding and the nearly-1000-foot reclimb of Sugarloaf. Pam and Mike, however, were looking for a shorter hike with some views.

On the drive up, Tim and I had decided to check out the access road to the Firewarden's Trail to Mount Abraham. In summer, the access starts off on a paved road, but then a couple miles in turns into an old logging road, complete with some bumps and wash boarding. Additionally, two bridges over a big stream washed out sometime around the time of Hurricane Irene (I assume it was in fact Irene that washed out the bridges), and they have not been replaced. The bridges are close together, and the first is only a few dozen yards from where one can park, and the road walk to the trailhead is only about 1/2 mile, but the crossings are significant, and a frequent source of folks needing to turn around and come back another day (or, in summer, wading very deep water). In winter, the plowed section seems to end somewhere just past the last house on the dirt portion of the road, leaving a couple-mile roadwalk to the trailhead. But Tim and I discovered an icy and bumpy, but otherwise plowed, road well past the last house (high clearance and 4WD recommended!). In fact, we got to within around 1/2-mile of the washed-out bridges before meeting a truck coming out. There were 2 guys inside that informed us that they were logging in there and that the road was plowed all the way to the bridge site and there was room to park. Additionally, they informed us that the stream looked crossable there, and that people had been hiking in there recently.

Armed with this information, our group hatched a plot over dinner after the Crockers-Redington hike. The two folks looking for a shorter hike would take the two 4WD cars in and hike Mount Abraham via the Firewarden's Trail. They would report the status of the crossings via text message/phone call to the rest of the group (since it was early in their hike, they would know soon). The rest of us, Tim Whitney, Chris, and myself, would take the 3rd car and head to Sugarloaf. We had purchased the passes the night before that allowed us to hike on the ski trails, and would hike up over Sugarloaf, Spaulding, and Abraham, descending the Fire Warden's Trail (or turning around if the streams proved to be un-crossable). If we met the others, we could all drive back together, otherwise they would leave us one of the cars with the key in an agreed-upon position and we would meet back at the cabin.

Sunrise lights the sky behind the Bigelows

The Bigelow Range

South (L) and North (R) Crocker

Redington and the Crockers from Sugarloaf (L-R), the apline ridge of Saddleback off on the left

Saddleback (LC) and Saddleback-The Horn (L) from Sugarloaf
Starting up the ski slopes shortly after sunrise, we were greeted with -3 degree air temps, but no wind. The climb up the various ski trails, chairlift lines, and access roads was steady and somewhat steep, but offered nice views across to the Bigelows. I'm pretty sure I even saw Mount Katahdin way off in the distance to the North, roughly 90 miles away! Reaching the summit, which was a tad windy, we could also see Mount Washington 70 miles away! Without hanging out too long (it was still only about 4-5 degrees), we headed off down the Sugarloaf Spur to the Appalachian Trail. The trail drops quite a ways to the col, then climbs up over a few minor bumps before finally reaching the short spur to Spaulding. There were nice views back to Sugarloaf from a viewpoint just past the summit that I somehow had missed on my summer visit a few years ago. Somewhere near the Spaulding-Sugarloaf col we received the text saying that the streams were indeed crossable and so the traverse was on!

Fairly new sign, wrong elevation...though someone did attempt to write in 4010 on the side

Saddleback and Saddleback The Horn

Mount Washington in the distance, some 70 miles away

Sugarloaf from the Spaulding viewpoint
We had some brief route-finding trouble in a few spots below the Spaulding campsite on the approach to the Abraham Side Trail, but we always found our way. White blazes and winter just don't mix! Also, there were a TON of blowdowns on the ridge, especially between Spaulding and Sugarloaf, but on this side of Spaulding too. Reaching treeline on the Abraham Side Trail, we geared up, stepped out, and found only a light breeze but overcast skies (still, the views were excellent!). We reached the summit in good time, finding the old fire tower framework had been recently knocked over somehow. Not that this open peak needed a tower to improve the views!

The final ascent to Abraham

Looking back at Spaulding and Sugarloaf - we've come a long way already!

Mount Washington looms in the distance, as seen from Abraham

Saddleback and Saddleback The Horn from Abraham

Looking across the Carrabassett Valley towards Redington and the Crockers from Abraham

The Abraham fire tower, recently knocked over (how? why? not sure)
Finding the Firewarden's Trail down proved to be a bit tricky. None of us had ever been on it, and there were no signs for it, but we found some cairns heading down the ridge a little ways. After following them for a while we determined that these were heading somewhere else (we think Middle Abraham, a de-listed New England 100-Highest Peak), and headed back towards the summit. We ran into Mike just below the summit, who let us know that Pam had to turn back at treeline due to crampon terrain. He tagged the summit real quick, then helped us down, avoiding the steep icy slopes as we too didn't have our crampons with us (a major oops on our parts! - luckily the ascent from the AT side is not steep and was not dangerously icy). This meant a bushwhack through some nasty scrub, and we went a bit too far off track, but we did get back to treeline safely. Then it was just down the steep trail to the old warden's cabin site (now a campsite with a privy), and a long flat walk out to the trailhead, during which we caught up to Pam. The crossings were indeed wide and deep, but frozen over enough for us to (carefully) cross, and we made it back to the cars before needing headlamps! Yet another terrific hike!

Our messy bushwhack around some ice fields on Abraham - you can see the actual trail corridor across the bottom of the screen.

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