Cadillac Mountain South Ridge Trail in Winter

Posted by on Feb 8, 2014 in Hike

Cadillac Mountain

Hiking to the top of Cadillac in winter has been on my wish list for some time. Last year while still living in Vermont, I read in the Mount Desert Islander about a guy near my age (58) who was hiking up Cadillac and had to be rescued after slipping on the ice and seriously injuring himself. He was alone in a dead spot with no cell reception so he had to lie on the trail until someone came along who could send for help. Fortunately another hiker did come along and she summoned a rescue team that got him safely off the mountain and to the hospital. Had she decided not to venture out that day, the story could have ended tragically. From then on I vowed never to hike alone in dangerous conditions and to always bring the right gear. For me that means hiking either with my wife or daughter, wearing trail crampons, carrying a first aid kit, bringing enough food and water, having an extra battery for my cell phone, and along with a paper map, having my GPS maps pre-loaded so they are available even where there’s no cell service. Also, we only hike in good weather, dress appropriately, and start out early so we have lots of time to get back before dark. While these precautions don’t guarantee an accident free-hike, they greatly improve the odds of making it home safely.

Hillsound Trail Crampon If you plan to hike on Mount Desert Island in winter, like Janice in the photo at right, the trails can be icy so wear trail crampons for safety. Ours are made by Hillsound and cost about $60 a pair. The difference between these and the various “ice grippers” people wear is like night and day. Lesser protection is okay on flat, smooth ice like sidewalks or easy trails, but for anything steep, irregular, or where there is snow on top of ice, nothing compares to crampons. Hillsound's trail crampons give each of your feet 11 spikes that are each 1/2” or 5/8” long, made of heat-treated carbon steel, and linked together by metal chain that adds extra traction. The metal parts are connected to an elastomer harness (like rubber, but stronger) that you stretch over your hiking boot. It takes a minute to put them on and seconds to take them off. For the price, ease of use, and the great amount of extra safety they offer, I can’t recommend this product highly enough.

Janice and I had waited for the right day to go on this adventure. It had to be one where we would have all day and could count on good weather for the entire trip. Today was the day. Mostly sunny, temperatures starting in the low teens and getting up into the low twenties, and wind gusting only up to about 15 mph at times. I figured that with these ideal conditions, there would be other hikers that we could call upon, or provide assistance, to if the going got rough. Just last Saturday I had driven past the trailhead which is located on route 3, a few hundred feet on the opposite side of the road from the entrance to Blackwoods campground, and saw several cars parked there. I expected to see even more cars on this perfect day, so imagine my surprise when at around 8 AM our car stood alone. It had snowed several inches a few days ago and a quick glance at the trail showed that no one had trekked this way since that snowfall. It would be just us on an unbroken trail.

To be honest, I started having second thoughts about continuing. Were we really prepared enough, and in good enough shape to hike this trail? Our planned seven mile up-and-back route is only rated as a moderate hike in summer, but in February, we knew it would be challenging. As we sat nervously on the back of the Subaru putting on our trail crampons, an Acadia National Park ranger drove up and rolled down his window to talk to us. I thought oh boy, he’s going to tell us not to go, or warn us about how dangerous this hike can be, but instead he just asked us our plans, wished us a great hike, and said maybe he’d see us at the top since he planned to ski up later on the motor road. He was smiling and seemed genuinely happy to see two people about to embark on a winter adventure in the park. As he drove away, we both felt so much better, not just because of the ranger’s positive attitude, but because we knew that he knew where we were going and would probably check back later to make sure our car wasn’t still there after dark.

I’ll let the pictures tell the story of the hike itself, but briefly, we went the entire distance to the summit on the South Ridge trail, adding in the Eagles Crag loop trail on the way up, and staying on the main trail on the way down. Much of the trail is wooded and thus protected from the wind, but there were some parts where we were out in the open and when the wind gusted, the cold cut right through the many layers of clothing we had on. The toughest part of the ascent is just past the little pond called The Featherbed. For that steep and very icy section, I asked Janice to strap my camera close to my backpack so that it couldn’t swing freely as I climbed on all fours in some places. On this trip I took the tried and true combination of my Canon 5D2 with the tiny 40mm pancake lens. While this kit doesn’t have much flexibility, it’s very light, relatively small, and takes tack sharp images.

Once up on the summit, we found a spot to have lunch just off the walking path where, if it were summer, hundreds of visitors would be staring in awe at the magnificent views. At an elevation of 1,530 feet, we were enjoying a meal on the highest point along the east coast. While there we saw one snowmobile go by on the park loop road and that was it. During the entire seven hour journey we did not see one other person and encountered no other footprints in the snow other than our own. Now you can appreciate how lucky that guy was last year when someone eventually came along after he fell.

Hopefully the pictures give you a sense of what our journey was like. Yes it was cold, and the going was rough in places, but wow, what a great hike. How incredible to be on the highest peak on Mount Desert Island and feel like we had the entire national park all to ourselves. And to that ranger that stopped by to check on us, if you happen to read this blog post, thank you for getting our day off to a good start. We really appreciated it.

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