A frigid hiker returns from the summit of Cranberry Peak. (Contributed photo)

Temperatures were in the teens when we arrived at a trailhead on icy Currie Road in Stratton. Although several days before the official start of winter, we encountered deep snow and spruce trees decorated with a layer of the frozen precipitation. The forecast was sunny, but we had clouds and snowflakes. The scene left one with the impression of a Christmas postcard. An inspection of the trail indicated earlier hikers had broken a path with snowshoes and the surface was frozen — perfect conditions for our mountain of choice, Cranberry Peak.

Scheduled to lead a mountain hike for the Penobscot Paddle and Chowder Society, the decision to climb Cranberry had been a circuitous one. Initially undecided, I was leaning towards something in the White Mountains. Exchanging emails with a friend in Carrabassett Valley, he suggested two options in that area, Snow Mountain or Cranberry Peak. Since Cranberry is the more scenic with a distinctive alpine summit, I posted a club message suggesting that as my choice.

Two frequent mountaineering companions responded recommending a climb of Avery and West Peaks on Bigelow Mountain. They had led an unsuccessful attempt the previous weekend. Turned back by deep snow and impending darkness, a snowshoe track had been carved almost reaching Bigelow Col, a saddle between the two summits. Since we were experiencing the shortest days of the year, daylight dictated the final decision. Avery and West Peaks are an eleven mile trek while Cranberry is six.  I’ve aged beyond marathon mountain expeditions beginning and ending in the dark. The shorter alternative was my selection. Another Chowderhead living in Quebec announced she would join us, perhaps bringing a friend.

Part of Bigelow Preserve, 3,214 foot Cranberry Peak is the western most summit in the Bigelow Range. Several decades ago, a controversial proposal to construct a ski resort on Bigelow Mountain prompted a commensurate response the 40,000 acre preserve was created. While the economic and recreational benefits of ski areas are readily acknowledged, I applaud that decision. An occasional skier over the years, I don’t believe there was sufficient justification for another ski resort. From my inexpert viewpoint, the supply of ski areas has continuously exceeded demand, often resulting in business failures, bankruptcies and receiverships. Saving a wonderful mountain wilderness impresses me as a higher priority.

Six of us met at the Stratton trailhead, the latest addition was a guest from France. People come from all over the world to join our trips. Actually, he was a young man visiting our Quebec companion intent on an American outdoor adventure. Since we were all old enough to be his parents possibly grandparents, he may have deemed the excursion a nursing home outing.

The packed trail notwithstanding, we decided to carry snowshoes as there was no reliable means of determining trail conditions at higher elevations. Bare booting at the outset, it was easy going past the summer trailhead to a brook crossing after a mile. Shortly beyond, a twisting narrow route began climbing steeply and footing became more problematic. Some added snowshoes while others didn’t. I chose micro spikes.

Negotiating an attenuated pass through massive boulders, we emerged on a succession of partially open ledges offering excellent views of mountains to the west and glimpses of Flagstaff Lake. The gradient moderated on an abbreviated plateau before beginning an extended hilly traverse on the rugged north slope of a substantial prominence offering sporadic expansive vistas of the lake. Unfortunately, our predecessors turned back at that juncture. Snowshoes became a necessity as trail breaking was required.

Pivoting south, we ascended precipitously in stunted tree growth to a ridge where barren Cranberry summit was visible east. Energized after observing our goal coping with severe wind chills was a new impediment. A mountaineering moment of import, bitter wind chills increase the risk of frostbite; particularly hands and face. Many winter climbers use chemical hand warmers and wear balaclavas to quickly cover their faces. The dangers of injury or hypothermia are also intensified.

Persevering cautiously up the abrupt summit cone, we briefly enjoyed spectacular views from the top before dropping to a protected location just east of the peak. Huddling from the wind, we donned parkas and other protective gear while hurriedly consuming snacks and water. Misjudging the cold, one climber had frozen hands requiring assistance while adding warmer clothing. After a short respite, we immediately descended to the relative safety of lower elevations.

Wearing snowshoes for the remainder of our journey, the six mile trip was completed in six hours. Perhaps its faulty memory, but I recall averaging 45 minute miles when we were young. According to Appalachian Mountain Club rules, ours did not qualify as a winter ascent because winter hadn’t officially begun!

The author of “The Great Mars Hill Bank Robbery” and “Mountains for Mortals — New England,” Ron Chase resides in Topsham. Visit his website at ronchaseoutdoors.com or he can be reached at [email protected]

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