TOWNSHIP 2, RANGE 9, WELS — On President’s Day, while it was mild and 39 degrees in Portland, Dave Wilson was on the summit of Mount Katahdin, facing 60 mph winds and a new patch of frostbite on his face. He had been there before, at least once a year for the past 20 years.

Wilson has seen many changes in the winter camping policy, including the most recent that allows smaller groups and less oversight. The more liberal regulations are a welcome change to many, but to longtime campers like Wilson, it’s still about rugged wilderness survival.

“It puts Baxter more in line with other national parks. (Solo hikers) were climbing Mount McKinley and Mount Washington and couldn’t climb Katahdin. I don’t know, I kind of like the old rules better. I’m a woodland manager and understand safety. We really didn’t have any trouble with the old rules,” said Wilson, who works for Katahdin Forest Management in Millinocket.

For years, winter camping and trips into the park in the snow season were allowed only in groups of at least four and no larger than 10. Designated group leaders had to show proficiency in wilderness survival and safety, and carry a long list of mandatory equipment, such as ropes, goggles and headlamps.

Park officials realized the large group sizes restricted some very worthy outdoor explorers, so four years ago they rolled out a new way of winter camping in the 210,000-acre wilderness park.

Now the list is suggested and the group size not restricted. It’s more of a swim-at-your-own-risk approach. And Baxter winter visitors seem to get that.

“Our reporting indicates that since we relaxed our winter use policies, winter search-and-rescue incident levels have dropped. This may be due to the fact that without a minimum party size, groups entering the park include only individuals experienced and capable for the planned itinerary. It could also just be a lucky couple of years. I think it’s the former, but we will need more time to tell,” said Baxter State Park director Jensen Bissell.

The new regulations allowing solo and small group trips was immediately popular, said Baxter State Park Chief Ranger Ben Woodard.

“Groups of one and two are going to different places rather than going to Chimney Pond. They just don’t look to hike Katahdin,” Bissell said.

But the reality is large groups looking to ascend Katahdin in wintertime are still the norm, Woodard said.

Last week, Wilson hiked in a group of nine climbers who spent three nights in the park. They traveled with 90-pound sleds full of gear that included stoves, food, fuel, climbing axes and sleeping bags.

The weather on Katahdin last Monday was fierce, but in the park it was tranquil.

“If you’ve got the weather, it’s gorgeous. All you’ve got to do is look back to the east, you’ve got all the mountains ahead of you. It’s very pristine,” Wilson said.

A month ago, Eric Pandiscio and John Gause were the first in a large group to haul their sleds by ski out of Baxter State Park.

They were miles ahead of their three friends on the ski out, but some distance back the three others followed.

As each in the group came upon the chief ranger traveling by snowmobile, they all wore huge smiles.

Pandiscio and Gause came in to the park hoping to summit, but never sure if the freak winter weather on Katahdin would allow it.

The spent two nights at the base of Katahdin and the third at the highest campground near the peak, Chimney Peak. It was 7 below, but in the bunkhouse with a wood stove it was heaven.

“You could not spend a better $14,” said Gause of Bangor.

The next day they made a push for the 5,268-foot summit early in the morning, and descended and skied out the same day.

Just after noon they were skiing within a few miles of the Golden Road, delighted with their adventure.

“Chimney Pond is a magic place in winter. It’s a massive bowl and just dramatic. You walk across it and see various lights and different colors than any other time of year,” said Pandiscio of Orono, on his 10th winter visit to Baxter.

“It was 7 below last night. It was 5 below the night before. But we were lucky. The Dartmouth Outing Club went up before us; they blazed a nice trail.”