Highpoint # 8
Katahdin, 5267 Feet
September 7, 2003
#6 on New England Hundred Highest Peaks List
#7 on Northeast 111 List
#2 on NE 50 Finest List
After attaining the summits of the furthest highpoint from our home (Mauna Kea) and closest (Mt. Frissell), I was eager to bag one that I’ve dreamt about doing with Hoang for years: Katahdin, also known as Baxter Peak, in Maine. I began preparing Hoang for Katahdin months in advance, warning her that it would be the toughest hike of her short outdoors career. I knew she could physically do it, but again it was a question of whether or not she’d want to do it. Ok, I knew the answer to that was a resounding, “No,” but hey, she married me so we were off to northern Maine.
As always with such physically demanding trips, I once again planned cushy city stays before and after the hike. We drove up to Boston on Friday night, went out to dinner and some random bars, and stayed in a lovely hotel in Cambridge. I let my wife sleep as late as possible Saturday morning, because I knew we had a long drive and two nights of camping out ahead of us. Of course, “letting my wife sleep as late as possible,” would actually mean her never getting out of bed at all, so that’s not necessarily true.
Late afternoon, the day before the hike: Gorgeous
We grabbed some coffees and immediately encountered what may have been the toughest part of the whole trip; getting to the highway through the “Big Dig.” Ahh yes, Boston traffic at its finest. It was a complete free-for-all in a brand new manual transmission Jetta, which I had just learned how to drive. I’m still amazed I escaped unscathed. The next 5 hours of driving was rather uneventful, as the skies were clear and the traffic was light – this was Maine after all! We grabbed a couple Subway subs and extra flashlight batteries in Millinocket a few miles outside of Baxter State Park in which Katahdin rises. With a deep breath and a bit of fear, we entered the park, paid our fees, and checked the weather report for the next day: Cloudy, rainy, chilly, and windy. Sigh, just what we didn’t want to see.
Driving into and through the park, the initial views of Katahdin are impressive to say the least. It rises very abruptly and it looks very imposing. I had a spot reserved at Katahdin Stream campground (Lot # 19) which was way better than I thought it would be. We had a nice flat area for the tent, devoid of rocks and roots, with a good deal of privacy. A short 2 minute walk down the trail took us to a large clearing with an incredible view of the monolith. As you can see above, our arrival day was beautiful, not that that should matter to two highpointing badasses such as ourselves… and as you’ll read later, it didn’t. You’ll also notice I employed Hoang’s Mauna Kea preparation technique. Owing to our proximity to Canada, I felt the “local” oilcan was in order.
Baxter State Park is a huge rectangle in the huge state of Maine. The park’s stated intent is to remain as wild and natural as possible, which is certainly a refreshing policy in 2003. No electronic devices are allowed, no paved roads, no phones, no stores, and access is extremely limited. Cars full of day hikers begin queuing around 5 AM on nice weekend days. We had reservations, so this was not a concern of ours. Props to Maine for keeping its most beautiful (and reverent, for any local Native Americans who may be alive – Katahdin means, “greatest mountain”) natural area as primitive as possible. One problem, though, was that our campground area was inundated with rabbits… lots and lots of rabbits… Rabbits that would steal food from your hand if you weren’t careful. After sunset, we spoke with the couple in the adjacent campsite who were from Rhode Island. They were good to talk to, as the woman assured Hoang that she’d be, “fine,” on the climb. However, when pressed, the lady admitted that she didn’t even make it all the way up – on a perfect weather day!
I lied to Hoang as we went to sleep, assuring her I wouldn’t wake her up until 8 AM. Six and a half hours later, I nudged her sleeping bag and heard the familiar grunts of married life. I got up and surveyed the sky; pale blue with a temperature in the low to mid 40’s. “Excellent,” I told myself. I prepared breakfast and started dressing for the hike, just as Hoang finally emerged from her warm cocoon. I told her I wanted to start earlier to try to beat the afternoon rain that was forecast, and she didn’t really argue with that. We got our gear in order pretty quickly and hit the trail around 7… no where near the first people on the mountain that day, as we saw several early birds streaming up the AT past our campsite as we prepared.
We were set to hike the Hunt Trail to the top, which is also the final 5.2 miles of the Appalachian Trail for northbound thru hikers. Since it was September, we were hoping to bump into a few people finishing their epic journey – an added bonus for me. After signing the register (the first time we’ve ever actually have done so, as death was actually a slight possibility this time), we slowly climbed up the gentle lower slopes of Katahdin. My mother could have hiked the first 2 miles or so, as it was really quite pleasant. Waterfalls and soft trail provided a false sense of, “What’s the big deal about this mountain?” Well, I knew better… so I made sure Hoang was prepared for the difficulties that were ahead.
The trail got a bit steeper after a mile and a half, and the trees became shorter and shorter with the elevation gain. Our first opportunity to scan the horizon and our surroundings gave us a hint of the approaching weather. Just to the northwest over The Owl Mountain, black clouds were gathering and heading our way. My heart began racing with a greater sense of urgency; Katahdin is a dangerous mountain in perfect weather; this didn’t bode well. Adding to the stress of the moment was the trail which immediately became more exposed and much more difficult. This was it… the last three miles or so of rock scrambling, iron hand holds to help with the vertical sections, and no protection whatsoever from the elements. Hoang was remaining steadfast, so we continued to climb.
We had seen the pictures and read the descriptions, but being the toughest climb in the US east of the Rockies is serious business. Once we were above tree line, the trail became less of a trail and more of a boulder strewn, steep, jungle gym. I had to assist Hoang (all 5’3″ of her) up some of the bigger gaps. There were places where the iron rungs were at least 7 or 8 feet apart, making it very difficult for her. Worse, now that we were up on the ridgeline, the cold front which was now upon us brought with it some 30-50 mph whipping gusts. For a woman who is not comfortable with heights and who doesn’t weigh much to begin with, Hoang’s resolve was certainly being tested. (Of course, there were some “lemon squeezer” boulders through which she was able to pass with no trouble…
Whereas the average American male had to twist, turn, shimmy, scrape, and squeeze to get through). Amazingly, there was no talk of turning around, even as other hikers were clambering back down saying things like, “it only gets harder.” There was a short, flat section which was eerie because of the distinct, dark cloud line just above. We were still able to see the valleys below, but could not see what loomed ahead of us, or how far we had yet to go. In hindsight, I think this was actually a good thing, as our ignorance of the long sections of nearly vertical climbing was, in a relative sense, bliss.
Once into the clouds, I really had my fingers crossed for the rain to hold off for a little while longer. I knew we still had an hour or so to hike up, and now with the rocks wet from the clouds it was getting worse by the minute. One slip meant a painful fall, if not a very serious one. We continuously banged our knees and shins, and the rough granite was tearing up our hands as well… our cold, wet hands. Also, Hoang was experiencing some pretty bad knee pain due to the constant squatting and extending her limbs to their limit. There were other hikers up in the clouds, but no Americans that we could discern. Everyone seemed to speak French and was from Quebec. (When I say, “everyone,” I’m talking about 5 or 6 people up until this point). We ended up hiking with a French Canadian family for the last mile or so, passing each other when the other group would take a break. At one point we told them we were going to Quebec City the next day and asked for the best route there. One guy, who was the most comfortable with English, repeatedly stated, “Go to Jackman… oui, Jackman… go to zee Jackman… oui, Jackman.” Ok, mon ami, to Jackman we would go.
We were now at the most difficult part of the hike – in fact, this is one of the most difficult parts of the entire Appalachian Trail; not only is it the biggest vertical climb of the whole trail (4000 feet of elevation change in a few miles), but I can confirm it is the longest stretch of very steep rock climbing – as the pictures above showed, it really is straight up – a lot of the time! There were about 3 or 4 times I stopped in my tracks and had to think about my route choice: Where to put my hands and where to put my feet and where to pull myself up was not always so simple. And I had my wife to think about too. We could not really see the drop offs on the side of the trail, so we didn’t know if a fall would result in a little tumble, or a femur shattering plunge. We continued onward and upward. Hey, if the French family could do it, so could we.
We finally reached the “Tablelands,” which is a short section of completely flat alpine meadow just below the summit. This was the first point on the climb at which I felt confident we’d make it all the way. The whole way up boulders like the pictures above, Hoang had a fire in her eyes and had never considered quitting. I’m not sure I can say the same for myself. Wow, what a nice change… we almost felt like running. I’m sure that on a clear day, this is an incredibly beautiful area. However, as you can see, we couldn’t see anything. Yet, it was so quiet and peaceful, it still had a certain satisfying quality about it. After about a half mile of fast walking, the climb began again on the final section before the summit itself. It still wasn’t raining, but rather just misting since we were in the clouds. Since we knew we were almost there, the complaining and straining more or less stopped and we silently climbed into the gray gloom. Suddenly, without warning, the famous AT sign appeared about 15 feet in front of my face. I was somewhat shocked that we were at the top… I shouted back to Hoang, “Hey, we’re here!”
“Shut up!” she yelled back (In a surprised, Elaine Benes way, not meanly).
At the summit, several other hikers appeared out of the mist, most of whom had taken different routes to the summit. One route, the Knife’s Edge trail isn’t as steep as the AT, but has severe cliffs on both sides of the trail. Someday, when I return here to climb Katahdin on a clear day, I will take that route – I’m not sure Hoang would enjoy that though! The ledges/gaps/jumps on the AT were enough for her, I’m sure. There was a big group of Newfoundlanders, one of which had just completed his thru hike (his family had joined him for the finish). As we poked around, we came across other hikers huddling behind boulders and rock piles. Suddenly, we realized that was a good idea, as the wind was howling and the temperature was in the lower 40’s at best. Yes, we were pretty chilled – so we found a sheltered spot and ate our leftover soggy Subway subs and snacks. We finished quickly, had our picture taken, and began the descent as there was no point in sticking around. By the way, I love the picture here of Hoang in contemplation near the cairn.
The descent into nothingness
For me, descending mountains like Katahdin is always more difficult than climbing up. Being a tall doofus, my center of gravity makes me feel like I’m constantly pitching forward, which is not a nice feeling when staring down a 12 foot cliff. The rocks were all now completely wet, but the rain was still holding off, thank goodness. “Just get back to tree line,” I muttered to myself, “Then it can downpour, I don’t care.” At one point, after I had negotiated a particularly steep section, I stopped on a small ledge to think about the next long vertical rock face.
“Go!” Hoang shouted… so I did. I now know that her way of handling such difficult climbing is just to motor through it and not to stop and think about it. Lesson learned.
We actually picked our way down fairly easily, with the thought of a fire and food and warm clothes foremost on our minds. Tree line came and I was completely confident that Highpoint # 8 was in the books without incident. Sure, Hoang’s knees were hurting pretty badly, we had no views, we were sleeping on the ground that night in a tent, but we were both extremely happy and proud of ourselves. We sauntered back to our campsite at around 2 in the afternoon – just as the sun poked out from the clouds. I said to myself, “Well, the summit is still socked in for the day.” However, while Hoang was napping, I walked out to the clearing to talk to the Newfoundland guy about his thru hike, turned around, and the summit was now bathed in the warm glow of the afternoon sun.
I built a nice fire, cooked dinner, relaxed and gave Hoang her “reward” for a job done (incredibly) well. Mmmmm, processed sugar over flames! It’s the little things, y’know.
Sigh… “Wanna go up again?” I asked the old guy.
“Uh… no.” After 2200 miles from Georgia to Maine, I could understand his point.
The next morning dawned perfectly, without a cloud in the sky – seen here to the right. Unbelievable – at least I was able to take a nice badass (with bedhead) picture from the road on the way out of the park – on our way west to Quebec City, through zee Jackman border crossing of course. Before Jackman, oui, Jackman, we ate breakfast at the Appalachian Trail cafe in Millinocket, saw a moose along the road, bought a can of Moxie (a noxious local carbonated cough syrup flavored drink), stopped in Caratunk to see the one and only official AT ferry (the canoe has a white blaze on it and is required to cross the Kennebec River – when we highpoint Georgia next spring, I plan to show Hoang the only place that the AT goes through a building too; man, I am a nerd). There was some disturbing graffiti on a building near the cafe in Millinocket – stupid kids, of course, but still, when you read, “White Power,” and several other racist scribblings and you’re an interracial couple, it is startling.
Highpoint Difficulty Rating: 7
Hike Distance: 10.4 miles
Distance from Current Residence (West Hartford, CT): 420 miles