Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Katahdin Mountain Trip Report


In my thirteen years of high-pointing, I had bagged all the Northeastern states save for Maine. I had delayed going after Maine because I wanted to go after other highpoints but for this year, I decided to try my luck at the terminus of the Appalachian Trail.

My attempt was part of a larger trip which included visits to Acadia National Park and visiting some Maine lighthouses in and around the vicinity.

I got into Millinocket (which is base camp for many a hiker going along the Appalachian Trail) on Wednesday October 6 and made a quick trip to Baxter State Park to get info on how to reserve a slot in the Day Use Parking Lot at Katahdin Stream. The ranger at the gate gave me great info and when I returned to town, I went to Baxter State Park HQ to reserve my parking slot.

I didn’t go into this hike feeling very confident. My main concern was the weather. Reports throughout the week were not encouraging and I had only a two day window to climb the mountain. I was afraid I would not get a shot at the peak at all. The following day the 7th was dark, rainy, and depressing.

The weather for 8th (the day I would make my attempt) was only slightly better. It would be sunny in the morning but there was a threat of rain in the afternoon. I was determined to get as early a start as I could.

I woke up at 5:00AM on the 8th and quickly ate breakfast at the Appalachian Trail Café. Even at 5:00AM it was crowded, filled with truckers and hikers like me.

I was back at my hotel at 6:00AM and promptly suited up for the journey. In a few minutes I was on the road to the Togue Pond Entrance Gate at Baxter State Park. It’s a sixteen mile drive and it takes roughly 30 minutes to get to the Togue Pond Entrance Gate. After clearing the gate it’s a 7.7 mile drive to Katahdin Stream campground. It’s all dirt roads when you go inside Baxter State Park and the speed limit ranges from 10-20 MPH so it’s slow going all the way. I didn’t reach Katahdin Stream Campground until 7:00AM

The ranger on duty there said it was Class 3 conditions on the trail—meaning the trail was open but it wasn’t recommended you go above the tree line. The summit of Katahdin itself was shrouded in fog. Somehow I knew I would be unsuccessful with this attempt but decided to go as far as I could and hope against hope.

It was 7:30AM when I signed in at the register at the start of the trail. I wasn’t alone. A team of three other hikers (two male and one female) were with me. They wanted me to break trail and I did but rather quickly I lost them somewhere (they later told me they had stopped for coffee).

The first mile of the Hunt Trail (which is part of the Appalachian Trail) is gentle on the legs. You are enshrouded by the peak colors of autumn in a narrow tunnel of yellows, reds, and oranges; your footfalls softened by the black, moist soil; the only sound effects being the bass roar of Katahdin Stream and, later, Katahdin Falls.

The air was bracingly cool and I was glad to be bundled up in my L.L. Bean equipment. I was wearing layers and felt quite secure in my Gore-Tex cocoon.

My pace was moderate and I was in no rush. I passed the first mile marker and quickly afterwards crossed below the Katahdin Falls. Once you do that is when the going gets tougher and you encounter the rocks. I thought Mt. Marcy in Upstate New York was onerous but Marcy is a walk in the park compared with Katahdin.

The granite boulders at Katahdin are something to behold and they get more ominous the higher up you go.

I took my first rest break at 8:25AM and munched on a candy bar atop this moss-covered boulder right in the middle of the trail. I was shaded by the dense stands of trees and content to commune with the silence.

When I resumed hiking the trail narrowed even further and for the first time in my high-pointing career I was forced to wade through a stream for quite a ways. Just before you reach the boulder fields at the midway part of the trail, the trail is subject to considerable run-off of water as you go up and down. The soil was a black viscous mud and the rocks were sunk into it. Water flowed over my boots and I silently thanked God for the Gore-Tex linings.

It was slow-going and hard on the legs. The higher I went the steeper it became. The other hikers who accompanied me had passed me by earlier but I had caught up with them. I thought I was doing well in terms of my pace but when I came to the boulder field at the 2.8 mile mark, I was wondering what was going to come next. I knew it wouldn’t be easy but I was unprepared for the labyrinth which confronted me. I was thankful for the painted trail marks because if I had to blaze my own trail I would have failed miserably.

You spend your time looking for the paint marks and trying to find footholds and handholds. It requires hands free climbing. There are places where metal spikes are driven into the stone by necessity because without them you can neither go up or down. I had never done such technical climbing in my entire high-pointing career. Somehow though, I got through the tougher parts but I knew it would be tougher still when I would have to climb down. If I had had a helmet camera on me and my friends, relatives, and loved ones could see what I was doing, their collective hearts would have gone into their mouths.

It was in the boulder field that the hike swiftly went to hell.

The top of the mountain was shrouded in fog and the winds were blowing around 20-30 M.P.H. I had my balaclava on but there were times when the wind would blow the cloth over my eyes and I had to readjust it. A couple times I slightly bonked my head on the rocks but nothing serious. I never tripped or fell.

I took my second rest break near the bottom of the boulder field at 9:25AM. Removing my gloves to undo my pack was not easy. The temperature was definitely in the low 20’s at that elevation and I had to put my gloves back on or else risk them getting frozen.

It was during that second rest break that I got these weird thoughts in my head. I kept getting these visions of me falling to my death; of me slipping and breaking a leg or an arm or something else and being stranded on the trail, dying of exposure. I had never had such thoughts in my entire high-pointing career. It disturbed me. Once my break ended I resumed the ascent. The fog prevented me from gauging how much further I had to go before I reach the tablelands and the final approach to the summit.

If I had been very close I was determined to persevere regardless of the conditions but where was I? I wasn’t lost. I was on the trail and moving upward. It was the not knowing that was sapping my emotional strength. I was also worried about the descent because the boulder field would be infinitely tougher going down than going up. I would need lots of time to navigate this place. My prior calculation called for me to summit around 11:00AM and it was getting near to be 10:30AM. I had already passed the 3.2 mile mark painted on the rocks on the trail. By my calculation I had gone 3.3 or 3.4 miles on a 5.2 hike.

The wind was now really kicking up and it was blowing so loud you had to shout to be heard. The three hikers who had accompanied were ahead of me and on their way to the summit. Another man had passed me by as well.

At 3.4 miles I stopped and tried to discern how much further I had to go before reaching the tablelands. At times the fog would part and I could glimpse more and more boulders to be traversed and in a moment I realized I had a long, long way to go.

I was feeling at the end of my physical and emotional tether. My fears were magnifying.

At that moment, a voice inside my head said to me, “Are you ready to die?”

And before I could answer that devastating question, the voice asked me, “Is it worth your life?”

I stood amidst the boulders looked up at the dark rocky mass and realized that I would never ever climb Mt. Katahdin. I cried out, “I quit! I give up!”

I didn’t pause long. I knew I had a ton of work to do getting down this bloody mountain. It was 10:30AM when I decided to turn around.

For the next four hours I would be trying to descend.

Going down the boulder field took the longest time. I couldn’t make any mistakes. Any trip or fall could result in serious injury. I went at a tortoise like pace and paused frequently to eye up the footholds and handholds. When I got back to the parts of the boulder field which had the metal spikes, I did a lot of serious praying.

Amazingly while I was engrossed in my personal ordeal, there were hikers who were still going up the mountain despite the vile weather conditions. It was the worst example of summit fever I had ever seen. I told everyone and anyone who would listen that I was turning back. At least 3-4 hikers kept going up but four others agreed with me and started back down.

For me the hairiest part of the descent came at the bottom of the boulder field when you reach the last set of climbing spikes. I remember looking out over the ledge and seeing the sheer rock face and the narrow ledge below. I knew this was going to be scary and it was. I remember placing my feet carefully on both spikes and then shifting my body so I would descend downward like going down a ladder instead of sliding down on my butt. I remember hanging onto the bar for dear life while gingerly lowering my left foot onto the small stack of rocks within the cleft. When my left foot touched down, then I released my right foot from the climbing spike and lowered myself to the rocky ledge. I went only a small distance when I saw one of the hikers who were going down with me, trying to do what I did. I had to pause and coach her on where to place her feet. She did it like I did and got down safely.

Even after I cleared the boulder field, I could not relax. The rocky upper portions were fraught with danger. I couldn’t afford any slips or falls lest I suffer broken bones or other crippling injuries. Sometimes I eschewed dignity and slowly slid down the rocks on all fours to brace myself. It looked silly but it worked. I never slipped, tripped, or fell throughout the descent. Going down the stream bed on the trail was onerous because I was worried about my footing. Plus my boots were getting soaked and my feet were wet. Still I put one foot in front of the other and kept slogging downward.

I took rest breaks at 11:30 AM, 12:30PM and 1:45PM. The last rest break was the best one because I was below the storm clouds and the air was warmer and clearer. I could see the fall colors on the surrounding peaks and find peace amidst the madness above me.

I took pictures to preserve the experience.

After the last rest break, I crossed Katahdin Stream and the rocks gave way to soft earth. Every step brought me closer to safety and it was 2:30M when I signed out of the trail.

A lovely blonde-haired married woman was waiting anxiously by the register. Her husband was one of those who had gone up the trail and had passed me by on their way to the summit. I told her what happened to me and she became apprehensive when I told her how onerous the weather conditions were. I felt sorry for scaring her but I felt that I owed her the truth. There were others who were waiting for their loved ones to come down at Katahdin Stream campground. I spent twenty minutes at the parking lot discussing what happened to me. I left at 2:50 and cleared the Togue Gate at 3:15 and was back in Millinocket by 4:00PM.

When I look back at this hike I wonder to myself whether I could have made it if the weather conditions had been better.

I can’t answer that. In some roguish way I’m sort of grateful that the weather high up the mountain was bad because it gave me the perfect excuse to turn back.

This was my second high-pointing failure. My previous failure occurred in Nevada in September 2008 when during a reconnaissance of the Queen Mine approach to Boundary Peak, my SUV suffered a flat tire while descending down the gravel road which leads to the highway. I barely made it to the highway where I luckily was able to flag down a passing motorist who helped me change the flat and I was able to return to Bishop, California. That was not a real summit attempt but a reconnaissance.

Maine was my first failure during an actual summit attempt. In retrospect part of me feels I should have tried the Abol Trail instead of the Hunt Trail although later that night when I was having a drink at the Scootic Inn bar in Millinocket, a local told me that the Hunt Trail was the least technical climb of all the trails to Katahdin.

Will I return to Katahdin? I don’t know. It will be many years before I contemplate a return if ever.

Still I am grateful to God for delivering me from this ordeal. I am also grateful to my friends on Facebook who prayed for me during the hike itself. Your prayers were answered. Amen.

My next high-pointing journey will be easier (I hope). I will go after Driskill Mt. in Louisiana, all 535 feet of it in May 2011.

See you at the highpoints!

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