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Published: July 17th 2007
Climbing Mt Katahdin
People started stirring in the Katahdin Stream camp ground about 4:30AM. The climb up the mountain is a serious one, 5.2 miles up and down by the Hunt Trail. Most people who would climb today would not be “Thru Hikers” they would be weekenders, vacationers and summer camp kids. Last night as we walked past the Birches Shelters where the North bounders stay, they dark and empty. The Baxter State Park folks make every effort to make everyone aware of the arduous task of getting to the top of the mountain and safely down again. We had decided to start about 7AM and I rolled over for a few more winks of sleep trying to block out the noise from across the stream.
5:45AM I was rudely awaken by a rouge Red Squirrel who was offended by our presence in the lean-to. He took a running start then launched into the air impacting the side of the tent and the middle of my back. CC also woke up startled by the tent shaking and the thump as I was assaulted. We slowly roused and I made my way up and out to start breakfast as CC spent a few more warm minutes in the bag. Oatmeal, coffee and tea was the order of the day. The temp was a bit cool, but the sky was clear and not a breath of wind rustled the pines surrounding the lean-to. My right foot was still sore from yesterdays excursion, my back was stiff and just walking was tough. Our walking the trail yesterday was probably not the smartest move of the hike. CC had knee pain and some minor swelling and asked for the ace bandage to wrap it for more support. Overall we are probably in the best overall physical condition of our hike, however these persistent problems would be a concern throughout the days climb and descent.
CC had her pack loaded with her water, lunch and a few extra items of clothing. I had the same in my pack. We both had our headlamps just in case we had a slow return trip and couldn’t make it back before the sun set. Trekking poles in hand we departed the camp at 6:45 and headed for the White Blazes of the AT. Walking down the trail looking at CC and myself I wondered if we would make it to the top. Passing through the camp no one seemed to be stirring and we seemed to be the only ones to be headed up the mountain. Approaching the trail register we saw another couple signing the paper. Talking to them we found out they were a Canadian couple on vacation trying to climb Katahdin. We walked together for the first section talking as we walked. After about 15 minutes they dropped back choosing to walk alone and we pressed on ahead. The forest was cool and the stream pounded down it’s course toward the sea below and beside us. The contrast of the constant heavy flow of clear, cool water everywhere here in Maine vs the dried up beds of the south we had left is very welcome. Everywhere we walked while in Maine there was plenty of water. The trail showed evidence of rain in the past few days, mud filled low areas of the trail as we ascended up the mountains shoulder.
The trail was mostly flat for almost the entire first mile allowing both of us to walk out some of the kinks from the previous days hike. Without much notice or warning the trail took a hard right turn and started up at a steep angle. Then quickly we came to a foot bridge across the crystal clear stream that poured over boulders and ledges below us. White Blazes were a mute point here as the trail was the only way through the thick pines. I had started out the hike in a light weight long sleeved shirt, CC had her ever present sweatshirt on. Even though the air was cool and damp my internal furnace was kicking into high gear and I was starting to sweat. Time for a quick halt to take a layer off and cool down a bit. I stopped for a few minutes to pull off the long sleeved shirt and put on a T-shirt. The Canadians caught up with us both still in their jackets. The trail opened up onto a large granite slab we needed to traverse as we climbed the mountain.
Just after we reentered the forest the thunder of Katahdin Stream Falls filled our ears. CC was excited to see this set of falls that we had been told to ensure we took in. Working our way to the edge of the ledge we could see the water pouring over a cliffs edge. We took photos and spent a few minutes taking in the beautiful surroundings, then moved on up the mountain. The forest closed in around us to the point that we had a four foot wide swath through the woods as our path up the mountain. Mountain Laurel edged in from the side with very small flowers adding a nice fresh aroma to the pine scented air. Boulders of all sizes sat in the trail causing us to weave our way up the trail. Both of us commented about the challenge of this trail compared to others we have climbed since leaving Harpers Ferry. It was shaping up to be a real mountain climb, we were constantly climbing up. Many times the step up would be a couple of feet at a time. Trekking poles were almost more of a hindrance than a help, hands were needed to pull yourself up the trail. Soon we came on a couple of young ladies down the trail on their way back to camp. We had only been on the trail just over an hour and people were giving up. One girl said she was feeling a bit sick and the other was making sure she got down safely. The next people we met were three guys sitting taking a rest break. Two were young men who looked if good shape and the third was about our age but quite overweight. We exchanged pleasantries and moved on.
Just past this group we came to a stretch of trail that was more creek than trail. We dances from stone to stone trying to keep our boots and socks dry. The stream flowed down the trail for some fifteen minutes, definitely no water shortage here! Trees started to get smaller and smaller as we approached the tree line. Clearing the tree line we met the family of the two girls who had gone down earlier. It was a young man and his father and mother, they were climbing the mountain with their son who was just starting his southbound Thru Hike attempt. CC and I decided to take our first rest break as we had been on the trail for just over two hours. The family continued on up the first boulder section. A few minutes later the father shouted down we should climb up just a little more as the view was much grander up there. We stayed put and had our snack. From this point on for the next two hours we had to CLIMB the mountain! We put away our trekking poles and had to use both our hands to get up and over the rocks. Clearing the trees and gaining the top of the first real big (bus sized) boulders we were rewarded with one of the best views of the trip. Looking down the mountain to the south we could see well into the 100 mile wilderness. We could see most of the route we had hiked the day before, the scene was filled with lakes, mountains and rivers as far as the eye could see. Looking up the mountain we could the task at hand............... boulders, boulders and more boulders. Little ones, big ones and bunches in between stretched up at near vertical angles. Climbers who had started very early were multi colored ants moving ever so slowly up. Would we ever make up there was the thought going through both our minds. White blazes were tough to find at times the trail was no longer obvious, we picked our way through this boulder studded ridge. Forward and upward progress seemed to grind to a halt, we crept up the mountain at a snails pace but we gained elevation none the less.
Three and a half hours after we started we arrived at the plateau below the summit ridge. This high up the mountain the area turns to tundra, one of the only areas in the lower 48 states to have this terrain. We could see all the people who had started before us spread across the flat area and trailing up the ridge to the peak. They were clustered here and there all the way to the furthest visible peak. It was both gratifying and depressing. We had finished the toughest part of the climb, but we could see what remained. Hiking and climbing are real mental exercises, to quote CC, “You have to climb to the top to get to the top.” Or the false summits can really get you down. Just when you think you are near the top, you gain the false peak to only see another peak above and beyond still to be climbed. Onward we trudged across the expanse of the plateau. Four miles into our climb we come upon Thoreau Spring, a spring flowing from fissures in the stone above the tree line from seemingly nowhere. There are no glaciers up here or melting snow pack to feed this stream. It is staggering to me to think of the physical forces required to drive water almost one mile straight up through the earth to flow back to the sea. Wind started to buffet us as we climbed but the sky was still mostly clear. This part of the trail is marked by cairns and in places small stakes with string outlining where hikers needed to walk. This is to protect the fragile tundra. Dancing from stone to stone over tussock and hammocks we finally made it to the base of the summit ridge. Here we to encounter hikers who had made the top and were headed back down. One of these pairs stopped to tell us what we had thought was our goal was in fact not the peak. They pointed out a small pyramid cairn where people clustered that was the real goal, it was a real boost to us. Our aches and pains were a an even point and we knew we would make the top before noon our projected time of the climb.
11:45AM we reached a crowded summit. There must have been twenty people all spread out around the Katahdin Peak sign. We found a quiet spot behind a large stone out of the wind to have our lunch. The view from the top is hard to describe. The mountain appears to be an old volcano with the north side flattened by glaciers of the past. Knife Edge Ridge runs north and then back to the west. It is a boulder strewn line of smaller peaks that is one of the harder routes to the top. People could be seen all along the ridge both coming up and going down. In the center of the old crater is a small lake and wilderness Rangers cabin. This north side of the mountain drops almost straight down to the lake and forest below. Opposite the Knife Edge is the Saddle route, one of the easier trails up the mountain, it curls to the south then back to the west ringing the lake. We stayed there for about 30 minutes then had one of the folks take our summit pictures and headed down. The weather was starting to look as if it would get ugly soon and we didn’t want to get caught this high when the fireworks started.
The climb down was more tough than the trip up. Down climbing is twice as hard as going up. Your body takes more of a pounding and trying to pick your way down the rocks takes a toll on your brain. Wind battered us, clouds moved in, temperature started to drop and we had no protection to shield us from the beating. CC had all her stuff on along with my stocking cap trying to keep warm as we slowly descended. We made reasonable progress as we came down to the plateau. Reaching the flats the weather abated some with the sun returning warming us both up. Reaching the edge of the plateau we are averaging one mile per hour, not bad considering the vertical gain plus the technical difficulty of the terrain. Starting down a small group of preteen kids and two adult guides pass us. The young boys are moving real fast and the adults had to work hard to keep up. We move slowly and deliberately down near vertical stretches of trail. Scrapes and abrading flesh are common during our climb down. Knees, ankles, fingers, elbows, arms and legs all work overtime through the boulders, we are both glad we are doing this climb now not after we loose some of our conditioning.
We make it back to camp nine hours and forty five minutes after we started, 5.4 miles up and back total distance. The temperature at the camp is in the mid 70s about 15 degrees warmer than the summit. We are tired and happy to have made the trip without any injuries only tired muscles. We were blessed with very good weather fro the entire day. Supper is done before the sun sets, boots are in the trunk of the car and we are both in comfortable shoes hobbling around like two old folks. Tonight we will sleep a restful sleep knowing we have finished a major part of our journey. Tomorrow all we have to do is drive back to New York.
Tot: 1.055s; Tpl: 0.043s; cc: 11; qc: 53; dbt: 0.0294s; 1; m:saturn w:www (184.108.40.206); sld: 1;
; mem: 1.4mb