How to Lessen Your Chance of Death During the Final Summit
With October rapidly approaching, and the last of the NOBOS making their way to Baxter State Park (well… hopefully – I do recall a few stragglers last year), I feel personally responsible to share some insider knowledge in regards to summiting so late in the season, considering my own terrifying experience.
I’ll just start off by saying – I have no idea what Katahdin looks like when she’s not covered in 1-2 feet of snow. I’ve seen the photos – the ones where my speedy trail-friends from Georgia are smiling in T-shirts and basking in the sunshine. My day looked nothing like that.
So, let me take you back to my summit day – October 18th, 2015.
Close your eyes. Imagine you’re standing in the middle of an open field…. but it’s covered in two feet of snow and you’re completely engulfed in a cloud. In every direction, you see only white. Your footprints have disappeared and you have no way of knowing exactly which direction leads you safely back down the mountain. The wind-chill is unforgiving (likely in the negative teens) and your buff has frozen solid around your face from condensation. Your eyelashes are sticking together and your head is down to protect your face – you squint as best you can in an attempt to locate the next cairn. The sun is going to set in a few short hours, and oh yeah, you’re 5,000 feet up. Don’t panic… thats the worst thing you could do. The best? Probably avoid this entire situation to begin with.
1. Take the weather report seriously and be over-cautious. Does it call for clouds in the afternoon, but a perfectly clear day tomorrow? Wait until tomorrow. I know you’ve been out on the trail for 6+ months, and I know you’re ready to go home already, but when you’re up there – panicking about whether you’ll make it down alive -you will wish you waited those extra 24 hours to summit. (You will also wish this when you see summit photos from the day after, with crystal clear skies and panoramic 360-degree views).
2. Start early. Anyone who hikes in mid-October knows that the sun sets remarkably, annoyingly early. Whereas in Georgia, we were all content to zip up our sleeping bags at sun-down AKA “hiker midnight”, in Maine we were forced to sport head-lamps as early as 6:15 and continue in the dark (which included fording rivers in the pitch-black). My trail family and I night-hiked the 100-mile wilderness every. single. night. – and not by choice. I don’t care how warm and toasty you are in your 10-degree bag. Neither does Katahdin. Get your ass out of bed at the first sign of light, and begin your accent. The last thing you want is to be stuck on the mountain without sunlight and with dropping temperatures. That being said…
3. Stay warm. Go to Millinocket. Stock up on hand-warmers, a thermos with hot chocolate, an extra fleece, scarves, and while you’re at it, an extra pair of gloves. Better safe than sorry. I wore every single piece of clothing I had available to me and it still wasn’t enough. Double up on gloves and stick the hand-warmers inside. I spent the majority of that day-hike with my hands balled up into fists, wishing I had two warmers in each palm instead of just one. (I had extra in my pack, but god knows I had no intention of taking my gloves off to shove another one in there.) By the time I made it to the summit, my fingers were red, numb, and unable to uncurl from their deathly-looking claw position. It took me over 3 days to regain feeling in one of my fingers and in the back of my mind, I considered the fact that I might have caused some nerve-damage.
4. Pay attention on your way up. Mark the trail if necessary. Once above tree-line, the AT is marked by cairns (rock-piles). While this is a decent-enough method when the trail is free from snow, it is rendered ineffective once the deliberate snow-covered rock-piles look like any other snow-covered rock-pile. I have been tempted to call up Baxter State Park and ask (beg, plead) for them to place little flags on the top of the cairns, but until then, its up to you to find your way there and back.
5. Set a hard turn-around time. While hiking my LASH, I picked up/read the book “Into Thin Air” by Jon Krakauer, which details the events that led to eight deaths during a 1996 Everest summit attempt. One of the safety methods was to have a hard turn around time and to stick with it. On Everest, turning around means your attempt for the year (and possibly your life) is over. On Katahdin, turning around just means you will have to attempt again the next day. No big deal. You have not failed. Being an “advanced hiker” (or whatever you want to claim for yourself after all this time in the woods) doesn’t mean pushing through questionable situations because you think “you can handle it” – it means recognizing that conditions may be unsafe, and removing yourself. When my trail family made it to Thoreau Springs (and the 1-mile mark), we boasted how we could hike 1 mile in no time. What we didn’t account for was the 2 feet of snow we would have to trudge through, and the fact that the trail was virtually non-existent.
6. Bring some sort of GPS. I didn’t take my Spot GPS too seriously on the trail – I never felt the need to have it, but I carried it to ease my parent’s mind. I am so grateful that I brought it for my summit. Thankfully I didn’t need to use it, but it made me feel 100x better knowing that god-forbid someone snapped a leg up there (a perfectly plausible situation, considering we were (I was) frantically scrambling over/through snow-covered boulder fields), we would at least have had a way to contact emergency rescue services. I’m not entirely sure they would have been able to physically rescue us, but the ability to contact someone reduced my anxiety and allowed me a clearer mind.
7. Drink water on the way up. My water froze in my bladder straw before we even made it above tree-line… (pro tip: pack out some hot chocolate in that thermos I told you to buy).
8. STICK TOGETHER. The last thing you want is to be wandering in a white-out wasteland, cold, confused, and alone. 5 pairs of eyes searching for the next cairn are 5x more effective than 1 pair.
9. Don’t panic. Seriously, take a few deep breaths. Yes, you are in a very sketchy situation and you need to make it to tree-line ASAP, but an extra 10 seconds of breathing will not be what kills you. While lost on Katahdin’s plateau, (though internally freaking the hell out), I noted that “…okay, we really can’t stay up here if we want to survive, but no one is dying at this exact moment. We are fine. We have some time to find our way down. Everything is going to be okay.”
You know that “just-finished!” feeling thru-hikers/LASHers always describe? Those tears of joy and relief that come with finally touching the northern terminus of the AT? I felt none of that.
After making it to the sign (well after our turn-around time), I barely cared for pictures to be taken. My summit photo may deceive you, but the only feeling I felt was extreme anxiety, and the desire to get off the mountain. And when we finally made it back down to the parking lot? Relief at having survived the entire ordeal – I barely even acknowledged that my journey was over and it was time to go home. I hope to return to Katahdin one day, so that I can get the summit experience I was hoping for all those months. My trail-family and I all made it down that day – but mistakes do happen, and they can be devastating. Don’t naively assume that as a “thru-hiker”, you are invincible. You aren’t. Be smart. Stay safe.
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.
Yikes. We summited in September. We had to put on a jacket once we got near the top and we were engulfed in all white at the top but nothing what you experienced. I’m not sure if I would have summited in your situation. So, so cold.
great article, great pics. very dangerous, katahdins a beast. i cant imagine!