My Most Difficult Day On The AT: Mount Katahdin
Summiting Mount Katahdin
There is little detail in guide books and hiker literature about how arduous the terrain is to Mount Katahdin. I had hiked the Hunt Trail to the summit in 2010 and had certain memories of the challenges of the trail. But a younger friend had hiked with me through the most difficult sections. On my recent ascent, I hiked alone.
At times, I was truly petrified. I remembered an expression my mother used to say: I wouldn’t do that if my life depended on it. Well, my life depended on me using my body in ways to which I was unaccustomed: pulling myself up and over boulders and ledges, leaping from one boulder to another over crevasses, stretching limbs beyond their limit, etc.
I arrived at the AT Lodge and Hostel in Millinocket as planned. That night I packed up my resupply bucket, which was being cached at a halfway point in the woods, and got a good night’s sleep.
At 6:30 a.m., the shuttle left for Baxter State Park, where 3 of us had reservations at Katahdin Stream Campground, from where we would begin the hike. We picked up daypacks and left our backpacks in a shelter across from the ranger station. Then we each registered to hike in the park.
The couple registered first and about 7:45 a.m. headed up the 5.2 mile Hunt Trail, which the AT follows. After registering, I followed 5 minutes later.
It was a beautiful day for the hike. The weather was fine and the sky was clear and sunny. The first mile or two was in enchantingly lush, moss-filled, conifer woods. Although the trail was often the pathway for running water, it was an easy hike.
After passing a robust waterfall, the trail became steeper and rockier. Enormous boulders required me to stretch my limbs to hoist myself up and over. Younger and/or taller hikers seemed to have little to no difficulty. For me, it was very slow going.
Then I arrived at the very steep section where there are a few metal rungs in the vertical rock face. Fortunately, a hiker above me guided me through this section. After I hoisted myself up the first set of rings, he advised me not to go for a single metal rung to my left but to walk around. I followed his advise and continued to scramble upward.
Miraculously, I climbed up to the Gateway, and continued maneuvering up and over enormous boulders. I had no recollection of this section from my previous ascent and I continued to travel slowly. In that area, I passed two men from Maine, familiar with the trails, who planned to descend on the Abol Slide Trail, which they said was easier.
Finally, I made it to the Tableland, where the trail becomes a less-steep rock field rather than boulder-filled. Thoreau Spring mysteriously bubbles up from underground at this high elevation. It is also the junction for the Abol Slide Trail. Partway through the Tableland, the couple who started 5 minutes before me passed me on their descent.
Soon I was at the summit. What a relief! There were AT thru hikers celebrating the completion of their journey and others, all admiring the view, looking over to the Knife Edge Trail, taking photographs, and eating lunch or snacking. I did the same.
The Descent: It Is Optional To Ascend But Mandatory To Descend
But how to get down? According to the woman who shuttled us to the park in the morning, the 4.4 mile Abol Slide Trail, which ends at the Abol Campground, was a good option. She said it descended into the woods more quickly than the Hunt Trail. Although it is a steeper descent down a rock slide, I had met the two men who planned to take that route, and near Thoreau Spring, I had seen many others on the trail. Since I couldn’t possibly imagine descending the Hunt Trail on my own, I decided to descend on the Abol Slide Trail.
Only one of the two men I had passed earlier made it to the summit. He told me his friend was waiting for him at Thoreau Spring. When he started to descend, I decided I should follow. But it took me several minutes to take in my final views and he was soon out of sight.
When I reached Thoreau Spring, I saw a couple ahead of me on the Abol Slide Trail. I kept them in sight as long as possible. While I was scrambling downward, two couples passed me, as well as two men. I also kept each of those pairs in sight as long as possible because the trail down the rock slide was difficult to follow. But my legs could just not move as fast as the others as I don’t have full range of motion in my knees. I maneuvered down most of the trail on my own.
A final hiker passed me. He soon asked whether I could see the next blaze. I had thought he was simply following an easier route down. Rather, he was off trail. I pointed to the nearest blaze and he returned to the trail. He, too, was soon out of sight,
Finally, I reached tree line and was off the rock slide. Although the trail continued down steeply it became less difficult. Soon I heard voices ahead of me and caught up to the two men I had met on my ascent. We leap frogged with each other over the next mile or so. When I last caught up to the slower hiker, he told me his friend had gone ahead to walk the two miles on the park road to retrieve the car from the parking lot at Katahdin Stream.
Eleven hours after heading out in the morning, I reached the Abol Campground and began the two mile road walk back to Katahdin Stream Campsite. The hiker who went to retrieve the car drove me the last half mile. I signed out at the trailhead register, noting the time that I had descended and went to return the day pack and retrieve my backpack from the shelter across from the ranger station. Wearily, I set up my tent at my reserved site, cooked dinner, and went to bed.
The next morning, I woke up bright and early, packed up, and started my journey south. I soon felt muscles in my legs, shoulders, chest and arms that I never knew existed. I realized I was exhausted. Rather than entering the 100 Mile Wilderness as planned, I only hiked 9.9 miles to the Abol Bridge Campground, where I spent the night. My journey in the Wilderness is another long story. To be continued.
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