My Night on Katahdin (Kids Don’t Try This At Home)
So I spent the night on Katahdin.
I really need to preface this story by saying I do not recommend this experience to anyone. It was by far one of the more frightening experiences of my life, and certainly didn’t do much for my confidence. I say this, because it was also an amazing experience I’ll remember for the rest of my days, but I don’t want to accept responsibility for anyone foolish enough to repeat my performance.
I find myself in a strange situation with my return to the thru hiking life. Last year I spent six months living on the trail. I hiked over a thousand miles. This means I have significantly more experience than when I first started out last year, and a fair bit more experience than some of the other fresh new SOBO’s I’m starting off with. However, I also have never hiked north of West Virginia, and despite my previous experience I remain a mostly dough-y nerdy dude in his late (*shudder*) thirties who very much looks less like “accomplished hiker” and more like “dude who probably has an awesome Netflix queue and strong opinions on which World of Warcraft race you should play. (for the record: a lot of sci-fi mixed with comedy and the Undead, respectively) This means I often have a horrifying proclivity to overestimate myself and regularly have to deal with the disappointment of not quite measuring up to where I think I should be physically by now.
So cue my setting off to hike Katahdin from the Abol campground around six in the morning. I firmly believed this early start time would have me back by no later than 5 or 6 in the afternoon for a quick camp dinner and early bedtime to get me started on the rest of my trip. After all, it was only 4 miles to the top, then about five miles down the Hunt Trail (the actual AT) from there. All without carrying my pack. Easy day hike, right? I would bring my Nalgene and water filter so I wouldn’t need to carry more than a liter of water at a time. I heard it was a little chilly at the top, so I threw my puffy jacket, hat, and light gloves in, and a handful of snack bars. My headlamp as an extreme “just in case,” but beyond that keeping my supplies to a minimum for maximum speed.
This would not play out well later.
So I set out bright and early after eating a good sized trail breakfast of oatmeal and Carnation instant breakfast. The first two miles were deceiving. Standard hiking through the woods
Remarkably steep, but otherwise nothing particularly unusual. I stopped for a quick snack and refilled my water at one point. I was definitely going slow, (about a mile an hour) but not to worry I left plenty early so that’s fine.
Then I got to the tree line.
Boulders, so many boulders. I spent the next few hours making my way slowly over the large rocks, my arms began to cramp up. I signed up for hiking because while I have a fluffy marshmallow top, my legs can carry me as far as I need! What is this upper body workout stuff?! Several times I pulled a Winnie the Pooh and fell into the gaps between boulders, taking far too long to pull my way back out. Once I was stuck until another hiker came along and was kind enough to help pull me.
And time continued to go on, amazingly fast to my mind considering my efforts. My turn around time swiftly approached. This is the halfway point between when I set out and sundown, the time at which – regardless of where I was – I needed to turn around and head back to the campground to ensure I’d safely spend the night. I had no map since I hadn’t used the AT for my ascent, hoping for a different view versus my climb down, but my GPS assured me I was close to the top, so when that turnaround time came, I decided to keep going. The weather report had stated today was the only clear day to expect that week, and if I turned back now, I simply wouldn’t be climbing Katahdin. So I pushed on.
This, dear children, is what the ancient mystics would refer to as “a colossal whoopsie doodle.”
I finally summited Katahdin 5:17p on June 22nd and officially began my SOBO thru hike. The feelings I had at that moment were impossible to describe. I was sore and tired, but I couldn’t help thinking of the past year leading to this moment. I saw the months away from home and the nights spent in the rain as building to this. I’m not your “standard” hiker, but I am a hiker just the same. A moment to bust out for the rest of my life to show that my stubbornness and willingness to put forward great risk can indeed accomplish something.
But I still have to get back down.
I began descending the mountain, but my energy was tapped. At this point having been hiking for over twelve hours, and I’d eaten all the snack bars I’d brought along. And still more boulders were coming. I sat by Thoreau Spring and refilled my water, only to lose track of time as I stared off into the distance. The sun was slowly coming down as well, and I couldn’t help but realize I was very much alone on the mountain at that moment. The wind was picking up and I began my stumbling attempt to make my way down.
In what seemed like an unfairly short period of time, the sunset became dark, and I stood on a part of the trail that followed the narrow curve of the mountain down, crawling over boulders. I couldn’t help but think if how there was no real room for error with steep falls to either side of me. My headlamp had been brought along with an almost incredulous belief that it might be needed, but while it was perfectly fine for making my way to the privy at night or finding a tent spot when I’d hiked too late, it simply wasn’t bright enough to literally trust my life to its thin field of vision.
I decided the safest course at this point was to slip between a few rocks to avoid the wind and try to get some sleep. I’d now been awake for, checking my watch, 17 hours, and hiking most of it. Exhaustion was overwhelming. I pulled out my puffy coat and pulled it over my head hoping for additional shelter from the wind, which was swallowing me now. I tried to sleep, and dozed off for maybe twenty minutes. After that though, I woke up shaking uncontrollably. My heart deep in my chest complaining of the cold. I had packed for a hike in late June, not for spending the night above treeline exposed to the wind. Hypothermia became a real possibility. I had to weigh my fears of possibly falling off an ill-seen boulder with the reality of this seemingly acidic death that was eating its way through my chest.
(It is at this point, beloved grandson, that grandpa will stop and tell you that the princess will survive – she won’t be eaten by the shrieking eels, and I will similarly survive the night, although with a rough chest cough that didn’t leave me for a week)
I crawled out on top of the boulder I’d been attempting to use for my night’s shelter, and began to steel myself to attempt to climb down in the dark and tired. I laid for a moment and looked up at the sky and I was stunned.
A bit of personal background. I grew up as not the most socially adept human being. As a kid, I never made the “in crowd” and never made friends easily. Between health issues and family struggles of moving around, I spent a lot of time feeling very much alone. This wasn’t helped by the fact that I wasn’t particularly physically adroit. I had cancer at the age of six, so I wasn’t exactly the star of the T ball team. However, I found one place that I truly felt at home. Star Trek. I spent hours and hours as a kid imagining myself on the deck of the Enterprise, exploring strange new worlds and generally being awesome. Unfortunately, as I grew older, actual space escaped me. I was barely in physical condition to qualify for the inter-office Magic the Gathering league, let alone shooting for NASA. And while I was “smart” as a kid, I wasn’t “grow up to be a rocket scientist smart.” At least not with my attention span.
All of that’s to say that night on Katahdin, laying on that boulder at over 5,000 feet, staring up at the sky, I was surrounded by stars and for the first time in my life I truly felt like I was in space. It was an amazing moment and one I wish I could describe with a more perfect clarity.
After absorbing that in, I turned and slowly resumed climbing. Again, I couldn’t shake the terrified feeling of what I imagined to be a straight fall on either side of me, so I moved at an even more glacial pace, barely faster than the rocks themselves. I made double and triple sure of every step I took before taking it, and stopped frequently to try to rest, resuming whenever the cold began again to eat its way into me. Slowly but surely, the time passed. Finally, I saw my next life changing moment of beauty. The dawn. They say Katahdin is the first place the sun hits in the United States every morning, and on that day I felt the full absolution and relief of that national dawning. I made it through the night. I had survived and now I could see to begin my climb down with renewed pace.
I laughed like a madman, sliding down boulders, screaming “I’m coming” to no one in particular. I can’t express enough the profound sense of victory I crashed into when I finally got to the treeline and escaped my rocky torture. The rest of the morning I sped down the trail, grinning maniacally as I passed morning hikers shocked to see someone coming DOWN the mountain at this early time when they no doubt assumed they were the only ones brave enough to be awake and starting. When I finally reached the campground close to noon, almost 30 hours after I set off, I was surprised to be greeted by two excited rangers, who apparently had been getting ready to come find me, my appearance meaning they were excused from an afternoon of looking for this foolish fat man.
In summary, I had one of the most terrifying and amazing experiences, but I would not recommend it for the world. When you are ready for your day on Katahdin, DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE THIS MOUNTAIN! Check your day pack and make sure you have essentials. Plenty of food, a good light, and warm enough clothes. Set your turnaround time and stick to it! I was incredibly fortunate enough this night turned out as it did. Any number of small factors could have taken it to an even more dangerous or even deadly conclusion. Do not repeat my mistakes!
Now, onto the 100 Mile Wilderness. Which will surely be easier. Right?
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.