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.

A picture of the “Spirit of Katahdin” hanging in the ranger station, my experience says this beast should appear far more fearsome

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

Seen here: a dirty tease

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. 

Wait, no one told me this mountain would have rocks!

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.

My feet want to die

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.

Quite possibly one of the fattest people to ever reach the top of that mountain

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.

Where’s the sun going off to?

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.

Hope

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?

…Right?

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Comments 16

  • A.J. Matthews : Jul 13th

    Damn Son! Now there’s a story that’ll be in the family lore for years!

    Reply
    • kevreg : Jul 13th

      Good times!

      Reply
  • Notebook : Jul 14th

    Damn onions.

    Holy sh*t, what a beautiful post. This so perfectly captures why we do this lunatic thing, why we suffer the discomfort and fear and exhaustion and despair and lonesomeness of thru-hiking.

    You got to be IN SPACE. You got to be the first man in the United States to see the sun that morning. Yeah, yeah, not the way you’d have wanted it. Yeah, yeah, at what cost yadda yadda.

    And you brought us with you with your writing. Thank you.

    *hugs*
    -Notebook

    Reply
  • firehound : Jul 15th

    James What a Post, At least you were prepared for what Might(and did) happen, you had the foresight to have what you needed to survive. For the rest of this Doughey crowd, Thanks !

    Reply
  • Mark Fugel : Jul 15th

    James: First of all, great piece. It really hits home for me. On July 4th of 2016, I took the Helon Taylor trail up to Pamola Peak. Let’s just say that I am a large man too in my 60’s. After spending a spectacular hour at the summit in 50 mph wind but clear skies, I started to descend. About 2:30pm, only an hour from the top and far above treeline, i got my left foot caught between 2 rocks and my whole body fell between 2 giant boulders. I put my hands out to stop my fall and prevent smashing my head. I was then pinned between the boulders but knew something wasn’t right. It turned out i had shattered my right wrist. I now had to struggle getting down with one arm. It had to be the adrenaline that kept me going. It turned dark just like it did for you, but we were then below treeline. I finally reached the ranger station at 8:30pm. From there, i had to go to Millonocket Hospital and spent all night in the ER only to then go back to our campsite and crawl back in a van for our group’s ride home to NY/NJ. It was a long day. But like you, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. The day and the mountain were magical. It took some mental toughness…but the views and the experience were tremendous and life-changing. I’m glad you made it down ok. I now have a large scar, a metal plate and 11 screws in my right wrist. But I look at it as a badge of honor. And, by the way, i went back to Baxter this past July 4th too.

    Reply
  • Chief Duffy : Jul 16th

    You got to experience something on handful of people have ever done. Glad you’re OK. Treasure the memory! But please don’t do it again!!

    Reply
  • Brian : Jul 16th

    You were given a challenge and got through it….That is an awesome thing to build on for the rest of your hike….and life..

    Reply
  • Julia : Jul 16th

    James, reading your story of how you dealt with the elements and the bravery you showed. I was moved! I thought about my own and my partner Nicks hike on katahdin. As I read on and looked at your picture, I realized that, nick and I saw you on the Abol trail on the 22nd of June! You graciously gave me a hand to steady me as I descended. You were so kind. Nick and I were on our 2nd attempt to summit the giant. Last summer we hiked from mass to Maine on the AT with a September hike up the hunt trail. I, not nick turned us around at the bars in boulders there. I was devasted that I couldn’t summit the courage to summit! So in short we came back that very 22nd of June to hike just the Route you took. But it wasn’t to be again. I became so afraid at the sheer degree of boulders and rocks that seemed so easy to fall off of to a sure demise thousands of feet below. I do believe I said to you,” don’t mind me I’m just terrified of how steep it is.” When you helped me down. James I’m so glad you made it and also your story is so very telling of just how dangerous that mountain is. You are a very brave man. Thank you for sharing your story. I imagine your out of the 100 Mile wilderness now. Hike on or an inspiration to me!

    Reply
  • Dave Reynolds : Jul 16th

    Very good start for your hike–the hard part is over😉

    Reply
  • Kate Berger : Jul 17th

    This ga en me goosebumps! Love it!

    Reply
    • Jan Ryan : Jul 18th

      Love your story. Think about it too. Looking fwd to 100 mile wilderness story since there isn’t enough deet to compensate for sweating that profusely. Mosquitoes drove me off the AMT in one day. Them and the long wet wobbly dance across the beaver dam and the pack that was heavier every mile and the 2 guys who walked up the road at the end of the day (wait. That counts?) and the rafting bus that was driving back to Millinocket NOW and where is the sobo leanto and the start of the trail for tomorrow?… So see, you did good and no, I don’t wish I had kept going.

      Reply
  • Jan Ryan : Jul 18th

    P.S. I too saw you going up Abol on June 22. We spoke briefly, as I was going down. If it was you on that day.

    Reply
  • Jessica Esders : Jul 18th

    That was amazing-thank you for sharing!

    Reply
  • Jaynn : Jul 20th

    YOU ROCK. Period. Beautifully written and wow – what an accomplishment for you!!!!! Love to hear about the stars above and the honest fear you felt – and then you kicked its ass.

    Reply
  • Gamera : Jul 21st

    Thanks for your honesty! I dig your writing and I look forward to more updates. For the Horde!

    Reply
  • Brian Bowden : Jul 26th

    wow, glad you made it through that one to tell about it. also, coming from a journalist, excellent writing.

    Reply

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