The Final Climb
I woke up at Hurd Brook Lean-to 18.6 miles from the summit of Katahdin. The weather was perfect. My plan had been to summit the next day, but I’d heard a storm might be coming in, and there simply couldn’t be nicer summit weather than this. I decided to keep my options open until I learned more about the weather: I rushed ahead, the terrain flat and simple. If I was going to summit today I’d be cutting it close. Not only did I need time to climb Katahdin, I needed time to descend it too. Baxter State Park recommended not starting an ascent after 11:00am.
Energy, excitement, anxiety shook up inside me with every bound. I passed section hikers and beamed with something like a huge secret. Breakless and I passed each other back and forth, constantly speculating on whether we would summit today or tomorrow. He was leaning towards tomorrow. I was leaning towards today.
At last we reached Golden Road, the official boundary of the Hundred-Mile Wilderness. It was the first real road I’d seen in almost a week, so it felt like walking down a red carpet. We crossed over Abol Bridge and the west branch of the Penobscot River. Breakless, K2, Good People, and another hiker named Ox gathered at the Abol Campground store to buy supplies for Katahdin. I was happy to not need more than a day of food because the prices in that place were straight up extortion. My sympathies to the SoBos who supplied there. Of course, as expensive as it was, we all had to buy some celebratory ice cream.
The view from Abol Bridge:
The store clerk recommended we summit today, but a mile further a man who worked for Baxter State Park said we should summit tomorrow. It was a split. I rushed along into Baxter State Park, a gorgeous section of trail following the Penobscot most of the way.
Something I wasn’t expecting: for about an hour I continued passing rafting tours cruising down the river. The rafters would watch me and I would watch them. I overheard several raft guides, their voices carrying over the water, pointing out the thru-hikers finishing their journey.
I couldn’t help envisioning a hundred ways for me to end up crippled on this final stretch. I imagined dragging myself up Katahdin with a broken angle. It just takes one bad step—but it’s only taken one bad step for 2,180 miles.
I hiked fast, but still the clock kept ticking. I would reach the base of Katahdin well past 11:00. Gradually I came to a resolve: I would summit tomorrow. I slowed down a bit, felt a bit better, and prayed the weather would be half as good.
When I arrived at Katahdin Stream Campground (KSC) I saw Coyote, Sunny, Hare, and Honey Badger returning from their summits on this perfect day. Can’t say I didn’t feel jealous. After filtering water from Katahdin Stream I walked the extra quarter-mile to the long-distance-hiker campsite. I met up with Breakless, K2, Good People, and Ox there, as well as a young section hiker named Billy. Everyone shared their snacks. The energy was fantastic. All five of us had come so far, and here we were. Though I hadn’t been hiking with these guys until the last few days, we felt like good friends.
There was an excellent showing of beards.
Everyone pooled their remaining snacks on the picnic table and we had a final feast of cookies and candy.
The others slept in the shelter, but I opted for my tent that night. I’d slept in it almost the whole way here; it was my home, and I wanted one last goodbye.
We woke up bright and early to beat the day hiker crowd (Katahdin’s a busy mountain). Patches of blue skies and clouds with a breeze. We were still okay. The first part of the hike followed Katahdin Stream with a few waterfalls. Then the trail twisted steeper through the trees. Then the trail came into its own. Before I knew it I was dragging myself up boulders and navigating steep rock faces. No doubt, Katahdin is one of the hardest climbs on the trail. But I had five months of training and anticipation on my side. I caught up with Breakless and we continued together, snapping photos after we reached “The Gateway,” a point where the trail flattens after the steepest bouldering.
And lets call this stretch of trail “Victory Road”:
We passed a point commemorating Thoreau’s climbing of Katahdin, which he wrote about. Thoreau’s precedence stirred my imagination. Here is how he described approaching Katahdin:
“Ktaadn presented a different aspect from any mountain I have seen, there being a greater proportion of naked rock rising abruptly from the forest; and we looked up at this blue barrier as if it were some fragment of a wall which anciently bounded the earth in that direction.”
Breakless and I carried on, the wind leaning heavier the higher we climbed. Misty clouds whipped by, revealing a handful of people and the silhouette of a sign. And a minute later, just like that, we were there. The thin, speeding clouds conceiled and reveiled the world at their whim. We grinned. We laughed. We swore.
There was a thorough photo shoot of each of us on the famous Katahdin sign. My favorite set of pictures is Ox capturing my final yawp: “I! Am! Beowulf!”
We hung out on the summit for maybe 40 minutes, the wind strengthening all the while. As we waited for K2 to arrive for our final summit picture, a thick stormy brew swept over the mountain. It looked like we made our fair summit weather just in time. Growing uncomfortably cold in that wind, we snapped that last photo, and we headed down.
Hiking down steep and rocky Katahdin I had to lean into the wind so as not to be blown off the trail. Felt bad for the few still ascending.
What was I feeling? I felt electric. Faintly dizzy. Buzzing with anticipation, still, as if there was yet another summit just around the corner.
I was thrilled to be meeting my family back at KSC. Thrilled to have a great thing that upon its completion could never be taken from me, whatever exactly it was.
I grinned a lot. I let out short bouts of laughter at seemingly nothing at all.
Back at KSC I sat at a picnic table waiting for my family. Just sitting there, waiting, not moving, I felt a vast overhead of momentum left suddenly directionless. I was very hungry, being 100 percent out of food. I watched people walking around the campsite. A dusting of rain. Sitting there was incredibly difficult.
My family finally arrived and it was wonderful to see them. Having such a poor conception myself of what I had accomplished it was hard to convey that and celebrate it, but celebrate it we did, all the same. We drove away from Katahdin. Away from the streams and forests. Away from all those amazing people I met along the way.
I’m writing this final installment several months after finishing the trail. I am still sad to have not been able to find out how Firestarter’s journey ended. If you’re reading this, Firestarter, (or if you can reach him) please contact me. I regret we never traded numbers.
What else to say? I will cherish the experience and forever be making sense of it. I recommend it to anyone. No matter who you are or how far you get or how rough a time you have, take a journey such as this and you’ll be better for it. The benefits are limitless and personal, but to name one in particular, it may just be the closest you’ll ever get to living for the pure sake of being alive.
If you have questions about the trail, I’ll be glad to answer. And thanks for following along.
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