The Last Section Part 16: Climbing Mount Katahdin

This is part 16 of a 188-mile northbound section hike of the Appalachian Trail in Maine in September 2023. I started hiking at the road crossing near the town of Stratton, ME and finished at Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park, the northern terminus of the trail! Day 20 where this post begins is the day I climb Katahdin and officially complete the Appalachian Trail.

Catch up with part 15 here!

Day 20: The Birches Campsite to the top of Katahdin!

I don’t remember the exact time, but I know that it was three something a.m. when my alarm went off. There are very few scenarios when I’ll perk right up at such an early hour, unless it’s for something incredibly worth it. This was one of those times. 

I wanted solitude, and not because of some personal challenge or ego thing where I needed to be the first person on top of Katahdin that day. It was an avoidance of anxiety, of seeking out what would actually put me in my comfort zone, and not outside of it. Climbing up a narrow mountain above treeline, potentially bottlenecked with people just ahead of me and others just behind, with nowhere private to hide to take a break or dash off to find a bathroom spot, is somehow a stressful thought for me. 

It’s almost like this strange sense of reverse claustrophobia. It’s not that I needed the place to myself, because these types of places are for all of us. I just didn’t feel like spending the hike being anxious on my very last day of the trail. In other words, I was over it. 

Nearly every day on the course of this trail over the past several years, I had to push myself in some way. I wanted the push on this last day to be about getting up the mountain, not warding off some internal battle that had nothing to do with the actual mountain. The gates would open at 6:00 a.m. for day hiker permits. There were certainly thru-hikers or people who were already camped overnight that would start even earlier. Therefore, I needed to be well on my way before then. 

The weather was seeded to be uncannily perfect. There was no reason I couldn’t start up in the dark, and I would be far from the first person to ever do so. I’m always slow to get ready in the morning but planned ahead for that too. I cleared out of camp quickly and silently after my alarm went off, doing my absolute best not to disturb the slumber of the 11 other hikers at The Birches. I shoved everything messily in my pack and walked a quarter of a mile or so down the gravel road to the ranger station at Katahdin Stream Campground. I dumped the contents out again on the floor of a mini-shelter area where hikers could leave excess gear for the day while heading up the mountain. 

The campground area was still and quiet. I stuffed my tent and other non-essentials into the trash bag I usually use to line the inside of my pack, labeled it with the masking tape and marker hanging from the shelter, and set it in the corner. I knew that within a few hours’ time, my lone trash bag would be joined by a shelter full of other pieces of gear, each one representative of a long-distance hiker on the mountain. 

Officially Starting the Five-Mile Climb

One granola bar later plus a few wrong turns into campsites that I had mistaken for the trailhead, I signed the register by the light of my headlamp. 4:21 a.m. and the first signature 0f the day. What a relief, I was afraid that starting any time after 4:00 a.m., I could potentially have company from the get-go.

There’s me at the bottom, first name to sign on 9/28. The Hunt Trail is the name of the trail the Appalachian Trail follows up Katahdin.

The path was somewhat rocky, but gradual and wide. I was surrounded by the feeling of a crisp fall morning chill, and the air in front of me fogged up in whisps through my headlamp beam with every breath. Trees towered above on either side of me, but my vision was narrowed to the rocks and dirt below my feet. I could hear Katahdin Stream roaring as I crossed over it on a short footbridge.

I felt like the warm-up was over when I reached the thundering Katahdin Stream Falls, which every sense but my sight could detect in the darkness. I felt like I didn’t want to stop, like I was racing the imaginary hikers behind me, knowing that even though most of them might still be wrapped up in their sleeping bags, they could soon materialize.

I let logic take over for a minute. There was a turnoff to a privy, and taking that pitstop now could actually save me time later, hopefully to prevent nature from calling farther up the mountain.

Past Katahdin Stream Falls

I felt the trail turn into a new phase after that. It was still the AT, still a clear, rocky path slicing through the woods, but the trail narrowed as the forces of nature increased the incline. I felt it with every step. The only privy stop was behind me, I had shed a jacket layer, and I didn’t need another snack. It was go-time. 

I put some tunes on, I admit, without headphones. No one was around. The sounds created a little blanket between myself and the darkness surrounding me. Step, breath, step, breath. Up, and up, a pang of tiredness, a quick glance at the stars. Step, breath, step, breath. 

Three miles to go

Was I going too fast?

It was faster than I’d been hiking during most of this section hike. But that’s ok. The sky lightened, enough to render my headlamp useless, but still too dim once I turned it off. I had to put my poles in one hand and give myself a boost up a big rock in the trail, and traded my music for silence again. Then I heard the unmistakable trekking pole clink, and not from my own. 

I arrived at the first place I could see something besides tree cover, along with a thru-hiker. I joked with him that I knew it wouldn’t be long before someone caught up! I took in the first glimpse of the other mountain peaks off to the left through the gap in the trees while I let him pass. The pale pink haze on the horizon prompted me to put my headlamp completely away. 

My first view while heading up the mountain

Surprisingly, only a minute later, the hiker came back down! He told me he hadn’t realized that what we had just passed was the first real viewpoint marked in the guide. Maybe he was waiting for someone there. 

Breaking Treeline

I was on my own again, 6:30 a.m. But I wasn’t alone on the mountain anymore. I came out of the treeline only to stare at a giant wall of boulders in front of me. Had I been an early explorer in history, the first one to encounter this very spot, I would have turned right around. But this was the trail, this is what I was supposed to climb. So I felt ok about it. 

Can you see that white blaze marking the trail, right in the center of the picture?

There was no more steady walking, no more “step, breath, step breath.” It became “hand, foot, hand, foot.” No ropes were needed, this wasn’t some vertical climbing wall. But I felt like I was hugging every big rock as I went up.

Don’t look back, just go. 

But I did look back. Partially for a sneak at the view that I told myself I wouldn’t look down at, and mostly to see if anyone was behind me. 

No one. That guy must be waiting for friends. But it would only be a matter of time before they all caught up to me. After all, thru-hikers were faster. 

I raced anyway. I wanted this part over with. I wanted to be up there as fast as I could push myself, and I could take in every view on the way down. So many times, I thought I must be almost there. At one point, I pushed myself over a boulder, only to see a nice stroll of a flat patch followed by another monstrous incline of rock. 

Shoot, was I going too fast for myself? Was I going to burn out?

The sun peaked past the mountainside, lighting the way for pure adrenaline. 

I glanced back. No one. I went up. I didn’t stop. 

I had heard that this mountain was potentially the toughest climb of the entire Appalachian Trail. I wondered how true that was, considering that the AT was about 2,200 miles long and nearly every mile of those 2,200 had involved some type of tough climb. I figured that if anything, Katahdin would resemble The White Mountains of New Hampshire. 

I couldn’t quite put words on it, but this really was different. It resembled The Whites, sure, but it was this isolated peak jutting out of a lot of flatter land off to one side below. It felt secluded, as if this thing was a lot higher than the 5,247 feet it would be at its peak. 

My coherent thinking seized, my mind transferred to repetition.

I am strong. I am strong.

Over and over. I learned that from years of watching “Yoga with Adriene” on YouTube. It works. 

The Gateway

I reached a landmark called “The Gateway.” I didn’t even have to look at the guide to know that I’d made it to that point. I pushed myself over what seemed like the last boulder again, and in front of me stretched a vast field of big, scattered rocks and low-growing shrubs. And somewhere past that, a little bit more incline. After thinking I was almost at the top so many times, could it be that I could finally see it off in the distance?

“The Gateway” is the beginning of an area called “The Tablelands.” The small fence in the picture is there to keep hikers on the trail and spare the vegetation from getting trampled.

I broke into a power walk, then a little jog. That didn’t last very long. My mind was getting a little bit ahead of what my body could actually do. I glanced back. No one. I wasn’t actually moving that fast. But I felt like it. Because even if my steps were slow, they were consistent, each one having slightly more conscious power behind it than my legs naturally wanted to give. 

I couldn’t believe it. Was it really not even 8:00 a.m. yet and the summit was nearly in sight? Had I overslept my alarm and was caught in some weird dream where I was doing this, but instead was about to wake up at such an hour where the sun was shining and I was the last person out of camp as usual? 

I am strong. I am strong.

There It Is

I could see the sign! The landmark of the trail. The one everyone has their picture with. And what’s funny is that everything looked so different than I had pictured it, only better. The push to the sign was just one more little hill, nothing like the giant boulders that lay behind me. And the approach to the summit sign on the AT comes up to the left side of the sign rather than the front, the A-shaped side view of the sign post leading hikers to it. 

I knew I made it. I could breathe. I had outrun my anxieties the entire way up, just for this moment. 

I got there sometime before 8:15 a.m. No one else was there. The sky was solid blue, the only whisps of clouds far off on the horizon. The wind blew through me as soon as I stood still, but the sun countered it with warmth on my face. It was one of the most surreal moments of my life. 

But not because I finally finished the entire Appalachian Trail. I didn’t really feel that at all. The bliss was very concentrated to that particular climb, on that particular day. What a rush Katahdin was. 

I know, it’s blurry. Since I was by myself at that moment, it’s the best I got out of a selfie before I gave up and settled for some awkward poses next to the sign.

When I had pictured this moment, I thought I might cry, but I didn’t. It wasn’t that type of end to the journey. Something that big doesn’t suddenly feel like it’s over. It just felt happy. It felt like a relief. Like I made it up there. And the view was astoundingly incredible, the type of scenery reserved to only be accompanied by what it just took to get up there. I didn’t know that Maine could look like this. I didn’t know that I could feel like I was on this towering peak above the land, alone but not, in the most perfect weather that I could ask for. 

“The Knife’s Edge” trail, as viewed from the summit of Katahdin

That’s when the emotions started to come out a little bit. I was flooded with this strange sense of being aware of this privilege, that was given to me by all of those before me. The realization of that became very real. Henry David Thoreau, a famous name, had stood on this very mountain in the 1800s. Not long ago, and for most of history, a place like this wouldn’t have been accessible to someone like me. There’s no way I would have been an explorer paving the path upwards. But those before me had opened up this possibility. 

And strangely, I understood so fully why Baxter State Park was such a protected place. I understood the rules, the limited camping options, the permit system. It wasn’t an explanation, it was a feeling. I just got it. I’m sure there are always ways to discuss and improve the system, but the unchanging bottom line is that this is a sacred place, at risk of losing its gift if it isn’t loved within reason and to the best of our ability. 

And something else crossed my mind, as I got into a strange monologue of my thoughts while I let the camera roll on my phone to show my family at home. How do I share this? How do I take this and put it into words so that those who aren’t here can experience it? How do I use this moment, right now? Maybe one day I’ll have a better answer. For now, I’m doing what I know how to do. Which is to simply ask that question until I figure it out. 

Just when I thought I was done, I think I have one last part to write. Part 17 coming soon!

In Star Wars fashion, I originally posted this “I finished it” summary post before I went back and posted this little series. This is right where that post actually fits into the story.

If you’ve been a regular reading my posts (thank you! <3) then you might know I don’t like including many pictures of myself. But I feel like this is one of those “pic or it didn’t happen” cases. Just imagine me trying to balance my phone on a rock and then running back to the sign, over and over until I gave up and decided that what I got was what I got!


Another view of “The Knife’s Edge.” I’ll save that one for another time. Or maybe never.



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Comments 20

  • Ellen R : Apr 4th

    Awesome account of your final ascent. Enjoyed reading all of these and was just wondering, the other day, if I missed the last “part”. Great to hear how you powered through your anxiety and beat everyone to the top and were able to savor the moment. Congratulations and thanks for letting us walk wih you.

    • Sarah Lesiecki : Apr 4th

      Thank you Ellen! You didn’t miss it, I just got behind on posting :). It means a lot to me when I hear that someone has been reading all of them, thank you!

      • Ellen R : Apr 4th

        Best of luck in life, you were strong enough to power through this hike, you can do anytime!

        • Ellen R : Apr 4th

          Oops, anything that is!

  • David Odell : Apr 4th

    Congratulations on finishing your AT hike. Really enjoyed your excellent journal. David Odell AT71 PCT72 CDT77

    • Sarah Lesiecki : Apr 19th

      Thanks so much David, and that is so cool that you hiked the triple crown in the 70s! I would love to hear some of those stories.

  • John Kapustka : Apr 5th

    Following your trek has been very enjoyable reading. I bet writing about it months later has helped keep an “afterglow” for you about the whole experience. As Japanese alpinist Yuichiro Miura says at the end of the documentary about his attempt on Everest (“The Man Who Skied Down Everest”), “The end of one adventure is the beginning of another adventutre.” “Godspeed” on your next adventure!

    • Sarah Lesiecki : Apr 19th

      Thank you so much for following my posts, you’ve been a “regular” in terms of reading them and leaving me some comments and I really appreciate that! Writing about this last section after the fact as definitely helped me reflect, it’s been a great way to do it.

  • Mike Byars : Apr 5th

    Ahhh!! You made it!! Congrats!
    I only started following you along the AT sometime during this last section but ever since I’ve waited with baited breath for the conclusion. Your writing is real, and your persistence is impressive. Keep going and we’ll keep reading!

    • Sarah Lesiecki : Apr 19th

      Thank you SO much for the compliment about my writing, it truly means a lot to me!

  • Doublepack : Apr 5th

    Congratulations!! Really enjoyed your posts-they caught my attention due to the fact you section hiked the trail over a period of years. I began my hike of the AT in 2012 and have four long sections left to go-finish goal of 2025. Your words have motivated me to to finish strong!
    Best of luck in all you do

    • Sarah Lesiecki : Apr 19th

      Thanks so much Doublepack, best of luck with your last sections and happy hiking!

  • Dottie Rust : Apr 5th

    Sarah “Little Bear”, I’ve been waiting for this one to pop up in The Trek, what a magnificent climb to Kahtadin! I’ve read all of your posts, not wanting them to end but knowing your hike would have to end.

    I volunteer at the ATC in Harpers Ferry & lots of hikers kinda whine about Baxter SP & all the regulations. I try to explain, I think I do help, but now I will borrow some of your thoughts: “now I get it, it’s a feeling”, “K is a sacred place”. . .etc (I’ll re-read your words). I hope it’s okay with you that I do share, “from Little Bear”?

    Stay well!
    Dottie “.com”

    • Sarah Lesiecki : Apr 19th

      You can absolutely share my words, Dottie! Thank you, it means so much to me to hear you’ve read all of my posts!

  • Boyce Turner : Apr 5th

    Congratulations!!! I started following you and looked forward to every post because I want to hike the AT in sections like you. You keep me on the edge of my seat, sometimes I felt like I was there with you. Thanks for sharing God be with you!!

    • Sarah Lesiecki : Apr 19th

      Thank you, that means a lot to me that you looked forward to my posts! Happy hiking 🙂

  • Maya : Apr 5th

    Really lovely way to describe your climb up a mountain I live a few hours from. Thank you for understanding Percival Baxter’s mission and imperative of preserving Baxter State Park. I look forward to reading your posts in reverse!

    • Sarah Lesiecki : Apr 19th

      Thank you, you have such a beautiful state! What a privilege it was to hike in Maine and climb Katahdin!

  • Flash : Apr 5th

    Thank you so much for sharing your journey with all of us. It was a joy to read your words and vicariously hike the AT. Best wishes and happy 👣 trails!

    • Sarah Lesiecki : Apr 19th

      Thank you so much for reading! Happy trails!


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