The Greatest Mountain

Katahdin is simply stunning. There are no words to adequately describe this beautiful, looming, monster of a mountain. At least I don’t know them. That may be because my mind and body are exhausted beyond words.

They say that Katahdin was named long ago by the Indians local to this area, and that it means “greatest mountain”.  Personally, I think it really means “ass kicker” and someone just decided to be polite for the tourists.  Katahdin kicked my ass.

I didn’t make it to the summit.  I came about a mile short.  And I’m okay with that.  You see, I knew Katahdin would be hard; I had done my homework and knew that these mere 5.2 miles are considered the hardest five miles on the whole AT.  They say it’s “nearly technical climbing”, and I found out they say that for good reason: it’s practically straight up.  Like vertical.  Like, find a handhold or a toehold (and no, you’re not getting both), hang on for dear life, and pull yourself up vertical.

Well, to be honest, the whole five miles isn’t quite like that.  The AT up Katahdin starts out soft and basically level for about the first mile; it gives you a little time to look around and admire how beautiful even this one small section of Baxter State Park is, and it gave me a few moments to talk with three guys who were also headed to the top to start their SOBO journeys — Jonathan, a forty-something attorney from Massachusetts; and two younger guys from South Carolina, Sean and Clayton.  I was with them for maybe the first mile, then they disappeared like billy goats as the trail became steeper and steeper.

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One of the billy goats starting up Katahdin. Beautiful stone steps at the beginning…. They don’t last long.

 

I tried to take photos along the way — there was so much beauty I wanted to capture — but it took all my energy to keep hiking upward, and whenever I stopped to catch my breath (which was often), I would turn around and see what seemed like the entire state of Maine stretching out behind and below me, and that would just take my breath away again.  A lot of my pictures turned out to be shaking, blurry messes, and an injustice to how beautiful it truly was.  But hey, how many pictures of gorgeous, pristine, rugged wilderness can a person want to look at? If you want to see great pictures of Katahdin, you’ll have to use Google.  But if you want to really see Katahdin in all of it’s glory, you need to come here and experience it.

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Katahdin Stream Falls. This spot is worth a day hike in itself.

 

Anyway, it was rugged.  Like in the “Very Rugged” category.  The weather, however, was beautiful; we couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day on the mountain: sunny and nearly 80 degrees (at the base), with some gathering winds higher up and maybe a late afternoon thunderstorm at the summit.

I made it to treeline in about 3 hours.  I think, anyway…because this is where the “hike” — even as rugged as it had been to that point — turned into a climb beyond even my studied expectations. This was where the only route up was up over huge boulders and rock faces that sometimes had a bit of steel bar sunk into the granite.  I ditched my hiking poles behind some boulders, prayed to God PLEASE don’t let me fall off this mountain (because yes, you can fall off this mountain), and somehow hauled myself up.  (Note to any future hikers: I think poles on Katahdin are a waste of time and energy.  It is just too steep and too bouldery [yes, that’s a word now]; you’ll just have to throw them up ahead of you most of the time, because you need both hands for much of the ascent.  And coming down is all about sliding on your ass, so leave them behind.)

When I got to the top of the boulder section, I scrambled along on all fours looking for the next white blaze, hoping against hope that the tough part was over.

Well the tough part wasn’t over.

The tough part was up a sheer rock wall, with no evident handholds or steel rebar, or even a hope from God as far as I could see. I actually didn’t think that could honestly really be the route up; it looked impossible.  Even for billy goats.  There was a white blaze off to my right; I followed that for a minute but found it was actually taking me back down the mountain (not that I thought that was necessarily a bad thing at that particular moment), so I turned around and looked again at that rock wall, said “You’ve got to be shitting me!”, and continued in vain trying to find what I hoped would be the real route up.  When that didn’t work, I sat myself down (read as: wedged myself between a couple of boulders), drank some Gatorade and had a snack as I tried to pull myself together.  The wind was pretty gusty at this point, dark clouds were coming and going, and the temperature was most definitely not in the 80’s anymore (yes, I was prepared for the weather changes.) I looked at that rock wall, looked at the ground three thousand feet below me, felt the jello wobbling in my legs and the fear in my stomach as I considered the fact that I still had to get back DOWN the mountain on those wobbly legs, and I knew my ascent was over.

The pictures below are not mine (I wasn’t exactly taking pictures at that point in time.)  They are snatched from the internet, but I’ve tried to give credit appropriately if I know the source.  But I wanted to post them to give you an idea and perspective of what this section of the AT going up Katahdin is like.

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One of the last climbs just below the Hunt Spur. What looks like the peak at the top of the picture is NOT the peak. Not even close.

 

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This photo give a little perspective on the size and difficulty of this particular point….

 

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This is the spot where my ascent ended. The “trail” is literally at this man’s back — straight up. (photo credit: warriorhike.com)

 

Before I started down, I took one good last look at the amazing beauty all around and below me. There really were some scary moments up there, but the view was amazing.

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I think I slid on my ass half the way back down (REI is going to get a very nice letter thanking them for their great pants, because I still have a seat in them…unlike a couple of unfortunate other souls I saw coming down) and the palms of my hands were rubbed raw from the granite. The last mile — pleasant enough to start — was where I really started to feel the abuse in my still-fragile right foot, and I picked my way down very, very slowly and carefully.  I didn’t want to end the day with a faceplant at the base of Katahdin.

I signed off the mountain at the ranger station, picked up my monstrously heavy pack, and went to my campsite for the night.  I put up my tent, collected some water, forced myself to eat a little, and retreated into my tent with my tail very much between my legs.

Yes, I was disappointed not to make it to the top; it seems like everyone has — old ladies, little kids, even a blind man for God’s sake (although in retrospect, that may have worked in his favor — looking down off the side of that mountain is a wee bit unnerving…); I was frustrated, and I was definitely humbled. But I’m trying to keep all that separate from feeling humiliated, because I’m not: I climbed the Greatest Mountain, and if i didn’t make it the last mile to the summit, it’s because I used my Greatest Judgement and lived to hike another day.

Katahdin will always be there.

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