Dateline: Katahdin

I’ve been lucky to do some pretty magical hikes over the past year: from admiring the foliage on Mount Chocorua to exploring slot canyons in Utah to hiking from the south rim of the Grand Canyon to the Colorado River and back up in one day. None of that prepared me for Katahdin.

While most people know that Katahdin is the end of the Appalachian Trail, I don’t think people realize how absolutely grueling or divinely spiritual this mountain is. It is really a very special place. I hesitate to even write about it, since the Baxter State Park Authority already heavily regulates the number of visitors and with the creation of Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, I suspect traffic will only grow. From what I saw at Acadia and the Grand Canyon, that is a mixed blessing.

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My group was pretty late in making plans, so we chose to hike on a Tuesday, figuring it would be easier to get lodging and parking permits. Anyone planning to hike Katahdin needs a parking permit. Maine residents can get one at anytime. Non-residents can register up to two-weeks in advance. There aren’t many to give out (27 permits at three lots = >100), so registering as early as possible is recommended.

The alarm went off at 4:30 the morning of our hike. After a night of enjoying the lake and enjoying one another’s company, it felt early. The only things motivating me were peer pressure and the knowledge that if we weren’t in the parking lot by 7 a.m., they’d give our spot away to someone else.

It was an hour’s drive to the Katahdin Stream parking lot. The sun was just rising as we pulled in. A quick bathroom break, gear check, and our group of eight was ready to go. We were on the Hunt Trail at 5:45 a.m.

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The first mile was uneventful. We all hung together, chatting and ambling up a fairly friendly trail. We arrived at Katahdin Stream Falls (1.2) miles in what seemed like no time, where I realized that I’d forgotten to start my Garmin (hence the walk up is short on the screenshots below).

There was a pit toilet just past the stream, which I made use of knowing there was nothing else on the trail. I had zero desire to answer nature’s call above the tree line if I could avoid it.

The trail got steeper after the falls and the group started to stretch out. I was paired up with a girl from Maine who was pretty close to my speed. We made quick work of the next mile, even as the rocks on the trail seemed to get bigger. Around mile three we started running into thru-hikers who were on their last day of the Appalachain Trail. They were easy to spot as they hiked up the trail like it was nothing, with sizable packs on their backs. The culmination of the journey was surely a special day for them, and it made me wonder at the distance they’d come: 2,200 miles.

At around mile 3.5 we emerged from the woods above the tree line. The views were spectacular. 08-fullsizerender-12

Little did I know, the climb was about to get much harder. The next mile was more a climb than a hike. My walking sticks went into my backpack as I needed arms and legs to haul myself up over the rocks on the trail.

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It was really a full body effort, requiring almost an hour to make it a mile.

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11-fullsizerender-16Looking back at the hardest mile. 

The view was the saving grace.

Once at the top of this ridge, it was an easy walk past Thoreau spring and to the summit. After that mile of drama, summiting was almost anticlimactic.

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Almost. But not really.

We summited at 9:25 a.m., 3 hours and 40 minutes after we’d started. I was feeling pretty smug and triumphant about the whole thing, thinking it wasn’t even 10 a.m. and the hardest part of my day was behind me.

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We basically had a 360-degree view from the top. It was dramatically beautiful.

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We started chatting with other folks on the summit while waiting for our friends to arrive. I tend to prefer loop hikes to out and backs and was trying to figure out if there was a way to avoid going down the way I’d gone up… you know, just to see something new. It was a beautiful day- not too hot and not to windy- and I had mixed feelings about hiking Katahdin and not doing the Knife Edge.

After consulting a map and our friends, my partner and I decided that we’d go down the Knife Edge to Pamola Peak and then take the Helon Taylor trail the rest of the way down. This would put us on the opposite side of the mountain from where we’d started, so we’d have to hitchhike back to town. Worst case, our friends could come back to get us if it got too late.

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Looking towards the Knife Edge

Having just summited in under four hours, I figured the rest of the day would be a cake walk. I was so, so wrong.

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The trail was hard almost immediately. The Knife Edge is an exposed ridge, less than three feet wide in some places. The trail drops off on either side rather dramatically, and with no other mountains of comparable size nearby, vertigo sets in. You feel like if you fell, you would fall forever. Almost immediately, I started having a mini-panic attack. I knew intellectually that I was not going to fall off the side of a mountain, but it sure felt that way.

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The trail was rocky, and there was nothing to hang on to for support. Sometimes the rocks wobbled. Sometimes you had to use your whole body to climb up them. I just kept telling myself to put one foot in front of the other, to take is slow and steady.

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It was nerve wracking. We inched along, taking deep breaths and focusing on the trail ahead.

Finally, we were near the end. The worst was behind us, I thought. And then we came to a cliff: 50 feet of near vertical scramble. We went down one, and then had to climb up another.

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With this, we were there. We’d reached Pamola Peak.

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Traversing the mile-long Knife Edge had taken an hour and a half. No speed records there.

It was sort of awe inspiring to look back and realize I’d walked along the top of all of this.

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Still, I was glad it was one.

We embarked on the Helon Taylor trail, which was easier but still tricky. Lots of loose gravel and a few steep parts. The trail seemed to never end.

Finally, we reached Roaring Brook Campground, where we plunged our feet and legs into a frigid stream for as long as we could stand it. Even with the ice bath, my quads were sore for days.

A friendly family from Pennsylvania picked us up on the side of the road and reunited us with our group. There was celebratory steak and a sauna. And then, a very good sleep.

Baxter Peak (5,267 feet) and Pamola (4,919 feet)
Up: Hunt Trail
5.2 miles. 3 hours, 40 minutes

Down: Knife Edge (1.1 miles) to Helon Taylor (3.2 miles)
4 hours, 37 minutes (1 hour, 30 minutes on Knife Edge)

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