I could have easily just slept in late this morning and headed home but there was one more mountain that I needed to climb. The truth be told, I was a little apprehensive about that climb. Baxter Peak on Mount Katahdin is only 5.2-miles down the trail, but those miles included a 4,100-foot climb of which 2,100 of those feet are in the space of 1.4-miles. Included within those 1.4-miles is an 860-foot climb in 0.5-miles making it the 5th steepest section on the Appalachian Trail. I had heard that climbing that section included some technical rock climbing and several people had turned back because they lacked the required upper body strength.
Despite my apprehension, I couldn’t falter at this point. I didn’t walk this far to not at least try making it to the end. But, as you know by now, I wasn’t going to try it on an empty stomach, so we walked down the road to the Appalachian Trail Café where I put away a huge breakfast. Feeling fortified, we returned to the Appalachian Trail Lodge where I packed my backpack one last time, kissed my wife goodbye, and climbed into the shuttle van with a day hiker to return to Baxter State Park.
Baxter State Park has the most bizarre parking regulations that I have ever encountered. In keeping with the “forever wild” theme of the park, the number of people allowed in the park on any given day is limited to the number of parking spaces that are available. Cars line up at the gate prior to the 7:00 am opening and they are allowed to enter the park until the parking lot at their declared destination is full. You can make a parking reservation online, but all that you gain from that reservation are front of the line privileges during the first hour after the park opens. The only vehicles that can enter the park to drop off hikers at a destination with a full parking lot are vehicles belonging to a registered shuttle service. So, to guarantee that I would be able to get back to the Katahdin Stream Campground, I paid for a shuttle ride and even then, we were delayed by 30-minutes at the front gate.
After being dropped off at the Katahdin Stream Campground parking lot, I had one remaining hoop to jump through prior to starting my climb. This year, the administrators at Baxter State Park implemented a registration requirement for anyone wanting to climb Mount Katahdin. They claimed that they were limiting access to the summit to the first one thousand northbound thru-hikers, but I can only imagine the ensuing uproar that would happen if they actually prevented someone from finishing their hike. The actual registration was quick and simple, and I walked out of the ranger station with my AT – Katahdin Hiker Permit NoBo #758.
It was now time for me to finish what I started over six months ago. There are several trails to the summit of Mount Katahdin, but the A.T. follows the Hunt Trail. From the campground parking lot, the trail starts out benignly enough with a gentle climb through the woods over a rocky surface. After hiking 1.3-miles, I came to the jaw-dropping Katahdin Stream Falls where I stopped for a short photo break.
After the falls, the climbing starts to get serious as the trail becomes increasingly steeper and the rocks grow larger. At this point, though, my adrenaline had kicked in and there wasn’t anything that was going to hold me back now. A little more than a mile past the falls, I broke out above the treeline and could finally see the magnificent mountains around me. A mountain named The Owl was off to my left and I began to use its exposed granite sides to gauge my climbing progress.
Above the treeline, the wind was blowing with gusts that I estimate were around forty miles per hour. This is the exposed, steep section where the rock climbing becomes more technical, but I never needed (thankfully) any extraordinary upper body strength to get over the rocks. It was more of a matter of finding a place to put my feet and hanging on so as not to be blown off a ledge by the wind. As has been the case so many times before, a section of the trail that had been hyped as being so difficult turned out to actually be a lot of fun.
Once over the worst of the rock climbing, the trail reaches The Hunt Spur where it flattens out for a few feet. The views were becoming more spectacular by the foot, so I took a short break to rest my legs and take it all in. Looking back down the trail, I saw Brew making his way up and waited for him to catch up with me. We ended up hiking together for most of the way to the summit. Looking up we could see a peak and we discussed whether it was the summit, but we soon dismissed that idea knowing full well that we still had quite a way to go.
The peak that we saw turned out to be a feature known as The Gateway. Once we reached the top of The Gateway, the terrain flattens out over a relatively flat and barren section known as The Tablelands. We arrived at a sign that indicated that Baxter Peak was over a mile away and we picked out a high spot on the horizon that we hoped would be our destination. After the exhilaration of the climb, it felt like it took hours to walk the mile over this treeless alpine landscape. After what seemed like forever, I began to make out a crowd of people on a high spot and, as I got closer, I could finally see “the sign.”
So, this is it. After a journey of 2,189.8 miles, I stood at the summit of Mount Katahdin before the famous sign that I had so often envisioned. I didn’t want it to be over just yet, so I sat down nearby and watched the other folks taking pictures and celebrating their climb. One thru-hiker was so overcome by emotion that he went off by himself to have a good cry and to recompose himself for his summit picture. I was still trying to figure out how I felt.
I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to make this journey. I feel thankful for my family and friends that provided the support I needed to make it to the end. I feel lucky to have made a few wonderful friends along the way. I feel restored by the random acts of kindness that were bestowed on me by trail angels during my travels. I feel fortunate to have remained healthy long enough to pursue my lifelong dream. For a moment, the crowd around the summit sign dissipated and I walked over and touched the sign. I feel accomplished.
I asked several people what the easiest way was to get off Mount Katahdin, and they all told me to use the Saddle Trail. In retrospect, I believe that their answer was some sort of inside joke. The Saddle Trail might be the easiest way to climb Mount Katahdin, but there is NO EASY WAY DOWN.
From Baxter Peak, I followed the Katahdin Loop Trail for a mile or so along what appeared to be the remnants of the rim of an ancient volcanic crater. When I reached the sign indicating that I had arrived at the Saddle Trail, I looked down and said, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” The trail appeared to drop off the rim and go straight down a rock slide. Since my wife and my sister were meeting me at the Roaring Brook Campground, I didn’t have a choice so… over the edge I went. Not only was this one of the steepest descents I have ever experienced, much of the descent had loose rocks underfoot.
The scenery on the way down, however, was gorgeous. The dominant feature in view was another alternate descent from Katahdin called The Knife Edge. Eventually, I made it to the bottom and continued hiking the remaining miles on boulder covered trails. Another thru-hiker passed me along the way and commented that he had never considered anything past the summit of Katahdin and that he didn’t even have any remaining food. I’m guessing that is not uncommon because we have been focusing for months on making it to the top, but reaching the summit is only half of the journey.
Date: September 11, 2017
Starting Location: Katahdin Stream Campground
Ending Location: Baxter Peak, Mount Katahdin
AT Miles Today: 5.2
AT Miles To Date: 2,189.8