Without a doubt, this was a big day. For many hikers, this was the end of their long hike from Georgia. Once they reached the top of Mt. Katahdin they would have walked 2,189.8 miles and earned the right to call themselves thru-hikers.
Though I was not in that group, this was still a big day for me. I won’t be able to say I’m a thru-hiker until I complete 21.2 miles in New Hampshire, but I also need to summit Katahdin, and that’s a big accomplishment.
What’s more, I will finally be able to see my wife and sons today.
|Date||Wednesday, October 4, 2017|
|Weather||Variable cloudiness with high temperature in the low 60s|
|Trail Conditions||Extremely rugged trail at higher elevation with difficult rock scrambles and gravel chute descent|
First things first, however. We still had to get to the top of the mountain and come back down.
After eating breakfast and packing up our gear, Tengo, Stick and I walked to the ranger station. Hikers were allowed to leave their gear in a covered porch and borrow a daypack for use while hiking.
The daypacks were worn and dirty, mostly of the type used by school kids to carry books, but they would suffice. We only needed them for carrying a couple water bottles, snacks and rain gear.
We were not expecting any rain today, but the weather is so changeable on the mountain that it seemed like a good idea to be prepared for it.
We left the ranger cabin at about 7 a.m. On our way out of the campsite we stopped for a moment to talk to Jason, Boomer, Scout, Single T and Withers. Jason’s sister was also there and planned to hike to the summit with them.
Everyone was excited and happy this day had finally arrived. We congratulated each other and joked about the climb ahead.
Then after pausing to review information posted about the trail, which included warnings about its difficulty and the dangers posed by weather, we set off.
This section of the AT also goes by the name Hunt Trail.
Initially, the trail was easy to walk. There were even some rock steps and footbridges provided to ease the way. We walked through a dense forest and past cascades on Katahdin Stream.
The higher we went, the steeper the climb became, but it was still not especially difficult.
Before long, we began to get views of surrounding mountains and hints of the scenery we would be seeing higher up the mountain.
When we got to about 2.3 miles below the summit, the trail transitioned from forest to alpine zone. This transition was made over and around giant boulders.
The climb was so steep here that trekking poles were useless. It became hand-and-foot climbing.
Sweeping views were now possible when we needed a break from the difficult ascent.
During this section, Boomer and other younger hikers were passing me right and left. I didn’t mind. I knew I would reach the top soon enough.
At the top of this rock scrambling section the trail entered what is called the Hunt Spur. It’s a ledge that extends below the upper reaches of the mountain.
Mount Katahdin rises 5,267 feet above sea level and is the highest mountain in Maine. Although we were now above the treeline, we still could not see the summit.
The trail was littered in this section with large rocks. Near the end of the spur was another large pile of boulders to climb.
I finally reached what is called The Gateway at about 11 a.m. Off in the distance I could see the summit.
The Gateway is the entrance to a section of trail called the Tableland. It was much easier to walk here because there wasn’t much elevation change along the way.
Signs and barriers were placed along the sides of the trail to keep hikers from trampling fragile alpine vegetation.
The trail passed a marker near a spring named in honor of Henry David Thoreau.
Thoreau explored this mountain and surrounding areas in August 1846, and wrote of it in his 1864 book, The Maine Woods.
"The tops of mountains are among the unfinished parts of the globe, whither it is a slight insult to the gods to climb and pry into their secrets, and try their effect on our humanity. Only daring and insolent men, perchance, go there. Simple races, as savages, do not climb mountains, — their tops are sacred and mysterious tracts never visited by them. Pomola is always angry with those who climb to the summit of Ktaadn."
Thoreau’s racist reference to Native Americans notwithstanding, he at least understood the importance of the mountain to those who lived here long before the arrival of Europeans.
The mountain was named by the Penobscot Indians. The name has been translated to mean "the greatest mountain."
Pamola (or Pomola) was the Penobscots' storm god who lived on the mountain and was its protector. They described the diety as a bird spirit with the head of a moose, the body of a man, and the wings and feet of an eagle.
Because of the presence of Pamola, the mountain was considered sacred ground and all were forbidden to climb it.
A group of nearly 30 members of the Wabanaki Confederacy, an organization of five Native American nations and tribes, occupied Abol Campground for five days in 1976. They demanded unregulated access to the mountain, but failed.
As if to show me I was unwelcome on the mountaintop, low clouds moved in as I walked closer to the summit.
I had to walk much closer to the summit, to within a couple hundred yards or so, before I could begin to see I was near the top.
Finally, with 50 yards to go, the sign that is so familiar to anyone who has dreamed of an Appalachian Trail thru-hike came into view.
A couple dozen hikers were there, milling around. Not everyone was a thru-hiker, but everyone was congratulating each other on their accomplishments.
I had long thought about these moments, of making the last few steps toward the sign and standing on it. I expected this would be an emotional experience, but right now, I didn’t feel much emotion.
To be sure, I was happy to be here. I can’t say it wasn’t a glorious moment, but it felt that way for only an instant as I stood on the sign.
I never forgot this wasn’t the end of my hike, as it was for the other hikers. Perhaps that knowledge dulled the experience. Or maybe I just kept the emotion of this time trapped within because it was not the end for me.
I still had unfinished business, and most of all, I was anxious to see my family again.
Reaching the end of the Appalachian Trail wasn’t the end of the hiking day. We still had to hike down off the mountain.
We left the summit at about 12:30 p.m. There were several routes available for descending from the summit.
When Stick, Tengo and I discussed our options with the trail volunteer in Monson, we were told the Saddle Trail was the easiest way down off the mountain.
The route we took led to Roaring Brook Campground, so that’s where I had told Kim to meet me.
Leaving the summit, Tengo, Stick and I made our way down the Saddle Trail. Initially, this was an easy trail and offered beautiful views after we got below the cloud that surrounded Katahdin’s peak.
What we didn’t know when we planned to take this route was the trail dropped steeply down a chute of loose gravel and rocks. This was a shockingly treacherous way to come down the mountain.
One thru-hiker, who was not in our group but was hiking behind us on the same way down the mountain, fell and broke his hand.
Once we were past the worst of the descent and were below treeline again, the trail remained difficult. It continued down a steep and rocky path. Stick and I took this section slowly, but Tengo was a little faster.
About halfway down, I heard a voice come from the other side a bush, saying, “Hurry up, Gravity!”
“Yeah, yeah,” I said. I was focused on not falling and injuring myself, and wasn’t thinking about who ahead on the trail might know my name.
Then my two sons, Logan and Landon, stepped from behind the bush. I was speechless with surprise.
They told me that when they arrived in Massachusetts and met Kim at her cousin’s house, they agreed to get up at 3 a.m. and drive all the way to Baxter State Park. They hoped they could hike to the top, but if they couldn’t get there before I did at least they could meet me on the way down and hike with me the rest of the way.
This was a happy reunion, but we were still a long way from Roaring Brook Campground, where Kim would be waiting for us. After reaching Chimney Pond Campground we stopped for a late lunch, then continued on the Chimney Pond Trail. Thankfully, we found this was much easier to walk.
When we reached Roaring Brook, the time was nearly 6 p.m. and the sun was setting. It wasn’t too dark to see Kim, though. She was standing near Tengo and Stick’s wives. They had been waiting for us there for several hours.
I dropped my trekking poles, walked up to Kim and hugged her. Of all the things that happened today, this was the moment I was waiting for the most.
In 2017, a total of 3,839 hikers left Springer Mountain with the intention of hiking to the top of Mt. Katahdin. Only 715 hikers reported they were successful in finishing.
We all experienced moments we will always remember. For hikers like Tengo and Stick who finished their hike at the top of Mt. Katahdin, it was a culminating moment and a magnificent one, to be sure.
But then they had to go back to their homes and families and jobs and regular routines. Their summit experience became a memory.
When i decided I needed to rest and skip some miles in the White Mountains, I lost my chance for the same experience they had on Mt. Katahdin. Knowing I needed to hike 21.2 more miles dampened the moment for me. This is why I didn’t feel elation as I stood on top.
What I didn’t fully appreciate yet was I gave myself an experience that could not be experienced by anyone else. In a few days, I will be able to finish my hike with my family.
For over a thousand years Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of triumph, a tumultuous parade. In the procession came trumpeteers, musicians and strange animals from conquered territories, together with carts laden with treasure and captured armaments.
The conqueror rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. Sometimes his children robed in white stood with him in the chariot or rode the trace horses.
A slave stood behind the conqueror holding a golden crown and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting.