Katahdin: The Beginning - Baxter Peak

Submitted by Pat. Nancy's comments in italics.

Mountains: Pamola (4,919) and Baxter (5,267) Peaks
Date: August 10, 2006
Time: 11 hours and 52 minutes
Miles: 10.42
Elevation Gain: 4,883
Steps: 31,492
Trails: Helon Taylor Trail -- Knife Edge -- Saddle Trail -- Chimney Pond Trail
Holy Shit Factor: very high

Picture Gallery

Short Video Clip
Climbing Katahdin

In the beginning there was Katahdin. That's what started it all. We wanted to climb Katahdin -- the highest mountain in Maine. To get ready, we figured we'd better climb a few peaks first, just to make sure we could do it. Seventeen peaks later, with a new goal of climbing all the 4,000 footers in New England, we arrived in Millinocket, Maine, fit and psyched.

We logged onto the Internet Wednesday night to check weather...again. For Thursday, 30% chance of morning showers and chance of thunderstorms in the afternoon as a cold front passed through the area. Friday, our fall back day, also showed a 30% chance of showers. We decided to go on Thursday with the attitude that the experience would be what it would be. Asleep by 9 p.m.

Up at 4 a.m. in the dark and first at the park gate at 4:45. (Okay, folks. This is crazy! Is it really the best plan to make hikers get up at 4 a.m. to be in line at the gate by 4:30 a.m., so they can get into Baxter State Park at 5 a.m. to secure a parking spot in order to hike? Really?) The gate opened at 5 a.m, and we checked in, paid our fee to a grumpy Ranger who didn't bother giving us a weather report, a safety speech or telling us it was a Class II hiking day (when park officials suggest NOT going above tree line). We reached the Roaring Brook Campground parking area, finished packing our gear, and set out on a new adventure at 5:46 a.m. The cloud deck was high and we kept our fingers crossed that the weather would hold.

I had chosen the trails based on maximum views as well as challenge. At least for the first part of the morning, we had both. Once above tree line, the expanse of rock was astounding. It looked like someone had tossed sharp granite rock into a humongous heap and then carved out a circle in the middle of it, leaving jagged rocky edges reaching to the sky in a semi-circle around the rugged remote wilderness at the foot of the mountains. The wind picked up but the clouds stayed high and generally dry, although we stopped to put on and take off rain gear a couple of times. The first view of the ridge up to the Pamola summit was awe-inspiring. (Yes, AND it was REALLY far away! Holy Shit! A group of young men who had passed us earlier were half-way to the summit and they looked like ants. OK we can do this!) Up and up and up we trudged, reaching the summit of Pamola (elevation: 4919 feet) at 9:34 a.m.

As we looked ahead to the Knife Edge, I felt a mixture of excitement and trepidation - excitement because it was just so big and stark and wonderful and trepidation because it was so big and stark and wonderful. I had looked at a lot of pictures of Knife Edge and read a lot of trip reports and descriptions, so I was somewhat prepared for what I was looking at, but seeing it in the flesh, with the wind whipping up to 30-mph and knowing the weather was going to deteriorate was both incredible and intimidating. (I had NOT done a lot of research and pictured in my mind Knife Edge to be a ridge similar to the Franconia Ridge Trail connecting Little Haystack, Lincoln and Lafayette, just a bit more narrow. WRONG! It was a line of gargantuan, perilous, black shark's teeth, daunting in size, dismal in cloud cover, waiting to eat us whole. With a 2,000 foot vertical drop off either side of the narrow rocky ridge -- a solid mile of exposed, torturous and dangerous scrambling -- and the wind whipping around us, it seemed perhaps to be quite perilous. If the Knife Edge shark didn't devour us, we'd be blown off the mountain anyway. I quickly shifted from saying Holy SHIT to Holy FUCK.)

We were transfixed by the first two chimneys on Knife Edge. (Okay folks -- Pat was transfixed. I was scared shitless! As we started down the first chimney, we saw the group of young men working their way up the other side of the next chimney. A strong, strapping, tall young man looked at his friend below him with a mixture of fear and dread because he saw no way of getting up to the next ledge. He couldn't reach it with a foot and had no hand holds to pull himself up. His friend pointed to a place on the sheer rock face and guided his friend's foot to what looked like a miniscule foot hold, hoping that would give him the leverage he needed. Holy FUCK! I was in serious trouble!)

Climbing down the first pitch (Class IV?) gave me a real sense of what we were in for, although it looked like once we passed the two chimneys we would be on a more serrated, yet level ridge. I climbed down backward, relying on my strength to hold my body in place until I could find purchase for my feet. Nancy climbed down forward, needing to see where she was going. I could not have climbed down forward. Period. We helped each other, either by pointing out the best foot holds or speaking words of encouragement. I was scared - more of going down than of going up - but more exhilarated than anything. I could tell Nancy was out of her comfort zone. Being short, it was hard for her to reach the best hand or foot holds, so I offered to help. Nancy is a strong, self-reliant person, so it was difficult for her to accept help, especially since she felt she wasn’t reciprocating. Little did she know that her encouragement and even her fear diminished my own anxiety and I felt strong as we climbed up the headwall of the next chimney.

After conquering those two climbs, we looked ahead across the Knife Edge and saw clouds streaming over the edge. That was the end of views and any kind of warmth from the sun. Temps fell into the 40s and the wind picked up (Great!). Every so often, the wind would gust so hard we had to stop moving and grab hold of the coarse cutting stone to keep our balance. We could just barely make out the young men ahead of us, crawling up into the clouds. (Where the hell were they going and how far up did it go? Oh God!) On we went, visibility reduced to 10-20 feet with an occasional glimpse of the next rise ahead of us. Scrambling on these granite boulders was challenging. We summited South Baxter Peak (elevation 5260 feet), but have no idea where it was, except in the clouds. During the entire 1.1 miles, I rarely took two level steps in a row. It was a constant fight for balance. We ran into a group heading in the opposite direction and one of the men said to us, "I'd be lying if I said you were more than half-way across!" We looked at each other, shared a rueful grin, and moved on. My impulse as we walked was to seek human contact amid the foggy desolation of the ridge while Nancy experienced the opposite reaction -- to pull away and steel herself for the next maneuver. It was a moving experience for me to ask Nancy for a hug and it was a humbling yet rewarding experience for Nancy to willingly accept my help. Both of us were out of our emotional comfort zones. (We were different people climbing Katahdin than when we first started peak bagging. We are a team, relying on each other. Hiking has helped us both grow, physically and emotionally. Wow -- who would have thought?)

(Okay you guys -- think about this. Navigating the Knife Edge took us 2 hours and 10 minutes. It is ONLY 1.1 mile. One point one MILE! You can walk a mile, going heel to toe to heel, touching one to the other, each and every step, in a little over an hour. We know, we timed ourselves as a test. Knife Edge took us two times as long! Negotiating our way over a mile of shark's teeth, rubbing our hands raw by grabbing gritty rock to save our lives, using our knees when we couldn't reach with a foot -- it was the longest mile we have ever seen.)

We reached the Baxter Peak summit (elevation 5,267 feet) at 11:45 a.m. We found a spot out of the wind and ate our chicken salad sandwiches. Yum.

Nancy started to get very cold so she put on another layer (Yes, that's right another layer. By now I had on a sleeveless tech-wick, a long sleeved tech-wick, a fleece, a windbreaker, Pat's wind breaker and a fleece hat!) We started down the Tableland toward the Saddle Trail at 12:22 p.m. As soon as we started moving, the rain began, making the footing even more treacherous. At first it felt like hail - the wind was whipping the drops so hard. We finally realized the rain was not going to stop, so we put on full rain gear and pack covers and continued on. Just before reaching the top of the Saddle Trail, hot from our effort, we took off our rain pants and started down. The rocks were very slick and the entire first half mile was a rock slide. We stayed to the far left holding onto rocks as we slowly lowered ourselves down the headwall. It took forever. I had a bit of a slip that knocked some fear back into me on the way down. Mashed my toe but I was fine - no blood drawn.

We were pretty fatigued when we reached the tree line. (I was pooped. Climbing Katahdin was one of the hardest things I have ever done!) Coming into the Chimney Pond camp area was a welcome respite. Nancy was out of water so she asked the ranger if there was a supply of potable water nearby. He was very removed and unfriendly in his response. He could have said, "Hi - how are you all? What trail did you come down? How has your day been?" Instead he just said he had no purified water and went back to his paperwork. I had a liter of water left so we split it and as we geared up for the last 3.3 miles, the rain started down in earnest. In retrospect, we should have put on full rain gear, but we only put on the top half - she in pants and me in shorts - and headed down the Chimney Pond Trail at 3:22 p.m.

Lesson learned: Weather makes a big difference.

Those last 3.3 miles were long, long, long - did I say long? Wet...and long. By the second mile we were feeling pretty tired and a bit slap-happy.

"Hey I'm loving this rain -- feels so cold and clammy," one of us said with sheer glee.

"Meeee too!" the other chimed in. "And don't you just love that twinge in your knees every step down you take. And it's great when you have to go sideways to prevent your knee from folding in on itself. It feels sooo good!" said with sincere sarcastic happiness.

"Yeah -- and guess what? I have to peee and it's raining even harder! Wowsers -- it feels so good to pee in the pouring rain and get my bare butt totally soaked! Awesome!"

"Wow, sure hope this trail never ends, this is just too much fun!"

Quite a few groups of people passed us during this time. They looked like a sad, soggy lot, especially those in cotton with no rain gear. We, on the other hand were having a great time, laughing our heads off.

"Yippeeeee! Yahooo! Whoooo Hooooo! Sure hope the rain doesn't let up -- I'm loving these huge puddles!"

And on it went, humor instilling hope, sustaining us till we reached the trailhead and our car at 5:36 p.m.

Lesson learned: Humor helps.

It was a great relief to get out of our soaking clothes and put on relatively dry rain pants, get in the car, and crank up the heat. The 8-mile drive out to the gate was interminable and the 25-mile drive back to Millinocket felt so incredibly long, we couldn't believe it.

Back at the KeepRidge Inn, our weary wet bodies cold from the inside out, there was one awesome saving grace. We dumped filthy wet clothes, boots and packs on the bathroom floor, changed into bathing suits and ran for the hot tub. Aaaahhhhh.... Bliss. We survived. We made it. Whoo Hooo!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

18 out of 67 NE 4,000-Footers
18 out of 100 Highest