August 27, 2013

Hiking Maine's Tallest Peak

Hiking Maine's Tallest Peak: A Venture Up Katahdin and Across Knife's Edge

I pop the top on a PBR can as we unpack our sleeping bags, spreading them across the rough wooden floor of this Baxter Park lean-to. A big haul off an ice cold can gives me a bit more inspiration to unload gear and setup the propane stove for dinner.

Katahdin Stream rushes by, just beyond the visible tree line, providing relaxing white noise - and an easy spot to clean fry pans after dinner.

The afternoon hours we spent fly-fishing a local pond and tonight would be served to plan tomorrow's hike of Katahdin. All intentions were to cross famed Knife's Edge - a narrow ridge line between two of the parks highest peaks. At certain points (they say) you have a two foot path, both sides dropping a dramatic 2,000 ft. It's something I've wanted to do since I was a kid.

We rise with wide eyes and hit the trail at 5am. From Roaring Brook, we gain elevation over the next hour and a half before Chimney Pond enters into view.

  I've heard this ranger station is the most sought after position for a ranger on the entire East coast, if not all the country. Located in a serene basin, surrounded by granite walls, green trees and crystal clear water. Peacefulness.

Cathedral Trail, before long, has us scrambling on all fours, grasping for handholds. The instruction from our Maine Guide friend rings out from up the trail, "Three points of contact!". That's coaching I'd never been given before nor want to hear again. This isn't hiking. This is climbing. The beauty of the flat Maine countryside begins to ring out atop the trees. Blue ponds and far stretching forest for as far as the eye can see. Try to spot a house. You can't. This is nature.

It's about 10am and we're standing at the highest point in Maine. Mount Washington to the Southwest, Rangeley to the South; farmland, North; the Atlantic, East. However, we see none of that. We are standing IN the clouds. Thick fog rolled an hour ago. Visibility seems to be 30 feet, maybe. A quick snack and our boots aim for Knife's Edge.

The trail starts out wide. I wonder out loud, and to myself, why others make such a fuss over a 15 foot wide trail of granite boulders. This is easy. Raindrops begin falling from the gray mass of clouds and fog that surrounds us.

A clap of thunder rings out in the distance towards Millinocket. It's at this point in the hike the hood of my jacket begins flapping in the wind. 45MPH winds pick up and an uncomfortable feeling kicks in. It's now the trail thins out and I begin to realize the reason for its name. I swallow hard as I drop to all fours (for the second time today) with the full intention of not being blown off this mountain top.

The trail is the one rock's width wide, sharply dropping off on each side, and as we proceed, that one-rock path rises sharply to a new elevation before dropping dramatically, to only rise again. Fog blocks further vision. I holler ahead, asking if we should turn around. The answer isn't one I wanted. Apparently we've come too far to turn around.

Rain is pouring. We're soaked. It gets worse. Driving sleet and hail start flying into our faces. My heart sinks. The fog lifts slightly showing us the last portion of the trail - reminiscent of a movie where the actor flees out a hotel window and crosses a 6-inch ledge to the next window down. Our path is one half-foot, bodes pressed forward tightly, yet insecurely, against a wet granite wall. Howling wind and rain slapping our fogged sunglasses. A murderous 2,000 foot drop waits should our wringing wet hiking shoes slip on the slick rock. This is no longer fun.

Should conditions be different, perhaps sunny, this might be enjoyable, but right now my chest is thumping in my soaked-through rain jacket. Three points of contact... three points of contact... three points of contact is the phrase in my head. If even I could see how far I was going to drop (should I fall), it might make me feel better. The more I think that thought, I'm grateful for the fog. One hand in front of the other, one foot then another. It's 1PM, but feels like I'm already late for dinner.

Pushing your boundaries, making yourself feel just a bit uncomfortable, trying something new and doing something that scares you helps you become a different person and have a better understanding for what "hard" means. I was never so happy to set foot over the next peak, Pamola and start hopping the down the Helon Taylor Trail. Before I knew it I was back amongst the trees, dropping elevation. Knife's Edge is nothing but a memory... and a damn good story to tell. I'll probably never hike it again, but I can always snootily look down on those who've hiked it in optimal summer conditions with a one-up.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful post. Thank you for the story that made me visualize what you were dealing with. It made my own heart pump harder just reading it.

Unknown said...

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Ryan said...

Just reread Thoreau's account of his journey to this peak. Great to see photos to combine with the narrative!