This “week” consists of a single day – our summit of Mt. Katahdin completing the thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. Thus, this is also the last blog post describing the 2,190.9-mile journey.
It was very odd – as I packed up my tent after a restless night (caused by the emotions concerning this day’s hike), one of my primary thoughts was “I’m not going to be doing this (sleeping in my tent, packing up each morning, having a peanut butter tortilla for lunch, etc.) tomorrow or the next day, or the next day,” after having done so for the last six months. There was not a sadness about these thoughts. I will never regret my decision to undertake the hike, but I was ready to finish. My desire to return home was, I believe, a very healthy one – not born of frustration, desperation or other negative emotions, but of a desire to return to family, friends, colleagues, and opportunities with a freshness and some new perspectives enhanced by the satisfaction of having completed a tough, but rewarding task.
Gbolt and I had coffee and some breakfast and then walked the quarter mile to the Katahdin Stream Campground to meet Cheryl. After some anxiety as to whether she had made it or not (I was not able to speak with her because of the lack of cell coverage), Cheryl drive in around 6:55 am. The parking lot was very busy as many prepared for a day hike up Katahdin on a beautiful Saturday of Labor Day weekend. After arranging our day packs with lunch, water and other essentials, we headed out to start our hike shortly after 7:30 a.m.
The hike started on smooth trail with modest incline for a little over a mile until we reached Katahdin Falls, which were beautiful. The severity of the climb and the rocks increased as we hiked, but we were excited and the climb did not seem too difficult. After about three miles the trail breaks out of the tree line just as the severity of the climb becomes intense.
For almost a mile exactly we had little other than climbing up, over, around and through rocks, boulders, ledges and every formation or type of rock – mostly granite. The climb was not technical, but vertical and difficult with some scary maneuvers. We often had to help one another.
In the middle of the difficult climbing we ran into thru-hiker friends Lotus & Ibex and then Savage & Po, who each passed us coming down, having completed their trip to the summit and their thru-hikes. Otherwise the mountain was quiet as to thru-hikers, although busy with day hikers. [The Park had discouraged thru-hikers from summiting this Labor Day weekend because, like every year apparently, the Penobscot tribe holds an important ceremony (the mountain holds spiritual significance for the native Americans) in the Katahdin Stream campground.] Around noon we reached the “Gateway,” – the start of the (relatively flat) “Tableland.” We could see a congregation of stick figures a mile away at Baxter Peak and the “iconic” Katahdin summit sign. After a half mile we stopped for lunch on some rocks. Then we climb the remaining hill to the summit. For me, it was mostly hard to believe I had reached this moment. I was glad Cheryl was there and grateful that Gbolt helped me through Maine. We took some photos and then started to head back down. (I absentmindedly left my cap, which I had removed for photographs, at the foot of the Katahdin sign. So much for my commitment to “leave no trace” – sorry ATC.)
Turning away from the sign, no one said anything but I think we all knew we were already chasing darkness. It was 2:00 p.m. and we had to get back down the mountain. We knew the descent would be more difficult – and therefore would take longer. I knew Cheryl had been very brave trying to ignore or overcome her fear of heights, but I knew we would need a lot of time to ease our way down the steep areas of the mountain below the Tableland.
The first mile down from the sign through the Tableland was easy, but still took us almost an hour. We reached the Gateway – this time going in the opposite direction. We had to descend.
The number of different and difficult tasks required to climb down through this next, extremely steep section (from the Gateway to the tree line) were almost innumerable – and very challenging. We all worked together to find the best route and help each other down. It was not easy. There were tasks that seemed too difficult, too dangerous, too reasonable.
Although I had been up Katahdin a number of times in the 1970’s (and in 2007), I had only taken this trail once or twice and did not recall just how challenging it is. Before the day would end, I would realize that this hike, this day was THE most challenging hike of the entire 2,190 miles. If we had carried our full packs, the rock ledge and boulder climbing would have been more difficult than any other climb – mostly due to the unrelenting challenges for that one mile.
Eventually, finally, after seeking out the safest routes, using a fair bit of upper body strength, and spending a lot of time on our backsides working down rock slabs, ledges, and boulders we got below tree line. Before we reached that critical spot, we all had to overcome and complete a task of lowering ourselves down a steep ledge using a rebar hand/foothold – which task I’m sure will not escape memory anytime soon. (You might check out YouTube videos about climbing the Hunt Trail up/down Katahdin to try to appreciate this challenge better.) From there it was steep and rocky, but not the severity or intensity of the rocks/ledges/boulders above the tree line and all the way to the Gateway.
This third part of the descent seemed longer, steeper and there were more large rocks, ledges, and boulders in our path than we recalled during the climb. It emphasized to me just how challenging and arduous the entire climb actually was. Gbolt and I had five or six months of hiking to get our legs in shape for the climb. Cheryl walks a lot (a lot), but this was a tough ordeal almost from the start. I’m afraid Gbolt and I may have rushed Cheryl up the mountain in these early sections due to both are excitement and our months of fitness – adding to my admiration of how extraordinary her effort and accomplishments were this day. (In many respects, Cheryl’s climb of Katahdin was a microcosm of my thru-hike – the most difficult physical and mental tasks we’ve every tackled.)
With less than a mile to go we lost most daylight and had to use headlamps and flashlights for the last 20 minutes. We were all thankful, if not elated, to return safely to the parking lot – having finished the toughest day, albeit the final day, on the trail. We gathered briefly and gave thanks for a safe journey – both for the entire trip of many months as well as the day’s particular challenges.
Cheryl then drove us the hour to Millinocket. We dropped Gbolt at the AT Lodge, where he was staying, and headed to our motel nearby. It was already after 9:00 p.m. We were not going to be able to have a celebratory dinner together – at least not this night.
After six months of walking in the woods and heading north, the journey was over. I was satisfied, content and grateful. I was enormously proud of Cheryl and thankful she was able to come and do the summit with us. I was ready to go home. I was eager to embrace the wonderful life I had left temporarily, and (in time) to start thinking about the next adventure.
Last modified: September 13, 2018