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Fierce Earth - Climbing Katahdin

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Climbing Katahdin Climbing Katahdin

There was clearly felt the presence of a force bound not to be kind to man. It was a place for heathenism and superstitious ritesto be inhabited by men nearer of kin to the rock and to the wild animals than we.

--Henry David Thoreau

MILLINOCKET The first successful climb of Katahdin was in 1804 by surveyors Charles Turner, Jr. and Zackery Adley. Since then the mountain has opened up to the ambitious and those desiring to commune with nature. In 1846, Henry David Thoreau attempted the mountain up the Abol Slide. Due to poor weather Thoreau never reached the peak, but he did not need to conquer the mountain to feel its awesome power. It was while staring out from the Tablelands that he felt the portentous spirit of the mountain. 

According to Abenaki mythology, Katahdin was home to the trickster Pamola. He protected the mountain and conjured storms. Legends depicted him with the head of moose, the body of a man and the wings and feet of an eagle. Like Uluru in Australia and Kailash in Tibet, the Abenaki considered it a grave trespass to ascend Katahdin.

Even though this belief never translated over to the contemporary culture of climbers, it cannot be doubted that Katahdin is different from other mountains. It demands a lot to reach the top. High winds and rapidly changing weather will make the most confident climber wonder whether Pamola truly hides away beneath Katahdin's stony faade.

Before any venture up Katahdin I wonder this. Each trip that I have taken has both a degree of terror and strain, as well as an undeniable ecstasy when, from a ledge up in the alpine zone, I take in the whole of nature and creation. Little can replicate the experience, and words come only so close to communicating it. The only way to truly know is to climb. Climbing Katahdin is akin to a spiritual baptism, its completion defining one as a Mainer. For a percentage of the population it is just this - a rite of passage - and the Mainer who responds 'No' to the question 'Have you climbed Katahdin?' is met with incredulity.

There is a story by Tim O'Brien called 'The Things They Carried.' More than just a war story, it is a log of the gear, physical and mental, carried by grunts in Vietnam. Some carried the bare essentials med kits, ammunition and survival rations and others carried charms and talismans. All carried hopes and fears. A story told about Katahdin trekkers would similarly include such a list. Each hiker's pack is filled with a mixture of the necessary and the not. Gallon of water. Extra clothes: long pants, insulated shirt or sweater, socks and rain gear. Hat and sunglasses. Sun screen and bug spray. First-aid kit. Food: granola, fruit and nuts. Cameras and notebooks. The list goes on.

Preparation is key to any successful climb. To forget anything important (like extra socks) will undo a trip quickly. Anyone who has spent any length of time in the heart of Maine's largest wilderness knows carelessness comes back with a karmic retribution tenfold. It is far from life at home lived on the fly. Out here there are no quick fixes. Stores and phone reception and all modern conveyances remain out of reach, pitting a hiker stripped bare against a brutal nature. Nothing can be overlooked. Every detail must be attended to.

From the Togue Pond gatehouse it is more than 15 miles from the nearest town of Millinocket and more than 28 miles from the interstate in Medway - nearly the distance between Bangor and Ellsworth. In such an isolated wilderness, all the sounds and rhythms of modern life vanish: cell signal, internet connection and radio reception. Here time stood aside while the rest of the world marched on.

There is no 'easy' trail up Katahdin. Each presents a unique set of challenges, making one as hard as the rest. Much of this has to do with the geology of the mountain. In its earliest history, a large magma formation gave birth to the steep mountain some 400 million years ago. During the Ice Age, glaciers carved up the mountain, further reshaping it and adding to its unique character. Pressure and time have left the mountain forever steep and strewn with boulders.

Trail length varies, the longest being the Hunt Trail at 5.2 miles from trailhead to Baxter Peak and the shortest being Abol at 3.8 miles from the trailhead to Baxter Peak. Other trails require hike-ins from roadside camps. Over the length of these trails there is significant gain in elevation. On average the elevation gain from the trailhead for each route is more than 3,000 feet. Considering the character of the mountain, it is no surprise that trials must be overcome at every turn.

The Abol trail is regarded by many to be the most difficult trail up the mountain. And with good reason it is unforgiving. The terrible Abol Slide that runs the length of most the trail presents the biggest challenge. Boulders the size of buses litter the trail, and in places the climbing is technical. Loose stones and gravel create additional hazards as hikers navigate the slide. Additional time may be necessary as the hazards and rock climbing will impede progress.

For our route we chose the Abol. None of us had been up the trail before, nor had we any idea of what was ahead. We arrived early in the morning at the trailhead at the Abol Campground. Already several groups had begun the climb, and we wanted to be following right behind. After assembling packs and filling water jugs, it was time to go. At first, the going was easy the path ran level through the forest with a gradual rise in the grade. However, it did not take long before it ran steeply upwards.

Once we emerged from the tree line into the Abol Slide, which runs completely exposed to the sun, the entire route all the way to the town was visible. Far off in the distance was the spur where the Abol met the Tablelands and connected to the Hunt Trail. And farther up from us were hikers scaling the boulders and stones, far away from where we were at the bottom of the Slide. But the red jacket of one hiker stuck out, a beacon signaling to each one of us that this can be done there is a way up.

In many spots along the trail, vertical climbing went up 10 feet at a time, and in these places we covered large distances quickly. All the while the nearer the spur came, the farther away it appeared, until it disappeared behind large precariously standing boulders. The sight of these boulders perched almost carelessly was enough to inspire marvel at the power of the glaciers that deposited them ages ago. 

The Abol Slide cuts a large swath through the forest. Open to the sun and sky the whole way, we watched at the forest below shrank farther and farther away until it took on an almost surreal scale. Everything appeared so infinitesimal and small. The wilderness below looked like a broccoli field running south forever. Up there on the side of the mountain, it was so easy to be overcome with the most pleasing sense of vertigo. I had to tear myself away make the push over the spur.

Many major hazards threaten to impede any climb up Katahdin, not the least of which is the weather. On any given day the weather appears perfect for a climb - sunny, few clouds, warm with a gentle zephyr - but slight changes in the jet stream cause dramatic shifts that sometimes require climbers to turn back. 

The other major hazard is the lack of clean water. Up on the mountain water is rare. Along the Hunt Trail, hikers can refill canteens and jugs at Thoreau Spring, though the quality of the water cannot be guaranteed due to the level of human traffic by the spring. Except for the spring, water is not found on the trails, especially in the exposed alpine zone where it is most needed. To avoid dehydration, bring at least a gallon of water. Ration it strictly to ensure it will last the entire trip.

Carved out by glaciers ages ago, many of the trails follow steep inclines. Trails like Abol and Cathedral pose the greatest risk for injury from loose rocks and gravel. Good footwear goes a long way to ensuring an injury-free climb. Always be mindful of footing and set a steady, careful pace early on. If a particular section seems precarious, test it. Once it is determined safe, proceed. If it remains questionable, find a safer route around the obstacle. But stick to the trail. There is a reason that the trails follow a specific course: safety.

After the struggle on the Abol slide, the Tablelands were a welcome reprieve. The elevation gain becomes gradual here, allowing a much -needed break for our aching legs, arms and backs. The red and green grasses rippled in the wind, crashing against the boulders. Ahead I saw other hikers crossing the threshold onto Baxter Peak. All the way up the Abol Slide these distant figures were a beacon, reminding me that the top is there and attainable. And now there they were, just yards away, waiting.

There is something to say about the culture of hikers. A common struggle breeds common bonds. When climbing up, there are many pained faces. No matter how much training was put into Katahdin, it all seems to amount to little when faced to the real world conditions of climbing. Everyone gets tired, irritable and considers turning back. But once on the top there is hardly a distressed face. All pain melts away on Baxter Peak.

Everyone is in the mood for celebrating. Thru-hikers will harangue a day-hiker with stories of their climbs and others chug a celebratory beer. Groups sit in circles eating and drinking to replenish what they spent climbing up. Turns are taken posing at the Baxter Peak sign, proof that they did in fact reach the top. Others remove a stone from their pocket and place it on the large cairn erected years ago. No one is too busy to take a group photo for someone. People whose lives may never have crossed before meet and tell their story.

The community of climbers is cosmopolitan. They come from all over the world in-state and away, young and old, men and women, veteran climbers or innocent neophytes. No one is shunned and all are welcome.

Up top, the wind whips around and I talk with the different climbers. I find everyone has a different word for the experience. For some it was 'invigorating' and 'challenging,' for others it was 'heavenly' and 'breath-taking.' The only word I could find to capture both the struggle and the triumph was ecstasy.

For as rough as the mountain is, it is just as fragile. The environment up top is exposed to some of the roughest conditions on earth. Frequent storms, complete exposure to the sun, high winds and little in the way of nutrients prevents the growth of many plants. Only certain grasses and mosses are able to endure the conditions at the peak. Few animals can be found. Raptors and other birds can be spotted soaring around the top.

The area on the tablelands, especially in and around Thoreau Spring, is incredibly fragile and susceptible to damage. Currently a team of workers and volunteers are at work restoring this environment. A long string fence guides hikers through the Tablelands to prevent any damage to the growth at the top. As part of the restoration project, a team is at work constructing a rock wall that will replace the string fence. Rocks are quarried from a site 100 yards off the trail. They are then transported via a pulley to the trail, where workers pile them.

'The rocks collected today will make 30 feet, and we have to get all the way to Thoreau Spring,' a worker on the project said. Each load totals 200 pounds with an estimated number of 25 loads to be quarried each day, totaling nearly 5,000 pounds of rocks moved per day in effort to preserve the mountain for generations. The project is expected to take several years to complete.

I did not understand pain until the descent from Baxter Peak. As difficult as Abol was in ascending, it was three-fold in descending. Rocks which had presented no obstacle earlier became barriers to our getting down. Gravel and dirt robbed us of stability in every direction. Just finding a safe place to set foot was harder than trying to actually climb down. Progress was impeded as we became increasingly uncertain in spots of how to get down. The fear of wandering into a position we could not extricate ourselves from was very real. One by one we worked down, pointing out loose rocks and identifying easy hand-holds so that the rest could continue.

In many places the trail no longer matched what we remembered, leaving us to question whether we were following the right course. This proved worse than the physical aspect of the climb, as it destroyed all sense of time. There were no longer any landmarks to tell us how far along we were the ground merely got closer by contrast.

However, what took the greatest toll was the fatigue that set in. At the top, not one of us felt spectacular, but there was the feeling we had fight enough to get down. Once we started down, what little reserves that were left were quickly expended. Periodically our legs would give out under us or lock. Each step was like slogging through snow. We knew that getting down quickly was essential, but so was getting down safely. So progress slowed and we accepted our descent would take as long as the ascent. Finally, when we emerged into the forest and the trail leveled out, not one of us could walk straight to save our lives. For nearly eight hours we climbed and jumped down from boulders, and navigated uneven terrain to the point where our legs could not handle level ground. A periodic break ended with us feeling worse than before. That last stretch from the trailhead to Abol Campground was an all-out push, and emerging from the forest, we must have looked like the sorriest people on earth. But we did it. We challenged Pamola, took what he could give and won.

For additional information about Baxter State Park, visit or call (207) 723-5140.

Last modified on Tuesday, 13 August 2013 19:08


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