This is what Mt. Katahdin looks like on a clear, sunny day around the time of year that we climbed it. Notice the hint of snow on top and the beautiful Fall foliage.
Instead, this is what it actually looked like when we climbed it – we didn’t see too much :)
We departed our friends home around 4am, and arrived at the park around 8:00. We had bananas, blueberries, shaved almonds, and coconut milk for breakfast (mixed together in a bowl – some included granola). Our group was six, ranging from an 8-year old hiking veteran to a 48 year old gentleman who was climbing his very first mountain. At 8:34, we put on our packs and began the ascent up the Abol trail.
Our goal was to make it to the summit within 4 hours, spend some time at the top, and descend in 3 hours – a round trip of about 8 hours we assumed. My friend, Damien, setup a climbing schedule of 45 minutes on, 15 minutes off to give everyone a framework to work within. I’ve never used this method before, having usually just taken breaks when my group thought it was best. However, Damien said that this framework is used by some very accomplished hikers and many have found they make faster progress with the 45 on, 15 off framework. He’s experienced the same thing when taking his family on extended hiking trips. So, we gave it a shot – I’m all for more efficient progress on a climb!
Within less than a mile, however, our group started to realize that we may not actually make it to the summit of the mountain. We were moving at a slow pace to remain as a group, and not everyone was prepared for a hike this grueling. It turned out that we couldn’t actually adopt the 45 on, 15 off formula because 45 minutes was too long to go without a break. By any stretch, taking the Abol trail up Mt. Katahdin is considered a “Difficult” or “Strenuous” route, and we had some in our group that would have been aptly challenged by a “Easy” class hike.
With the dense fog, the drizzle and rain, there was no way we could split our group up. Search and rescue would do little good if they couldn’t see even see the trail from the helicopter – had something actually happened. So, we trudged on at a pace the whole group could handle.
I’ll admit I was frustrated knowing that we probably wouldn’t make it to the summit. I wanted to fly right up there, and check another 4,000 footer off my list for New England. One of the reasons I wanted to climb Katahdin was for the sheer challenge.
The second half of the Abol trail is called the “Rockslide,” and for a good reason. It’s over a mile of stone climbing, with lots of climbing on all fours. This is the steepest way up Mt. Katahdin, and with the constant drizzle and occasional rain, every stone was slick. We covered each section of the trail little-by-little, remaining as a group.
Abol is a taunting specter most of the way – and the fog makes it all the better. When a cloud moves out of your view, it offers you just enough of a glimpse to see the next giant boulder to reach. For a moment, you think “the top may be right behind that,” and you journey forwards to find out.
This is the very last section of the Abol trail ascent – the shortest route up the mountain (also the steepest).
Upon reaching this last section of Abol, my brother Jeff and I decided to see what we could really do for the last section and we kicked it into high gear until we reached the level clearing at the top. We were excited to have reached the top, and celebrated with some lunch. However, the rain and wind caught up to us and we were pretty cold soon after. I was wearing a poncho, and was getting tossed around like a hot air balloon with the ranging wind (only I was a freezing, cold air balloon!) The rest of our party arrived a little later, some of them having taken a break along the trail for some food.
It was at this point, that we officially decided it would be best not to climb the remaining 600 feet of elevation to the actual summit. We all knew this would happen, and it was the right decision. It would be safer to head back immediately, this time down the Hunt trail – which we were advised to do by the park staff, had it started raining during our trip.
Even with my frustration that we couldn’t make it to the summit, I readjusted my attitude after I had an epiphany. Sure, I wanted to make it to the top because I had set my mind on the task. And when I say that I’m going to do something, it’s difficult for me to change my plans. What I realized is that I’m so happy for the opportunity to go hiking, to enjoy the outdoors, to spend time with friends and family, to meet new people, to share a once-in-a-lifetime experience, to breathe the crisp air, to feel the cool drizzle, and to move as the mountain. I absolutely love the experience of climbing a mountain, and the teamwork involved. There is so much to be thankful for, and I’m blessed to have spent a whole day in Baxter State Park. No, we didn’t see it all, but we did see a lot, felt a lot. That frustrated attitude wasn’t right – and it isn’t me.
We took the Hunt Trail down – this was the most fun section to traverse.
The Hunt Trail involved a lot of scrambling on all fours. The first section was snails pace, and ultimately, the first two miles were pretty slow. However, the last 2.2 miles weren’t too bad. We eventually returned to dirt and sand once we got below the tree line. We also got a chance to see a beautiful waterfall at the Katahdin river.
Jeff and I went ahead to bring the car back to the trail head, since the park staff told us Hunt Trail ended 2 miles away from where we parked. Lucky for us, once we got down the trail and asked for directions, we got a ride from the Search and Rescue team to the parking area (it was actually 4 miles, so we were very lucky to have ran into them!).
At around 6:00, we were back in the car heading home. We fueled up on beans, bread, dried fruit leather, blueberries, and trail mix – the last of our remaining food. Damien’s 8-year old son got a well-deserved root beer, too :) He did an awesome job all day.
It should also be noted that I wore Vibram FiveFingers KSO’s for the entire trip. It was just too cold to go barefoot. I also wore Injinji socks. This was really my first true test for the FiveFingers, and I will be writing up a review sometime in the future of the pro’s and con’s to these minimalist footwear.
And if you are looking for some true adventure, I do encourage you to check out Damien Tougas website, Adventure In Progress.
To your health and success,
CST, CST-KS, NSCA-CPT