Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Highpoint #25: Katahdin, ME (5267')

Two thousand feet is a long way to fall.

An obvious statement, but one whose reality is never quite felt until one finds oneself that far above the nearest level ground, inching along a jagged knife-edge so narrow that you don't dare stand or even step from rock to rock, but scuttle through on your butt like a hyperventilating crab with its shell soaked in rank nervous sweat and its claws clamped to holds it would never have trusted below--but it's that or thin air on the ridge of Katahdin--and a look up confirms, by Pamola! you've still got a mile to go to the summit.

Oh, Katahdin, wildest of the Northeastern high points. SummitPosters call your rugged profile "the only Western peak in the East." Your renown stretches south to Georgia, where each spring hundreds of saps slip on their hiking boots and go a-questing for your summit 2190 miles north. Far better writers than I have cowered before you--but if I am allowed a few brief words, let me simply say thank you, thank you, thank you for not killing me.

Not that I was actually in danger from anything but my own ineptitude on rock. I couldn't have asked for better weather on the day I went up: the wind, like me, was on vacation, and the few clouds I saw were strictly decorative. The trail still held some water, but only below treeline, making it my driest hike since Connecticut. And though my knees twinged plenty at my early-morning start, they shut up and got down to business before the first mile mark.

I'd arrived at Baxter State Park, Katahdin's modern home, the previous afternoon after a long drive up from the Whites. Though Katahdin is right in the middle of Maine, it's still a good hundred miles east of all the other Northeastern high points, and at least that far north. In fact, it's closer to the high point of New Brunswick than New Hampshire. An endless, unbroken fir forest lined I-95 all the way from Bangor to my exit at Millinocket, adding to the impression that this place was basically in Canada.

Baxter is a huge park, on the same scale as New York's Adirondacks, but unlike them it's entirely closed off from human development and commerce. The park's land was gathered throughout the first half of the 20th century by a former governor of Maine, Percival Baxter. He deeded it to the state on the condition that it remain "forever wild" as a nature preserve and recreation resource. In practice, this translates to gravel roads, minimal amenities, and strict access controls to prevent overuse of the land. Camping is permitted by reservation only, and day-visitors must either show up early or risk being turned away at the gates. There's a reason I made my reservations for this place a month in advance.

In light of all these rules (plus even more on who and what we can bring into the park), I was afraid the rangers would hassle me for showing up a day late. The fellows at the front gate were quite friendly, however, and waved me right in--after I paid the $14 fee for bringing in an out-of-state-vehicle. But it seems they put those fees to good use: those gravel roads (another worry of mine, given my car's low clearance and two-wheel drive) were smoother and better-graded than any I'd yet seen on the trip. After a leisurely half-hour driving through the park's flat woods, past ponds and pull-offs, I arrived at Roaring Brook Campground. Of the several frontcountry campgrounds surrounding Katahdin, Roaring Brook has the most direct access to the trails running up and along its ridge, especially the notorious Knife-Edge, and thus I'd chosen it as my base camp (or, rather, the lady taking phone-reservations chose it for me).

The campground itself was quite peaceful, set on a gentle, wooded slope down to the eponymous brook. I pulled in beside my lean-to:

then walked around to stretch my legs and get my bearings. My knees were still feeling the impact of yesterday's descent of Mt. Washington, so I didn't feel like going far... perhaps a short nature hike to get a closer look at the woods?

As it so happened, there was just such a trail across the Brook from the campground. I wandered down the path, stepping gingerly over the profuse rocks and roots that overran it. These woods were dark: thick conifers again, broken only by the incongruous white gleam of birchbark, and muddy, and surprisingly diverse in their undergrowth. Given the park's wildness, I'd hoped to come across some interesting animals--perhaps even a moose--but all I saw were sparrows and blackflies, the latter in the thousands.

It turned out that the whole park was infested with the things. I swear there was a blackfly there for every cubic foot of air. Even above treeline on Katahdin, they swarmed over my windshell, probing for a gap from which they could suck precious egg-building proteins from my blood. I wouldn't have minded--share and share alike, you know--if they hadn't replaced that blood with venomous saliva that swelled the bites and left them itching for weeks like some kind of demonic super-mosquito. Perhaps they're why the larger critters made themselves scarce.

Further on, the trail took me past a couple of bogs. They looked like meadows from afar, their vegetation low, yellow, and grassy, but step too close and--plop!--your feet sank right through. Fortunately for my sneakers, the rangers had broken their no-improvements rule to put in a couple of small overlook-piers:

The first bog offered me a view of South Turner Mountain, a smaller neighbor of Katahdin, and from the second I could see Katahdin itself:

4:30, but the sun's still high. Welcome to the northern summer!
I wish I could have spent longer admiring the peaks, but the blackflies were making a meal of me, so I hustled back to the car and fixed up a meal of my own. I spent the rest of the evening in there to escape the bugs, reading some more of Moby-Dick (nothing like a seafaring tale to psych you up to climb a mountain, eh?). When dusk fell I had no choice but to pitch my tent inside the lean-to (not sure if that was allowed, but it no doubt saved me several dozen blackfly bites) and pray the seams would hold.

They must have, for I didn't wake up disfigured by red welts. The little buggers must have calmed down in the chill of the night--it was the first time I'd needed the extra warmth of my new sleeping bag. The sun woke me shortly before 6 AM. By now I had my morning starts down to an art: I geared up, broke camp, moved my car to the day-use lot so as not to run afoul of any check-out times, and started up by 6:10.

Up the Helon Taylor trail, to be specific.
To my surprise, I wasn't the first to hit the trail. The rangers recommend allowing an entire day to hike Katahdin, and two groups took that even more literally than I did. Then again, those folks might actually have taken from sunup to sundown to summit at the pace they were going; despite their 15-minute head start I passed them both well below treeline and saw no more of them throughout the day.

The going was awfully tough, even in the mountain's lower reaches. Those trails in the Whites were hard, but Katahdin's trailblazers took the typical New England sadism to a whole new level. Remove rocks from the trails--now, why would we do that? I could hear them ask, cackling like some Stephen King villain at the prospect of struggling hikers. Carve steps up the huge boulders? Blaze the route's easiest variant? Bahahahaha. Who are we, your mother?

But it was all worth it when I first poked my head above the treeline on the slopes of Pamola Peak and looked back to see the the morning sun above the lakes and hills:

"Everything the light touches, LarLar... is built on yummy rocks."
The mountain's arms reached up, enclosing a vast basin to my right:

and to my left stretched a flat plain dotted with lakes like drops of spilled sky-paint:

Its sides sloped steeply up before me:

as they must, for Katahdin's summit stands a good 4000 feet above the flatlands below. Though its circular basin suggests a volcanic origin, it's actually a monadnock, a massive granite intrusion that resists erosion long after the surrounding sediments were scraped away by glaciers. But even granite can't remain forever: each day the water, wind, and lichen strip away another infinitesimal layer of rock:

...and these clowns eat a chunk or two.
Pamola's southern slope, however, was not nearly as steep. Fortunately for my knees, it was more forgiving than the ravine-walls of Washington: each tricky scramble was followed by a flatter bit where I could catch my breath:

The peak is named for an Abenaki storm-god who was said to inhabit the mountain's upper reaches, a stern fellow with the head of a moose, the body of a man, and the wings and talons of an eagle who resented intrusions from below... but as I climbed over the rocks on that bright sunny morning, the name reminded me of nothing so much as a breakfast cereal from the 50's. Eat your Pamola, kids, it’s delicious and nutritious! (please don't strike me down with lightning for saying that)

By 8:30 I was atop the peak. The Lars gamboled about the pink granite chunks:

as I looked ahead to the Knife-Edge. So this was the mile-long ridge I'd heard so much about ever since I met my first highpointer beneath Mt. Mitchell. It was rather more serrated than the steady rise I'd expected (the serrations, naturally, fit within one interval of the contour map I'd bought off the rangers):

Slice this!
But it didn't look all bad: there were flat patches here and there, rocks wide enough to stand on, and the like. I figured I could make it across. As I stepped forward to start, a butterfly crossed my path. Ooh, can I call the eagles? I joked, thinking back to Gandalf's standard response to being stuck in a high place.

Little did I know how I would long for an airlift in just a few minutes.

The knife-edge ran innocuously down Pamola for a few hundred feet, then dropped forty feet into a near-vertical chimney. Hooooly moose. Was I supposed to downclimb that? I surveyed the rim, tracking the blue-paint blazes down the rock: yup, I was. It must be possible, I said to myself as I started down on all fours. There has to be a way down. The trailblazers didn't have wings.

I climbed down that.

There was--just barely--but I found myself seriously doubting that last statement when I turned around at the bottom and saw I had another 40-foot cliff to climb in order to escape the Chimney. There was no way around--the rock dropped off even more steeply to the sides--no way back besides that cliff I'd just come down, and no way forward but up.

And so I picked a likely trail of handholds and followed them up and out... onto that three-foot fin of rock I opened with.

Now, reading this post (as you most likely are) at ease with your feet on a comfortable flat surface, you might be wondering why three feet was so inadequate for my purposes. Sidewalks are less than three feet wide, and you have no trouble standing on them. Well then. Let's take that sidewalk in your mind, shatter it into a jagged arete of blood-pink granite, thrust it nearly two thousand feet above the peaceful suburban lawn it once traversed... and do you get the picture? One misstep, and I'd be feeding the vultures down at Chimney Pond:

So I inched down the trail: scuttling atop the rocks here, shuffling along the side there, making faint but steady progress towards the impossibly distant Baxter Peak:

I soon learned to disregard the blazes: their route tended towards the stark and daring, whereas I was just fine with cutting around the most exposed bits and keeping my feet on level ground whenever possible. The knife-edge slowly widened as I went on; by the time I got to South Peak, Baxter's next-door neighbor, it was no worse than your average rock-scramble.

Looking back towards Pamola.
And when I finally reached the summit, it was almost underwhelming compared to what it took to get there. There was a plaque commemorating Baxter's gift:

that famous sign marking the end of the AT:

Springer Mountain, GA, here I come! Not.
and a splendid variety of perching-rocks on which to overlook the basin:

"Now, don't gorge yourself up here, LarLar. We still have to make it down."
The mountain's southwest side, to my surprise, was a flat plateau:

...with an amazing view!

The wind blew gently; the blackflies swarmed. A few hikers came and went. I stopped to nibble an energy bar, then headed down the Saddle Trail.

Although that side of the mountain was much wider than the Knife-Edge, it still held its challenges. The whole way down to the lip of the Saddle was a slippery, ankle-busting scree slope:

...though, again, with a nice view of the Katahdin-auguoh, the outlying peaks.
Looking across the Great Basin, I could see Pamola and the Chimney:

That thing. I climbed it. And survived.
but not for long, because right about there the trail ducked down a ravine wall (like Tuckerman's, but with much looser rock, because Maine). I could see why my map called it the Saddle Slide.

But once I made it down that bit, I was basically home free. The trail descended rockily through the woods:

"Remove rocks from the trails? No, we add them."
then arrived at Chimney Pond Campground, a backcountry site enclosed by the arms of the Basin:

180 degrees of pure mountain.
The views were amazing; the accommodations less so. Public service announcement: when you use a vault toilet on a hot summer day, please, please, for the love of Pamola, close the lid before a herd of horseflies gets trapped inside. Just sayin'.

From there it was a 3.3-mile, mostly flat hike back to Roaring Brook. The trail took me over some rivers, through the woods, past a few picturesque ponds:

and over every single blasted rock in Piscataquis County, or so it seemed. I arrived back at the trailhead footsore and weary, almost exactly seven hours after I'd left in the morning.

And that was it for Maine. With my reservation up, I couldn't linger in the park, so I changed out of my hiking boots and drove out: back over the gravel road, through mini-Millinocket, and down to the banks of that long traffic-stream, I-95.

As I shot down the road at 75 mph (hey, it was the speed limit there!), I mulled the place over. The weather was nice, and the woods were pretty, and Katahdin was breathtaking--literally, up on that knife-edge--but it was all so remote from everything else in the world. By nightfall I had only just reached Maine's southern border--they sell live lobsters at the Kennebunk service station, by the way--which left me with a ten-hour drive and six states to cross to get home. Maybe, I thought as I chowed down on my overpriced burger, this was it for Maine and me.

My only regret is that I never saw a moose.


In retrospect, I'm glad I did the northeastern highpoints from west to east; it made for a far better progression than my earlier plan to do the reverse. Mt. Marcy, despite the long approach, was the least technically-demanding of the four major summits, and Katahdin easily the most. Mt. Mansfield made a nice break between Marcy and Washington, and the experience I gained scrambling up steep rock-slopes in the Whites was the main reason I didn't fall off (or chicken out of) Katahdin.

I also learned that height is no prediction of difficulty: Mt. Marcy is a hundred feet higher than Katahdin, but even the easiest routes up the latter spend twice as long above treeline (and gain more elevation overall) than those of the former. Mt. Mitchell is higher than them all, and that trail was a walk in the park compared to any of them. Heck, Nebraska's Pancake Panorama Point outstrips all but Washington. With that in mind, it'll be interesting to see which of the Western peaks poses the greatest challenge and which prove to be gentle giants.

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