Madelyn Given on Knife Edge Trail, on Mount Katahdin in Maine.

Adventures on Katahdin: Part 1

Every trip to Baxter State Park led to some adventures. Every hike on Katahdin was not a successful summit for all members of our group. It was an effort to prepare for several days of wilderness hiking, proper footwear, clothing, supplies, food, and camp gear. It was always disappointing when a member had a problem. On one trip, a nice day turned violent. By the time the rest of our small group made it above tree line and the plateau, it began to snow. It was 4th of July weekend and there was warm weather 4,000’ below. The children had jeans, tee-shirts, and windbreakers, but they were getting cold quickly—yet we were close to the summit and all wanted to reach the top, which they could now see ahead. We found a few large rocks, huddled the three children together, and unwrapped a space blanket to wrap around them. As I was unwrapping it, the wind ripped it in half in a matter of a few seconds! Nevertheless, we managed to cover them for a few minutes, got them hydrated, and then off we went at a good pace. It wasn’t too long before we reached the summit, now in complete cloud cover. We then retreated at a steady, non-stop walk down the gradual plateau, then down to below tree line. Hours later we were back at our campsite: well, tired, and happy for an adventure on Katahdin, the highest mountain in Maine.

From the first trip to Katahdin I learned much more about this grand mountain. One place, Knife Edge Trail, was the most spectacular feature of the mountain. It is a 1.1 mile narrow arête between South and Pamola Peaks. It has no equal on the Appalachian Mountains. For many years I avoided that trail, as people told true stories of people crawling on their hands and knees across it, and in bad weather and high winds it is extremely dangerous. In some places a person can stand astride both sheer cliffs on right and left with a thousand feet on either side. The vertical drops are impossible to negotiate without equipment and no blazes are necessary. There are only three ways to go: forward, backward, or straight down! After a number of trips into the park and many years of hiking, I did this trail on a few occasions. At the top of this blog post, you can see a photo of me on Knife Edge Trail. The views are magnificent and the experience is very rewarding.

One of the strangest trips to the summit came one year during a reunion with old college classmates and their families. Several of my friends were not physically fit enough any more to handle the hike, but a marathon runner and his high school daughter from the west coast wanted to do it. I said I would go up with them, and we took off on the Saddle Trail, the most gradual and easiest route; but no route is that easy or that short on Katahdin. We all carried day packs with a sufficient supply of food, water, and extra layer of clothing. The mosquitoes were terrible! We hadn’t gone very far, but they kept taking breaks and complaining aobut how difficult it was. I said I would go slowly, but I couldn’t stand to stop because the mosquitoes would attack like a black cloud upon us. Going up was difficult, and the constant barrage of “How much further?”, “Are we almost there?”, and “this is so hard,” made me more tired than the actual climbing.

One major rule while hiking is never leave anyone behind. I kept the small group together; either we all continued up, or we could turn around and all go down. One wanted to quit, while the other wanted to go on to the top. I took the backpack from the high school student and carried two packs almost from the beginning of the climb. We continued on up the steep trail; they were sweating and stumbling. Somewhere near the tree line, the marathon runner man tripped and broke his glasses, which were all steamed up from perspiration. From that point on, I carried his pack also, and we moved very slowly. We did summit finally! Then we hiked at a snail’s pace while I assisted the poor man down with bad vision to the safety below, and hours later, we trudged into camp. It was the most exasperating hike on Katahdin I ever made!

Being physically prepared is a must: Katahdin is no easy climb. Every year, people get lost and hurt, but the rewards of wilderness hiking greatly outnumber the risks if you are careful, well-prepared, and let nature be your guide.

(posted September 15, 2015)