Last weekend, a mountain kicked my ass. Mount Katahdin. That 5268-foot behemoth in Baxter State Park, the highest mountain in Maine and the second-highest in New England.
Named by the Penobscot Indians, “Katahdin” means “the greatest mountain” — indeed, some say it is the gem of the Appalachians. It is the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail and the setting for the based-on-real-life story Lost on a Mountain in Maine. Nineteen people have died on Katahdin since 1963, mostly from falls or heart attacks. Honestly, after summiting the mountain on last Saturday, I’m kind of surprised that number’s not higher.
We stayed the night before our climb in a lean-to at the Roaring Brook Campground, which provides access to the most popular trailhead for hiking to Chimney Pond and onward to the peak. After an early morning meal of canned hash, scrambled eggs, and coffee (cooked over camping stoves), we loaded our daypacks with water (spoiler alert — not enough!) and hit the trail right around 8 am.
It was a group of six of us, and we’d all hiked together before. We were in varying states of fitness; in retrospect, it’s fair to say that only one member of our party, a regular runner, was truly physically prepared for the steep and seemingly endless ascent. Note to self: Netflix marathons are not a good substitute for the real thing.
The first 3.3 miles from Roaring Brook to Chimney Pond were strenuous, but manageable. For a while, we walked next to a stream so translucent it looked like liquid glass. We chatted and considered crucial questions such as: If you had the chance to attend a Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, or Rihanna concert, who would you want to see most? We stripped layers as the temps rose into the 70s.
We reached Chimney Pond, at 2914 feet, around 10:30 am. The small and pristine lake is at the base of the Chimney Pond “cirque” — a geological term referring to an amphitheater-like basin surrounded by mountain walls. From the edge of the pond, you can see what’s in store for you up there, specifically the Knife Edge, the steep-sided ridge that comprises much of the basin’s semi-circular upper rim. Knowing that we were planning to take that route (although there are other, less perilous ways down the mountain), I paid special attention to its precipitous edifice.
After signing in our hiking group (required of all climbers so park officials know who’s on the mountain) and assuring the ranger that we had water, flashlights, and our wits about us, we set out on the Cathedral Trail, which provides the shortest climb to Baxter Peak. Of course, that also means it’s the steepest, with an elevation gain of 2353 feet in 1.5 miles.
Let me be clear, for the uninitiated: the “trail” to the peak is not a trail in the traditional sense of a “path” or something to “walk on.” Rather, it is a series of blue blazes, painted onto huge boulders. Following the trail requires climbing over and on top of said boulders, so that to look at the people behind you entails looking down, not back. Oh, and most of this happens above the treeline. So on a bright and sunny day like last Saturday, you’re fully exposed to the elements as you scramble upward. Sunscreen is a must.