By the time we were halfway up Cathedral, all idle chatter had given way to heavy breathing, frequent water breaks, and the occasional groan.
“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” I said aloud, to no one, several times. For once, I wasn’t being hyperbolic.
And yet, even as my muscles and lungs screamed, even as I silently cursed the gods of outdoor recreation, I felt simultaneously strong and powerless, a juxtaposition that comes only from pushing one’s own boundaries in an awe-inspiring setting. Chimney Pond grew smaller and smaller down below, until it looked like a puddle amidst acres of deep green trees. The vistas became increasingly grand, the kind of thing you see on postcards. We kept climbing.
True story: I barely remember the peak. By that point it was clear that several of us were running low on water — and with the prospect of several more harrowing miles looming before us, we hustled along to the next phase of our expedition. No one wants to be dehydrated on Knife Edge.
Knife Edge is the one-mile trail between Baxter Peak and Pamola Peak. It’s a geological formation known as an arête, the thin ridge of rock formed when glaciers erode parallel U-shaped valleys. Traversing it involves moving from rock to rock (sometimes using all four limbs for safety), with thousands of feet falling away on either side. It’s magnificent and terrifying and never-ending and challenging. There is absolutely no shade, no respite, and no turning back. There is one point where you literally have to lean sideways into the mountain to avoid falling off of it. Doesn’t that sound like fun?!?!
Actually, it kind of was. Now that I’ve done it, I’d say that Knife Edge was actually the most enjoyable portion of the hike for me, requiring more agility than cardiovascular endurance, and giving me almost two hours to pretend that I was a character in Lord of the Rings.
One final push brought us to Pamola Peak, at 4912 feet. Henry David Thoreau, who climbed Katahdin in 1846, said that Pamola, a bird spirit of Abenaki mythology, “is always angry with those who climb to the summit of Ktaadn.”
Perhaps that’s why it felt especially punishing atop Pamola, where I spent most of our water break cowering behind a manmade tower of rocks, trying to hide from the sun, anxious for shade.
But relief wouldn’t come for another couple of hours; Dudley Trail, which would take us back to Chimney Pond, is almost all boulders — big ones, the kind you have to slide down on your butt — and almost all above the treeline. Our group moved along silently, following those blue blazes and daydreaming of water, beer, and the chance to sit the fuck down. About halfway to Chimney Pond, we happened across a mountain spring and filled up our water bottles. Yeah, there was a small risk of ingesting water-borne bacteria, but, you know, hydration was a priority. That ice-cold water was probably the best I’ve ever tasted (and no, none of us has experienced any gastrointestinal distress since then).
The Chimney Pond ranger gave us Jelly Belly beans as a reward when we emerged, dazed and red-faced, from Dudley. I don’t even like jelly beans but I ate them anyway, triumphant and hoping for a sugar high. We still had 3.3 miles to go before getting back to camp, after all.