Thursday, November 15, 2018

Where The Light First Touches

Katahdin looms over the road
on the approach to Baxter Park.
It turns out that hiking websites are written for hikers, and that a route labeled "Very Strenuous" is in fact "Very Strenuous" for a typical hiker.  Around December of 2017 I decided that I should go out to Katahdin in Maine - a mountain in the middle of nowhere - and climb to the top of Baxter Peak, the tallest point on the mountain and the highest point in the state of Maine itself.  Henry David Thoreau made the mountain famous by writing "On Trails", but I didn't know that.  He and others believed that Katahdin was where the light first touched the United States each morning.  I had merely been using Google Earth while bored during night shift at work and found a cool looking mountain in the middle of the wilderness in Maine.

"Maine" was important as opposed to any other state, as it was not only a state I had never been to, but also a state close (enough) to my sister Margaret who lives in Boston with her fiance.  As important as spending time with my sister was - reason enough for such a trip - Margaret was familiar with camping, while I hadn't slept a night outside since high school.

It was there on the Hunt Trail, the terminus of the Appalachian Trail, that we realized that we weren't quite as prepared as we had thought.  Where my sister began calculating how much a helicopter rescue would cost her.

And where I decided that I wanted to be a Highpointer.

About midway up the mountain.

Packing Up

The previous year and a half had been eventful to say the least.  In December of 2016, I was diagnosed with Acute Myloid Leukemia and began treatment.  During this time, I received incredible support from everyone in my life.  My family, my co-workers at St Clair Hospital, my fellow firefighters at the Mt Lebanon Fire Department, and all my friends kept me in high spirits, and able to able to make my recovery though the 7 months I was unable to work or perform exercises more strenuous than walking or carrying a 5lb weight.  I dropped down to 170lbs while my tongue developed sores, and then ballooned up to 220lbs while I was unable to exercise.

Exactly one year prior to the hike (June 2017), the Doctors gave me a clean bill of health, my central IV line was removed, and I began the even longer process of getting back into something resembling shape.  In October of 2017, I married the love of my life, in a wedding ceremony that I never thought would happen.  Then in December I realized that she was cheating on me, and in April - after months of couples therapy trying to make things work - realized that we couldn't both be happy in our relationship.

The geography of Katahdin, as shown
by a 3D map in the ranger's station.
 But during this time my sister and I had grown closer than we had been.  She was one of the people who had kept me company during my months of treatment, flying down even though she lived in Boston.  We had been planning this trip even before it became obvious I would need a divorce.  She bought me my 70L backpack.  I crammed it full of everything I might conceivably need, including a sleeping bag, first aid kit (more or less a full BLS kit), rope, carabiners, 2 gallons of water, several knives, a tourniquet, and a bunch of other stuff I didn't particularly wind up using.

I flew up to Boston on a Friday, we would drive our way to the mountain on Saturday, and we'd make it to the top Sunday!

Boston and Portland

I had no issues checking my 70L bag, nor did I have any issues getting to Margaret's work as the Boston public transit system pretty good.  I rode the train to her office, met some of her co-workers, and we walked back to her apartment to meet up with her fiance Ben.

We had pizza and went to sleep, ready for the next morning.

On the way up, we stopped in Portland, Maine, roughly the halfway point of our trip, for a Lobster lunch.

I want to go back to Portland.

Semi-Primitive Camping

Our campsite was at the Katadhin Streams.  I had asked Margaret to try and reserve a campsite in Chimney Pond, at the base of the mountain and with a "Strenuous" climb to the top.  Unfortunately, due to those sites filling first, Margaret was instead able to get us a lean-to at trailhead for Hunt Trail.

The lean-to wasn't much to talk about, but we had stopped at Target to purchase snacks and food for the night, which would later become a tradition for me in terms of gathering food supplies.  We purchased local firewood from the ranger station at the campsite and had a comfortable camp.

I brought some additional comfort in the form of a local PA whiskey, infused with ginger.

We ate our hotdogs and beans and got our packs ready for the morning.  Our plan was to set off at sunrise to hike the mountain.

First Light

Instead, we set off at first light (when we can see light, but the sun had not yet risen), because sleeping outside on a hard surface is difficult.

As it so happened, we were the second group heading up the mountain along the Hunt Trail that day according to the trail ledger.  One additional person got their start before us.  The trail started wild, but easy to walk on.

As we headed up the mountain, we were treated to some beautiful wilderness, including the Katahdin Stream from which our campsite got its name.  The path along the stream itself lead us to a waterfall within the first mile of our hike, where we stopped for our first break.

Here the path got rockier, but still relatively easy for a climb.  We continued on the approach to the spur, and we could see the trees getting smaller and more shrub-like in certain places.

The terrain would get more difficult still for the next mile or so as we approached the spur.  In spots we had to do some light scrambling over boulders through which the path moved though.  Margaret was less thrilled with this than I was, being about 6 to 8 inches shorter than me, and less able to just "step up" onto the next bolder.  By this point, we had linked up with another climber who had brought hiking poles, which enabled him to make this part of the climb much more easily than Margaret and I.  He was from a Midwestern state visiting his family and had always wanted to hike this mountain.  He'd be with us until we hit the spur itself, and then would push on ahead.

The Hunt Spur

The approach to the spur was when things became much more difficult.  The dirt ground with frequent boulders gave way to rock and boulders, and scrambling was required to proceed.  Iron handholds had been added to some rocks to assist in the climb, and the path was no longer easy to see and only marked with white rectangular blazes.
It was at this part that Margaret began to wonder the cost of helicopter rescue, as she wasn't sure once we finished our ascent how easily we would be able to descend.

While once we reached the crest of the spur though, the rocky terrain more resembled stairs than a climb, and we were able to proceed more rapidly horizontally until the very end, where we again had to scramble up to the shelf at the top of the mountain.

The shelf was a welcome relief.  You can see the peak behind the sign in the picture to the left.  Mostly flat ground covered by endangered lichen and signs encouraging us to stick to the path marked by strings and posts.  The transition between the approach along the spur and the flat shelf at the top was stark.  There, our path and other approaches converged, with first the Abol trail joining us, and then Cathedral as we approached the summit of Baxter Peak.

We had considered doing Knife's Edge Trail if we had the time, but we were wiped out by the climb already so we decided against it.

There was no real false peak for us on the way up.  We could see small moving specks of people in the distance who had ascended from the easier paths gathering at the top during our approach. While we were quite tired with blisters forming and my pack significantly lighter from the water we'd been drinking, we still made the summit at around 11:00am.

The Summit

Below you can see Chimney Pond, the campsite I had originally hoped for, and the alternative approach to the peak from the East.  View is from the peak.

The first of hopefully many summit pictures.

We took a break to eat and drink at the summit.  I changed my shirt and socks to try and minimize cold from the sweat and boot / feet issues.  We then decided we would try heading down Abol Trail instead of Hunt and avoid the worst of the boulder scrambles.

Abol Trail Descent

Abol Trail had only recently reopened and had to be blazed near the original spot after an avalanche wiped out the previous Abol Trail.  You could see where the trail had been freshly cut through the trees and shrubs.  A sign marked off where the trail split from the previous Abol trail, telling us to take a sharp right onto the new trail rather than continue scrambling down a rock slide.  Scrambling over boulders was necessary on the descent, but it was a lot less strenuous than the Hunt Trail all the same.  

During the descent, we alternated between who was in good spirits.  By the end it was my turn to feel completely wiped out, though I did capture one last picture by the Abol trailhead sign.

On the way down we met up with and befriended a solo hiker who had gone up Abol in the morning.  He offered to give us a lift back to our camp at Katahdin Streams, and a lift to a Appalachian Trail hiker who had completed his hike from Georgia and needed a ride to town.  Picking up an additional 2 hikers on the way back to Katahdin Streams who had the same idea we did (up Hunt / down Abol.) He was the true hero of the day, giving 5 of us a ride in total.

From there, we decided not to spend the night in camp again, and just head home.  We picked up stickers of the peak we had just ascended - a tradition according to Margaret. She put hers on her water bottle. I also bought ranger badges of the state park itself.

Boston (Again) and Home

I took the next day easy, only walking around Boston a little.  I was able to visit my sister's nearest Firehouse, picking up a badge from Engine 22.  This and the state park ranger's badge would find a home at my station's badge wall.  I also found a hole in the wall Spanish restaurant for some roasted chicken.

I flew back on the early flight, took the Airport flier bus into the city, and road the light rail back to my condo.

I knew that I wanted to do this again.  I discussed with Margaret doing another New England mountain the next year, probably Mt Washington in New Hampshire.  My other sister Christy said she wanted to be involved in the next one we did.

I was a highpointer, but only 1 high point and no real concrete plans to do any more.  But one challenge had been completed and what a good challenge it was.  The sights were beautiful and the trip memorable.  I stood on top of the world, and it was something that my sister and I accomplished together.  It was a challenge I had chosen, not one forced upon me, and I had persevered.  Still, at this point I had no idea what my next challenge would be.

I certainly didn't think it would be an impulsive trip to Colorado, and a hike up a 14'er.