Mt. Katahdin is famous for many reasons. It’s the end of the Appalachian Trail (AT); it’s the tallest mountain in Maine, scaling a mile above sea level; and it’s home to countless misadventures and even many deaths.
Hiking is quite possibly my favorite activity of all time, and — as someone who’s grown up in Maine — taking on the The Greatest Mountain has always been a top priority. However, even so it kicked my ass. Exercise is practically a foreign concept to me, but every summer I like to take on one, massive hike. As a young person, this is easily done without any physical preparation, but I’ll have to rethink my strategy next time because Katahdin, you truly are The Greatest Mountain.
Our plan was to begin our hike around 5:30. We were going to go up Chimney Pond, then Dudley, and then Knife’s Edge to summit. On the way down, we would take Saddle. When I was fourteen, I hiked up Chimney and part of Dudley to reach the Pamola caves. So, I thought this would be a fun, but rigorous hike that would take about ten hours.
The day did not go as planned for several reasons. When I awoke at 4:30 that morning, my stomach was in knots. I felt like I was going to vomit, but how could I come all this way and NOT hike Katahdin? It would’ve been too much of a disappointment. So, I set out and braved the trailhead. Usually, hiking up to Chimney Pond should take you about two hours. It took us two and a half due to my frequent stops and nausea, and then we had to rest for half an hour to see if I felt up to continuing on our journey.
Now, if you’re not a big hiker or don’t feel like you can summit in a day, then hiking to Chimney Pond is a perfect way to ease into the hike. It is absolutely stunning. The water is crystal clear, and you can see straight up to the top of the mountain. You can also watch all the hikers, like little ants, climbing up any of the trails except Abol or Hunt. There are small campsites there that have a lean-to for sleeping. If you want to stay at this campsite, you better book your stay well ahead of time. Also at this campsite, you have to set up a bear bag. If you don’t know how to do that, you definitely need to learn before arriving.
However, after eating some cheese and an apple, I decided I could keep going. My stomach felt better, and my body had gotten accustomed to the mountain air. (Side note: There is nothing better than mountain air. It can feel warm on your skin, but it breathes in as cool and refreshing. It awakens the spirit.) So, we signed out at the Chimney Pond ranger station and headed out on Dudley at 8:30AM.
Dudley has a reputation for being the hardest trail on the mountain. Honestly, I can’t tell you why; I think they’re all equally as difficult. On every trail on the front of the mountain, rock climbing is unavoidable. On Dudley, rock climbing is pretty much the whole trail. However, I prefer that for a couple reasons. One being that rock climbing is easier on your leg muscles because you depend so much on your arms. Two, when you’re consistently rock climbing, you’re body gets used to the work as opposed to when you do it in small spurts. I think I’m in the minority in this assessment, though.
Now, I’m going to tell you something. I don’t trust a single sign in Baxter State Park in terms of mileage. I simply cannot believe that Dudley is 2.4 mi or that Knife’s Edge is 1.1 or that Saddle is 2.2. It makes absolutely no sense. I don’t think the signs are accurate, I never have, and I’ve never met anybody that does. So, moral of the story: Take the mileage signs with a grain of salt.
Finally, though we reach the top of Dudley which is the summit of Pamola Mountain. It took us three hours, so we actually made pretty good time, especially considering the fact that I wanted to stop and take pictures every five feet.
We took a break here and ate some lunch, but quickly headed out to brave the infamous Knife’s Edge. If there is any wind, clouds, or rain, Knife’s Edge is off-limits for hikers. The reason is obvious; at several points along the trail, you are literally taking your life into your own hands. The trail gets so incredibly skinny that your foot is the only thing that can fit on it. To either side of that foot are drop-offs and cliffs practically to the base of the mountain. Any slight imbalance could be the death of you.
This hit me especially hard right as we left the summit of Pamola. The sections right next to Pamola are by far the hardest on the trail. Once you get closer to Katahdin, the trail widens up a bit and becomes less threatening. However, the very first thing we had to do on Knife’s Edge was slide-walk down a cliff face into a small landing that had cliffs on either side. Then, once you walk across this small landing, you had to climb up an almost flat wall to the top of another little hill. It was completely and utterly terrifying. I’ve never had a physical panic attack before, only mental, but about half way through Knife’s Edge my heart felt so tight that I really thought I was going to have a heart attack. After that, we had to stop pretty frequently because my panic attack was so bad. This trail is not for the faint of heart, let me tell you. I am a huge risk taker; I love doing things like this, but you need to be honest with yourself before you hike this trail. Most people face death in a way on Knife’s Edge that they have never had to do before in their lives. Of course, my boyfriend, the mountain man, was practically running across the rocks.
Eventually though, it all ended. We reached Katahdin’s summit, and I rewarded myself with a 3 Musketeers bar.
We arrived at 1:30 and hung out at the top for about half an hour. We saw a mountain crow, which is about the same size as a hawk and also soars in the clouds like one too. It’s definitely an interesting bird.
However, the day is not over. We still have to make it down the trail. Saddle, although it’s supposedly the easiest trail, was not all that easy. The beginning was very flat and leisurely, but eventually you come to an avalanche path and are rock climbing down the steep mountain once more. It’s incredibly hard on your knees, so be prepared for that. However, I won’t bore you too much with the details of the way down. To keep it simple, tears were shed, bruises were made, and cuts were etched into our skin. We practically ran down the mountain because all we wanted to do at that point was be done and go to bed.
When we got back to the Bunkhouse, though, we discovered something entirely unpleasant. When we booked the bunkhouse at Roaring Brook for this second night, we imagined it would be similar to the AMC White Mountain huts. We were wrong, very wrong. There were no lights in the cabin, which is not a big deal because everyone had flashlights. However, there were no mattresses on the bunks. I slept that night with the sore, bruised, cut body on a wooden plank. I basically didn’t sleep. I also considered multiple times throughout the night going to sleep outside on the ground because it would’ve been more comfortable. So, if you’re planning on staying in the bunkhouse bring yoga mats or single-person air mattresses for your bunk. Otherwise, you’re in for the worst night of your life.
Presently, I have three ingrown toenails due to this hike and my poor hiking shoes. I also have a sunburn from at spot I missed on my neck. So, prepare thoroughly for your hike up Mt. Katahdin. Don’t be an idiot like I was. This hike can be fun, but it can also be miserable. Prepare, prepare, prepare. I thought I had prepared. I had food, sunscreen, sunglasses, my hiking boots, flashlights, whistles, matches, the works. None of that is enough. Prepare until you think that your preparing for your preparations.
Ultimately, I am glad I did this. It was taxing and difficult in every way, but it’s an impressive feat. I’m proud of myself for pushing through it. In fact, it’s the only hike I’ve ever done that I’ve felt truly proud of afterwards. All other summits I’ve experienced have been more fun than burdensome, so the pride was vain. This was different. This is an accomplishment.