A.T. Thru-Hike Day 136 - July 21, 2014

Destination: Baxter Peak, Katahdin
Starting Location: Katahdin Stream Campground
Today's Miles: 5.20
Trip Miles: 2185.30

I woke up at 4 AM, instantly awake.

Today was the end, the final climb, the culmination of over four months of literal blood, sweat, and tears.

I had my clothes and gear ready within minutes, even though the Baxter State Park entrance wouldn’t open for another three hours. I just couldn’t sit still anymore, so I filled the hours of waiting by stuffing myself full of food—oh, the magic of freshly-cooked eggs and ham! Alison was up and about shortly after I was, and we watched the sunrise together over tea and coffee. I would not replace the time I spent on the trail with anything, but having her here only made me more excited for the grand finale.

After we had waited for as long as I could stand, we finally started heading toward the park at around 6 AM. This turned out to be a good thing, as there was already a line forming at the front gate. We watched as the line of cars behind us grew steadily longer and longer, until finally the queue snaked around a corner and out of sight. Since there is a limit to how many people are allowed into each parking area at BSP, we realized how lucky it was that I was so anxious about arriving early.

The gates opened right on time, and within twenty minutes we found ourselves back at Katahdin Stream Campground and at the base of the last mountain, its immensity filling up the majority of our view. Birdman, Nails, LoJack, and Ranger were there waiting. Everyone was shifting around awkwardly, both out of anticipation and from the awkwardness of hiking without our full packs—today was, in reality, a day hike, so everyone had borrowed day packs from the ranger station. We all gathered for our obligatory “beginning of the end” photograph, touched the sign pointing us to Baxter Peak, and then we began our ascent.
Birdman, Alison, and I hiked together at first, yet as fit as she was, Alison simply did not have the hiker legs that we thru-hikers had developed over the preceding months. Thus, Birdman flew on without us, and I shared a day in the life of a thru-hiker with my wife. While the slower pace was hard to adjust to at first, having her there to share in the adventure definitely made up for it. Up until now she had only been able to experience it through my journals and pictures; now she was getting a taste of the real thing. Judging from the near-constant smile on her face, I think the hiker life may agree with her.

The climb up Katahdin was surprisingly abrupt—I’m not sure when we started going straight up, but within twenty minutes we went from a relatively flat trail to steep incline almost instantaneously. Yet where some of the climbs before this were tedious or overly strenuous, Katahdin seems to give just the right amount of challenge, keeping my muscles stimulated without making my pulse race and allowing me to soak in the scenery. And what gorgeous scenery there was to take in! For the first two miles or so, the trail carves through a pristine alpine forest while following the path of Katahdin Stream, snaking up the mountainside and providing a constant background noise of rushing water. We had to stop and guzzle a liter of this irresistible source, and since Alison brought along my Steripen from back home, we were able to quickly quench our thirst and get back to the climb. The forest around us was so thick that the air stayed cool until we broke treeline, allowing us to avoid sweating too much and save our water supply for the tougher climbs ahead.

It wasn't until we broke tree line that the trail began to bite back, with near vertical Boulder scrambles for miles ahead. Parts of the trail weren't so much physically demanding as they were perplexing, forcing us to stop and figure out how to successfully tackle a section. Here's my favorite example: there was a vertical rock wall directly in front of me with a white blaze painted on it; just above my head (read: I am 6'3" tall) is one half of a rebar handhold; directly next to it is another 3-4 inch sliver of rebar. Solve for "X." It was like I was climbing the equivalent of the A.T. final exam, where I had to use all of the skills I had learned over the past four months in order to successfully navigate the mountain and graduate as a thru-hiker. It made Katahdin, without a doubt, my favorite ascent on the entire trail.

By the way, the answer to the above riddle was as follows: hold onto the rebar handle, use your weight to swing a foot onto the rebar sliver, lift your body up with that leg while finding a decent foothold with the other, and lizard-crawl your way onto the boulder directly above you. Don't forget to avoid the 100-foot drop to your left. That would earn you an "F" for sure.

At about mile 3.5, as we were nearing the top of our extended boulder scramble, I heard an all-too-familiar catcall above me. I looked up to find Spider-Man and Socks smiling down at us, taking a break on the the flattest rock they could find. They had begun their climb in the early morning to see the sunrise atop Katahdin, and we were meeting them on their way back down. They served as our personal cheerleading squad as we pushed on toward the summit, promising us that the end was almost upon us.

They were definitely right, as within a few minutes Alison and I crested the top of a huge boulder and found ourselves on a long field of completely flat terrain. We had just entered "The Tablelands," a mile-long section on the back ridge of Katahdin covered in flat rocks big enough to skip across. We were given 360-degree views of the surrounding Maine countryside, filled with lakes, forests, and almost nothing else. The sapphire sky was the perfect compliment to the green below us, and the sun was warming us as a cool breeze nipped at our skin. Yet all I could focus on was a concentration of small shadows in the distance, all of them convened at the top of the tallest peak around me.
Baxter Peak was within my sights.

The last mile over the Tablelands seemed to take forever in spite of the easiness of the terrain. While beautiful in its desolation—its boulder-riddled field and lack of hardly any vegetation made it feel almost eerie—my eyes and mind were focusing almost exclusively on the goal up ahead. We stopped briefly at Thoreau Spring, located exactly one mile from the summit. The spring was named in honor of the quintessential American author Henry David Thoreau, who visited the mountain years ago and praised the area for its rugged wilderness and solitude (though it was unlikely that he made it this far up Katahdin). I had planned on grabbing a sip of water here, in some way communing with one of our greatest writers, but was ultimately disappointed when the spring was little more than a glorified mud puddle. My desire to ingest equal amounts of dirt and water was not particularly high, so we moved on.

Slowly the path began to turn upward once again, and I knew that I was on the home stretch. Alison decided to hang back a bit, letting me complete my final climb alone. It was very much appreciated—now it was just me and the trail, communing alone one final time. The rocks near the summit had a beautiful shade of pink to them, their surface craggy from years of exposure to Maine’s harsh weather. Up ahead I could now make out the faces of those waiting at the summit: Birdman was there, as was Ranger, Sloth, Nails, LoJack, and several day hikers, all of them enjoying the views from Maine’s greatest mountain. Beside them was the all-too-familiar weathered wooden sign marking the summit of Baxter Peak, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, and the end of my thru-hike.

I pressed on. My friends cheered me on as I pushed slowly toward the top. I seemed to be traveling simultaneously fast and slow: why was it taking so long, and will it really be over so soon? Birdman was standing by the sign, waving me on. It was time.

I stood beside the sign and ran my fingers over its dimpled surface. I laid my face on it and breathed a deep sigh. After 136 days, I was finally there. My thru-hike was complete.

I greeted my friends, all of us now officially thru-hikers. Birdman and I embraced and congratulated each other on our success. Alison arrived and celebrated with us as we all took turns having our pictures made with the sign. Nails and Sloth opened bottles of champagne and showered the summit in alcohol before passing the bottle around. I was also told that Sloth and Ranger produced a badminton racquet shortly before my arrival and proceeded to launch their remaining Clif bars into the valley below—we hated these things by now, having eaten so many on the way to Maine. It was our first celebration as thru-hikers, our last celebration on our thru-hike. Though bittersweet, as all great accomplishments must be, the excitement of having done something truly great was undoubtedly felt by all of us.

Slowly, one by one, everyone started to realize that it was time to say goodbye to Baxter Peak and make the long trip down Katahdin. Nails, LoJack, and Sloth were retracing their steps back to Katahdin Stream Campground. Birdman, Ranger, Alison, and I were taking a more ambitious route down: we were going to cross over the Knife’s Edge and journey down the opposite side of the mountain. Knife’s Edge is an incredibly narrow, rugged strip of trail that forms the backbone of Katahdin; on either side of the path—sometimes as narrow as three feet—is a sheer drop all the way down to the base of the mountain. I’m not sure if we truly comprehended the difficulty of this section, but seeing as I had arranged for my parents to pick us all up at Roaring Brook Campground on the other side of the park, we had committed to tackling this beast of a trail.

For the most part, Knife’s Edge isn’t more demanding physically than any other part of the climb up Katahdin; rather, it’s the constant psychological strain of knowing your imminent death (or at least maiming) was just one misstep away. That made for especially slow going, with each of us making extra sure that our footing was solid before pressing onward. At first I was kicking myself at having Alison come along, as her hiker legs were not as used to this terrain as ours were. Yet whenever I looked at her, she still had the same great smile on her face as before—she was handling the stress better than I was! Adrenaline was coursing through my veins as we dipped up and down on this rocky ridge, the path little more than a collection of relatively stable rocks mashed together, and I probably said “slow and steady” so many times that Birdman, Ranger, and Alison were probably ready to push me off the side.

Still, once we got going, it was all really a matter of putting one foot in front of the other, and before too long we found ourselves approaching the grand finale: Chimney Peak and Pamola Peak, the last two climbs before our descent. We had passed by a day hiker who had described this section like this: “Be ready to get your Spider-Man on.” He wasn’t kidding, as ascending both of these peaks was pure rock climbing. Adding to the atmosphere was a poor, unprepared section hiker who was gripping the side of “the Chimney,” too petrified to continue on. Her children were also on the mountain with her, and you could hear the pure fear in her voice as she called for them to be careful. Another hiker was helping her slowly ease her way down the path, so we squeezed by them and continued our climb into and out of the Chimney. The final push up the side of Pamola was a 30-40 foot vertical rock wall, and as we crested the top and rested on the first relatively wide flat spot in over a mile, we sat and enjoyed the view of our accomplishment.

After we had taken a few more pictures and snacked on top of Pamola Peak, we began the final descent back toward tree line and the true end to our journey. Birdman and Ranger once again pushed on ahead as Alison and I took up the rear guard. There was no need to hurry, and we took our time enjoying the views of Katahdin behind us and the lakes surrounding us—I don’t think I could ever get tired of the scenery in Maine. Eventually we went below tree line and found a small spring, and we sat and devoured most of our snacks while guzzling fresh water. Due to the adrenaline of climbing Knife’s Edge, neither of us realized how much energy we had used, and we only had a few peanuts left by the time we had refueled. At long last, we finally reached Roaring Forks Campground, where my mother, father, and Birdman sat waiting for us (Ranger had hitched a ride back over to Katahdin Stream to meet up with Sloth). It had been months since I had seen my parents, though we were all so tired from our journeys that I can’t remember much of our conversation. In truth, my mind was still back up on Katahdin, replaying my final moments as a thru-hiker.

After collecting our car and giving Birdman, Sloth, and Ranger a lift into Millinocket, all of our hiking group convened at a steakhouse in town. Everyone was there, including Spider-Man and Socks, and all of us ordered a huge meal to celebrate the occasion. The mood of the evening was quiet, though, as we were all physically and emotionally drained by the day. We inhaled our food, shared a few stories, and then headed our separate ways for the evening.

I was in bed within minutes of my arrival back at the Big Moose Inn, my body simply unable to move another step. Still, before I closed my eyes for the most satisfying sleep I have ever had, I reviewed one of my favorite photos from the day: a ragtag group of hikers, worn down and exhausted, gather around a lonely wooden sign on top of a rocky mountain in Maine. Their eyes and smiles reflect the gentle joy of accomplishing a long-set goal, of realizing that after months of long days, cold nights, and countless obstacles, they gathered on that peak in triumph.

Special thanks to LoJack for the incredible video.