5.1 miles, 2184.2 overall, 0 remaining (Katahdin)
This morning I need an alarm to wake up on time at 4:30. We need to be on our way to Katahdin at 5:00 in order to arrive by 6:00 and start hiking. Although it is only a 5 mile climb, it is very technical and usually takes thru-hikers over 3 hours to finish. The park recommends allowing 5 hours for day hikers. Christy is usually a slow hiker so I’m figuring 5-6 hours.
We’re out the door a few minutes late around 5:10 but we arrive just after 6:00. I stop by the Birches briefly to see if I can find Stats to give him the Jell-O cups but everyone is already gone. By 6:30 we have our packs on and are starting up the trail. There are a few other dayhikers already starting and, when I reach the trail register, I find out the Noodleheads and Yellowtail have already been on the mountain for 30 minutes. Chances are they won’t be there when I summit. I’m a little sad about that but I’m sure there will be other people up there and it is great to have Christy along. She has been such a big part of my hike that it seems right for her to be there at the end.
Christy always has a slower hiking pace than I do and I usually hike behind her to force myself to slow down. Today it is harder than usual since I have thru-hiker legs that, for 5 months, have hiked my thru-hiker pace. It certainly provides some perspective on my new hiking capabilities as I watch her figuring out how to navigate the rocky trail while I hardly have to think about it. As we hike it starts to rain. The forecast was for a clear morning with a chance of isolated showers in the afternoon. Clearly that was wrong. The rain has the potential to make this a miserable hike and I hope that it starts to clear up as we get higher.
It takes us about 30 minutes to travel the first and easiest mile. Then, just after the Katahdin Stream Falls, the trail steps it up a notch. We are no longer in the well-traveled section and have entered the boulders. We begin to have to rock-hop and this slows us down a lot. The rocks are wet and Christy isn’t used to these conditions like I am. It takes us another hour to do the next mile, during which the terrain gets increasingly complicated as instead of rock-hopping we now have to climb up, between, and around boulders. I am starting to worry that we won’t have enough time to get to the top and, even if we can make it, the conditions might be dangerous. The temperature is 55 here, still 2000 feet below the summit and below treeline. This means that at the summit it is probably around 45 but with the increased wind above treeline it probably feels close to freezing. On top of that the climb is rocky and a slip could be costly. As we hike up we pass several hikers who have turned around due to the conditions.
All of this is in my mind as we hike and I keep an eye on my watch, trying to decide when I will have to make a call on whether or not to summit. Around 11:00 we reach treeline, still over 2 miles from the summit, and we are going slower now than we were earlier. The boulders are tricky enough for me to climb but for Christy, who is shorter and hasn’t been hiking for 5 months, they are near impossible. When we reach the point where trail maintainers have put rebar into the rocks and hikers have to pull themselves up and over the boulder, Christy decides she’s done. Climbing the rocks so far has been scary enough but now we are above treeline and the “trail” is still becoming more dangerous. She tells me to go get my summit and we’ll meet on the way down. I help her return past a particularly technical piece and back down to treeline where it is warmer. Then we say a quick goodbye before I take off.
As luck would have it, just about the same time Christy and I separate the rain begins to let up. I only get back to the point where Christy turned around before I see Philly Steve on his descent. He is perhaps the happiest I’ve seen him on the whole trip now that he has finished. We talk for a minute and he tells me that their summit was incredibly cold and windy. While it may not have been a miserable summit (can you have a miserable summit after hiking 2184 miles?) it was definitely a summit in miserable conditions. It occurs to me that if I hadn’t stayed back with Christy I would have been up there with them. He tells me that the whole group is on their way back down now and over the next several minutes I run into the Noodleheads, then the APE team, then Yellowtail and finally Sunroof. I give them all my congratulations and talk with them quickly before heading up the mountain and letting them continue down.
On my own I’m able to cruise up the mountain. After climbing through the Whites I’m used to the steep climbs with the hand-over-foot boulders. Still, this climb is especially tough. Rather than a trail this is more of a boulder field, however it is also on a steep incline so while I navigate the boulders I am also climbing. There are a couple sections with rebar that are difficult and there is one place where I am forced to take off my pack in order to squeeze between two rocks. I stop periodically to catch my breath and take in the scene as the rain clouds move away and a warm, sunny day starts to take their place. It is still windy though and at times the wind makes my climbing precarious.
Around 11:45 I reach the Gateway which is the entrance to the Tableland, a flat section about a mile long before the final climb to the summit. I had imagined some sort of rock formation or sign that would indicate why the spot is called the Gateway but I find nothing and can’t come up with a reason for the name other than the fact that it is the entrance to the Tableland on the AT. The Tableland itself is pretty easy hiking although significant rock-hopping is still required. Ropes have been set up to keep hikers in a defined area to protect the alpine vegetation. I am hiking quickly now with the end in sight and I pass a few groups of hikers who passed us earlier. One on his way down sees my VT hat and mentions that there are some other Hokies on the summit. I don’t take much notice of the comment at the time, but as I start up the final ascent the family he was speaking of is on their way down. I stop for a second to talk to them and they quickly mention that they brought a VT flag to take pictures with on the summit.
Hikers have a lot of time over several months to think about the picture they will get at the end. Several times I had thought about taking a VT flag with me to the summit but never got around to finding one to bring with me. Now this family on their way down mentions that they have one. It seems too good to be true. I say something along the lines of “Would it be horrible of me to ask you if I could borrow the flag to take up with me?” It is not a question they expected. They immediately get confused looks on their faces as they try to figure out how I could get the flag back to them, but when I explain that I’m a thru-hiker, I’ve walked over 2000 miles in 5 months to get here, and I’m about to finish my journey their expressions change and they graciously give me the flag. I ask if they’re taking the AT back down to the bottom and when they say yes I tell them I’ll catch up to them to give it back. I don’t think they believe me because they tell me to just keep the flag. I thank them as much as I can and we part ways, me on my way up with the flag and them on the way down thinking I will keep it.
This bit of good luck and generosity on the part of the family came out of nowhere. For the last quarter mile of the trail I’m filled with thankfulness, both for this final piece of trail magic as well as for the rest of my journey. It seems like such a fitting end to my hike on which I’ve received so much from so many. I’m choked up as I take my final steps up the mountain and as I reach the sign I have to stop in front of it, close my eyes, and take a minute to breathe as the moment overwhelms me.
When I finally open my eyes I take a few seconds to look around and take in the scene. There are several day hikers on the summit, many of them apparently having lunch. I take a minute to read the plaque commemorating the donation of the land to Maine by former governor Percival Baxter. As I’m reading some of the hikers nearby ask if I want to have a picture taken. I of course take them up on the offer. The hikers are 2 Germans who have section hiked from Vermont to here. One is named Autobahn and unfortunately I’ve forgotten the other. They take several pictures of me with the Katahdin sign, including one with the VT flag. I have another person take a picture of me with the giant cairn at the summit before I stop for a snack.
The only bad thing about the trail magic is that during my summit I feel in a rush to start down and catch the family so I can return the flag. Still, I spend about 30 minutes on the summit taking pictures, enjoying the view, and having a snack before I start down. My goal is to catch them before they reach treeline. I don’t know where Christy will be waiting for me and once I rejoin her I will have to hike slower, meaning I might not catch the family. I start back down the mountain quickly and just about jog across the Tableland.
It isn’t long before I catch them though. When I reach the Gateway the family is only a few feet below trying to figure out how to navigate the boulder field. They are surprised to see me as I hand the flag back to them, thanking them again for their kindness. I spend a few minutes with them, having another snack while they ask me questions about my hike. Eventually though I feel the need to move on to catch up to Christy so I take my leave but mention my blog to them in case they have more questions. So if you’re reading this, thanks again!
Going down is easier than going up as I’m able to rock-hop a bit rather than climb. Several times I have to sit down and scoot across rocks or, in one place, allow myself to do a controlled slide down a rock in order to get down. It goes quickly though and pretty soon I’m back below treeline. I partly expect Christy to be waiting for me there but I don’t see her. I try to keep my eyes out for her as I hike down. As I get lower and lower though I start to worry that maybe I missed her. I try to calculate how fast she could have been hiking down and where she might have gotten to. Finally I catch up to her at Katahdin Stream Falls where we hug and I let her know that I’m done. She is worried about whether I had a good summit, to which I assure her I did and share with her the story about the family and their flag. We hike the last mile down together, a perfect ending to my hike on the Appalachian Trail.