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Taming the Beast... #63/64 Katahdin (Baxter and Hamlin)

                The week had been stressful with 2 suicides at work and several breakdowns. I had just about had my fill of life below 4000 feet and I was questioning my choice to do Katahdin. Midweek, the weather was turning to be not so stellar and while I craved the view. I was craving the hike just a little more. I was running out of good weather days to get this peak and September would be quickly coming to a close. I made the final decision to just go for it. I could come back another day and get the view. By Friday, I was feeling utterly shredded from the inside out and weary of my decision to leave at midnight Sunday. It would be a long day… A very long day. But I set my route and made sure that people knew my schedule. Scott, while still recovering from his TKR offered some support which was appreciated. He is one of the few that could attest to my ability in an emergency. I made arrangements to keep in contact as I was going. If I had service.
                I left on the very edge of day, 12 midnight and set out for Millinocket ME… I was bound for Katahdin with nothing except my thoughts and the music to keep me company. Half way though, at around 3 am the showers were pouring down. I was getting punchy so, the only solution…. Drivers Seat Dance Party. The music went up and I started moving. At 4am, the music was still up and with the speed limit at 75, I pushed it a little and suddenly realized… I’m going to Katahdin and I am solo. The rest of the trip was a mixture of realization and music. I left my life below 4000 Ft behind me. If only for a day.
                Arriving in Millinocket, the sun was just barely coming up. I found my way into the park and got ready to see what Katahdin had in store for me. Walking through the Katahdin Stream Camp sites, I was feeling really good about today. I started out in rain gear and had my pack cover secured. Since Isis was not with me, I was getting Scott’s poles ready to be used so I could save my knees. The first one lengthened perfectly however, the second one was stuck and I was without a multi-tool to fix it. Back in the pack the poles went for a free ride. I thought about stashing them but I would never forgive myself if they were taken as I really should get them back to their rightful owner. I signed in at the head of the trail… 6:57am.
                The trail itself started off gradual with very little rocks or roots to step over. I consider it to be a nice warm up. I made good time to the Falls where I caught a little reception and sent out a text to say I was underway. The air was muggy and seemed to hang around me and since it was not really raining, I took off my rain shell and left the bucket hat. I began gaining elevation with a series of rock steps which were both open to the sky and tree covered. I was happy to see blue skies above me and asked that I have a lot more of it fearing that it would be raining at the top. I didn’t care if I had a view at this point as I had resigned myself to come back and do the knife’s edge one day (today was not the day due to high winds). I had met up with two sisters from Worchester MA who were also hiking so; it was good to know that others were on the trail. We talked briefly and this trip seemed to be a yearly thing for them. I would not see them again until about a mile from the summit.
                As I gained elevation, the rocks began getting bigger. Soon they were boulders that needed to be maneuvered around. I would break in and out of tree line for a while and just before a permanent break, I changed to a modified cold weather gear set which meant that I had my arm warmers on, wind breaker, hat, and gloves. The gloves were particularly important due to the amount of hand over hand climbing I needed to do. Hoisting myself up over numerous rocks and occasionally using provided bars and spikes driven into the rocks as assists. All this while wearing a full pack and dealing with wind gusts of probably 30mph. This was nothing compared to what lay ahead.  There was no time think of anything else except the next hand hold and I welcomed the distraction from my usual perseveration. Occasionally, I would be able to stand up and look out at well, nothing as it was all cloud obscured. I said out loud on numerous occasions. “I bet there is a great view there” and I would be up and over the next set of rocks. I made my way through the gateway which was a tight squeeze even for me and discovered that there was another rise to get over after a short plateau. This one was a little more difficult with a lot of jagged rocks and very little in the way of places to get out of the elements. I was not scared though. I was alive. Everything within me was working together to get me to the summit. On the plateau, I had run into a few other hikers going down. The informed wm that I was just 2 mile away from my destination and about a half mile from the table land. As I was tackling the last ride, a text from Scott broke through the howling of the wind. Without even thinking, I texted him back from literally the side of the mountain (I had found one place to crouch down for a bit of a break). I didn’t care anymore. I wanted to share this with him since he was unable to hike at the moment and I knew he will love this trail.

                Continuing on, I carefully looked for blazes and judged routes. I then looked for handholds and the ability to maneuver both my feet and my pack up and over this last rise. The gloves were holding up well albeit a little wet. The rest of me was also doing surprisingly well. I was really on my game. I reached the pinnacle of the rise and looked out over a flat expanse that resembled a little bit of Moose back in the Whites. The grasses and the flat trails. I had reached the table land and the wind was howling and angry. The summit was completely locked in the clouds and that was when I noticed… It was snowing. I let out a big laugh and smiled. There is nothing like a little snow play before your September birthday. I was in heaven and could now not wait for winter hiking to come around again. I caught up to the two sisters from Worchester just before the Thoreau Spring and we talked for a little while about how different the world is up here in weather and how much we sometimes preferred to hike in this kind of condition. For me, it teaches me to push myself and to keep going. I passed them again and would meet up with them at the summit.
                It was an easy last mile to the end of the AT… Baxter Peak. I rock hopped  much like I did on the Presidentials to Madison, Adams, and Jefferson. As I was ascending, I saw the sign… One distinct characteristic of this sign is that it looks like a easel standing there on the summit. And as I approached, I was overcome with a sense of accomplishment. I had tamed the Beast. I had put it all aside and made the summit. I tapped the sign with my fist and I swear, I probably could have kissed the thing I was so proud. Two young men were reapproaching the summit to ask which was to the Knife’s Edge so, they knew they were avoiding it. I directed them to the blue blazed trail and we exchanged stories. My 63rd summit and they were standing there in jeans and sneakers. I begged them to be careful in this weather. Pictures were snapped and off they went. I was then rejoined by the sisters and I had my ice cream and a few (big) sips of wine which, in retrospect, warmed me up rather nicely. I did not stay too long as the weather was turning sour again and I needed to get to Hamlin peak. I was going for it.
                Down the Saddle Trail off the summit, I took my map out several times to get my directions. The loose rocks were a definite obstacle and I thought of them as ankle breakers. One wrong move and I was a candidate for rescue. I was greeted by a group of young boys who were in minimal gear, jeans, and sneakers. Don’t the ranger’s or their parents know anything?? I made sure they were going to be OK and kept moving. Being pelted all the while with ice and snow, I soloed over to Hamlin peak. An easy walk through the Saddle which actually saw the clouds part and gave me a view… It was breathtaking. Began climbing to the junction of the Hamlin Ridge trail off the North West Basin and then weather kicked in again. It was .2 to the summit and that was another rock hop. A wet and cold rock hop that I again concentrated on.  Everything was pushed out. I needed this summit and I needed it in one piece. I ran into one other couple and they referred to me as “hardcore” for hiking through the winter and anything else that I have done. I thought nothing of it as this was what I loved to do. It’s just who I am and who I am is a really quiet and gentile sort of person. Really, most don’t even know I’m around.  I kept moving before the cold set in again and reached the summit at 12:30pm. I was getting good at reaching all summits before 1pm and I was proud. I again knocked the sign and set up the tripod for my picture. There would be no time for ice cream due to weather so, I told myself I would have it in the car. I did take a few more big sips of wine and again felt the warmth. It was time to head down.
                Back the way I came, I made my way back to the saddle and ran into the same group of boys, their parents, and the couple I had run into before Hamlin. The boys were soaking wet and freezing. There was not even a pair of gloves between them. I was calm and didn’t lecture. I made it clear that they needed to head back down now and then I remembered; I had hand warmers in my emergency supplies. I knew I could spare 4 pairs as Scott had stocked me up a while back and I would still have one for myself if I needed them.  So, I passed them out. One to each of the 4 freezing boys. It was not much but it might get them below tree line where they would continue to warm up. I explained my accomplishments and my future plans. People were impressed with everything that I had done and amazed that I would keep going. I used my accomplishments to illustrate that I knew what I was doing up here and could probably get out of a few tight spots if I needed to. One of the father’s pointed out that I was alone. Before I could launch into the story of my hiking group, I detoured and said. “Yes, I am alone… Or am I? You are all here with me. Correct? So, even though I start alone and end alone, in the middle, you are all here with me”. The father brought up emergencies. “I have 2 or 3 people who know my route, time, and demeanor on the trails. If I am even off a little, they know what to do and they will do it. I am always safe”. I begged them to be the same and explained that I needed to keep moving to make it back to Katahdin Stream.
                Back up the junction for the Baxter Cut off, I veered right and headed straight through below the summit. IT was a nice flat trail that was getting covered in snow and ice. I was careful with each step and eager to get over to the rocks as I knew they would be slick too. It must have taken a good half an hour to get to the AT junction but it was uneventful and just wet. I began my decent in earnest and that meant I was up and over the rock faces and following the white blazes again. A lot of times I made sure I had 5 points of contact. That would be my hands, feet, and occasionally, my ass. The sturdier the better in this wind. At the plateau between the two outcroppings, I videoed just how hard it was to walk into the wind and wished I had the dexterity to video my rocky descent. Most of that was spent in quiet concentration as I made my way over the rocks and back to the iron rails and foot holds. At the rail, I had turned myself around so that my back was to the wind, both hands on the rail along with both feet. I kicked my feet out and let the momentum carry me down. Thank goodness I was a gymnast for a brief amount of time! It was a short fall and it was made graceful by the bar. I had made it to tree line and was glad to warm up myself. The rocks were getting smaller and soon, I found myself stripping off layers. I left the hat and my arm warmers on as it was late in the day. My stride felt strong on the rock stairs and I was standing what felt to be unusually tall. I was not in pain and I was not defeated as I remembered in the past coming off of big hikes and not being able to walk for days or being in so much pain that even to smile hurt. I made my way past the falls at a quick pace and was back at the sign out sheets by 4:45pm… I had indeed tamed the Beast. Katahdin was in my book.

                In each list, there seems to be a defining moment. During the 48, it was The Bonds. Now, Katahdin would be my defining moment of the 67. Driving out, I felt strong and confident. There truly was nothing else that I would rather do that brought about such a profound feeling in me. The great people I have met along the way who all share in this passion that so few outside of the community of hikers “get” I could never replace. In a world where I seem to always say the wrong things, lose the game, fall short of dreams, mountain climbing is there to bring comfort and strength. It is there I feel connected to my people and at peace with myself. Today was about the truth in me. And as I drove out, I could only think of one that I knew would “get” it.
And then there were…. Three.


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