What I Learned On Katahdin

This is part way down Knife's Edge, and still six hours to go in our hike. Phil coined the phrase 'blue blaze of sanity' since the fact that there are trail markings is what makes doing this not completely insane.

In the entire history of my blog, I have never thought about and rewritten a post so many times. I didn’t want to sound nonchalant about doing some stupid, dangerous things and at the same time, I didn’t want to sound overly dramatic. Here is my attempt at balance, and my cautionary tale.

This past weekend, I hiked Mount Katahdin with my British friend Phil. He had always wanted to go but thought it was too dangerous to attempt alone. I said when he visited Maine again, we’d do it.

He arrived on Thursday from London and Friday morning, we headed into the North Maine woods (Millinocket more specifically) and made camp. The next morning (3:30 am more specifically) we took down camp and headed into Baxter State Park.

The plan was to park at Roaring Brook Campground, hike the Helon Taylor trail, take Knife’s Edge to the summit of Katahdin, hike down Cathedral then Chimney Pond trail back to Roaring Brook. It is a long and difficult hike under normal circumstances. Attempting this in October is not something I plan to do again, mostly because I was really stupid about it.

I wasn’t appropriately dressed for the conditions and at higher points of the hike, I was shivering uncontrollably. Phil strained both his knees and, luckily, we bummed some painkillers off a group hiking past us. We both admitted later that we were both in so much relative pain and discomfort and there were several points where we wanted to give up. And once I remember saying that I wanted to stop and just cry for a bit and Phil reminded me that we were too miserable to cry.

Towards the end of the hike, we were both so cold and tired that we halucenated the same parking lot, complete with the same light colored car with a yellow thing on the top (we discussed whether it was a kayak or a ski rack for awhile before realizing that the whole thing didn’t exist).

A lot of external factors lined up for us which saved us from getting critically hurt or worse. We are both in good physical shape. The really hard rains held off until we were down the mountain below treeline. Phil literally caught me from falling off a cliff. And lastly, we saw the correct trail sign at Chimney Pond, saving us from hiking in the wrong direction.

Phil and I were talking about it after and both agreed that the whole experience made us both appreciate and learn a lot.

1) Bring good equiptment. I wore Phil’s spare pair of cotton gloves, which I wrung out every five feet and actually kept me pretty cold (though not as cold as being completely without protection). Should I have dug out my cross country ski gloves from wherever they were? Yup. Could I have got hypothermia and just didn’t? Yup.

2) Don’t assume anything. Don’t assume first aid kits have pain killers or that you’ll see other hikers. My optimism really put a way too positive spin on our packing and we didn’t prepare for the worst. Thinking the weather will clear up is one thing but not preparing for if it doesn’t puts everyone involved at risk.

3) Be organized. This is one thing I can say I did well, and Phil didn’t understand until we were packing up camp early in the morning. I was super anal retentive about putting things away and having only two spots where things were allowed to be: in the tent or by the drybox near the fire pit. ‘Wow, it’s really hard to make sure you remember everything in the dark.’ It sure is. Horray for doing part of this trip correctly.

4) Know when to tap out. Before beginning Knife’s Edge, there is a point at which you can make a decision to go down the mountain at Pamola Peak or do the additional several mile hike on Knife’s Edge to the summit of Katahdin. Phil asked me what I wanted to do. I never turn down what I think is an opportunity so I said “Let’s do it.” This may have been one of the stupidest things I ever said. The conditions sucked. We were tired. I pushed us too hard and I still feel bad about it. Thankfully everything turned out well but saying ‘no’ would have been smarter.

There is a fine line between being optimisticly brave and being naively dumb and I know what side I was on. Please enjoy a challenge but be careful, especially when there are other people involved. I certainly will be!

Nicole Ouellette
Nicole runs Breaking Even Communications, an internet marketing company in Bar Harbor Maine. When she's not online, she enjoys walking her short dog, cooking with bacon, and trying to be outdoorsy in Acadia National Park.

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