An epic final day, summitting Katahdin and rescuing a stranded hiker.
My alarm woke me at 5am and I set about getting ready in the dark using my phone light as usual. I knew I would be starting the hike in the dark so last night I had put my headtorch in the tent pocket to be handy, not a place it not normally resides. After hiking for several months you can’t help but develop incredibly refined habits and practices to be efficient. So my brain forgot the torch was in the tent as that required conscious thought not really possible at 5am. After completely packing up my tent I soon remembered. Sigh. I took all my gear over to the picnic pavilions to save further disturbance to Mercury and Minion (Stefan was already up and packing) and spent 15 minutes finding the darn torch in a comedic scene with the tent literally draped over my head and shoulders. By the time I was ready it was 5:50am and I set off. 10 minutes later it was light enough to stash my torch in a pocket. Hilarious.
The first mile of the 5 is super easy in the forest. The incline gradually increases until 2.8 miles in when you break above treeline and it becomes exposed technical climbing. I reached this point at 7:30 and marvelled at the incredible views that are quite literally left, right and centre.
Now it was time to collapse the trekking poles and stash them in my pack. The next 0.7 miles could simply be described as “the difficult bit”. It’s a bit like Mahoosuc Notch, only vertical. Several sections use rebar (metal staples) to assist you and it’s best not to look out or down at any time. Trying to forget the consequences of falling I actually enjoyed the challenge at times and made good progress. I would not want to do this section if it was wet. Here is a comment on this section from a user of the Guthook app.
After 3.5 miles I reached The Gateway when the trail flattens somewhat as it crosses The Tablelands for the final 1.6 miles, a rocky climb along a knife edge-like spine but it’s not dangerous in dry weather.
We agreed that was the hardest two-mile section on the AT but now we could see the famous sign on Baxter Peak and we motored along the final stretch. Finally, at 9:20 on Day 180, after 2189.1 miles, I had reached the summit and the end of the trail.
Although it was a clear and sunny day the wind at the summit was strong and cold and after 45 minutes I was losing the feeling in my face so decided to say goodbye to Stefan and head back down. I returned to The Gateway, now passing hikers on their way up every few minutes, and took a left to take the Abol Trail.
The initial descent was only slightly easier than the Hunt Trail and I made sure to take my time and concentrate on every step. Mercury had slipped on a gravelly bit and cut up his leg and indeed those nice-looking parts were really deceptively treacherous. After 30 minutes a group of 3 or 4 people crossed me, coming up, and one man told me they’d left one of their group lower down who had decided not to continue and were hoping “a crew” would be coming down that could escort her down. They said they were staying at Daicey Pond campsite which was not where I was headed – I didn’t know if the Abol Trail branched at some point. The whole interaction was weird for several reasons, not least that no-one else would likely be down from Baxter Peak for a long time as I was coming down so early (two other people coming up couldn’t believe I had already summited). Anyway, they were joking about my accent and laughing so I didn’t pay any of it much attention and continued down.
It was only about 10 minutes later that I found a lady sitting on a boulder who asked me if I could help her. She was having a minor anxiety attack and couldn’t face going either up or down. Tired legs and a loss of confidence had stranded her. Actually, her group (of cousins, I found out later) had stranded her. One of the rules of hiking is, “start as a group, finish as a group” but they clearly hadn’t read the rulebook. I said of course I would help and she asked if I had much experience. Smiling inwardly I replied, “I’ve never hiked this trail…but I did just complete the 2200 mile Appalachian Trail.”
This was sufficiently comforting so I carried her trekking poles (we were still some way away from tree line so they wouldn’t be useful for a while) and we set off, carefully descending one step and handhold at a time. I showed her some technical tips to hike safer and stayed right in front to catch her if she slipped or fell. But she was a good hiker, she just needed some help and confidence and to take her time, not always possible in a group.
I noticed that it was about an hour after I met Lydia that another hiker came down so she could have been stuck there for a long time if I hadn’t come by. Once we got below treeline and could actually walk we were able to chat and relax more and we had a fun time together. At one point we passed a trail crew (most of the trail is new after being re-routed this summer due to a landslide) who told us they were relieved a helicopter was bringing water to their base camp as they are here for 18 days.
We reached Abol Campground at 1:30pm and both used the outhouse with much relief. I still had to walk 2 miles back to Katahdin Stream Campground to get my pack and the only shuttle into the nearest town, Millinocket, which would leave at 3pm. But for a short while I hung out with her at the ranger station on some comfortable chairs and both of us enjoyed being done with our hikes. Lydia was a delightful hiking companion, it was an absolute pleasure to spend time with her and in many ways I’d found this episode more satisfying and meaningful than my earlier summit. (Also, being called a hero isn’t exactly unpleasant!)
Part way along the dirt road back to Katahdin a lady drove by and offered me a ride. She was on her way to meet her husband who had hiked the AT after leaving the military as part of the Warrior Hikes program. They would be seeing each other for the first time since March. This is a day and a place that regularly sees momentous stories.
I sorted out my pack, got the shuttle into Millinocket and checked into the Katahdin Inn motel. I took a pizza and a 6-pack of beer back to my room, put my feet up and reflected on the end of this adventure.
I hadn’t found the meaning of life, the universe and everything on this 16th September (I haven’t forgotten: 42) but I feel greatly enriched by the experience and highly privileged to have been able to embark and eventually complete the whole trail. It wasn’t exactly easy. I tried my very best to complete as pure a hike as possible.
I may even have learnt a few new things. I know that a “can do” attitude isn’t enough on this trail; you need a “will do” attitude. And while some people say that hiking the Appalachian Trail builds character, it does not. Hiking the Appalachian Trail reveals character.
I met some wonderful and inspirational people on this hike, both hikers and people around the trail. I found much to be encouraged by in many young Americans. Most people are kind, helpful, humble, generous and supportive. Maybe the AT, and the hiking community in general, has a higher concentration of such people but I doubt it. I think the trail just gives people the right situation to be able to express these qualities that exist in most.
I won’t do it again but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.