Sunday, August 21, 2011

Top of the world, far from it; top of Maine, definitely so.

13th August 2011

4 a.m
We woke up early that day. In spite of the long, tiring drive the previous night, we didn’t have a choice in this matter. Climbing Mt. Katahdin and traversing Knife Edge was our only aim.

Katahdin is located in Baxter State Park and is the highest mountain in Maine. The most famous hike to the summit goes along Knife Edge, which traverses the ridge between Pamola Peak and Baxter Peak. The mountain has claimed 19 lives since 1963, mostly from exposure to bad weather and falls from the Knife Edge. For about 0.3 miles the trail is 3 feet wide, with a drop off on either side. Not surprising, the Knife Edge is closed during periods of high wind. [Courtesy Wiki]

Owing to the popularity, danger and availability of parking spots, the rangers place a restriction on the number of climbers, rather, the number of cars they let through to the trail head. There was one member in our group who had been here before and had to turn back because he was too late. This time neither he nor the others wanted to miss their chance. The drive was way too long to go back disappointed.

We were at the check post by 5 a.m. 11 of us, in 2 sedans and a minivan. There was already a long queue of cars ahead of us. The Roaring Brook trailhead had roughy 25 parking spots, most of which may have been reserved in advance. We were early, but were we early enough?

It was close to 6 when we reached the head of the queue. The ranger noted our license plate numbers down and asked us to head to a waiting lane. We could proceed to the trailhead shortly after 7, provided there were enough spots. As it turned out most of the cars in front were either heading to a different trail or had a reservation; and, at the waiting lane there were just 2 other cars in front of us. We might just turn out to be lucky.

7:10 a.m
The trail head was 8 miles from the check post. My car was almost out of fuel. So we decided to leave it in the parking area. The 11 of us would proceed in the minivan and the remaining sedan.

We started the long climb up at quarter to eight. The idea was to go up the 3.2 mile Helon Taylor trail, climb Pamola peak, and traverse the Knife Edge (1.1 miles) to summit the 5267 feet Baxter Peak. After spending some time at the peak refreshing our wearied selves in both body and soul, we would descend 1.7 miles along the Cathedral trail to reach Chimney Pond and then hike 3.3 miles on the Chimney Pond trail to the parking lot. As plans always go, this didn’t work out; might I add, fortunately.

After signing the log, we followed the signs to the Helon Taylor trail. We had read that coming down this trail is not recommended as it is long, relentless, unforgiving on the knees and never seems to end. Take it down (up, rather) when you are fresh, suggested many blogposts.

There seemed to be no diversion in the trail. We followed the markers all the way up to Chimney pond. We had reached our planned last leg of the hike. We had missed a turn somewhere; where, we didn’t know. We had just completed the Chimney Pond trail, a very easy hike compared to what was to follow. As one blogger puts it, this is “a nature walk on the difficulty scale”. One of the options we had now was to go up the Cathedral trail. The Saddle trail would have been an easier option, but probably not as exciting.
Chimney pond
Cathedral Trail
This is the most direct route from the base of Katahdin to the summit; and, “direct” means “straight up”. 1.7 miles of what I would call Class 3.5 scrambling (YDS Scale). This was the toughest climb I have ever done.

I was scrambling at a pace that was not physically exhausting. Nevertheless, the climb was a technical challenge. There were a couple of spots where I had a difficulty finding handholds and footholds to negotiate huge boulders. Here, I needed help from a co-climber; and, for the first time in around ten years I wished I were a couple of inches taller.

Climbing up I realized that we were probably fortunate that we missed the turn to the Helon Taylor trail. Coming down the Cathedral would have been a tough proposition. As we later heard from a ranger that would have been a very foolish choice of a descent trail.
A relatively easier section on Cathedral trail. Knife edge can be seen beyond the rocks.
The forecast was for rain later in the day. We wanted to traverse the Knife Edge before the rain hit hard. So, though we took a few short breaks during the climb, we were trying to keep them to a minimum. It was during one of these breaks that we came across a black charred spot on one of the rocks. It was the mark of a lightning strike. If that didn’t hasten our climb, then nothing would have.
A couch-like rock provided a perfected resting place halfway up Cathedral. This view beholds one looking north-east from the rock.
After 4 ½ hours, I made it to the top. Baxter Peak is the highest point in Maine and is also the northern terminus of the 2181-mile long Appalachian Trail. 2 others from the group had reached moments before and 2 more joined us a few minutes later. There was a slight drizzle in the air, but the sun was still out. We had a reasonably clear view from atop the peak in all directions. We spent roughly half an hour at the top, taking pictures and filling up. A fellow hiker was juggling on top entertaining the tired crowd. The juggling pins would total to just a couple of pounds in weight; but, for what joy would someone carry that extra burden, I have no clue.
Looking down from Baxter peak
Among the five of us, two had run out of water, one had half a liter of gatorade and between one other and myself we probably had a liter and a half of water. It would take us 3-4 hours to get to the base. That’s not enough water but if we stuck together we would probably make it. There was a slight drizzle in the air, but if we pushed ourselves we could get across Knife Edge before it started to pour.

Knife Edge
Some say, unless you traverse this ridge, you can’t really claim that you have climbed Katahdin. However, do remember it can be dangerous. Yes, you have to be crazy to even attempt crossing this trail; but, the outstanding view makes it worth it to ignore your fear.

Yet, ignore your better judgement at your own risk. Keep an eye on the weather. High winds or inclement weather can be deadly considering that the trail is very narrow in places with steep slopes on either side. Once you make the decision to cross, there is no way off. If you are doubtful (not afraid alone) take the Saddle trail back to base.
Knife Edge (in the shadows)
The Knife Edge requires a lot of scrambling using all four limbs for support. Technically, though, it is tough only as you descend into the chimney before Pamola peak. Here, one has to be careful, moving down one limb at a time. Once down, the established trail climbs up the Pamola peak, back down and then joins the Helen Taylor trail.

Here, we took the risk of bypassing the peak. We decided to go around it and merge with the trail on the other side.It was a risky choice since the side of the peak is littered with loose boulders and one has to very careful taking the next step. Alone, I would never have taken this decision. Sense of direction is probably one of my weaker faculties and thus, I always prefer to follow the trail markers.

Yet, it saved us some time and energy, both important considering our water shortage. Soon, we were greeted by the familiar blue patch of paint on the rocks. We had merged with the trail. Imagine my relief.

Helon Taylor Trail
The seven color welcome at the top of Helon Taylor
We had merged with the Helon Taylor trail. We had read that the remaining leg was going to be long and relentless. But, we were out of water and gatorade to refresh ourselves. 3 miles to go; no water. “Are we there yet?”, was a question that popped up frequently enough.

Halfway down, we found a stream. A team of hikers following us had a pump filter. We used that to fill our bottles up. Filtering is important to avoid the risk of diarrhea. Giardia lamblia and Cryptosporidium are common pathogens. In backcountry areas of the US and Canada they are sometimes present in sufficient quantity that water treatment is justified for backpackers. [Courtesy Wiki]

Having drunk to our fill and fully refreshed we doubled up, rushing back to base. 9 hours after we started the climb, we were back. 2 of the faster hikers in our group were already there. They had been waiting for us for 2 hours. I drifted off to sleep waiting for the remaining hikers in our group. Closer to eight with the daylight fading fast, the group was complete. Fortunately, the weather had held up and the forecasted rain never came. One last photo and we were hurtling back towards Troy, the long 475-mile drive.

Without doubt, this is my best hike to date, one I would have loathed to miss. If you don’t have a fear of heights or if you would like to conquer your acrophobia, this is one hike you should definitely try.


  1. Sreejith, yes it was. 2 weeks now and I still feel the jitters.

    Arun, thank you :)

  2. Came across your blog today and loved reading this and other posts. Great pictures, especially loved the one from Helon Taylor. It must have been quite an experience.

  3. Thank you for your vote of confidence. Really appreciate it.
    Weather gods were good on us that day. Good climb, great views and a rainbow finale.

  4. you have described in words the hike as brilliantly as the photos do... u r trekking a lot btw :)

  5. mp... thanks. it was a wonderful hike. words won't do justice to it, though.
    it was summer. hiking at the expense of work. hope my boss doesn't land here by any chance :)