Living On The Edge! Katahdin’s Knife Edge and More…

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Treebeard traversing the Knife Edge after completing his AT thru-hike.

If you are looking for one of the most spectacularly beautiful hikes in the Northeast, you should add Mt. Katahdin and the Knife Edge to your bucket list… but I have to warn you, it’s also one of the most rocky, brutal, and exposed hikes in New England. When I finished my Appalachian Trail thru-hike on the summit of Mt. Katahdin on October 4, 2013 I looked around and realized that the AT was missing some of the best parts of Katahdin and I knew that I’d be back. This summer (2015), after hiking all of the trails up Mt. Katahdin except for the Abol Trail (currently closed for repairs), I’ve finally decided on my favorite Mt. Katahdin day-hike, a hike that contains two of Maine’s official 4000 footers:

The view hiking up the Hamlin Ridge Trail 

Katahdin- Knife Edge Loop (Hamlin, Baxter, and Pamola Peaks)

    • Date: August 16, 2015 (Sunday)
    • Peaks: Hamlin Peak (4756 ft, official 4000 footer), Baxter Peak (5268 ft, official 4000 footer, AT terminus), South Peak (In the Middle of the Knife Edge), and Pamola Peak (4919 ft)
    • Parking: Roaring Brook Day-Use Parking Area (pit-toilet, ranger station sign-in with current weather report, no potable water). The roads into Baxter State Park are gated at night and open for Day-Use at 6 am. Parking is limited within the park, and spots may be reserved up to 4 months in advance. A small number of spots (5 for Roaring Brook) are available on a first-come, first-serve basis. Prepare to get up early and wait in line at the gate if you are hoping to get one of the first-come, first-served spots, and have a back-up plan for enjoying one of Baxter’s other peaks, like North Brother, if the lots for Katahdin are full.
    • Conditions: Extreme Heat Warning! temps in the 90’s. 5-10 mph winds with gusts up to 20 mph
    • Total Mileage: 11.3 miles
      • Chimney Pond Trail- 3.0 miles. 0.2 miles to Helon Taylor Junction, 2.1 miles to North Basin Cut-off (originally planned to take cut-off, but water sources at junction were dry), 0.7 miles to North Basin Trail. Trail followed along roaring brook, below treeline with occasional views; rocky with constant, but relatively easy grade; crowded despite early (6:45 am start).
      • North Basin Trail- 0.4 miles. Large boulders,  below treeline (shaded), no water, no people
      • Hamlin Ridge Trail- 1.3 miles. First 0.2 miles below treeline; trail is rocky, with large boulders, rising steeply along the fin of the ridge to Hamlin Peak. Awesome views of Baxter Peak, the Knife Edge, and the North Peaks throughout; I didn’t encounter any people on this trail. (I’ve hiked all of the trails to Katahdin’s summit except the Abol Trail, and found the ascent up the Hamlin Ridge Trail the easiest)
      • Caribou Springs Trail- 0.2 miles. Rock-hopping from summit down to saddle, above treeline the whole way. Small clear spring located just off trail to the right as you descend and intersect with saddle the Northwest Basin Trail. Encountered 2 backpackers and 1 hiker while breaking for lunch at the spring. The spring was still freely flowing in late August.
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      • Northwest Basin Trail- 0.9 miles. easy rock-hoping along ridge, above treeline, no people.
      • Saddle Trail- 1.0 miles. Slow and steady climb to Baxter summit, droves of people, some rock-hopping, some loose gravel, many false summits. Exposed with gorgeous views. Intersections with cathedral cutoff (0.5 miles), and later Cathedral Trail provide welcome evidence of progress along ridge
      • Knife Edge Trail- 1.1 miles. Put your trekking poles away, you will need both hands and both feet to climb up and over boulders, rocky slabs, and fins. Do not attempt in wet weather or with approaching thunderstorms. Not recommended for folks with full packs. Not recommended for those with fear of heights. Very exposed, and awesome!
      • Helon Taylor Trail- 3.2 miles. Above treeline for the first 1.2 miles. Large Boulders and moderate to steep decline for the first ~2 miles. Large stream with good flow ~1.8 miles down. Final miles fairly easy going.
      • Chimney Pond Trail- 0.2 miles. I took a break back at Roaring Pond and then finished off the rocky, but easy last 0.2 miles to the parking lot.
    • Total Duration: 10 hrs, 15 minutes: 6:45 am – 5:00 pm (1 hr break at Caribou Springs, 2 hr break at Baxter summit, 45 minutes at Avalanche Brook)
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Mt. Katahdin at dawn as seen from Roaring Brook Road

Unlike most trailheads in the Northeast, the parking within Baxter State Park in extremely regulated, and you’re supposed to reserve your parking spot in advance (up to 4 months in advance). I was not that organized, so I was hoping to get one of the 5 first-come, first-serve parking spots in the lot at Roaring Brook. I’d heard rumors about people getting in line as early as 3:30 in the morning in the hopes of getting a spot but that was too early for me so I decided that I’d get up when I got up, and figured I’d take my chances!

I ended up waking up fairly early, just before 5 am, so I hoped I might actually stand a chance. Still in my pajamas I crawled out of my sleeping bag, rolled into my car, and drove over to the Togue Pond Gatehouse where the road into Baxter State Park was literally gated off. When I got there at 5:15 am there were already three cars in line (the people in the first car said they got there at 4 am), and by 5:30 am there were at least 10 cars in the line behind me. When the rangers finally arrived to open the park at 6 am the line of cars behind me stretched down the road, around the corner, and out of sight… It probably contained upwards of 60 cars, and 4 of the first 6 cars were hoping for the first-come, first-serve parking spots at Katahdin’s main trailhead! Although the rangers tell you to get there by six for the first-come first-served spots, on most popular days the folks arriving at six are already too late.

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Taking a break to look back at the trail I’d just climbed along Hamlin Ridge.

By 6:10 am I’d filled out the paperwork for my spot and I headed down the dirt road towards the main trailhead. I was tired, but excited… The drive down the dirt road to the parking area felt like it took forever, but eventually I joined dozens of other cars at the lot, packed my bag, and by 6:45 am I was on the trail and headed off on my adventure!

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The first part of my hike (the Chimney Pond Trail) was crowded with dayhikers, backpackers, scout groups, and camp groups, but as soon as I turned onto North Basin Trail I had the mountain to myself… I enjoy interacting with other hikers, but there’s something about being in the woods alone that I’ve grown to love. I reveled in the solitude and the joy of only interacting with the rocks, roots, earth, and sky… The going was rocky, but before long I’d turned onto the Hamlin Ridge Trail, and by ~8:30 in the morning I’d popped up above treeline where I would stay until ~4:30 that the afternoon.

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Looking up the Hamlin Ridge Trail towards Hamlin Peak.

As I hiked I marveled at how lucky I was… the weather was picture perfect and I could see both Hamlin and Baxter Peaks rising ahead of me, with the Knife Edge in silhouette off to my left… If I looked very carefully I could see the ant-like people scurrying across the top of it’s ridge. It looked truly impressive!

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Looking over at the Knife Edge from Hamlin RIdge Trail

When I reached Hamlin Peak I had the summit all to myself… The rocky alpine meadow up there was still  intact and seemed to stretch almost endlessly in every direction. “This is how the other summits should look…” I thought contemplatively and almost mournfully. Here, at the summit of Hamlin Peak, there was almost no sign of the erosion damage that is so pervasive on almost every other alpine peak in New England… There haven’t been enough travelers to trample the meadow and damage it’s fragile ecosystem (yet)… I found my irritation with Baxter State Park’s rules, gates, and lines beginning to melt away… “There need to be places like this, places where the foot traffic is limited, and some semblance of the native alpine environments exist,” I thought as I enjoyed the privilege of being there… It was beautiful and it was wild, and I hoped it would stay that way!

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As I lingered at the summit I noticed the sign for ‘Caribou Spring.’ Was it really possible that there was a spring up here above treeline on one of Katahdin’s flanks and that I was going to be hiking right past it? It was late August in the middle of a mountain heat wave, and the thought of getting to top off my water bottles before continuing my hike across the exposed ridgeline to Katahdin’s Baxter Peak was more than a little bit appealing! I was skeptical though, in late August a lot of New England’s mountain water sources go dry…

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The quiet of the mountains stayed with me as I continued towards the spring… I could see the crowds on the Saddle Trail headed towards the summit of Baxter Peak, but they were over a mile away. I lingered on my peaceful mountaintop trail, enjoying the solitude while it lasted.

When I got to the trail junction and looked around sure enough there was the little spring burbling away. I decided to sit there a while, eat my lunch, and top off all of my water bottles. It was hot and I still had a very long day ahead of me! While lingering there for lunch I encountered the only three people that I’d see on the trails around Hamlin Peak.

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On the Northwest Basin Trail looking at the cloud enveloping the summit of Katahdin.

The difference in the number of people hiking on the Northwest Basin Trail along Katahdin’s ridgeline and the Saddle Trail was stunningly impressive… I had the Northwest Basin Trail all to myself, but I could clearly see a constant stream of people ascending and descending the Saddle Trail… I felt no need to hurry as I picked my way through the rocks… I’d get there soon enough, and no matter how many people I encountered, Katahdin’s majesty wouldn’t be diminished… The mountain and its ridgelines were breathtaking!

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On the Saddle Trail looking back towards Hamlin Peak and North Brother.

I’d forgotten how rocky Katahdin’s trails are… They look so beautiful and well defined, that I’d somehow thought of them as being like the trails along Franconia Ridge, which almost feel like the gravel trails you’d find in a well-groomed park, but in truth they are much more like the rock-hopping trails that you find near Mt. Washington’s summit… beautiful, but definitely knee-busters…

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On the Saddle Trail looking back at Hamlin Peak and North Brother

As I slowly, but steadily climbed the Saddle Trail I met and passed many of the same scouts and campers that I’d seen earlier in the day (back on the Chimney Pond Trail), and we cheered each other on. Sure, the solitude I’d been enjoying earlier was gone, but it was replaced by a sense of community and comraderie that was special in a different way.

“Is there an easy way down?” asked a bedraggled couple just beginning their descent and looking like the heat was getting to them. “Well,” I thought, “I think the Saddle Trail down to Chimney Pond is your best bet if your car is at Roaring Brook.” They looked at me and moaned, “That’s the way we came up!” They were radiating a sense of misery and defeat, that knew very well… I’ve been there before.

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“Do you guys have a map? How are you doing on food and water?” I asked and encouraged them to step to the side of the trail for a minute. They didn’t have a map, so I took a break and showed them mine… It was their first time up Katahdin and it was a heftier climb than they’d expected, and the weather was a lot hotter than they’d anticipated as well. “I think we have enough water to get back to Chimney Pond,” they replied, “but we’re out of food.” I nodded, dug around in my pack and gave them the extra granola bars and packets of Oreo Cookies I had. “Thanks!” they exclaimed digging into the Oreo Cookies right away. “No problem, I always carry extra,” I assured them as we parted ways.

Approaching Baxter Peak on Katahdin all I could think about was the last time I’d been here… I didn’t notice the crowds of dayhikers swarming around me at the summit. I was lost in memories of my 2013 Appalachian Trail thru-hike…

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Standing at the summit of Katahdin in 2013 at the end of my AT thru-hike

Memories of my thru-hike, memories of the amazing adventures I’d had, and the incredibly people I’d met… Memories of the crew I’d celebrated with on summit of Katahdin in 2013, and grief over the loss of Shady, who I’d last seen here at this summit. I retreated to the rocks where our group had huddled for warmth two years ago on that day in 2013, and had a moment of silence for Shady… Remembering not just the grief of loss, but the joy of the times we’d shared…

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The crew I celebrated with in 2013

While we’d huddled in this spot in 2013, Shady, with his ever adventurous spirit, had decided that finishing the AT and summiting Katahdin wasn’t enough, so he’d done a quick hike across the Knife Edge to Pamola Peak and back again. Remembering that brought a smile to my face… there was no denying that Shady was a Bada** Ranger with a heart of gold!

I slowly returned from my reverie and looked around… I was surrounded by day-hikers… There were at least 50 of them, but there was no sign of any thru-hikers, but wait… wait… “That’s totally a thru-hiker,” I thought in the second before I recognized him… “Treebeard!” I exclaimed realizing that it was the thru-hiker that had camped with me at Abol Pines Campground the night before. “Congratulations!”

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Treebeard celebrating amongst the crowds at the summit of Mt. Katahdin

“Are there any other thru-hikers around?” I asked. “I haven’t seen any,” he shrugged in reply. When I’d summitted early on an October morning in 2013 the people at the summit were almost exclusively thru-hikers, I couldn’t imagine what it would have felt like to finish my thru-hike without any other thru-hikers or friends and family around… “Could you take some summit pictures for me?” he asked. “Of course,” I replied enthusiastically… I’d wished I’d taken more fun and creative summit photos at the end of my AT journey, so I was more than happy to help Treebeard get the photos he wanted!

OMG, it was a zoo up there! Absolutely everybody wanted to get pictures with the sign at the summit of Mt. Katahdin… there was a disorganized line, and people were either calmly waiting their turn, or pushing their way to the sign and taking their photos oblivious of everyone else… We waited in line and eventually got to take a series of photos, some funny, some serious, and some with me joking with the crowd about thru-hiker modeling,”Work It! Work It!” I yelled laughing and snapping photos…

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Eventually Treebeard got all of the summit photos he wanted and we prepared to set off. Since he and I were both planning on descending via the Knife Edge we decided to head of together. Nowadays I don’t get to hang out with fellow thru-hikers very often, so it was nice to get to relax into thru-hiker mode for a bit… From the summit the Knife Edge looked pretty intense, and I have to admit that I didn’t mind the idea of hiking it with another person instead of hiking it solo!

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Looking out across the Knife Edge from the summit of Katahdin

Though I’ve hiked the Knife Edge before, I was surprised by how crazy, rugged, and awesome it was… I don’t know of any other trails in New England that are quite like it! As Treebeard and I slowly made our way across it we were constantly amazed by both the beauty of the ravines falling off to either side of us, and at the path that the trail took across the ridge.

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Preparing to cross the Knife’s Edge

We were lucky that we had perfect weather crossing the ridge, and as we crossed we could see the people scurrying along it’s edge almost a mile away… “Wow!” I kept thinking, “just wow!” Since Treebeard is a 2015 thru-hiker and I’m a 2013 thru-hiker I figured he’d outpace me and be on his way before long, but we ended up crossing the whole Knife Edge together… The fact that he’d hiked 20+ miles to get there and was doing the Knife Edge with a full pack probably slowed him down a bit ;)

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Treebeard stopping to look back at the Knife Edge trail winding it’s way down from Mt. Katahdin

“There’s nothing like this on the AT,” Treebeard exclaimed as we bouldered across the ridge and skirted narrow rock ledges. I absolutely agreed, but it felt kind of nice having someone who had just hiked the entire AT that summer put words to that feeling! As we threaded our way through Katahdin’s rocks we talked about our thru-hikes and some of our experiences on the trail in the lazy off-hand sort of way that sometimes comes with having lived through similar, but different, extreme circumstances.

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We took it slow, taking pictures, and taking care with our footing… We’d both had long days and it didn’t seem like it was worth risking injury to rush through the Knife Edge. Nobody else seemed to be in a big rush either.

After spending a full day rock-hopping on Katahdin, I was feeling pretty confident with my balance and foot placements as we went across, but I was incredibly glad that I wasn’t carrying a full pack, and that I wasn’t wearing thru-hiker shoes (by the time thru-hikers get to Katahdin their shoes are usually falling apart). Treebeard seemed to be handling it with not problem, but admitted he wasn’t sure that he’d recommend that other thru-hikers go this way. “Actually, I talked to the ranger about it this morning,” he confessed, “and he said that they don’t recommend this to the thru-hikers…” He paused, “I can see why!”

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It turned out that the most challenging portion of the Knife Edge for us came at the very end. It was a steep descent down a slightly jagged rock-face right before we got to Pamola Peak. As Treebeard and I approached we saw a group of people staggered at different spots, unable to figure out how they were going to get down, but confident that there was no good way.

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The first section of the descent didn’t seem so bad and Treebeard and I quickly passed everyone, but I have to admit, we were a bit stymied by the final section… No matter which way we looked it didn’t seem good. Treebeard went down the way we’d seen a couple of people ahead of us go, but seemed to struggle with it, so I looked for an alternative. “Sh**,” an expletive floated up from down below as Treebeard almost pealed off of the rocks. “Nope,” I’m definitely not going that way I decided as I looked for a safer way to meet him at the bottom. Eventually I found a way that worked better for me, but it still involved one slightly risky move…

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The last descent along the Knife Edge (look closely and see the people in the process of descending… I blew up that section for the next photo)

At the bottom Treebeard and I looked back at it, “Is this worse than Mahoosuk Notch?” I asked. The Mahoosuk Notch is infamously the hardest mile on the AT… It’s not as exposed as the Knife Edge, and certainly doesn’t have the same kind of spectacular views, but crossing it during my thru-hike had definitely seemed like a death-defying act. “Yup,” he replied, “worse than the Notch!”

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Standing on Pamola Peak and looking back at the Knife Edge we’d just crossed Katahdin seemed like a mammoth of an awesome mountain… It felt strangely bittersweet though… All day as I hiked I’d had amazing things to look forward to, first Hamlin Peak, then Baxter, then the Knife Edge, but now the next stop was the parking lot… I didn’t want to be leaving Katahdin… I didn’t want to be leaving Baxter State Park… I wanted to stay up there above treeline soaking it all in, at least until sunset and the light went away.

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Unfortunately, better sense prevailed… I’d been up since ~4:30 that morning, and had been baking in the sun above treeline since 8:30 that morning… It wouldn’t be smart to stay up there and I knew it, so I slowly began my descent down the Helon Taylor Trail. As we descended into the shadow of Katahdin we remained above treeline, but dropped out of the wind… Suddenly it was oppressively hot… It had been abnormally hot all day, but the temperatures were at their hottest now, and peaking into the 90’s even on the mountain.

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The rock-hopping that had been fun just moments before began to get tedious… did every step really have to be this rocky? And though the views were still impressive, I began to long for shade… Shade that I knew wouldn’t come until I was within 2 miles of the end of my hike. As I continued to descend I noticed that I was getting unreasonable irritated every time the trail decided that the best route involved me dropping down 3+ feet in one step.

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“Hey Treebeard, I’m going to have to stop for a snack and for some water,” I said as soon as we dropped below treeline and I noticed a bit of shade. “Ok,” he replied, “I think I’m going to keep going.” We exchanged contact information and headed our separate ways. It had been nice to hike with someone for a while. It was also nice that in true thru-hiker style there wasn’t any pretense or hurt feelings when we decided to part ways again when our needs differed.

I sat in the shade, taking a leisurely break, eating a snack, and double checking my water reserves… I had about a liter and a half left… “Wow, I’ve been going through a lot of water!” I thought. I’d started up the Hamlin Ridge Trail with 5L of water, and had topped off my water with another 2L at caribou Springs… It’s really unusual for me to go through 5+ liters of water on a hike, but it had been a long day, with temps in the 90’s, and a lot of sun exposure.

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After eating my snack I felt energized and starting dancing down the rocks like I used to as a thru-hiker… Since I was down below treeline I could focus entirely on the rocks, roots, and finding the best foot placements amongst them… It was a weird sort of fun, but I enjoyed it. As I booked it down the mountain I passed a couple of guys that were looking truly miserable. “Are you guys ok?” I asked. The first one nodded his head, but the other one said, “We’re out of water, do you have an extra?”

My answer was unfortunately yes and no… Given the conditions, I was figuring that I needed a full liter of water to get back to the parking lot, so all I could give them was 1/2L to share. They took it gratefully, but I knew it wasn’t enough :-/ I looked at my map and it showed a stream crossing the trail in about 1/2 mile… “Do you have any water filtration or treatment stuff?” I asked them. “No,” they responded sadly. “Well, when we get down there if the stream exists, maybe I treat some for you?” I offered.

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Hiking down towards the stream our paces were very different, and I was way way ahead of them within moments. The rocky downhill seemed to go on forever, but eventually I got to the branch of Avalanche Brook that crossed the trail  and happily discovered that it was running strongly. It takes 15-20 minutes to chemically treat drinking water using my system, so I immediately starting preparing one of my one liter bottles for the guys coming behind me knowing that they were far thirstier than I.

I set a timer for 15 minutes to make sure that the water would be all set before giving it to them and decided I might as well prepare some extra water for me while I waited for them to show up. I waited for them until the alarm went off and then started wondering if they were ok, or if I should just leave the water bottle in the trail for them or… Eventually I decided I would backtrack just a little bit to look for them.

Luckily I found them almost immediately. They were not having any fun at all. When they saw me they sunk down onto a rock and gratefully accepted the water. “We were beginning to think we might die out here,” one of them panted. I looked them over. They weren’t showing obvious signs of heat stroke or heat exhaustion, but given the conditions it’s possible that they weren’t far off. “Do you guys have some water bottles?” I asked. “I could treat some water for you. You’ll have to wait 15 minutes to drink it, but after that it’ll be good.”

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It didn’t take much convincing, and I filled up 2 more water bottles for them for their descent, explaining the process of treating the water as I went along. I ended up spending a half hour or so with them and gave them the last of my oreo cookies and topped off their water bottles before heading off. “Thank you sooo much!,” they exclaimed, looking much better as I prepared to head off. “No worries,” I replied, “It ends up happening to everyone at some point, I’ve certainly been there! I’m glad I could help!”

After taking that break I felt rejuvinated and zipped down the rest of the trail, completing my loop at the Chimney Pond Trail with a quick jump into Roaring Brook… I didn’t want the hike to be over because it had been so beautiful, but I have to admit that the air conditioning in my car was sounding mighty appealing at that moment… Civilization does have its perks!

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P.S. When I checked out at the ranger station I told the ranger that there were a couple of guys that had been struggling on the Helon Taylor Trail, explained the situation and comments I’d heard from hikers that passed them after I left them… I figured they’d be fine, but I wanted to make sure that if they didn’t get back in the next couple of hours that the rangers would know where they were and go looking for them.

Treebeard standing at the top of Pamola Peak

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4 thoughts on “Living On The Edge! Katahdin’s Knife Edge and More…

  1. Wow great post! It’s admirable how you gave away your food and water to those less prepared. It’s nice to see that a seasoned thru hiker like you treats the weekend warriors with the same respect as a fellow thru hiker! I’d like to say I’d do the same but I’m not so sure.

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  2. I plan to go to Baxter in August or September and do the Helon Taylor trail to knifesedge. The only part I am worried about is the Chimney mainly because I am only 5’4″ tall. Do you think it’s easier going up than down? I would even hire a guide if that exists up there! What are your thoughts?

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    • I definitely think it’s easier to go up the chimney than down it. You’ll probably find that you’ll choose slightly different hand/foot placements than people with greater reach, don’t let them rush you. My mom is 5’5 and she’s successfully navigated the knife edge. If you end up wanting a guide I can ask around and see if my friends in the area have any recommendations. It’s a beautiful hike! I hope you enjoy it :)

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