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:
I had no idea what awaited me as I kayaked down the West Branch of the Penobscot River towards my campsite at Abol Pines… I thought that I was headed for a relaxing day of still water, and class II (novice) whitewater… If I’d had the slightest clue that I was headed towards ledges, waterfalls, and class IV (advanced) rapids with my collapsable ORU kayak, I would have turned around and run the other way… Instead, I was happily, if somewhat cautiously paddling downriver from Big Eddy, and looking forward to my newest adventure… (Check out “Real Kayakers Wear Skirts! Part 1: The Calm Before the Storm” for the back story)
Knowing what I know now, I would have made different decisions… I may be an expert hiker, but when it comes to kayaking I’m still a novice and I know it. There’s absolutely no way that I would have knowingly chosen to kayak through class IV (advanced) rapids in my origami kayak (Oru Kayak), never mind doing it alone, and without a spray skirt!! No way! So how is it that I ended up in way over my head on the West Branch of the Penobscot River, swimming through Big Ambejackmockamus Falls?
Champagne wasn’t the only thing that erupted as Scott Jurek celebrated his new Appalachian Trail speed record at the summit of Mt. Katahdin last week… The ongoing tensions between the long-distance hiking community and the Baxter State Park Authority erupted too…
New England’s 4000-footers showcase some of the most rugged trails and most spectacular views in the Northeast! So far, I’ve climbed 14/14 Maine 4000 footers, 35/48 New Hampshire 4000 footers, and 5/5 Vermont 4000 footers. As I continue hiking the peaks of the Northeast, I will post the links and pictures from my 4000 footer adventures here! If you have any questions about which mountains, trails, and hikes are my favorites, or if you have suggestions about additional information you’d like me to share, please leave a comment below!
Someone posted a link to Outside Magazine’s 10 most Dangerous Hikes on my Facebook Timeline a couple of weeks ago, which got me thinking about what my version of that list would look like. Weather and lack of preparation can combine to make almost any hike dangerous, but when The mountains are beautiful and amazing, but they should always be approached with respect, proper preparation, and a malleable plan so that you can adapt and deal with the unexpected. When I think back on the last 20 years of hiking and backpacking that I’ve done around the country and around the world there are a some hikes that stick out in my memory as having filled me with awe… Here is the list of my top 10 most awe-inspiring hikes:
1. The Daikiretto in the Japan Alps
I was awed by the heights, the exposure, the foreignness and the beauty of this trail. The Daikiretto in Japan is a climb along one of the most beautiful, most exposed, and most adrenaline-inducing knife edges in the world (from Mount Hotaka, 10,466′ to Mount Yari, 10,433′). Full of tough rock scrambles, skittering scree, precipitous drop-offs, rusty iron chains to grasp, and blasted footholds in sheer cliff faces, it manages to get everyone’s adrenaline pumping for the hours it takes to get from one side to the other. Accidentally kicking a rock and watching it go careening down thousands of feet reminds you that if you don’t respect the mountain and your position on it you’ll end up like one of the dozen or so hikers that die there each year.
2. The Bisse du Ro in Switzerland
I was awed by the heights, the exposure, and the history of this route. The Bisse du Ro carried water through the mountains to Crans-Montana from the 15th century until the 1940’s and was maintained by local villagers throughout that time. Crouching under the overhangs with nothing more than two wooden planks separating you from the sky is not for the weak at heart (they even have a sign posted to that effect at the beginning of the trail). Plaques commemorating both the people that died while maintaining the aquaduct and the people that died hiking it are inset along the cliff-face with dates ranging from the time it was constructed through the present, and provide a not so gentle reminder about why your adrenaline is pumping.
3. Crater Lake, Oregon.
I was awed by the solitude and the sheer volume of snow on my midwinter backpacking trip. Crater Lake in the Southern Cascades of Oregon gets an average of 44 feet of snow each year as it is transformed into a winter wonderland. Setting off into a world of white and shadows in the middle of a blizzard made me pause, our car sat alone in the parking lot, letting us know that we truly would have the park to ourselves as we set of into the expansive white nothingness. There was no trail, no road, no views, just white shadowy dunes of snow constantly shifting and sliding around us and transforming the world into a winter wonderland of it’s own design.
I was awed by the freshness of the mountain, still glowing red and venting ash, and the contrast between it and the surrounding glaciers. Eyjafjallajökull’s eruption, less than a year before I visited, had caught the world by surprise. Surrounded by ice and fire, hiking over such newly formed mountain was a truly incredible experience! Realizing at the end of the day that the soles of our shoes, the tips of our hiking poles, and in some cases even our packs had been singed or melted as we hiked added some sobering perspective. Retracing our steps on a night hike later that evening revealed that the trail was still glowing red hot in many places!
5. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
I was awed by the strangeness, the altitude, the beauty, and the people. At over 19,000 feet, the sheer altitude of Kilimanjaro sticking up out of the surrounding plains is awe-inspiring. Struggling for breath as you wander through her glaciers at dawn with everything sparkling from the ice, the light, or perhaps just a pinch of hypoxia is truly amazing. I found that Kilimanjaro also left me in awe of the giant chasms in privilege and wealth between those climbing the mountain and those living in the surrounding areas.
6. Rätikon Höhenweg Nord, Switzerland and Austria
I was awed by the history, the scenery, and the weather. The Alps are the birthplace of mountaineering, and as a mountain climber, I had been hearing about them since my childhood. Hiking in the alps was, as I anticipated, breathtakingly beautiful, and arriving at mountain huts and being offered cold beer and fresh cheese was certainly awe-inspiring. The summer blizzard that rolled in as we were hiking, quickly concealing the trail and any sign of other hikers or civilization inspired an awe of a different sort. As we hiked along bouncing between the border of Switzerland and Austria, I concocted my worst case survival scenarios, which included using the sound of the distant cowbells to guide me off of the mountain and enacting a scene similar to Luke Skywalker and the Tantuan’s Belly… Somehow I managed to keep us on the trail and get us out of the mountains, but I hope to never be in a position of seriously considering a Star Wars based survival plan ever again!
7. Cerro Chirripó, Costa Rica
I found being able to see both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans from the summit of a single mountain to be awe-inspiring. Most of the hikes I do somehow make the world feel like a impossible big place, standing on one place and seeing both Oceans seemed to make the world feel a little bit smaller and more connected and in a good way. Though the elevation Costa Rica’s tallest mountain, Cerro Chirripó, at 12,533 feet doesn’t land it amongst the tallest mountain I’ve climbed, going from swimming in the ocean one day to the summit of Chirripó less than 48 hours later made the altitude (and it’s effects on my body) more obvious than on some of the much taller mountains that I’ve climbed. The changes in the flora, fauna, and terrain as you hike can be as stunning as those on Kilimanjaro.
8. Mount Rainier, Washington
The glaciers and snow on Mount Ranier (14,409′) as well as it’s spectacular beauty were awe-inspiring. Watching the sunlight hit the glaciers at dawn while roped up to your closest friends to make sure that nobody disappears down into the crevasses is an amazing experience. The sheer beauty and power that the glacier, the ice, and the cold have to shape our world is awe-inspiring. The fact that these glaciers are slowly melting or sublimating away and may not be there for the next generation helps me face the cold (I hate being cold) and inspires me to do my part to preserve them.
9. The Appalachian Trail (Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mount Katahdin, Maine)
Doing a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail has to be in your list of most awe-inspiring hikes if you’ve done it. During my five months of hiking there were so many amazing moments with amazing people at amazing places that I can’t list them all here. There are moments that push limits you didn’t even know you had, and moments that you just sink into and enjoy. There are a few places and moments on my journey that stood out as getting my adrenaline pumping more than others: the Tornado Sirens and thunderstorm I got caught in outside of Pearisburg, VA, severe weather on Mount Washington, NH, crossing through Mahoosuc Notch, ME with a full pack right before/after it turned to ice (but not during!), attempting to ford the Carrabasset River, ME after a flash flood, and summitting Mount Katahdin after walking there all the way from Georgia.
10. The Grand Canyon, Arizona
Heading into the Grand Canyon for a backpacking trip I was filled with awe at the sheer immensity of it. Seeing it on TV and standing on the rim only doesn’t prepare you for how amazing the canyon really is. Spending a night or two down in the canyon at Indian Garden Campground or Bright Angel Campground as you hike rim-to-rim-to-rim is a joy as long as you remember to carry enough water and don’t burn yourself out on the way down because the only way to go from there is up!
I consider rockclimbing and caving to be close relatives of hiking and mountaineering and couldn’t finish this post without these two honorable mentions:
11. Red Rocks, Nevada
Rockclimbing at Red Rocks I found that both the terrain and the exposure were awe-inspiring. It was three pitches up on a climb at Red Rocks that I learned that I have a fear of heights. It was beautiful and exhilarating, and I was absolutely terrified. I was dangling off of the cliff face, responsible for both my life and the life of my climbing partner, hanging from a bolt in the rock, and it was a very *very* long ways down.
12. Grutas Calcehtok, Mexico
I find that the complete absence of light and sound deep within the heart of a cave is awe-inspiring. As the guide turned out the lantern in a cavern deep within the Calcehtok caves we were enveloped in complete darkness and an almost oppressive silence. We sat there in awe, there were just three of us and the only noise was that of our heartbeats and our breath. There was absolutely no light. If our guide abandoned us there, would we be able to find our way out? We’d been on an adventure in the caves for well over an hour at that point, simply following the guide with his gas lit lantern as he led us through countless turns, intersections, and obstacles. Most of my caving adventures have been done with Spanish speaking guides, and I’ve learned that the darkness and silence are eerie, but I don’t get really spooked until the guide utters the phrase “pecho a tierra,” chest to the ground. When the only way to get through a passage is by wriggling or squirming on my belly, I can’t see where the rock opens up on the other side, and I’m not confident that I could successfully wriggle backwards out of the crack, that’s where I start to dislike confined spaces.
These ten hikes (and two honorable mentions) are the first ones that come to mind when someone asks me about my most awe-inspiring, incredible, and/or adrenaline-inducing hikes. The thing that unifies them all is that they forced me out of my comfort zones and helped me to think about myself and the world in new, beautiful, and amazing ways.
Katahdin. The first time I climbed Mt. Katahdin was in 1991 (the year many of my thru-hiking peers were born) and it was a little bit surreal. We hiked out of 100 mile wilderness and were told that there had been a coup in Russia, and that Hurricane Bob was on track to hit New England that night. We didn’t believe the rumors at first, a coup in Russia? They must have been kidding. A hurricane hitting Maine? I didn’t even know that that was possible. Sure enough, the news was all true and we were the only people in the campground that night. My dad battened down the tent trailer and we spent a nerve wracking night listening to the ping of bungee cords as the high winds tried to undo all of my dad’s hard work. The next morning we set off to climb the rivers that all of the trails had turned into overnight. One thing was for sure, climbing Mt. Katahdin is always a memorable experience and I’ll never forget my first ascent of that mountain. Coming out of the 100 mile wilderness this time I was also met with bizarre news: the US Government had shutdown. At first I didn’t believe it, the US government shut down… What did that even mean? Many of my friends had left messages wondering if the shutdown was going to effect my hike. Luckily, Mt. Katahdin is in Baxter State Park in Maine, so the feds weren’t involved and the shutdown wasn’t going to get in the way of my final summit attempt.
In the northern part of the 100 mile wilderness we got our first glimpses of Mt. Katahdin in the distance. It was hard to believe that the end of this incredible journey was in sight. I’m pretty sure that I would have delayed and stayed in the 100 mile wilderness until all of my food ran out to make the trip last longer if it weren’t for the pesky weather forecast that I saw before entering the wilderness. We were incredibly lucky to be getting gorgeous fall weather with temperatures in the 70s during the days and 40s at night, but all of that was going to change. The forecasts were predicting rain, combined with colder temperatures, for the coming weekend (highs in the 40s, rain showers, and gusty winds). If I had a choice, I definitely didn’t want to climb Mt. Katahdin in nasty weather, so I planned my ascent for Friday October 4 (the day before the weather was supposed to turn bad).
The night before I summitted Mt. Katahdin felt a little bit like Christmas Eve, a little bit like the night before my Ph.D. thesis defense, and a little bit like the last time I walked through my first house before handing the keys over to the new owners. Like Christmas Eve, the air was full of excitement and expectations. I was finally sleeping at the base of Mt. Katahdin and the weather forecast for the next day was perfect! Sunny and in the 60s, who could ask for better weather in October in Maine? Like the eve of my thesis defense, I knew that I had already done all of the hard work and, if anything, I was over prepared for the final test ahead of me, yet I was still full of trepidation. For me, hiking the AT was really about the journey. Getting to the summit of Katahdin was just the crowning moment: symbolic of the tremendous work, experience, and joy that went into getting there. Yet even though I’d hiked over 2100 miles and countless mountains to get there, I couldn’t help but worry that something (like breaking a leg) might happen in the final five miles and prevent me from reaching the summit the next day. Like leaving a home, I was mourning the passing of an era, and was both looking forward to, and slightly nervous about, the uncertainty of my next steps. I set up camp for one last time. I went down and got my drinking water from the beautiful burbling brook one last time. I filled my alcohol stove and lit it one last time. I ate one last Mountain House meal. Suddenly all of the mundane tasks that I had done every day for the last five months became loaded with meaning because I was doing them for the last time on this trip. At hiker midnight (7 pm) I crawled into my cozy sleeping bag for one last time. I was going to miss this crazy adventure and this crazy life.
As I lay there I chatted with Eli and Rachel (two thru-hikers that had started at Springer Mountain the day before I did, and that I’d known since Damascus, VA). We talked about our excitement, our trepidation, and how much we were going to miss this life. I enjoyed the camaraderie of my fellow thru-hikers. Even though we hadn’t hiked that many miles together, we’d spent the entire trip within days of each other, and we were all going through the same crazy mix of emotions sitting there on Katahdin eve. The friendships and camaraderie were yet another thing that we were both grateful for, and mourning the loss of. Rachel and Eli would be climbing Mt Katahdin for the first time, and were excited about the unknown beauty of the mountain in addition to being excited about the culmination of their adventure. Rachel figured that she would be overwhelmed with emotion and cry at the summit. Eli was convinced that he would not. I’d hiked Mt. Katahdin at least three times before and didn’t think that climbing Katahdin itself would be that big of a deal for me, but I was still excited about the culmination of my epic adventure and I was fairly sure that I wasn’t going to cry at the summit; I hate crying.
We woke at dawn the next morning and, as promised, the skies were clear. It was a gorgeous day, though still a bit chilly, as we set out. Eli, Rachel, and I decided to hike together. My friend Hotshot had headed out about half an hour before we did, and Twigs, Homeward Bound, Shady, Green Blaze, and Wyoming were all awake and packing up. I was glad that I was going to be able to summit with an amazing group of old (by trail standards) and new friends. The fall foliage was at it’s peak and we were rewarded with spectacular views after just a short amount of hiking. Though the trail was initially smooth and easy, it quickly turned steep and rocky as we climbed up the ridge towards the headwall (the gateway), the tablelands (the plateau right below the summit), and ultimately the summit itself. As we got above treeline the winds picked up, and in the early morning shade it felt chillingly cold. The stretch of trail approaching the tablelands provided us with a challenge and was probably the steepest and most exposed trail we’d encountered on the entire AT. It was an exhilarating climb up to the gateway and the tablelands, and from the tablelands, you got a spectacular view of the lakes and foliage below and of Mt. Katahdin looming up above us. Even though I’d climbed Katahdin before, it felt entirely different this time. This mountain was impressive and has a majesty that I doubt could be diminished even if you climbed it 1000 times. I walked ahead of Eli and Rachel a little bit, wanting some time alone to take it all in.
As I walked across the tablelands towards the summit of Mt. Katahdin I was overcome by emotion and tears dampened the corner of my eyes. I gave up on trying to squeeze back them back, and just let them come. Why on earth was I crying? I wasn’t even at the summit yet! But I was there, so close that I could touch it, that I could crawl to it if I sprained my ankle or broke my leg… so close that I no longer had to protect myself from the fear that I might not make it. I was going to make it. Though I’d never really doubted that I’d make it to Katahdin, I’d never really allowed myself to believe it either. As that wall came crashing down and I finally allowed myself to believe, to know, that I was going to reach the summit, the tears came. There had been so many things going against me from the start, so many people that had told me that I wasn’t going to make it, but here I was, finally within reach of the summit of Katahdin. I was going to make it. I thought about my asthma and how when I left Boston I’d had trouble just climbing my stairs, how I’d had to sit on the floor of the bathtub because I couldn’t stand to take my showers, how I couldn’t even walk across Boston Common, yet here I was, 2000 miles later, conquering mountains. I thought about the labral tear in my hip and the constant pain it caused me at the beginning of the trip, and about the orthopedists saying that they didn’t think I would make it. I thought about how I got a late start (May), and how I had to have faith that even though I couldn’t hike far or fast at the beginning of the trip, that I would speed up and that I would beat the clock, catch up to the rest of the thru-hikers, and summit before Katahdin closed. Now that I knew that I was *really* going to make it, I could also admit that I was not just doing this hike for myself, but also for all of the people that I love/d that couldn’t/can’t do it. I cried and grieved for the dreams and the people that I’d lost, and I cried for the dreams and the people that I have. I cried with the sheer intensity and immensity of it all.
After a few minutes I turned around and saw that Rachel was crying as she hiked up the trail too. We gave each other permission to cry, and we stood there hugging and crying on the tablelands. We were here, we were on Katahdin, we’d made it, and we’d proved all of the naysayers wrong. All of the thru-hikers that start in May (the other thru-hikers call us Mayflies, May because we start in May, and flies because we fly up the trail the so fast) know that they are in a race against the clock because Baxter State Park closes on October 15. Day hikers up and down the trail seem to know about the deadline for Katahdin and feel the need to inform us that we can’t possible get to there in time given where and when they see us. It is incredibly annoying and, even when you know that they are wrong and that you can make it, it still hurts and can be demoralizing. It is especially hard since we get these kinds of comments not just from a couple of people, but from lots and lots of people. I didn’t count the number of people that told me that I was late, that I was going to have to pick up the pace, or that I just plain wasn’t going to make it, but the number was probably between 50 and 100. Even though the number of people saying that decreased as I headed into New England, even in New Hampshire I was still running into naysayers. I tried to downplay their doubts and reassure myself that they were wrong, but sometimes it did get to me. I think that after we summit, the mayflies all have a part of ourselves that screams, “I told you so!,” and celebrates the fact that we proved all of the idiot naysayers wrong. (Congrats to the Mayflies that summitted with me: Hotshot, Eli, and Rachel and to those that summitted that same week, especially Chuckwagon, Indy, the Voice, Rabbit, and Sir Stooge).
By the time I got across the tablelands and up to the summit my tears were all gone, and I was ready to celebrate the amazing accomplishment of being there, at the summit, with my friends. I got to the summit just in time to join in on a group summit photo with Hotshot, Twigs, Homeward Bound, Greenblaze, Shady, Wyoming, and Bojangles. After the group photo Eli and Rachel joined us and we all sat in the sun on the summit relaxing and taking turns posing with the sign. Everyone was smiling and laughing and enjoying the incredible weather, the incredible views, and the culmination of an incredible journey. It was an amazing feeling to be surrounded by so many people brimming over with such positive emotions. We’d made it. We were on top of Katahdin. We were thru-hikers. The day hikers cheered for us, and we cheered for each other. This had been a dream for all of us, and this is what happens when dreams come true: a moment of true bliss, frozen in time, captured in our photographs and in our minds, on the top of a mountain and on top of the world.