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

Real Kayakers Wear Skirts! (Part 2: In Over My Head)

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Spot Locator Coordinates from the start-, and end-points of my whitewater kayaking trip!

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)

Little Ambejackmockamus Falls (Class III+)

As I paddled down the river I continually scouted ahead of me looking for whitewater and drops (the places where the water drops out of sight, below the horizon)… I didn’t expect to see any, but ever since encountering surprise rapids and drops on a tubing trip on the Nolichuky River in Tennessee, I always keep an eye out for them… especially on unfamiliar rivers.

After paddling for about a mile, I saw some whitewater ahead. It looked a little rougher than I expected for Class II, but not too scary… My brain started calculating trajectories, trying to figure out the least exciting (safest) path through the whitewater… From where I was it was clear that the path to the left had the most obstacles, so I followed the open channel in the middle towards the bend… As I paddled through the channel the next stretch of whitewater came into view… the left side of the river definitely looked rougher, so I veered to the right where I figured I’d be able to avoid the worst of it…

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I paddled through the easy chutes, dips, and waves, and found it absolutely exhilarating! My brain was constantly modeling, mapping, and optimizing my route while my body made-it-happen… I was in the zone! I’d always thought of kayaking as a relaxing, low-energy sport, and had never considered taking up whitewater kayaking, but as I fought my way through what felt like a challenging line I thought, “This could be a lot of fun!” The route-finding aspects of it reminded me of rock-climbing, but with more engineering… and my college fluid dynamics classes were finally coming in handy!

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The view Penobscot River as viewed from Abol Bridge, ME

“This is why people kayak with skirts,” I had thought when the first wave had crashed into my boat and left a small deposit of water. Each successive wave had similarly felt the need to leave a souvenir in my boat, so by the time I got to the end of the first rapid (Little Ambejacmackamus Falls) I was sitting in an inch-deep puddle of water… I wasn’t in any danger of capsizing, but the water was changing the way my kayak handled, so I decided to play it safe, pull over, and take a break.

I dragged my boat out of the water and looked back at what I’d just come through, it didn’t look like a Class II to me… I’d felt comfortable and in control as I’d gone through it, but I would have guessed it to be closer to a Class III… “I wouldn’t want to be going through anything rougher than that, but that was kind of fun,” I thought as I emptied out my boat.

Selfie taken on a section of stillwater on my kayaking trip down the Penobscot River

With a smile on my face, I got back in my kayak and headed down the river. The water was relatively calm, and I relaxed into the steady rhythm of paddling… It was really great to be outside again! After about a mile, I could see the signs of some whitewater down by the next bend… From a distance it looked fairly similar to what I’d just gone through, but I wanted to check it out so I paddled towards the right side of the river. I hoped that from there I’d be able to get a sneak peak of what lay around the corner. It didn’t really help… It was a tight corner and I couldn’t see much, but it was clear that this water was definitely more violent than what I’d just gone through…

“Oh sh**! That’s definitely not class II,” I thought as the current propelled me forward and I got a closer look at the frothy water ahead… I scanned the banks looking for a place to portage, but didn’t see anything… Nothing!… I’d gone towards the right-side of the river to try to scout out the bend, but now a steep rock ledge was rising up in front of me, fast… There would be no bail out points on this side… and I still didn’t see any bailout spots on the other side…

  • “Portage or portaging is the practice of carrying water craft or cargo over land, either around an obstacle in a river, or between two bodies of water. A place where this carrying occurs is also called a portage.”-Wikipedia

Even though I didn’t see anywhere to portage on the far side, the shore looked brushy, not cliffy there, so I hoped that I might be able to make something work… Could I safely cross to the other side of the river? I did a quick assessment of the river and its currents… No, I couldn’t safely get across… I’d committed too far to the right side of the river while trying to scout the rapids… Now, to get to the other side of the river before the rapids started I’d have to cut an almost perpendicular line across it… I’d end up broadside to the current, a sure recipe for capsizing my kayak, and then I’d end up swimming the entirety of whatever lay ahead… that seemed like a bad plan.

In the blink of an eye, the rapids started, and my dreams of portaging around whatever lie ahead disappeared…

The view of Katahdin from my Oru Kayak after I’d gone through some of the rapids on the Penobscot River in it!

Big Ambejackmockamus Falls (Class IV)

I had passed the point of no return, so I braced myself and prepared to face the unknown…

I entered the rapids with laser focus, there was no room for doubt or uncertainty… My brain was calculating, my body acting, and both were engaging with my environment in a perfect symphony of effort… As the waves crashed around me, all conscious thoughts were replaced… It was all calculations, actions, and reactions… My movements were smooth, and my lines were good… I was through the fist 90-degree bend in the river, through the straight-away, and coming into the next bend… This was well beyond my skill level, but I was doing it!

“Fu**!…” I whimpered. I was coming up on the second 90-degree bend in the river, when I finally caught a glimpse of what was ahead… I started to panic… My boat was filling with water, the worst was yet to come, and I was already at the top of my game…

“Don’t Panic! Panicking never makes it better! Don’t… Panic…” I reminded myself, quelling my panic and getting back to the task at hand… It didn’t matter if my plight was completely and utterly without hope… I would own it, and there was a certain kind of hope in that… I took a deep breath, paddled through the wall of water in front of me, and went over the first drop…

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The whitewater surged around me, but miraculously, my kayak and I both made it through the drop in one piece!… In between waves I could now see a whitewater kayaker pulled ashore to the left side of the rapids ahead of me, and I could see a couple of rafts full of people further down… The end was in sight, maybe I would somehow make it all the way through?… Or even better, if that kayaker could pull out of the water over there, maybe I could too?!  My origami kayak had gotten me through more of the whitewater than I could have ever imagined, but it was almost completely full of water now, and I had no way to stop and empty it… I was in way over my head… If I could get off of the river and out of these rapids I definitely would!

I was still on the right-side of the river, but the kayaker was on the left bank of the river so I shifted my heading slightly, hoping to slowly make my way towards them. As soon I began to alter my course, my kayak suddenly slipped into a hole… a small, seemingly still spot, surrounded by walls of whitewater… The wave in front of me looked huge! It must have been at least five feet tall…

  • Hole or hydraulic: “A river feature created when water flows over a rock or shelf in the river, drops, comes back up, mixes with the air and travels upstream back toward the obstacle that it flowed over.  This creates green water that is flowing downstream and a foam pile or backwash of aerated water that flows back up and into the green water creating a continuous flow cycle.”

Time seemed to stop then, with the gigantic wave hanging above me… I looked at the level of water in my boat, it was almost completely full… All of the stories I’d ever heard about small boats taking on water, and facing giant waves flooded through my mind… For the first time in my life, I felt like I truly understood what they must have been going through…

My kayak was brilliant… It wasn’t sinking, but the water had given it a critical instability… Any more water, and it was going to tip… It didn’t matter how well I handled the looming wave in front of me, the physics of it were impossible… The boat was going to capsize! I was going to end up swimming…

“I know the physics are impossible, but maybe I’m wrong… maybe somehow this will work,” I mumbled as time resumed and I started to paddle out of the hole, towards the crest of the wave… I knew that as soon as I went through the crest, water would spill into my boat and it would capsize, but the only hope I had was in embracing my fate… besides… maybe I was wrong.

TO BE CONTINUED… See “Real Kayakers Wear Skirts! Part 3: Taking the Plunge”

Real Kayakers Wear Skirts! (Part 1: The Calm Before the Storm)

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Sunrise over Abol Bridge Campground and Mt. Katahdin, ME


 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?

Setting the Stage:

“What’s your plan for today?” asked the woman sitting across from me at the picnic table. She and her family had invited me to share their campsite late last night after seeing me wander around the campground hoping to find a non-existent empty spot. This morning when her family invited me to join them for breakfast, I’d found their kindness and generosity (not to mention the smell of bacon) irresistible.

“I don’t know, I’ll probably just lounge around all day,” I replied stifling a yawn as I watched her four boys romp gleefully around the campsite. As the youngest (~2 yrs old) dodged towards the river, it occurred to me that my kayak was in the trunk of my car… The Penobscot River, which was right there in front of me, looked like it had a really strong current (actually ~2300 cubic feet per second, cfs)… Much stronger than the currents in the rivers I was used to (100-300,cfs), but a relaxing paddle on a nearby lake could be nice, so I added, “Maybe I’ll take my kayak to one of the lakes around here later.”

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Five tents crammed into a site at Abol Bridge Campround across the river from where I stayed at Abol Pines Campground.

Sitting still has never been my strong suit, so as the morning warmed up and it became apparent that my new friends were going to stick around the campsite for a bit, I asked them if they’d be willing to keep on eye on me while I took my kayak out for a quick spin on the swiftly moving Penobscot River… They heartily agreed, and Gabe, their nine-year-old son, offered to help me carry my stuff over to the small launch point at Abol Bridge.

“Is that really a kayak?” Gabe asked as I pulled my folded up Oru Kayak out of my trunk. “Yes,” I replied smiling, “It’s a folding kayak.” He looked at the box I claimed would open up into a kayak with skepticism as I handed him my paddle… Finally he shrugged, clearly tired of trying to imagine how that box could possibly be a kayak, and said, “If you say so…” and walked off, heading towards the river.

The launch point at Abol Bridge Campground is one of the most beautiful spots that you can drive to… it’s a small sandy riverside beach with a gorgeous view of Mt. Katahdin towering behind it. As I unfolded my Kayak and explained to Gabe how it went together I couldn’t help but sneak occasional glances at Maine’s most majestic mountain… They were predicting thunderstorms that afternoon, so I was going to wait for a different day to climb Katahdin, but the mountains were the real reason I was there.

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Mt. Katahdin as viewed from the Penobscot River near Abol Bridge.

“Wow, that’s a good looking kayak,” Gabe finally admitted as I cinched up the last few straps of the kayak and installed the seat… “Thanks,” I said, dropping it into the water. “Do you want to wait until I get in and launch it, or do you want to head back to the campsite now?”

“I’ll wait,” he said grinning ear-to-ear, “that way I can race you!”

I laughed, “You’re on! Just be careful crossing the road! Make sure you stop and look both ways first!!” He nodded seriously, as I climbed into my kayak, and pushed into the water… “See you there!” he yelled, his feet already moving as bolted off. The race was on!

I carefully steered my kayak out of the still-water at the launch and into the current… I’d kayaked in water like this before, but not in my Oru Kayak… Could it handle it? Yes! The handling with great… The current was fast, the water was a bit turbulent, but it was well within my comfort zone… It felt a lot like kayaking in Boston harbor. I could just relax and enjoy the scenery.

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Gabe took this picture of me with Mt. Katahdin in the background right before I set off!

As I looked around, I spotted Gabe dashing through the woods trying to beat me to the campsite. He was going to win.

“Ha! I beat you!” exclaimed Gabe triumphantly and at least a little bit out of breath, as I pulled my kayak up along the riverbank at the campsite. “Can we help?” he asked as he led his brothers tripping down the steep bank to the kayak. “Sure,” I replied, assigning each boy a task… Though I could have done it alone, their help made the whole process a lot more fun. Before long we paraded into the campsite full of smiles.

A Decision Is Made…

“We’re going to head out and go swimming pretty soon, but we could give you a ride upriver so that you could just paddle back downstream to the campsite if you’re interested…” It was a generous offer and I was tempted, but I was also a bit hesitant. “Do you know what the river is like up above?” I asked. “I’m ok paddling on water like this,” I continued, pointing back up towards the bridge, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable on anything much rougher…”

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A loon hanging out in the middle of the Penobscot River!

“Well, there are some big rapids up at Cribworks. That’s where the whitewater rafters go to play, but we can drop you off down below that, where the canoes usually put it… it’s mostly still water from there… except for Horserace, which is a class II.”

That sounded pretty good, but before agreeing to it, I took a minute to think about my experience, skill level, and comfort level, “As long as none of it more than a class II, I should be fine,” I replied. “I have a map, can you show me where you’re thinking about dropping me off?”

“Sure, we can drop you off at Big Eddy, it’s just a couple of miles up and mostly Class II’s from there,” they suggested as I spread my map out on the picnic table. “Well, it’s over here, just off the edge of the map,” the dad said, his finger trailing onto the wood of the picnic table. “It’s about a 10 minute drive from here,” he continued, looking up at me, “and the road follows alongside the river the whole time.” I felt uncomfortable not being able to at least see the route on the map, but with the road running alongside the river I figured it would be ok… “Besides,” I thought, “I’m not proud, if I run into anything I’m uncomfortable with I can always get out of the river, fold up my kayak, and walk the rest of the way back!”

  • hamartia: “a fatal flaw leading to the downfall of a tragic hero or heroine.” –google dictionary

After some more discussion, I accepted their offer, we loaded the kayak into their van, they prayed for me, and we were off. As we drove along the river there were some sections that were obscured by trees, but as promised the road seemed to wind along the river and the river looked pretty calm, there were occasional riffles here and there, but it didn’t look too bad… I still had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into…

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The Penobscot River, ME

Big Eddy’s Nuisance Bald Eagle

As I prepared to launch my kayak at Big Eddy, I was struck by how picturesque the river was… The white-capped rapids tapered off above me, two fly fishermen stood knee-deep in the water rhythmically casting their lines, and the Maine woods extended from the far bank of the river endlessly into the horizon… It was a great day to be outside!

“Woah! Is that a…” I asked, the fly fisherwoman beside me, my voice sticking in my throat as the giant bird dove at us… “BALD EAGLE?” I finished, able to speak again as it swooped away, sticking it’s bright white tail in my face. I continued staring at it as it perched in a nearby tree, it’s eyes seemingly trained on us.

“Yes,” the fisherwoman replied with exasperation. “The damn thing’s a nuisance bird,” she continued vehemently. “It hangs out here trying to steal our fish. Just watch!” she exclaimed pointing to the other guy’s fishing line… As soon as he started pulling the line out of the water the bald eagle dove towards it, “If he’d had a fish that eagle would have taken it right off of the line!”

“Wow!” It was incredible, I’ve seen a lot of bald eagles over the years, but I’d never had one fly this close to me, never-mind having it do so repeatedly… I’d also never heard of a nuisance bald eagle, but like a nuisance bear, it seems to have associated humans and that particular location with food… I thought about taking my camera out to get some pictures of it, but I was anxious to get moving… I didn’t want to be on the river that afternoon when the predicted thunderstorms cropped up.

As I paddled away from the bald eagle at Big Eddy, I had a smile on my face and a heart filled with happiness… The water was fast, but as I paddled down the river I was at peace… My eyes, my ears, my lungs, my body, and my thoughts were all full of the here and now, full of the river and the woods, full of the outdoors… I was exactly where I was supposed to be, and I rejoiced in it!

TO BE CONTINUED in “Real Kayakers Wear Skirts! Part 2: In Over My Head”

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Sunset over the Penobscot River, ME

Growing Tensions: Baxter State Park, The Appalachian Trail, and Scott Jurek

“We really don’t think that the top of Katahdin should smell like a bar…” – Jensen Bissell, Baxter State Park director.

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…

The relationship between long-distance hikers and Baxter State Park has been under increasing strain in the past decades as the number of thru-hikers has exploded from between 5 and 40 a decade (between the 1930’s and 1960’s) to almost a thousand a year (2013, 2014).

With these increasing numbers, Baxter State Park has seen an increase in ‘bad behavior’ amongst AT hikers, and hasn’t been shy about voicing their displeasure. In November of 2014 the director of Baxter State Park sent a letter to the director of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, specifically citing the following grievances (amongst others):

As a ‘modern AT hiker’ I thought that Baxter State Park was being a little harsh, and I found myself getting really defensive as continued reading their list of grievances, “I’m not like that… Most of the AT hikers I know are not like that!” But I have to admit that some are… and we were all getting grouped together in the eyes of Baxter State Park… The folks at Baxter State Park have done a lot to accommodate AT hikers over the years, but they were getting sick and tired of dealing with unappreciative AT hikers that didn’t respect their rules and their mission… It was amidst these escalating tensions that Scott Jurek’s summit photos were released…

Scott Jurek celebrated on the top of Mount Katahdin after setting a new record for the fastest hike of the entire Appalachian Trail.

Photo by Bob Najar, iRunFar.com

Champagne exploding, people cheering, and Katahdin’s sign were all prominently displayed in Scott Jurek’s summit photos… I cringed and thought, “Uh-oh… This is why we can’t have nice things!” The most publicized hike in AT history, and a perfect (and I’m sure completely unintentional) disregard of Baxter State Park’s rules…

A couple of days later Baxter State Park posted a scathing note on Facebook (in a tone similar to the previous letter), informing everyone that they’d issued Jurek citations: “for the drinking of alcoholic beverages in public places (BSP Rule 7 and Maine State General Law), for littering (BSP Rule 4.5) and for hiking with an oversize group (BSP Rule 2.2).”

Photo by Chris Kraft. From Runner’s World…Scott Jurek signed in with an official group size of 12 people.

The first citation, about public drinking, has been an ongoing issue at the summit of Mt. Katahdin. Even though I don’t blame Jurek for wanting to celebrate his accomplishment with a bottle of Champagne at the summit, I certainly can’t blame Baxter State Park for issuing him a citation for such a blatant, and public, disregard for their rules! The second citation, however, seemed like a bit of a stretch… the ‘litter’ that Jurek is accused of leaving in the park is spilled champagne… “The littering occurred when champagne sprayed into the air hit the ground.” Covering the summit of Katahdin with a gooey, sticky mass of champagne, soda, and/or Gatorade would significantly detract from the wilderness experience, so I can sort of see where Baxter is coming from, but is it really litter?

  • litter: things that have been thrown away and that are lying on the ground in a public place (Merrian-Webster dictionary)

The final citation was for group size… and I have to admit that the group-size rule confuses me in these contexts… What defines an affiliated group?… Were there more than 12 people at the summit of Katahdin to celebrate Jurek’s accomplishment? Yes! Were they an affiliated group, or were they a mass of individuals independently inspired by Jurek’s achievement? If a group of 12 (or more) is intentionally climbing Mt. Katahdin together, that’s a pretty cut-and-dry group. On the other hand, if 12 or more people are inspired to climb Katahdin by the same thing does that make them a group?

  • affiliate: to closely connect (something or yourself) with or to something (such as a program or organization) as a member or partner (Merrian-Webster dictionary)

When I climbed Katahdin as part of my thru-hike, I climbed it with two fellow thru-hikers, but when we reached the summit 8 to 10 thru-hikers were already there… By the time I left the summit a couple of hours later, there were closer to 20 thru-hikers there… Are all of the thru-hikers that happen to show up on a given day considered a group? How would that be different from classifying all of the day-hikers that show up on a given day as a group?

Baxter State Park has been controlling access to the area for the last 25 years by limiting the parking spaces, and overnight campsites (which they did on the day of Jurek’s hike as well), but this strategy hasn’t been effective for limiting the number long-distance AT hikers that are walking into the park, sometimes more than 15 miles, to reach the summit of Katahdin.

In addition to the ongoing issues with AT hikers, Baxter State Park’s Facebook post raised new issues about corporate sponsorships, blasting Jurek for hosting a ‘corporate event’ on the summit of Katahdin… In a world where social media is capital, the lines between personal, professional, and corporate are starting to getting blurry…

Look at the clothes that you hike in, they’re probably covered with corporate logos and names… If you wear them, does that mean that you’re hosting a ‘corporate event’? For hikers/adventurer that are searching for ways to make ends meet as they pursue their dreams full-time, its not uncommon for them to seek corporate sponsors. For most, these sponsorships don’t come with a salary, or any $$s at all! Instead, they come with free gear (a pair of socks, shoes, a pack, or a tent), and a nifty new title as a brand ambassador. Although high-end athletes like Scott Jurek probably get better sponsorship deals from companies like Clif Bar and Brooks, the issues surrounding sponsorship, ‘corporate events’, and social media are bound to get more and more heated, and apply to more and more people, in the coming years!

Luis Escobar | Reflections Photography Studio

In their November letter (long before Jurek completed his thru-hike), Baxter State Park suggested that, “ Options to address these concerns would require a commitment to sustainable use of the AT and preserving wild experiences along the trail. Permit systems are in place on other popular long-distance trails in the U.S. Relocating key trail portions or the trail terminus would be another option.”

For those of us that have had the honor and privilege of including Mt. Katahdin in our Appalachian Trail thru-hikes, the idea of having to re-route the trail so that it terminates elsewhere is absolutely heartbreaking… but being able to terminate our AT thru-hikes at Katahdin is a privilege… If we lose that privilege, it won’t be because of Scott Jurek (even though he did manage to step right into the middle of this steaming mess with cameras rolling)… He may be a very visible example of some of the issues between the AT hikers and Baxter State park, but he didn’t start the problem, and he won’t be the one that the staff at Baxter State Park have to deal with tomorrow, or the next day, or the next day.

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~6% (9/153) of thru-hiker summit pictures I found by googling “thruhike Katahdin”  featured alcohol…

Large trail-related media events like Jurek’s accomplishment (Cheryl Strayed’s ‘Wild’, and Bill Bryson’s ‘A Walk in the Woods”) lead to surges in park use, which intensify ongoing issues between wilderness management and recreational use. It is up to us to help the parks and other landowners along the trail with their efforts to preserve the the trail and all of the wild places that we love… If you are planning on hiking on the AT in Baxter State Park, please familiarize yourself with the park’s rules, let the staff know that you appreciate their efforts, and treat the park (and it’s staff) with respect.

Related Articles:

Updated Timeline:

Baxter State Park Facts:

  • Staff: ~22 year-round staff, ~61 staff members on site during the summer. 1 staff member is dedicated exclusively to aiding thru-hikers, and is positioned near Abol Bridge for 15 weeks.
  • Governance: Baxter State Park Authority, a group of 3 public officials: the Commissioner of Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the Director of the Maine State Forest Service, and the Attorney General that works closely with Baxter State Park Advisory: a group of 15 dedicated citizens.
  • Wildlife: 75% of the park (156,874 acres) is a wildlife sanctuary, 25% (52,628 acres) of the park is open to hunting and trapping.
  • Foresty: 14% of the park (29,537 acres) is set up for scientific forest managements (read that logging)
  • Recreational Use: 215 miles of hiking trails, 8 roadside campgrounds, 2 backcountry campgrounds

Additional Baxter State Park Rules Especially Relevant for Thru-Hikers:

For the original Scott Jerek photos, deal with the obnoxious ads, and check out:

New England’s 4000 Footers

Mt. Katahdin, October 3, 2013

Mt. Katahdin, Maine: October 3, 2013

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!

Maine’s 4000 Footers (14/14): I completed 14/4 Maine 4000 footers during my 2013 Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike. The remaining Maine 4000 footers I need to hike are: Hamlin Peak of Katahdin and North Brother, both in Baxter State Park, and Mount Abraham and Mount Reddington in the Carrabassett Valley.

  1. Katahdin, Baxter Peak – Baxter State Park, on AT (Completed: October 4, 2013: AT Day 149)
  2. Katahdin, Hamlin Peak – Baxter State Park
  3. Sugarloaf – Carrabassett Valley, 0.6 miles from AT (Completed: September 22, 2013: AT Day 137)
  4. Crocker Mountain – Carrabassett Valley, on AT (Completed: September 23, 2013: AT Day 138)
  5. Old Speck – Mahoosuc Range, 0.3 miles from AT (Completed: September 17, 2013: AT Day 132)
  6. North Brother – Baxter State Park
  7. Bigelow, West Peak – Bigelow Range, on AT (Completed: September 24, 2013: AT Day 139)
  8. Saddleback – Rangeley Range, on AT (Completed: September 20, 2013: AT Day 135)
  9. Bigelow, Avery Peak – Bigelow Range, on AT (Completed: September 24, 2013: AT Day 139)
  10. Mount Abraham – Carrabassett Valley (1.7 miles off of the AT)
  11. South Crocker Mountain – Carrabassett Valley, on AT (Completed: September 23, 2013: AT Day 138 )
  12. Saddleback Horn – Rangeley Range, on AT (Competed: September 20, 2013: AT Day 135)
  13. Mount Reddington – Carrabassett Valley
  14. Spaulding – Carrabassett Valley, 150ft from AT (Completed: September 22, 2013: AT Day 137)

Mount Washington, NH: February 2015

Mount Washington, NH: February 2015

New Hampshire (35/48): I hiked 20/48 New Hampshire 4000 footer during my AT 2013 thru-hike (some of them required short side-trips). 15/48 I completed with friends and family during day-hikes and shorter backpacking trips, but need to verify dates of those hikes (luckily mom has kept track, so I’ll have to check in with her). I guess that leaves 13 NH 4000 footers for me to explore for the first time!!

  1. Washington, on AT (Completed: September 10, 2013: AT Day 125)
  2. Adams, 0.3 miles from AT (Completed with mom, date=?)
  3. Jefferson, 0.3 miles from AT (Completed with mom, date=?)
  4. Monroe, 0.3 miles from AT (Completed: September 9, 2013, AT Day 124)
    • Gorgeous 360 degree views!
  5. Madison, on AT (Completed: September 11, 2013, AT Day 126)
    • Gorgeous 360 degree views!
  6. Lafayette, on AT (Completed: September 7, 2013, AT Day 122)
  7. Lincoln, on AT (Completed: September 7, 2013, AT Day 122)
  8. South Twin, on AT (Completed: September 8, 2013, AT Day 123)
  9. Carter Dome, on AT (Completed: September 14, 2013, AT Day 129)
  10. Moosilauke, on AT (Completed: September 5, 2013, AT Day 120)
    • Sunrise/Sunset: July 2015: Trip Report
  11. Eisenhower, 0.3 miles from AT (Completed: September 9, 2013, AT Day 124)
    • Gorgeous 360 degree views of Presidential Range
  12. North Twin, 1.3 miles from the AT (date? with Josh)
  13. Carrigain (date?: with Josh)
  14. Bond (date?: with family)
  15. Middle Carter, on AT (Completed: September 14, 2013, AT Day 129)
  16. West Bond (date?: with family)
  17. Garfield, on AT (Completed: September 7, 2013, AT Day 122)
  18. Liberty (date?: with Josh)
  19. South Carter, on AT (Completed: September 14, 2013, AT Day 129)
  20. Wildcat, A Peak, on AT (Completed: September 13, 2013, AT Day 128)
  21. Hancock (date?: with Josh)
  22. South Kinsman, on AT (Completed: September 6, 2013, AT Day 121)
  23. Field
  24. Osceola
  25. Flume (date? with Josh)
  26. South Hancock (date? with Josh)
  27. Pierce, < 0.1 from the AT,  (Completed: September 9, 2013, AT Day 124 )
  28. North Kinsman, on AT (Completed: September 6, 2013, AT Day 121)
  29. Willey
  30. Bondcliff (date?: with family)
  31. Zealand (date?: with mom)
  32. North Tripyramid (date?: with Josh)
  33. Cabot
  34. East Osceola
  35. Middle Tripyramid
  36. Cannon
  37. Hale
  38. Jackson, on AT (Completed: September 9, 2013, AT Day 124)
  39. Tom
  40. Wildcat, D Peak, on AT (Completed: September 13, 2013, AT Day 128)
  41. Moriah (date: with Josh)
  42. Passaconaway
  43. Owl’s Head (date?: with mom)
    • No views, isolated wooded summit
  44. Galehead (date?: with mom)
  45. Whiteface
  46. Waumbek
  47. Isolation (date?: with Josh)
  48. Tecumseh

Sunset at Lakes of the clouds, NH

Sunset at Lakes of the clouds, NH

Vermont (5/5): I hiked 1/5 Vermont 4000 footers during my 2013 AT thru-hike, however, I hiked all 5/5 during my 1998 end-to-end hike of the Long Trail.

  1. Mount Mansfield, on Long Trail (Completed: August 1998)
  2. Killington Peak, on AT, on Long trail (Completed: August 1998, and August 2013)
  3. Camel’s Hump, on Long Trail (Completed: August 1998)
  4. Mount Ellen, on Long Trail (Completed: August 1998)
  5. Mount Abraham, on Long Trail (Completed: August 1998)

My 10 Most Awe Inspiring Hikes

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.

4.Eyjafjallajökull, Iceland

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

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Cerro Chirripó

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!

Honorable Mentions:

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.

On top of the world (Days 148 & 149)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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