Tall Fail: Losing to Katahdin
Mount Katahdin stands 5,267 feet high. It’s the highest point in Maine, but it’s no K2. So why does it break hikers’ hearts and keep rangers busy saving people on the mountain? A group of hikers found out the hard way . . . twice.
THIS CAN’T BE HAPPENING, I thought. Sitting beside Chimney Pond, at the base of Maine’s Mount Katahdin, a driving rain was ending, thick clouds were lifting, unveiling parts of the ridgeline, and I thought “Oh no.” Normally, the improving weather conditions would be great for a hiker to see. But not for us. My three friends and I had already tried hiking up Katahdin. But, in a pouring rain and with the weather forecast calling for conditions to worsen with thunderstorms, we turned back.
Now we sat at Chimney Pond watching as conditions seemed to defy the forecast. In fact, the strong storms that were predicted as a virtual certainty never came, and we were left second-guessing our decision. It may not have left us feeling so sick if it hadn’t been the second-straight year we’d been turned back by Katahdin. Now we’d made two 6-hour drives to Baxter State Park, sacrificed two 3-day weekends, only to find ourselves 0-for-2 with lots of disappointment, and searching for how to explain to people that we failed not once, but twice.
Mostly, I was searching for a way to explain that to myself. I’d never not climbed a mountain I’d set out for. After all, this wasn’t the Himalayas. This was New England. I just kept thinking, “How did I get here?”
“THIS IS STUPID!”
My friend Bob had cracked. We were halfway up Cathedral Trail – a steep, rocky trail up Katahdin – and we were soaked and demoralized. After spending the day smashing our shins on slippery boulders and exhausting ourselves using our hands as well as our feet to climb Cathedral, we were now pinned down behind rocks as the rain grew the hardest it had been all day. We were able to hide behind rocks because it was raining sideways.
Soon, not knowing when the rain would stop, we decided to continue on. There was no going down. Even before the hike, the guides we’d read and people we’d talked to said you didn’t want to go down the Cathedral Trail even when it was dry; too steep and rocky. Now that those rocks were wet and slippery, there was no way we could go down. We continued up, and soon Bob had his epiphany. He turned to each of us individually – me, my friends Mike and Smitty – and asked each of us “This is stupid, right?” We, of course, gave the obvious answer: “Yeah, this is stupid.” Bob had reached a breaking point, but instead of losing his mind he appeared to make more sense than any of us had all day.
Smitty had climbed Katahdin years ago. But for Bob, Mike and I, this was our first trip to the mountain. And we’d picked a bad time to do it. It was June 2009, and the northeast was in the midst of the wettest summer in 100 years. It rained almost every day. And as the date for our trip grew closer, we watched the wet weather report with dismay, holding on to any glimmer of hope – there’s ONLY a 60 percent chance of rain; it’s not supposed to rain ALL day.
The day we arrived (in the rain) at Roaring Brook Campground in Baxter State Park, the weather report at the ranger station said there was a 70 percent chance of rain the next day. To us, that meant a 30 percent chance the weather would be great. We set up camp, then took a wet, 2-hour hike where we saw two moose. The rocks were slippery, but the wet roots along the trail were slippery as ice, and we slipped and fell along the way, smashing our shins. When we got back to camp, we enjoyed a hearty spaghetti and meatball dinner, and talked to a ranger who told us how the night before they had to rescue a guy on top of the mountain who got stuck in a thunderstorm. On Katahdin, he said, the thunder sounds like cannon fire. It’s not a place you want to be when there’s a storm. It left us something to think about.
The morning of the climb, the weather report put the chance of rain at 90 percent. But it wasn’t raining yet. Being optimists, we started out on the Chimney Pond trail thinking that the rain might hold off or that we could beat it. That lasted about 20 minutes, and then the sky opened up. As we continued on, the trail turned into a stream. The creeks that we passed were swollen from a month of heavy rain. Parts of the trail detoured where flooding was bad. By the time we reached the ranger station at Chimney Pond, the rain had eased, but we were soaked.
At the station, we got talking to the ranger and a couple of marines who’d been hiking in front of us. The ranger told us up on the peak it was hard to say what the weather would be like. It may or may not rain. But, he said, we looked prepared (much to my surprise). The marines wished us luck, but said they were heading back.
We hiked around the pond and reached the base of Cathedral Trail, where my heart sank. What we saw was a fiercely steep trail of huge boulders climbing into the clouds. We’d be climbing with hands and feet over the boulders through whatever weather we encountered. But it couldn’t continue the whole way like that, I reasoned. I paused for a moment thinking about a news article I’d read about two guys dying in a rock slide on Cathedral in 2004. But then we started up.
The climbing was exhilarating. There’s something about climbing over rocks with your hands and feet that makes you feel like a kid. But it was also exhausting . . . and slippery. We all took turns slipping, smashing our knees and cutting our shins. Mike had one close call where he almost fell backwards. Falling backwards on Cathedral would end badly. There are few places that can make you feel as disgustingly mortal as a mountain in bad weather. And Cathedral was doing a great job of that.
Surrounded by thick clouds, were weren’t treated to any views. The drizzle was constant, then turned to a steady rain, then heavy rain, then the windy blowing sideways stuff. Soon after Bob had his epiphany. We couldn’t go down, but up above there would be a cut-over to the Saddle Trail that we could take to get down. As we reached the cut-over, we questioned whether we should keep going. But, not knowing what was ahead of us, and the beating we’d been taking, we decided to take it. As we walked along the cut-over, rain that felt an awful lot like hail smacked us in the face. As we reached the Saddle Trail and started down, I was amazed to see the rain – captured by the wind as it rolled up the slope – was actually blowing upwards at us.
Chimney Pond looking up at Katahdin. (Northeast Explorer Photo)
Hiking down, we passed a group of people who’d been camping next to us heading up the mountain. We wished them luck and wondered if we’d have been in better shape taking the Saddle Trail up instead. The hike back was long, wet and painful. The trails were now much wetter, and there was nothing to do but accept we’d be walking through deep streams. By the time we got back to camp, we were drenched, worn and completely demoralized. We consoled ourselves with lots of beer and fresh steaks cooked to perfection over a fire. That night we talked to a ranger who was looking for that group next to us. It turned out rangers had to rescue two groups of people that night, one of which was our neighbors.
We had high hopes for our rematch with Katahdin. The summer of 2010 was as dry as the summer of 2009 was wet. It had hardly rained at all. But in the days before our trip, we couldn’t believe the weather forecast which said a system of heavy rain and thunderstorms would be moving in the night before our climb and move out the night after. Still, we were optimists, telling ourselves there was no way to predict what the weather would really be on unpredictable Katahdin.
The morning of our climb, we decided to get up at 5 a.m. to try to beat the weather. Things looked good. The rain that was supposed to start the evening before hadn’t come. In fact, the skies above were clear. Myself, Bob, Smitty and my brother Jason, who joined us in place of Mike who couldn’t make this year’s trip, headed out with visions of wrong weather forecasts and a beautiful clear hiking day. It was clear almost all the way to Chimney Pond, where we started seeing dark clouds rolling over the mountain in our direction. Our optimism waned. As we reached Chimney Pond, the rain began falling, just as if the mountain was mocking us.
The ranger said the heavy rain and thunderstorms weren’t supposed to arrive til around noon. It was 7:30, and if we moved fast we could be at the peak in two hours. I started doing the math in my head. The window before the storms seemed big enough. But if we would reach the peak at 9:30 in good weather, how might this rainfall and unforeseen bad weather slow us down? And how long might it take us to get down the mountain, especially if the trail is wet and slippery? And weather is unpredictable on Katahdin. What if the system hit a little early? I grew hesitant the more I thought of that window potentially shrinking. After talking about it, we decided to try. Because of the weather, we’d go up and back on the Saddle Trail instead of Cathedral. And there’d be no Knife Edge today.
A young hiker climbs Katahdin’s Saddle Trail. (Northeast Explorer Photo)
But it wasn’t to be. Right after we started on the trail, it began raining harder. Rocks and roots became slippery, and once again we began falling and smacking our shins. I worried about someone getting hurt and stuck on the peak, and about the weather getting worse and that window shrinking. I didn’t want to get in a footrace with a thunderstorm coming down the mountain.
After about an hour in, as the trail started a steep climb up the slope, the rain turned into a powerful downpour. We stopped to discuss it. Bob and Jason wanted to keep going. Smitty and I questioned if it was worth it. Considering the weather forecast, it seemed like we’d only be hiking in this or worse all the way up. We weren’t sure what to do. Then Smitty said something magical: “We’ve got steaks and beers back at the campsite.”
Everyone stopped and looked at each other, like we could actually taste the steak and beer at that very moment. The answer was suddenly so clear, and we all turned around and headed back.
But Katahdin wasn’t done torturing us. As we headed down, the rain began to slow, and we felt sheepish passing more and more hikers heading up the mountain. By the time we reached Chimney Pond again, the rain had stopped. We looked toward the Saddle Trail, and it looked like the clouds were lifting. The peak remained shrouded in cloud cover, but around us clouds lifted to expose the ridges around the mountain.
I said we didn’t know what it was like up near the peak. It could be pouring up there. But we all began second-guessing, saying we should have waited it out another 5 or 10 minutes. Or that we should have kept going, that we turned around too fast. Maybe we’d been too gun-shy after last year’s experience. With the info we had, I argued, it was the wise decision and you can’t judge these things in hindsight. But, deep down, I wasn’t sure. Still aren’t.
We headed back to the campsite and drank beer and ate delicious steaks. But a cloud hung over us. And it seemed to darken the more the skies above cleared up. The thunderstorms never came that day. And by late afternoon the sky was a clear, beautiful, painful blue above our campsite.
The next day was gorgeous. It would have been a beautiful day for hiking. And on the drive back we started making plans for next year. We’ll build an extra day in to improve our chances, we said. We will make the peak. And when we do, our previous failures will make the summit that much sweeter . . . I hope.