You’ll recall that in Part I of my recap, my partner and I stopped at Chimney Pond for a short bite to eat, a few minutes to get out of the rain, and a quick check in the with Ranger. At just about three thousand feet, Chimney Pond is more than half way to our goal of Baxter Peak, the summit of Mt. Katahdin. But like most climbing/hiking adventures, distance traveled is but only one measure of the progress towards the goal. It took us three hours to make the initial three mile (or so) hike/scramble to Chimney. The rest of the day would make this initial section feel like a walk in the park.
With the somewhat overwhelming views of the path in front of us, we set out from Chimney with a renewed sense of vigor. The path became steeper and more rocky. The rocks now were less scree-like and more like boulders, so it had us using our hands most of the time. Saddle Trail starts pretty steep and stays at that level for a while, before turning super steep once you’ve gotten above the tree line. It’s also at that point that your level of exposure goes way up, and what was hiking/bouldering before becomes more climbing now (i.e. always using both hands, searching for solid footholds, etc).
This part of the trail was maybe a quarter mile at the most, but it probably took us the better part of an hour to conquer. By this point, there was no turning around.
But we finally made to past here and to the top of the Saddle Trail. It was our first major accomplishment of the morning. The elevation between Chimney and where we now stood was roughly 900 feet (big approximation), and it took us quite a while to get past it. But now, we had only a short walk to the summit….right?
The problem with the Saddle Trail is that it puts you in the middle of the saddle between Baxter Peak an Hamlin peak. And the Hamlin Ridge was our descent route, so, we would have to backtrack a bit to reach Baxter, and then get back over to Hamlin. In the below image you can somewhat see the difference- this was our intended route (follow the numbers to see the progression). But because of the weather, we elected to stay off the Helen Taylor trail (Points 1-4) and instead did the Saddle Trail. While not marked, we basically hiked from Point 1, to Point 13, then to Point 11. Then draw a line between Point 11 and Point 7- that’s the Saddle Trail (and you can see why it doesn’t get steep till the very end). Of course, Point 7 (top of the Saddle Trail) puts us right between Baxter Peak (Point 5, to our South) and Hamlin (Point 9, to our North).
So from the top of the Saddle Trail, we headed South towards the summit. The peak was still shrouded in cloud cover, so it wasn’t long before we were enveloped in the clouds ourself. Visibility quickly dropped to a few feet, and the drop in air temperature and the high winds had the temps easily down into the 30’s.
The unfortunate part of this section was that it was just a long (much longer than we expected) slog, with relatively significant elevation gain, towards the peak. It was at about this point that I felt an odd pain in my right leg as well, which made the large rocks on this path that much worse. To be honest, I was hurting at this point. From the euphoria at the top of Saddle Trail, it was now 30 minutes later and I was just begging to see the Summit sign appear out of the fog in front of me. The roughly 1 mile hike up the rest of the mountain took us an hour. It was slowing moving (mostly because of me) but also because of the cold and visibility.
Finally, sometime between 1000 and 1100, the sign appeared (with visibility as it was, it literally appeared out of nowhere). We had finally made the summit, 5,267 feet. Nearly 6 hours after we started, and about five and change miles from the campground, we were at Baxter Peak, the true summit of Mt. Katahdin.
We put down our packs and sat down. The problem was that it was freezing (literally) and the winds were quite strong. My watch temp read 40, but that was also because it was near my skin and covered by my jacket. I’d guess the low thirties (if not lower) at the peak. We found a rock to sit behind to try and shield ourselves from the onslaught, but it was mostly for naught. We took pictures of the sign and plaque (below), sat for about 5 minutes…and then made our way off the summit.
The cloud cover was a double-edge sword. On one side, it was unfortunate that we couldn’t see the view, which from everything I saw online is beautiful. It’s hard to get a sense of altitude (and thus accomplishment) when you can’t see the altitude that you’ve climbed. On the flip side, the cloud made it a weird and unique environment. It could have been the surface of an alien planet up there. And the lack of view meant that you just simply knew that three paces past that summit sign was a 4,000 foot or so drop to the ground. It made you walk around very slowly, taking great care to see a few stones in front of you to confirm that your intended route doesn’t drop you off the side of the mountain.
The way down was a bit easier- as we came out of the cloud it started to warm up (somewhat) and the winds died down a bit as well. We started to see a bunch of people- the first we had seen all day! They all came up (route UNK) and were slowly making their way to the summit, where we were just coming from.
Now, we were backtracking the mile we had just came from the top of Saddle Trail to the summit. We were descending back down, but that wouldn’t last long. Our descent lasted till we hit the top of the Saddle Trail (where, two hours ago, we emerged victorious). Once there, we began ascending again up Hamlin (if you follow along on the map image, we’re now walking from Point 5 to Point 9). With my leg still hurting, and getting worse with every step, speed was not my primary concern (though in hindsight, it should have been). Coming up Hamlin was easier than the last mile to the summit on Baxter- the rocks were just easier to negotiate. Plus it was in sun the whole time, keeping us a bit warmer (though the winds picked up as we gained altitude once again).
Around 1300, we made it to the flat top of Hamlin Peak, 4,760 feet. No cloud cover here, but it was pretty windy. Still, we sat down and actually ate some food. We probably spent 20 minutes on the ground eating and relaxing a bit. At this point, it had already been a nearly 8.5 hour day. We were both tired, but the food had given us a new energy. And our (dumb) belief that we were nearly done motivated us to move. Coming down Hamlin, there is a steep rocky ridge that you must get past. It’s probably a solid half mile to a mile, but it takes a while. It’s straight up bouldering, but since it’s a ridge, you’re exposed to a few thousand feet on both sides as you climb over/around these rock formations. The first section was hard and fun to negotiate. While still above the tree line, it was a challenge. But after that first section, it just sucks. As your drop below the tree line, the rocks are all wet (streams and such) which makes down climbing quite hard. Plus, and this was the worst of it: the gnats/flies/mosquitoes are back….and they’re back with a vengeance. As you’re trying to concentrate on your movement and hand and footholds, these little buggers are in your eyes, nose, ears, mouth, etc. You’re doing your best to swat them away, but it’s no use. I had a white shirt on, so with the little black gnats it looked like my shirt was black and white dots. It was disgusting, and horrible. Without the bugs, this part of the trip wouldn’t have been so bad at all. With them, it was sheer misery.
At this point, as we came to the bottom of Hamlin Ridge, we eventually met up with the trail at Point 11 (near Chimney Pond), and just came back the way we came up in the first place nearly 11 hours before. But the last three miles of the hike were probably the worst. We were tired (exhausted), the bugs were swarming, and it rained on and off. That 3 miles seemed longer now than it did in the morning.
But, finally, the campground came into sight and our car with it. Around 1700, we were back at our vehicle. After roughly 12 hours, and about 11 miles (I think?), we had sumitted both Baxter Peak on Mt. Katahdin and Hamlin Peak. These were our primary goals. While we didn’t do the Knife’s Edge (our original plan, stymied by the weather), I think we were both happy with that decision.
Katahdin was an amazing experience- it was my first time actually camping (!!!!), and the highest climb I’ve done to date. It was also the hardest one I’ve done. Neither of those two facts will last long though, as Mt. Adams is just 60 days or so away. To others, I would highly recommend this climb. It’s absolutely beautiful (minus the bugs), and it’s a serious challenge. I will also caution others that the route, whichever you use, is no joke. This isn’t a causal morning hike in the woods. You need to be in good physical shape for this, have the right gear/supplies, be prepped with a lot of water, and be prepared for possible emergencies on the mountain. But if all that is good to go, then absolutely go for it. It was awesome.