Katahdin – Maine’s High Point
Then here’s a hail to each flaring dawn!
And here’s a cheer to the night that’s gone!
And may I go a-roaming on
Until the day I die!
In my fifth or sixth year on the planet, I embarked on a climb of Katahdin with my family. This peak – whose name is Penobscot for “The Great Mountain” – dominates the horizon of central Maine. Growing up in a part of Ohio that abuts the beginnings of the Appalachian Plateau, I wasn’t used to flatness but nothing on the scale of a mountain like this one informed my internal geography. Each summer, my family headed to a cabin owned by my grandparents on the banks of the Pleasant River in Piscataquis County, Maine. The Great Mountain looms over everything in that part of the state. The 30 miles between the cabin and Katahdin easily put us within the domain of its visual preeminence. And, so, Katahdin began to dominate the imagination of a young child who loved mountains.
Though Katahdin is more than 1,000 feet higher than any other in crag Maine, it is far from a mountainous monopoly. I spent my childhood summers wearing out boots on peaks with wonderful names, such as Chairback, Doubletop, Coe, and Ragged (many years later, we scattered some of my grandmother’s ashes on top of Ragged Mountain). I enjoyed every vertical moment. In my head, however, each one of these mountains was a training session for the future ascent of Katahdin.
I listened to tales from my family about previous visits to this amazing location. They must have scaled its flanks dozens of times. I came to know the names of all the trails – Hunt, Helon Taylor, Cathedral, Abol, Saddle, Dudley – and the magnificent campgrounds – Katahdin Stream, Roaring Brook, Chimney Pond. I idolized a stretch called the Knife Edge, an arête between peaks with massive drops on both sides. A classic story from my family relays the time my mother and father were caught in a thunderstorm on the Knife Edge. Park rangers make sure climbers know never to be on the Knife Edge during a thunderstorm. My mother recalls the nightmare; my father seemed to love it. My grandmother, already into her 70s, was a titan to me, roaming the Maine woods for blueberries and searching the waters for bass, climbing mountains to find the Fountain of Youth. She revered the Great Mountain. This lore and these facts filled my head before I ever stepped foot on Katahdin, and all I knew was I wanted to follow my family to its top.
So, when my family planned the next climb up the mountain, I was more than excited. The ramble is not easy; no matter which trail one chooses, one can expect more than 4,000 feet of climbing, some of it requiring rock scrambling. This trek is strenuous for fit adults, let alone children in the kindergarten range. I recollect vividly emerging to a viewpoint on the trail, where the treeline gave way to a slab of the mountain across a valley. The landscape was so expansive that it flattened as my brain rendered it; the sprawling mountain looked more like a painting than a real object in front of me. I’m not sure where we were, but we had already been climbing for hours. It was time for my mother and younger sister to turn around and head back to the car. Did I want to continue with my father and grandmother? Or was I too tired to make it up the crux of the ascent?
I distinctly remember thinking, “My family comes here so frequently that I will have plenty of opportunities to climb this mountain. It’s not going anywhere. One day, you will be strong enough to make it. Maybe even next year.” Torn, I opted to head back to the car. It was probably the correct decision.
Next summer, for some unknown reason, my family members did not return to Katahdin. Or the next. Or the next. As a school child, one is dependent on adults to undertake endeavors such as mountain climbing. I desperately desired to hit the peaks each summer, but something new had taken hold in the climbers of the family. As my grandmother aged, she hung up the hiking boots. Why my father’s climbing decreased in this period, I don’t know. I’m not sure he knows. We still managed to get out to smaller mountains every now and then, but, no matter how loudly I exclaimed, never Katahdin. Grade school gave way to middle school and then to high school. By the time I started university and our annual Maine expeditions ended, I had still never climbed the mountain of my dreams.
To many people, mountains are all about the elevation figures. At just 5,269 feet (1,606 meters), Katahdin pales in comparison to the great peaks of the country and world. Everest tops everything at 29,302 feet (8,848 meters). Denali, the High Point of the United States, reaches 20,310 feet (6,190 meters). In the contiguous US, crags such as Mt. Whitney and Mt. Elbert move past 14,000 feet (4,267 meters). Even on the East Coast of North America, a few mountains boast higher elevations than Katahdin, such as Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, Mt. Marcy in New York, Clingmans Dome in Tennesse, and Mt. Mitchell in North Carolina, the highest peak east of the Mississippi River. On the list of state High Points, Maine ranks 22nd of 50. Nebraska’s Panorama Point – not exactly the paragon of steepness – features more elevation than both Katahdin and Marcy.
Yet, for a variety of reasons, Katahdin remains special for many mountaineers.
On the slopes of other mountains in Maine, we met adventurers from all over the world. Many times, discussing their travels with my father, we heard review after review of Katahdin from trekkers who mainly climbed in the Rockies. They were always surprised at how difficult the ascent of the Great Mountain was and, often, rated it as a harder endeavor than the peaks they scaled in the West. Part of this ability for a mile-high mountain to outclass something in the range of 14k stems from Katahdin’s omnidirectional relief or spire measure. These are fancy terms, basically, for steepness. Katahdin’s base is exceptionally low. The peak packs 4,288 feet of prominence, which is the measure of a mountain’s height relative to the lowest contour line that encircles the mountain but contains no higher summit within it. So, nearly all of its elevation is part of its prominence, indicating it rises starkly above its lowest contours. Further, Katahdin’s spire measure is the highest in the Northeastern United States. This figure measures how high a peak rises above its local terrain and how steeply, objectively removing elevation from the equation. Its steepness and rise outclass even the higher peaks in the region. When one attempts Katahdin, one assaults this steepness; in the West, many trails tend to feature switchbacks, which make ascents more bearable to the climber. Add it all up and, despite its lower elevation, Katahdin brings the mountainous heat.
Katahdin’s stark stature made it the perfect terminus for the world’s quintessential long trail. If one starts on the Appalachian Trail in Georgia and heads north for 2,198 miles, one’s journey will end atop Katahdin. Many celebratory images capture the culmination of months of plodding and climbing for thru-hikers.
Those finishing the AT need to visit Katahdin, but plenty of non-thru-hikers seek its slopes because it’s gorgeous and a fantastic hike. National Geographic named it one of the 10 Best Summit Hikes in the world. The views and experiences have drawn many artists to consider the Great Mountain. Henry David Thoreau summited “Ktaadn” in 1846 and wrote about the adventure in The Maine Woods. He mused, “This was that Earth of which we have heard, made out of Chaos and Old Night.” A spring at the foot of a section called the Tableland bears his name. Frederic Edwin Church and Marsden Hartley created fantastic landscape paintings of the mountain.
Thanks to a person named Percival Baxter, today, one can snag nearly identical views to the ones Thoreau would have seen in the 1800s. After climbing the mountain in 1920, the future governor attempted to pass legislation to craft the region into a state park. When the initiative failed, he decided to use his personal wealth to buy parcels. Between 1931 and 1962, he donated more than 200,000 acres to the state, under the condition that the park forever remain wilderness. Eventually, the park took on his name. Today, Baxter State Park boasts no electricity, no running water, and no paved roads. Though thousands visit its confines, the park remains remarkably close to the state it would have been in before the Civil War.
To some Indigenous Tribes, the bird spirit Pamola, the god of storms and thunder, inhabited and protected Katahdin. Pamola featured the head of a moose, the body of a human, and the wings and feet of an eagle. The Penobscot believed Pamola loathed mortals visiting the peaks and would ensnare anyone who attempted to do so. Thoreau wrote about the god: “Pomola is always angry with those who climb to the summit of Ktaadn.” These views led to a taboo amongst Native Americans, so, it’s possible that the ascent by surveyors Zackery Adley and Charles Turner, Jr., in 1804 was the first of Katahdin. Either way, Pamola still rests atop the mountain, blessing one of the subpeaks with his name.
More than 210 years after that climb, my ambition to scale Katahdin had burgeoned into a decades-long fantasy. Whether from learned helplessness or some unknown force, as I grew into an adult who did not require the guidance of a parent or grandparent to visit Katahdin, I still didn’t do so. Perhaps in the back of my mind, I kept waiting for a relative to ask me to join an excursion, even though the reality of such a trip was long gone. I could have made a pilgrimage to Baxter State Park at any point, but I languished.
What finally spurred me to call on Katahdin was a partner who also loved adventure. My wife and I traveled to Maine in August 2017, stopping first at Acadia. The day before our trek to Baxter State Park, we viewed the mountain from a distance. If it looks this big from 30 miles away, are we really ready for this challenge?
We reserved a spot at Katahdin Stream Campground, where the Hunt Trail ascends the mountain. This trail also happens to be the last leg of the Appalachian Trail. I had heard many tales of the gymnastics required to scale the boulders on Hunt, so it seemed like a wonderful option. Excitement overtook my being, as we prepared for the climb.
If one isn’t camping in Baxter, the park’s wilderness factor requires a super early start, as the rangers check in one car at a time. We arrived at the gate on 9 August 2017 at approximately 4:30 AM to find a line of cars ahead of us. We didn’t make it to the trailhead until about 7:00 AM, which was a bit later than we had hoped, but the beginning of a journey to which I had long aspired was finally about to begin.
From the campground to the top of Katahdin – Baxter Peak – is about five miles on Hunt, with more than 4,000 feet of climbing. The first mile is gentle, taking the hiker through an old-growth forest along Katahdin Stream, which is filled with water so clear that, at times, the channels look to be empty. At the mile mark, Katahdin Stream Falls emerges, a glittering curtain of water and the last landmark before the verticality takes over.
Shortly after leaving the Falls, one enters a punishing, upward “stairway” of stones. After a seeming eternity, the trees disappear and the climber enters the Hunt Spur. Here, the fun begins. If you’re a fan of rock scrambles, Katahdin is your paradise. The Spur is a massive boulder jungle. Contortion becomes the mode of transportation; iron rungs have been attached to some rocks, making the Spur an adult playground. At no point are advanced climbing skills required, but they certainly help.
And the views are exquisite. A peak called The Owl hoots to the west, as one ascends Hunt. Passing Thoreau’s Spring puts one into the Tableland, a region of alpine, tundra-like flora and fauna that mimics the Canadian landscape much farther north. Lichens cover the rocks, giving shelter to species that exist nowhere else, such as the Katahdin arctic butterfly, the American pipit, and the northern bog lemming. Remaining on the trail is vital in this fragile ecosystem. It feels as if one is walking on a different planet. For us, this feeling intensified as thick cloud cover rolled in. It began to look like we might not get to look down at Baxter as Thoreau had.
At this point, the tough climbing is over, as one clambers toward the top of the ancient Katahdin laccolith. The mountain is so massive that it boasts multiple peaks – Pamola, South, Hamlin, and Howe, amongst others – but Baxter Peak is the apex of Maine. As I neared the famous sign that sits at the summit, I started to well up with emotion. The place of which I had dreamt for so long was finally becoming a reality.
We approached the sign and slapped it to signal we had made it. I had to hold back tears of joy, as I dropped to my knees and extended my arms to the heavens. My Everest had been achieved! Even with no views, this moment was incredible.
After finding a spot with some shelter from the wind, we munched on lunch before heading onto the Knife Edge. As much as I had wanted to summit Katahdin, I had just as badly wanted to experience this harrowing stretch. Just a meter wide at some points, with drops of thousands of feet at both rims of the razor, the Knife Edge is a radical arête, carved by glaciers during the last Ice Age. Recalling the tale of my parents in the thunderstorm and the numerous deaths on the ridge over the decades, we cautiously stepped onto the Edge, despite the clouds. Thankfully, the pall did not come with wind, rain, or electricity. On our way back from South Peak, I strapped the GoPro on my wife to document our traverse.
We lingered at Baxter Peak, in hopes that the clouds might part. We decided to take a loop around the Tableland to explore it while giving the weather more time to clear. Unfortunately, the views never improved up high. Feeling great and overconfident, we decided to take another trail down the mountain. At Thoreau Spring, the Hunt and Abol Trails combine. Abol is a gnarly path that follows a rock slide. It’s the shortest path up Katahdin, but one pays for that shortness. Though I’m glad we sampled Abol, as I heard stories of my family sliding down the rocks and losing the backs of their pants in doing so, it extended our journey quite a bit. I ended up paying for this variety, as my body, in general, and knees, in specific, were pounded by the steepness of Abol. By the time we got off the slide, my shoulder seized and the last several miles were agony.
At Abol Campground, it felt like a respite, but we still had two miles to walk, since we had, of course, started at Katahdin Stream Campground. During the last stretch, I pushed my body to the limit. We ended up doing more than 14 miles on the toughest trails I have yet traipsed.
With each suffering step, I thought about the little boy who yearned to experience this mountain. Each moment of pain was well worth a dream realized. I never made it with my grandmother, father, or mother, but I had forged a path with a new member of my family. Six years removed from the experience, I am beyond grateful that my wife accompanied me on this trek.
Six years removed from the experience, I now have two tiny hikers-in-training. We all have our Everests. For some people, they are 8,000-meter mountains; for others, they are 5,000-foot mountains. For others still, they aren’t mountains at all. Will my daughters ever set a goal to climb Katahdin? If they continue to show interest in the outdoors, I cannot wait to take them one day onto the slopes of the Great Mountain; I cannot even fathom not doing so.
Even if Katahdin doesn’t become their ultimate goal, I hope to instill in them the spirit of a poem by Robert Service, which, according to legend, is etched on a boulder somewhere near Baxter Peak: may we go a-roaming on until the day we die!