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The top of Maine:
Katahdin (Baxter Peak)
Elevation:5,267 feet
Location:north-west of Millinocket, ME
Date:9/25/2003

Alone at the summit with Pamola

After a non-hiking "rest day" paddling in Acadia National Park and then driving up to Millinocket, I was ready to test myself against Mount Katahdin. I woke up early, before my alarm even went off I was so anxious to have a close up look at this mountain. Of all the highpoints, Mount Katahdin was probably the first I was truly aware of. I knew it early on as the northern end of the Appalachian Trail, the goal of thousands of northbound thru-hikers every year. Most pictures I've seen of the mountain depicted thru-hikers celebrating at the sign on the summit, their goal achieved.

For a time, I thought about leaving Mount Katahdin for last, and possibly picking it up only after completing the Appalachian Trail (as thru-hike or in sections). My own goals and reality bumped against this grand idea, and I had to admit I had no idea if I'd ever hike all of the AT, and coming back to Maine would be far more expensive than reaching the summit on this trip.

Plus, more than anything else, I wanted to hike the Knife Edge.

The Knife Edge trail might just be the most famous summit trail in the US. I wanted to see it, I wanted to hike it, and I'll admit, I wanted to be able to say "I've done it."

Taylor trail to Pamola
Taylor trail to Pamola.

I quickly ingested a bowl of granola and brewed some coffee for the 15-mile drive to Baxter State Park. I arrived as the second car at the gate, 10 minutes before 6am. After a short, anxious wait, a ranger came along and unlocked the gate, the now lengthened line of cars snaked toward the gatehouse. I got a spot at the Roaring Brook parking lot and paid my ten dollars for not being a Maine resident.

Once I reached the parking lot, I quickly laced up my boots and shouldered my pack and found the ranger station. Two hikers were already talking to the ranger about their plan to hike up Hamlin Peak (the second highest mountain in Maine). The ranger advised that they probably wouldn't see anyone, "I only send 3-4 people there on any given day." He was somewhat less positive about my plans for the Knife Edge. While not really discouraging, he did warn that the forecast called for 15-20 mph winds, which on the ridge above tree line can easily be 2-3 times that. I reassured him somewhat that I had done class 2-3 scrambles in the Rockies, and that I did have plenty of water and a flashlight. He also suggested that I sign in at the Chimney Pond ranger station when I passed by there so they would know I was off the summit. I'm sure he had visions of having to search for this lost hiker from Indiana who attempted the Knife Edge.

Pamola and the start of the Knife Edge
Pamola and the start of the Knife Edge.

I started off down the Chimney Pond trail and quickly came to the junction with the Helon Taylor trail leading to the Knife Edge. As I hiked through the trees and over the granite boulders in the path, I tried to remember my moderate and slow pace that took me efficiently up Mount Washington. I also couldn't help thinking of Thoreau's words:

"The mountain seemed a vast aggregation of loose rocks, as if some time it had rained rocks, and they lay as the fell on the mountain sides, nowhere fairly at rest, but leaning on each other, all rocking stones, with cavities between, but scarcely any soil or smoother shelf."

Before reaching the only creek crossing on the Taylor trail, I passed 4 other hikers who had started just a bit before me. The trail began to gain elevation, and as the trees began to thin out and grow shorter I was granted a few peeks at the ridge above me, and the beginnings of a thick cloud that would obscure Baxter Peak all day.

Once I reached timberline, I found myself above the vast majority of the surrounding peaks and nestled between the summits were the day's clouds still waking up from the night and their rest in the valleys below. The wind, however, had not slept in, but was already gusting over 20 mph as I continued higher.

Pamola was the name the local Indians gave to the god or daemon who always brought the wind and clouds to obscure the summit of Katahdin. It was fitting that the sub peak I was headed for was named for Pamola, as the winds grew in strength as I approached the top.

Pamola's summit
Pamola's summit.

I found temporary shelter from the gusts, and pulled on a light windbreaker. Returning to the wind's fury, the windbreaker flapped and pulled at my arms, snapping like hundreds of peals of thunder. I found the worst winds occurred in the relatively flat stretches between rocky bumps on the ridge, and a few times I found my feet being blown 6 inches or more from where I had intended to set them down.

The Knife Edge Ridge
The Knife Edge Ridge.

I was now leaning into the wind to hike forward, and at one particularly gusty spot I was crawling on my hands and feet forward to the next rock shelter. While I wasn't cold, I threw on a light fleece jacket over the wind breaker, which stopped the wind's grip on my clothes. No longer audibly assaulted by the snapping jacket, or slowed by its drag, I continued upward and finally reached Pamola.

I took refuge behind the summit cairn, and pulled on a light hat and gloves. I then ripped into a Cliff bar more aggressively than I'd ever found the need to before. However, I was ecstatic to be at the start of the Knife Edge, of which I could see far less than half, since Pamola's clouds were obscuring the true summit on Baxter Peak.

I had been warned that the chimney (a distinct notch in the ridge) would be the windiest part of the whole ridge. I pulled on a pair of shell gloves over the thin liner gloves I had on, tightened my pack straps and headed for the chimney.


Knife Edge
The Knife Edge.

The down climb in the notch proved to be difficult with the extra gloves and amazingly, the wind was non-existent in the chimney. I tucked the extra gloves in my pants pockets and completed the climb in the notch. I then ascended the other side of the notch to continue on the Knife Edge. I didn't know it yet, but I had just passed the most difficult climbing section of the ridge (the chimney) and the windiest section (the Taylor trail leading up to Pamola).

Knife Edge
The Knife Edge.

While the wind was still gusting over 30 mph, the rest of the Knife Edge wasn't very technical. In fact, I actually got used to the wind, hardly even realizing any more that it was there. Generally a light scramble, for much of the ridge I was able to walk upright. It was definitely comparable to Mount Borah's Chicken Out Ridge.

The route was extremely well marked, and even in the clouds I could see several blue blazes ahead. However, I had no idea where I was on the ridge in relationship to the other peaks (South Baxter and Baxter itself).

I climbed up a slight rise picking my way over boulders when an enormous rock cairn materialized out of the mists. I initially assumed it was a marker for South Baxter peak, but then just behind it I could make out the summit sign. I let out a triumphant yell and then a laugh, that'd I'd finally reached this point where I'd seen so many pictures and read so many hiker journals about - the end of the Appalachian Trail.

Katahdin's summit
Katahdin's summit.

I took a few pictures of the sign, and traced the letters "K-A-T-A-H-D-I-N" with my finger, then walked down the AT to the first cairn, then back up to the summit, wondering if I was feeling a tenth of the joy of one who just hiked over 2000 miles to reach this point.

No other hikers emerged from the clouds, so I started down towards the Saddle Trail. Only partway down did I even think that I'd just reached highpoint number 42, and finished every highpoint east of the Rockies.

Hamlin Peak
Hamlin Peak.

Instead of hiking down the Saddle trail immediately to the Chimney Pond campground, I continued following the ridge north, and then turned right on the Hamlin Ridge Trail to reach the summit of Hamlin Peak. Amazingly, as I reached the summit cairn, the same two hikers who had left the ranger station immediately ahead of me arrived as well. They had seen a moose and three bears on the hike in, so had stopped for a few pictures, but were still surprised that I had reached Hamlin via my route over the Knife Edge and Baxter Peak at the same time they did. We chatted for a while, and enjoyed the clear views from Hamlin Peak. However, the wind was worse here than on Baxter (but nowhere near as bad as on Pamola). So after a while, I headed down the rest of the Hamlin Ridge trail and finally back to tree line and out of the wind.

Pamola, Knife Edge, Baxter
Pamola, Knife Edge, Baxter viewed from Hamlin.

Looking back at Hamlin Peak
Looking back at Hamlin Peak.

I made a slight detour to the Chimney Pond campground to sign in at the ranger station there, then headed down the Chimney Pond trail back to the parking lot. I stopped for a few pictures at the Basin Lakes, but mostly I rushed out so I could enjoy a celebratory dinner at the River Drivers restaurant in Millinocket that night.

Heading down the Hamlin Ridge trail
Heading down the Hamlin Ridge trail.

"To most people Mount Katahdin is but a name. To those who have both seen and climbed the Mountain, it is a wonderful reality, and the memories of a trip to its summit remain vivid through the years." -Percival Baxter

Basin Pond and Katahdin
Basin Pond and Katahdin.

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