My Experience with the Great Mountain - Mt. Katahdin


When my brothers and I were kids we spent our summers between Cape Cod, MA & Northern Maine. This is probably why I love both the ocean and the mountains. When we were at our grandparents' house in Maine we had lots of adventures. A typical day might include hiking, fishing for brook trout, picking blueberries, going on a picnic, stopping by airports & cousins’ houses unannounced, placing a penny on the railroad tracks and going back later to find it flat as a pancake. (If a train was ever derailed or damaged by that then it was my brother, Steve's, idea!) As my brothers got older they were off on their own adventures. Gone were the days when the four of us were fighting in the back of my Grandfather’s plane, and he would jostle the yoke back and forth until we all started laughing. What a great way to end a fight! My grandfather was an amazing man.

I clearly remember one day in Maine when I was 12 years old. My grandfather (we called him Goomp) asked me what I wanted to do the next day. I thought about it for a second and said, “How about hiking to the top of Mt. Katahdin?” Goomp, who was 68 years old, quickly replied, “Sure, we can do that.” Thinking back it makes me proud of the man he was. He didn’t try to get me to pick something else to do – he simply agreed, and he went down cellar & came back up to the kitchen with his army-issued backpack from World War II. Then he made a couple of peanut butter & jelly sandwiches for us - wait, that's a lie. Gram made those. I don’t ever remember seeing him make lunch. In 15 minutes we were all set for our adventure the next day. When I think to the present day and all the things I pack to climb a mountain l giggle and smile about Goomp's simplicity. K-I-S-S. Keep it Simple Stupid! 

We got up the next day while it was still dark out. If you have never been that far North in the Summer that is really early in Northern Maine in the month of July. We climbed up the Hunt Trail which is the longest trail to the Summit at Baxter Peak (5.2 miles) on Mount Katahdin.

My favorite stop to this day was about an hour into our climb over granite boulders at Katahdin Falls. I can still see Goomp hovering over the edge of the trail looking down on the large waterfall. The birch trees were so beautiful. We grabbed some rest, water, pictures and a glimpse of the view down below. We stopped many times along the way to rest, chat, eat our sandwiches, and take a sip from our water bottles.

What I enjoyed the most was the quiet of the deep woods, the sound of the stream in the distance & Goomp’s stories. He always loved to play jokes and his stories made me laugh. When we were almost at the Summit & somewhere past the Appalachian Trail the weather rolled in and covered the glacial mountain with clouds. So much for seeing the view from the top of my first mountain.

It was a little disappointing to come this far only to miss out on the view from the top. It was here that Goomp sat down on a big rock to catch his breath. He told me to keep going, he had already seen it before. I hesitated about leaving him but he looked content. I was almost there, and he said he would be right there waiting for me when I returned. I continued on the rest of the way alone to the Summit. I don’t remember how long it took me but it wasn’t very long, maybe 10 minutes.

I made it back to find Goomp. He smiled up at me from his rock and asked, “Did you do what you wanted today?” I answered him with a big smile on my face, “Yes, now let’s go home.”

Over the years I have attempted to go to the top of Mt. Katahdin but most of those times I didn’t get all the way to the highest peak – not even close but I still loved the climb. It got to the point where my family would start to avoid me because they were afraid I was going to ask them to go with me. I really do love those woods and have such great memories of my summers there.

One summer my Uncle Marvin fell for it and since no one else would climb the mountain with me he said he would go with me. He was 40 years old so I must have been about 15. Within the first hour I remember thinking that he was never going to make it. He was huffing and puffing and really struggling. I was very surprised that we made it to the top, and we took one of the most treacherous paths across what is called Knife’s Edge. They call it that because it is extremely narrow as you traverse the mountain. If you look down to your left and right you can see down each side of the mountain because the ridge is right between your feet. Many people have trouble with this trail and some have been blown off the mountain by a gust of wind. Some are rescued and some are recovered later so you can imagine what it’s like. I was really proud of my Uncle Marvin that day. He never complained once, and he didn’t give up. He did have trouble going up and down stairs and getting out of his chair for about a week after. LOL

Since then I have used the mountain to test various things: friendships, boyfriends. You know, the important stuff. I figured if someone could climb Mt. Katahdin with me then it was a great testament to their strength, character and our compatibility. So far I haven’t found a man to climb it with me who could keep up with my 68 year old grandfather! Sorry honey, you got close twice and both times we had to turn back because of dangerous weather. Third time is a charm! You kick my butt climbing so I think I need to step it up. 

My Dad’s summer job when he was 11 was guiding 2 pack mules – Jack and Nancy – up the mountain with camping gear for hikers who wanted to camp on the mountain but didn’t want to haul all their gear in and out. He said he wore his Converse sneakers and brought a bottle of water. He still laughs at me when he sees all the stuff I put in my pack. He just shakes his head. I mean I might need my mirror to start an emergency fire. I’m just kidding, I would never get that to work.

This past year my Dad said he wanted to train to climb the mountain with my kids. We planned on spending our vacation this year in Maine but life had other plans. We bought a new house instead and spent the summer getting settled. I even wrote on my vision board that I wanted to climb Mt. Katahdin with my Dad & family. At the end of the summer I realized it wasn’t going to happen so I debated crossing it off my vision board. I was sad that it wasn’t going to happen. (Never give up on your vision).

Then one day my Dad told me he was going to Maine. I looked at my calendar and asked if I could meet him there. Of course he thought that was a great idea. My husband watched the kids because summer was over and they had school. It was pretty late in the season for climbing the mountain so I didn’t want to get my hopes up. When you climb a glacial mountain you can pretty much expect nasty weather at some point if not all day.

A friend came along for the trip, and she was my willing victim to tackle Mt. Katahdin. The three of us went on a few practice hikes at the base of the mountain. I was impressed with my Dad. We covered some pretty rough terrain. He and I went on some hikes by ourselves too and had a great time together telling stories and doing some stuff we probably shouldn’t have. We both have some souvenirs to remind us of our hikes from our trip.

It came time to do our hike but we couldn’t get into Baxter State Park where Mt. Katahdin is located. I wasn’t able to get a rental car with such short notice and Dad’s truck was too wide for the mountain roads. We finally found a shuttle that would take us and come back to get us at the end of the day. Our driver, Lloyd, promised not to leave us on the mountain. Hurray! The only problem was we couldn't get a park pass for the day we needed it. That meant we would have to wait in line and hope someone else didn't show up to use their pass. However, The Universe took care of us and made sure we picked up another group of climbers who had a pass for that day.

Here we are at the start of our climb! Abol Campground Ranger Station at the start of the trailhead.

On the morning of our climb our shuttle driver picked us up at my grandparents’ house while it was still dark out. We were impressed with the VIP service. PSA: If you want to climb to the top of Mount Katahdin plan on it taking you all day and then some. The weather can change very quickly and you want to allow extra time to get off the mountain and not get stuck in a dangerous situation. I have encountered hail and freezing rain on a previous attempt in the middle of July. Those air-activated handwarmers, gloves and a poncho saved my partner and me.

This time we were hiking in October which meant that we had even less daylight then when I climbed in the summer months. I was really worried about not getting off the mountain while we still had light. There is no cell service in the park so I couldn’t depend on anyone else to get us down safely. I also couldn’t let anyone in town like my Dad know where we were and what kind of progress we were making. Of course I signed in at the ranger’s station when we started our climb and wrote down the trail we were going to take. Always let someone know your plan and when you should be back.

I was with an inexperienced climber this time but happily, she was physically fit. This makes a big difference in terms of endurance but there is still the mental challenge of a climb like this. We started off at 7:30 AM and the first hour was what I call the honeymoon period. It was beautiful, not hot, not cold, no bugs. The forest was lush and green with new mushrooms on the mossy ground. There was a little creek flowing down the middle of Abol Trail from all the rain they had that month. About an hour into it we stopped for a quick break and I ate my first almond butter and banana sandwich on gluten-free bread. I couldn’t believe I was already hungry as I had eaten a full breakfast before Lloyd from Katahdin shuttle picked us up. Oh boy, this was going to be a long day.

We hadn’t even really started climbing yet but we were about to. When I say we were climbing over boulders I really mean it. Sometimes you have to get on your hands and knees, grab onto a tree if you can and pull yourself up. (We chose to go up the shortest, steepest trail this trip). This is the time when you still know you can do it but begin to question what you’re doing. My partner was doing great and all I can say about me was that I was determined to make it to the top. My last attempt with my husband and 2 kids we made it over the top edge of the mountain but we did not make it to the highest peak. We turned around with another 2-1/2 hours of ascent left to go. It was getting too late and bad weather had rolled in. We decided not to risk going to the peak because we did not have enough time to get down safely.

I don’t want to bore you with every detail of the climb. Here is a video of my partner, Karen, climbing over some rocks. The trail got worse after this point! (Click on the picture or link below to see the video).

 This is the above video of Climbing Mt. Katahdin

Just after noon it started to get really hairy. The mental drain was real. I went up ahead of Karen on the trail and saw what was coming. I realized that the 2 of us were not going to make it to the top that day. It was a shame – the weather was the most beautiful I have ever seen on that mountain. The clouds that were covering the top of the mountain 45 minutes before had rolled away and it was blue skies as far as the eye could see. I think Goomp was clearing the way for me from Heaven.

I came back down to where Karen was and had a talk with her about aborting our plan. We agreed that she wasn’t going any farther and needed to rest. I still felt like I could make it to the top but only if I left her and went on alone. This is a very risky thing to do and I do not recommend it. You should always stay together unless someone is hurt and needs help. However, I considered a few things and we talked it through. Earlier we had discussed what time we needed to start our descent no matter where we were on the mountain. I knew that by 2:30 or 3 PM the very latest we needed to be booking it back down the mountain to arrive at the Ranger’s station before dark. I looked at my watch, calculated the remaining distance as best I could and told Karen if she promised not to move from where she was that I would like to attempt to get to the top by myself. I was on a mission and I didn’t know if I could do it in time. We did a quick water and food check and off I went.

When I tell you the trail got much harder after that I wasn’t kidding. However, from where I left Karen to the top of the very steep ridge up over the edge of the mountain took me about 15 minutes. When I got there I saw I sign that said Baxter peak was another 1.1 miles. I knew that my average pace on this mountain is 1 mile per hour if I am doing well. I started to panic and question if I could get to the top in time to turn around before my deadline to head back to Karen. I took my backpack off, drank a full bottle of water and made my decision… 

(In case you don't remember learning about topographic maps in school the closer the lines are the steeper the terrain is). I was slower than my usual 1 mile per hour pace but Abol is the steepest trail. It can be both the quickest and slowest way to the top of the mountain at the same time. LOL

If I was going to make it to the top and I was going to make it to the top that day it meant that I had to sprint. I made up my mind that it was happening. I took off at a jog hopping from rock to rock. I started to see people on the narrow trail. They could hear the pounding of my walking stick and my heavy breathing and they jumped out of my way. I felt like a bull in a china shop with very wobbly legs at this point as I moved as fast as I could towards my goal. The weather was so gorgeous that I started to get hot but I didn’t have time to take off my second pair of pants I was wearing. Plus, it was just me on top of a mountain above the tree line which means no trees to hide behind. As I passed a guy hiking by himself I smiled at him and asked if he had seen the bathroom. We both laughed when he said it was up ahead somewhere.

My heart was racing from jogging with a heavy pack on but I knew I couldn’t stop. I desperately wanted to just sit for 10 or 15 minutes. The balls of my feet were on fire. I found out later that my metatarsals in my foot were pinching a nerve. Not a fun feeling. I had quite the emotional conversation with Goomp in Heaven and I asked him to guide me. Every time I thought I was getting close I was told it was just a bit farther. When I looked up to see how far just a bit farther was I couldn’t see the peak. I knew I just had to buckle down and do it. I promised myself I was going to make it to the highest peak this time.

Here I am at the summit of Baxter Peak 5,268 feet. You can see my emotion in this video. 

I asked a couple of hikers to take my picture real quick when I got there, had a bottle of water and headed back down. Now my focus was making it to Karen by 3 PM our cutoff time. When I compete in a team workout at the gym I am always worried about how my performance as an individual affects our team as a whole. I never want to be the reason the team does poorly. I want to know that I gave it my all. That was what I had to do now. I had to put the pain aside, the fact that my legs were shaking, and I was breathing heavy and just keep going.

If you have never climbed a mountain you probably don’t realize that going back down the mountain is harder than going up. I was doing my best to watch where I placed my feet so I wouldn’t fall. I finally made it to the spot where I thought Karen should be. I didn’t see her so I stopped, put 4 fingers in my mouth and whistled. (Thank you to Tini Lutz for teaching me how to whistle on the playground in 6th grade).  I was so happy when I heard her call out. I met up with her and looked at the time. It was 2:50 PM. I was 10 minutes early. I told her that this was the most critical part of our climb. We made our way down as carefully as we could. We were getting closer but again looking at our time and the distance remaining and the amount of daylight I realized we were going to be on Mt. Katahdin in the dark! I took off my pack and got out my flashlight and 2 headlamps while I could still see to find them.

We put our headlamps on and about 15 minutes later we turned them on. There was still quite a ways to go to the Ranger’s Station. Before it got dark I thought that it wouldn’t be a problem because we had our lights, some water and knew how to follow the trail.

Then I realized that I was having trouble seeing the blue trail marker patches on the trees. I asked Karen if she could see them, and she was having trouble finding them too. Not good! Luckily, we ran across that creek that we had joked about earlier since it ran right down the middle of the trail. We decided that we could no longer worry about keeping our feet dry and proceeded to walk down the middle of the stream stomping through the mud and water. We had to get out of those woods SOON.

I showed Karen how to look for the rock barriers that the Youth Conservation Corps had placed in the ground on the trail. They ran diagonally along the trail to help redirect the water flow when it rains. We felt that if we kept following those rock walls then we must be on the trail. I wasn’t 100% sure but every once in a while we would see a trail marker so we continued on.

We finally got to the beginning of the trail where the camps were. We stopped to ask directions to the Ranger’s station so we could sign out and meet our shuttle driver. Almost there… I heard a crash behind me. Karen had tripped for the first time all day over a plastic barrier that was in the road to redirect the water flow. She went down hard, banged up her leg and hit her head on the ground. I picked her and her lights back up and we proceeded to the Ranger’s Station.

The Ranger was waiting on the porch for us drinking his coffee. You see, we were the last 2 hikers left on the trail. Everyone else made it down hours before and had already signed out. He asked my name and I told him Marraffino. He radioed to the front gate at Tongue Pond and talked with the other Ranger. She assured him she would walk down the road to let my Father know that we were alright and would be out shortly. He had been waiting for us for a while as far as his wide truck would take him.

It was a great day! We went home to eat the chicken soup I had made the day before and celebrated our climb with a bottle of champagne. 

P.S. If you are planning on hiking or climbing a mountain check out this article on The Best Ways to Prepare Physically for Mountain Climbing.



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