Mt. Katahdin, Baxter Peak: A Treacherous Day on the Knife Edge
Saturday's hike up Mt. Katahdin did not go as planned to say the least. From the weather to our route, many factors made the hike very different than we had expected. My friend Todd and I had been planning this trip to Millinocket, ME since May, so we were really excited for the trip. Joined by our new hiking buddy Clark, we were hoping to hike Katahdin's Knife Edge Trail to Baxter and then Hamlin peaks to finish Todd's New England 67 list. Clark and I were planning to hike North Brother on Sunday to finish off all of the peaks at Baxter State Park in one weekend. With the seven hour drive up there, it was the perfect plan to minimize the number of times I would have to make the long trek there.
The tricky park about Katahdin is the permitting process. You have to reserve either a campsite or a parking spot weeks in advance, and they are in very high demand. We had planned for a weekend in June, but with the high snowpack this winter the trails had not yet thawed out and we had to move the permits. I had bought permits for both Saturday and Sunday just in case the weather was not ideal so we had a back up plan.
After arriving to the campsite after a seemingly day long drive north, I was greeted with gorgeous views of Katahdin from our campsite. The mountain was truly massive, looking dauntingly down at us from above. Todd brought a few kayaks, so we took some beers on the lake to eye the mountain that we were going to attempt to tackle the next day. Our only hesitation was the weather forecast. It showed afternoon thunderstorms on Saturday, but we were hoping it would hold off long enough for us to make it across the infamous Knife's Edge.
On Saturday morning we woke up early so we could be at the park's entrance gate for its opening at 6am. Baxter's rules state that if you have a parking permit you must enter the park before 7am or they are revoked and given away to others who have not reserved a parking spot. With the line being pretty long, we weren't taking any chances and got there early. After checking in we made our way to the trailhead, a 25 minute drive away. I didn't realize how big Maine's largest state park is, covering a vast 210,000 acres.
After parking at Roaring Brook and a final gear check, we signed into the hiker's book and started on our way up Helon Taylor Trail. It was a pretty steady incline from the start breaking treeline just over a mile in. The terrain was exactly like a typical trail in the Whites, rocky and the most direct way to the summit without switchbacks. The weather was really nice at this point giving us hope for the rest of the day. It was a great warm up to get our blood pumping and stretch out our legs. When we broke treeline the wind started blowing and we found ourselves engulfed in a sea of clouds. What we didn't realize was that we'd be stuck in this foggy mess for most of the weekend!
The hike up to Pamola Peak was misty, making the large granite boulders slick beneath our feet. The terrain was very reminiscent of the northern Presidentials. When we arrived at our first summit of the day, the words on the warning sign for the Knife Edge echoed in my brain. "DO NOT HIKE THIS TRAIL IN BAD WEATHER," it screamed, urging us to turn back. Bad weather is a relative term. Clark checked the weather on his GPS unit and it said that there were no thunderstorms looming, just a bit of rain before the sun was supposed to make its appearance in a few hours. We decided to push on since the wind wasn't too bad and turning around would likely mean bailing for the whole day.
As soon as we started descending the Chimney, freezing rain started to drizzle down. This part of the Knife's edge was the hardest for me, dropping at an extreme angle with an equally harsh clime just after. With the rocks being wet, the descent was extremely slippery and difficult. Not to mention that my choice in footwear was not ideal for slippery rock, the treads giving out unexpectedly below me. "What have I gotten myself into?" I muttered to myself as I gingerly lowered my body down into the depths of the chimney. It was then I realized what a treacherous mile it would be to the summit of Baxter Peak.
The climb back up to Chimney Peak was equally as difficult as the way down. Usually climbing up is not a problem for me, but the slick rock made it harder than normal. There were points at which I felt stuck with nowhere to go, but after a few seconds of route finding there were more options than I realized initially. It was definitely as much of a mental challenge as it was physical. I slipped and fell on a few rocks in true clumsy Lexi fashion, but luckily made it out unscathed.
Every aspect of this trail is truly extreme. There were sections where the granite was only two or three feet wide with dramatic 2,000 foot drops on either side. A fall here would be treacherous, and once you've climbed up the Chimney turning back is not an option. On a clear, dry day this trail would have been awesome! It was as frustrating as it was fun in the rain, making for a long haul to Baxter Peak. Eventually the rain blew through, so it was a little more enjoyable (but still slippery) towards the end.
When we reached Baxter Peak there was a feeling of triumph in the air. A few thru hikers were celebrating their finish here at the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Seeing them reach their goal after such a long trek was humbling. The visibility at the summit was only a few yards, but it was still a relief to be done with what we thought was the hardest part of the day.
From Baxter Peak we continued on what we thought was Saddle Trail to go across to Hamlin Peak, but unfortunately we had accidentally turned down Hunt Trail. This trail runs from Katahdin Stream to the summit of Baxter and it's the final climb of the AT. By the time we realized we were going the wrong way, we had descended too much to turn back with the storms coming. Although this trail spit us out over 15 miles from our car, we decided we would figure that out after we got back to the trailhead.
Hunt Trail was no joke. It was extremely steep and slippery, with a few spots that iron pins were necessary to pass through. Between the Gateway and the Cave, two rock formations signaling the boundaries of the toughest parts of the climb, were jagged rocks that threatened to throw you off at any second. Climbing down this took a lot of time and energy, especially because I didn't trust my shoes after a few slips on the Knife Edge. This made for an extremely slow descent especially after the freezing rain came back to play.
At this point my confidence had dwindled making me more and more frustrated with every step. I wanted so badly to keep up with Todd and Clark, but I was so unsure of my soaked feet that I had to inch my way down much slower than usual. This trail was absolutely thankless and cold rain soaked us to the bone. When we finally reached treeline we were all relieved. The rest of the descent was relatively easy terrain with carefully placed rocks forming stairs all the way down to Katahdin Stream Falls. The cascades were beautiful but we didn't take time to stop. By this time my knees were incredibly sore so maintaining momentum was key.
When we got down to the Katahdin Stream parking area we were faced with our next challenge, getting back to our car 16 miles away at Roaring Brook. This is a 45 minute drive on dirt roads, so we were hoping to hitch a ride with some fellow hikers. A nice couple drove us 5 miles to the Togue Pond Gate which was such a relief. From there we started walking the 11 miles to Roaring Brook, and after about a mile a nice couple offered us a ride in the back of their pickup. Our feet were extremely thankful especially hearing the booming of thunder coming towards us. After a long day of hiking, we couldn't believe that we had only gone ten miles. I was battered, bruised, and chilled to the bone. The hot shower when we got back to camp was heaven.
I'm often humbled by the mountains, but Saturday's experience was different. "Katahdin" literally means "Greatest Mountain" and it definitely lived up to its name. This monstrous peak is not to be underestimated by even the most seasoned hikers. I suspect that in good weather, although still strenuous, the Knife Edge would have been much more enjoyable. I usually crave tough scrambles with treacherous drops, but in the freezing rain it was probably the most difficult trail I've ever attempted.
Honestly, we tackled some of the most treacherous trails on the east coast in less than ideal conditions without any injuries, so I'd call it a win in my book! Luckily I had some great company for this hike so it was actually really enjoyable! We all had positive attitudes even when things went wrong, and we made the best of the situation. Although we hoped to summit both Baxter and Hamlin Peaks, things don't always go as planned. Luckily with another permit for Sunday, we still had a chance for Hamlin Peak before the weekend was over!
Mt. Katahdin, Baxter Peak (5,268 ft) via. Helon Taylor Tr, Knife Edge Tr, and Hunt Tr [9.86 mi, 4120 ft, 8:05].
Check out my Instagram @lexi.brocoum for more pictures!