The long, wide white blanket stretches as far as my eyes can see, covering the flatland below with snow that appears to be better than two feet deep. On first clear sight, the intense whiteness gleaming off the valley and the mountain burns my eyes. I put on eye-black and sunglasses and see clearly without pain. At mid-morning I finished packing the backpack and left the lodge, sleeping in after the long drive up from Boston, after the thickest of the snow had been cleared from the roads. That was preceded by a nearly eleven-hundred-mile drive from Atlanta. Three days out from my home base, I stand where I want to be, atop this hill looking out across an immense and beautiful land to the summit I am determined to reach by this time tomorrow. Now it is well past noon, the sun already headed west. Since I have been standing here, absorbing the terrain with binoculars and camera, the wind at my back has gained momentum and howls around my ears.
On the far side of the valley lies the end of the Appalachian Trail. Mount Katahdin rises nearly a mile, spare and majestic in the sun that has burned away the fog and clouds. Snow-covered, it rises formidable and forbidding. I take a deep breath and start down the steep rise into the deep snow of the valley, bracing myself against the wind that rips up against me like a buzz saw striking a brick wall, so bundled and determined am I.
A flash of reddish brown catches my eye, and I halt. Looking through the field glasses, I see a lone buck deer with an impressive rack of antlers crossing the horizon near the foot of the mountain. In my hunting days, before I woke up to reality, I would have brought along a rifle and taken aim, thinking of the impressive head I could place on the wall above the fireplace and all the good eating the venison would provide for mine and me. Not now, killing is not a sport. How could I have ever believed that it was? Instead, I take out the Nikon D3200 and take aim with the zoom lens. The buck pauses in his jaunt through the snow that is nearly chest deep on him. He looks my way, dead at me, I swear, as if any human taking any aim at him is worthy of his attention. I snap two quick photos, and he moves on, trudging a bit through the drifts, which gives me a good idea of how difficult the crossing will be.
Overhead a flock of crows caw and wing across the valley. How do they survive in this climate? No worms or greenery to feed on, unless you count the spruce, hemlock, and fir trees that must be what keeps the deer alive. Survive the crows and deer and moose do throughout winter in a place where after three days without food that I have brought along, I would be ready to chunk it in and head for the nearest pancake house. In warmer weather herons, egrets, tufted titmouse, chickadees, wrens, cardinals, and turkey vultures flock to the lakes and the mountain. Now the durable and resourceful crows are the only birds I have seen.
Lake Pemadumcook lies to the west, Lake Millnocket to the east. The land I am crossing lies almost equidistant between the lakes, frozen over on this February day. A southern boy, I have always wanted to walk or skate across a frozen lake in the dead of winter. Way up here alone, even with park rangers within a mile, I decide against such an undertaking. What with global warming running full steam ahead, the lakes might not be frozen solid enough to bear the weight of a hundred-eighty-pound man. I stick to the middle ground, the snowdrifts, cold and treacherous enough to suit my sense of challenge. After crossing the valley, the mountain is the beauty and the obstacle I must take on. As with any challenge, I will have to overcome myself, defeat overthinking and the weakening of will. That is the point of a challenge, isn’t it, making oneself stronger.
In their search for sustenance the crows have winged into the trees. The deer has vanished. I would like to see a moose, though not within charging range, and a black bear—those powerful creatures are in hibernation now. That is just as well. I have read that attacks by black bears are rare, but that would not provide much comfort if you were among the rare people attacked. The cold is biting and penetrating, but I believe I prefer it to an assault by black flies and mosquitoes that, according to what I have read and heard, are vicious and relentless in the warmer months. A sixteenth and seventeenth century French writer who explored and trapped in the northern woods and swamps thought them uninhabitable, due to the swarming, stinging insects.
The wind rips and roars out of the north, howling across the valley. I adjust the protective lenses and pull the ski mask tightly over my already chapped face and press on. The snow now rises nearly to my waist, the going is slow and tough. The thick pants and boots from L.L. Bean, Freeport, keep out most of the cold and damp. The thick gloves keep my hands from suffering frostbite. Impulsively I scoop up a handful of snow and slurp a small quantity. The taste is cold and hollow, but the moisture, along with the six bottles of water I have brought, is necessary to keep me hydrated, as the wind dries me outside and in. How far up the mountain can I make it today? Will I reach the top in this cold and wind? My goal for today is to find a camping spot, build a fire. The backpack carries several objects of necessity, including lightered wood to get the flames going. I must eat enough to replace the considerable energy I will have expended walking five miles and climbing half another, and stay warm enough to survive the night. I could be back in a warm apartment in ATL, but look at the shining and subtle beauties of winter I would miss.
History of Katahdin
The Native Americans of the region gave the mountain its name. They believed that the Spirit of Katahdin had extraordinary powers and that anyone who ventured onto the mountain risked never returning. The white settlers and visitors to the region were determined to climb the mountain to its summit. The first recorded climb was made by Zackery Adley and Charles Turner, Jr., surveyors from Massachusetts, in August of 1804. Henry David Thoreau made the climb in 1840 and described it in The Maine Woods, spelling it Ktaadn and grousing about the difficulties and privations of long distance hiking in the north woods. Seems he preferred the woods around Concord, where a quick hike into town could provide refreshment and society. The first woman to reach the summit was Elizabeth Oakes Smith in 1849. In 1895, Frederic Edwin Church painted the mountain. In 2011, his work, Twilight, sold for $3.1 million. (Too bad old Fred was no longer around to reap the munificent reward for his labor. I hope his descendants got some of the haul.)
For several decades after the mountain became a popular visiting site the roads were nearly impassable by car or horse-drawn wagon. In the 1930s, Maine Governor Percival Baxter acquired a great deal of land in the area and eventually donated better than 200,000 acres for a state park, Baxter Park—what else? The roads were improved, and the number of visitors per annum increased, though I am the sum total of visitors so far today. According to the US Board of Geographic Names, the summit is actually “Baxter Peak.” I prefer to stick with the name given it by its original inhabitants. “The Spirit of Katahdin” bears many more poetic possibilities. The mountain’s most famous and difficult ridge is the Knife Edge between Panola and Baxter Peaks. I plan to return in the summer, with company, and make that climb. On my own in February, I will be more than content to reach the summit the best and least difficult way I can. The park ranger at the station discouraged me from camping out overnight, but I am determined to make the climb on my own terms—mine and the mountain’s.
First Leg of The Climb and Night
Using a staff and fairly well-conditioned legs for an old coot, I climb along what I believe is the Abol Trail, the shortest route up the mountain. The slippage of rocks during the winter of 2013-2014 forced the park to reroute the trail, with several switchbacks, so it is now over a mile longer than before. The steep trek is made mostly into the wind that blasts me with spews of snow. More than once during the arduous climb to reach even this modest elevation—maybe 2,000 feet—it occurred to me that I am a damn fool for taking on the mountain alone. Alone and at age fifty-nine. Should have done this thirty years earlier and with at least one friend. But this is where I am and when. Make the most of it. Looking back, or down, is a waste of time and energy, and I will need a whole heap of the latter to make it to the top and back to the lodge.
After clearing a mostly dry patch of ground, I pitch the pup tent and go in search of dry wood. The kindling I brought along remains dry. Scouring the area with flashlight, I find some fallen hemlock saplings that have been held off the snow by trees fallen before them and set to work with a hatchet. Better than an hour later I have about chopped myself out and believe I have enough to get a good blaze going. Enough to keep the fire burning until sunup? No. I go back to work with the flashlight and the hatchet. Necessity can summon up reserves of energy you never knew you had.
With enough wood to make it until daylight, I hope, I get the blaze going strong and steady and fit my six feet, one-eighty into the tent, snuggle down into the sleeping bag. The wind has died down considerably, though occasionally it kicks up, blowing snow, as it blasted my face several times during the climb, threatening to put out the fire. Also, there is the danger of a spark igniting the tent. I have been assured by the salesman at L.L. Bean and by the manufacturer’s brochure that it is fireproof. Still, I placed the sleeping quarters a good fifty feet from the fire. Making doubly sure there is next to no chance of conflagration, I crawl out of the sleeping bag and part the tent’s flap.
Most of the swirling snow vanishes in the heat from the flames. Fatigue overcomes worry, and within minutes I drift off into a dreamland where warm sunny beaches dominate the landscape. Waking after three hours in order to relieve the old bladder is a hazard of late middle age one has to learn to live with, easier to live with when the air around you is not several degrees below freezing. To amuse myself, I write my name in the snow with the troublesome urine that woke me, stoke the fire, and add a few more pieces from the fallen hemlocks, then slide rapidly and shivering back into the downy bag. Sleep is not so quick to come this time, and every sound I hear puts me in mind of some approaching menace. The bears are in their caves, no wolves on this mountain in decades, my rational mind assures me. Still, the darkness that surrounds me and the fire is all but complete. Only faint light from the quarter moon and the rest of the cosmos reassures me. More snow falls. The wind starts up again. Shivering, I snuggle deeper into the bag. Soon even the overactive imagination wears out, and sleep kisses me with its lovely, soft lips.
Sunrise, Back on the Trail
Of the many things for which I give thanks, preeminent this morning is that this journey will be completed today, and I can return to the warm lodge to thaw out before the long drive home. In the meantime, I give thanks to the spirit of the mountain that I am here, that I have the opportunity to see and be in this place when so many the world over haven’t the choice to make such a journey, much less have a warm, comfortable lodge awaiting them when this arduous leg of the trip is done.
All of that gratitude is, of course, dependent on me making it to the summit and back down, unbroken and unfrozen. Some of the wood on the former fire still glows red and white hot. The dry wood I stuffed into the backpack gets the blaze going again, and I can have coffee and warm food.
I wish I had been at the summit for sunup, where it has been written, by John Knowles in A Separate Peace, that “the sun first strikes US territory.” I will camp up there come summer. For now, I am content to be here and, after some jerky and powdered eggs, a cup of Joe, I resume the snowy, rocky ascent.
As expected, the higher the altitude, the more difficult the climb. After a half hour, I reach a pass between rock formations and gut it out for another hundred feet or so before reaching a plateau where I can lean against a rock wall and catch my breath—no easy task with a wind of at least forty mph blowing down on me. Ahead is the steepest leg of the climb, so far. Don’t look back, time is gaining on you. It is yet early morning, maybe eight by now; I intentionally left phone and watch behind. The concerns and obsessions with the every-day world have little place up here. The climb, the summit, the view of the white valley and greenery peeking through the snow are what matter. Those and survival. I have come this far, in part, to test myself against the elements, to see if I still have what it takes to meet nature on her terms and live to tell the tale. The crows circle overhead, cawing. Are they mocking or warning me? Probably neither. They have their own concerns, and it is doubtful that I am one of them. I stir myself and trudge on. Motion staves off the cold far better than stasis.
On this stretch of the trail, the rocks are slippery, treacherous. It behooves the climber to take his time. A talent for navigating the hurly burly of city life is of no use to you here. The nearly sheer rock wall shields me from the full brunt of the wind. I dig in with the staff and trudge on, following a pass between cliffs. It occurs to me for the first time that I have naively failed to bring along any rappelling equipment. No harness. It is just as well, I am a neophyte at this sort of mountain climbing and would be likely to commit some oversight that would send me tumbling down the mountain. What I have is determination—my girlfriend calls it stubbornness, sometimes pigheadedness. I make up my mind that I will not quit, will not turn back. It is the mindset that does not guarantee success; no matter how pigheaded the climber, nature can kick your booty, kick it all the way off the mountain. I have a great respect for the forces that surround me, the Spirit of Katahdin. So I keep digging in with the staff, pushing my legs and back and arms and heart as far as they will go before breaking. Finally, finally, the top of the pass is reached, and I collapse on the plateau, spent, for the moment.
The wind has shifted and now blows up the mountain, at my back, a godsend. I rise to a sitting position. Thank heavens for the insulated pants and the thick downy coat and gloves, for the staff and for the pigheadedness I must have inherited from both parents, who were never quitters. I get up and press on.
The summit is within sight. An arduous last few hundred feet lie between me and it. Steady on, heart and soul, arms and legs and back. You can make it. The mountain will not defeat me. In a way, it and the elements are helping me along. The sun is up and good and bright, providing the first warmth of the day. The wind has slowed to maybe twenty mph and pushes me upward. I dig in, trudge on, and try not to think of the finish, the descent, the return home. I hope to pass this way again, but it will never be the same as this, the first time. Relish the climb, the challenge, moment by moment, foot by foot.
Another difficult pass, then a nearly straight shot to the summit. I stand on snowy rocks in the wind, swaying a little but holding my ground, gazing across the valley to the distant blue hills. I clear the snow from the sign: KATAHDIN BAXTER PEAK…NORTHERN TERMINUS OF THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL, it reads. I have made it. Or has it made me?
Photos by Tim Markley, Patrick Lienin, Galyna Andrushko, tomas1111, and Duncan Andison.