On the summit at the end of the Appalachian Trail

Mount Katahdin, 5267ft

Dates climbed: 4:09pm May 23, 2009 (M & E); 4:58am August 24, 2006 (M & E); March 27 & 28 & 29, 2006 (Eric)

Pictures on MITOC Gallery: Aug 2006, May 2009, March 2006

Trip Report: the Final Day of the Appalachian Trail (August 24, 2006)

Our 2am alarms jolted us awake in the shelter at the Birches Campground, five miles and 4000ft below the summit of Baxter Peak.

We shivered as we unzipped our sleeping bags and replaced the 98 degree air for a 40-degree chill. It seemed like it was too cold for August, but we had just woken up and our fuel tanks were empty; the 1/2lb of pasta from the evening had already been spent, and we were ready for some crereal–8 “servings” of it to be precise–but when you’re hungry and tired you can divide that number by 4.

Fate would have it that Eric lost his headlamp the previous morning and we were forced to rely on mine alone. It was difficult enough to eat breakfast by one headlamp, but we worried about scrambling over boulders above treeline with no more than starlight and half a headlamp apiece to illuminate our path. But we had to do it. We knew that we couldn’t merely walk up to the top in broad daylight and then march straight back down the mountain like many other thru hikers surely do. We wanted to end with a bang. Our plan was to see the sunrise from the very top of Katahdin, no matter how much energy or sleep deprivation it would require.

We found the trailhead at 2:40am and proudly signed into the register as Thor and Sven–our trail names. But we were extremely surprised and dismayed that someone else had already beaten us to the trail…an “Adam Stewart” had signed in at 1:30am! We knew that we had to beat this guy to the top. The summit had to be ours alone and we didn’t want to share it with anyone else. So Eric and I began the climb with a jog.

But the tough terrain and poor lighting combined to give us the most challenging hiking we had had all summer. I was in the front and Eric in the back with the headlamp as a sort of a punishment for forgetting his, and eventually we perfected a technique where I would walk on the left side of the trail and Eric walked behind me on the right. He tried to illuminate my path, and then he would have to remember the terrain as it went into the dark zone just before he stepped on it. And often I would have to wait for Eric’s light because there were so many big rocks in the trail that we couldn’t maintain a direct line of sight between us. The trail wasn’t simply rocky–it was “bouldery.”

The technical terrain proved too tricky for poor Adam Stewart, whom we passed with relish at 3:10. Once we reached treeline at about 3:45am the trail picked up the pace and began to climb about a 1000ft/mile rate with many short vertical sections that we had to conquer one person at a time. Above treeline we were surrounded by an uncountable number of stars; there were so many in fact that it was tricky to pick out some of the constellations. We continued our ascent with rising Orion to our right and Polaris to our left.

Gradually the sky grew brighter and soon we could no longer see Sirius, the brightest star of all. We knew we needed to hurry. We could not let the sun beat us to the top. As the terrain started to level out we knew we had reached the 2 mile marker, and we decided to pull out all the stops and launch into an all-out run. We were racing over sharp and often loose rocks at 4:40 in the morning, trying our best to follow the last few white blazes of the Appalachian Trail. After ten minutes we were both totally drenched with sweat but our adrenaline compelled us to keep moving. We refused to miss the sunrise by one minute merely because we were removing our saturated rainjackets. Finally we caught a glimpse in the distance of the distinctive Katahdin summit sign, its silhouette beckoning us to make one last sprint to the finish line.

“If you’re tired now,” I yelled at Eric, “you’re gonna hafta suck it up cause we can rest at the top, I ain’t slowin down now!”
“Yeah we didn’t get up at 2am to see the sun already up! We’re gonna make it!”

We stepped over the last rock and got our first good view to the East. I tagged the summit sign first and Eric followed one second later. The official time was 04:58:07 EST on August 24, 2006! “We made it! How do you like them apples!?” I screamed.

Sunrise on the summit

The view was absolutely amazing. Not a single cloud tainted the sky, just humid, cold Maine air. The lights from Millinocket and other distant towns to the East were waning, and we could see limitless lakes stretching northward. To the west there was nothing but mountains and trees all the way to Quebec. We were on the roof of Maine and at the climax of the Appalachian Trail. After hiking countless miles in the Green Tunnel with nothing but trees and the rocks beneath our feet to look at, this moment atop Katahdin was our payback. This made everything worth it.

Now we had to wait for sunrise. “Umm, it should be coming up any minute now” I told Eric. “Yeah,” he said, “in the ranger station it said 5:40am, so it should be earlier at the top.” Right. The thermometer read 31.4F at that point and the wind gusted less than 20mph, but our MITOC Polypro along with a thin rainjacket and T-shirt was no match for the frigid August air. We used smelly socks for gloves and I had to stick my legs into my empty pack like a cocoon because one pesky pant leg refused to cooperate. We opened up our bags of trail mix and scarfed down the food like animals, for we did not have enough dexterity to grab the food with our hands, nor did we want to dirty our sock mittens with the smell of food.

Back on the top later in the day

Eventually these warmth measures proved insufficient, and we had to resort to tactic B for keeping warm: jumping jacks. Eric and I both found a flat spot and alternated between jumping jacks and taking pictures: 30 seconds of intense jumping jacks would provide enough warmth for 2-3 minutes of picture taking. As the sky grew even brighter, it was just like we were in candy land and we could take our fill of pictures. Every direction we turned presented an awesome picture, one that would put most of our previous pictures to shame. We would prance around on the rocks to get the perfect angle, then we would have to recharge our body heat by some hard-core running in place for a change.

Eric on the summit the previous March

Finally the sun officially poked over the horizon at 5:38am (we should have trusted the ranger station), and we got some more classic pictures: the monster summit cairn, Katahdin’s shadow to the west, and me balancing on the sign. We actually ended up hanging out at the top until about 7:30am, long enough for poor Adam Stewart to finally stagger up to the top. He missed sunrise by about two hours even though he had an hour head start on us!

With the solitude broken we decided to head down, but it would be pretty wimpy to get back to camp when it was still morning, and when it was still a perfectly good day for hiking. So the verdict was to summit again, but this time somehow incorporate the Knife Edge

On the summit juggling 5 snowballs in May 2009

ridge. We thus looped down the Hamlin ridge trail, past Chimney pond, and up the dudley trail. Now it was still mid-morning by this time and most of the tourists staying in the leantos and the bunkhouse were just starting their hikes. It was amusing how we would pass so many people on the way up Pamola peak. It was certainly a very steep and strenuous trail, but with 1000+ miles under our belts we could charge up without stopping at all to rest while most people rested every five minutes.

Past Pamola peak we reached the start of the infamous knife edge, a trail with thousand-foot drops on each side and in some places only one foot wide rocks to walk on.

Eric had done it the previous winter, so with no ice or snow it seemed like a cake walk. As we hiked on the Knife Edge we passed a lot of people we had met in camp the previous day. They obviously weren’t hard core enough to see sunrise that morning from the summit. As we came back full circle back to the summit we met a crowd of about 20 people

Matthew fishing in Kabetogama Lake with Katahdin in the background in May 2009

milling around. It was so much like Mount Washington, though not as bad as having a road to the summit.

I’m so glad we got there at sunrise when we could admire the area’s beauty in solitude. The one advantage of having so many people up there was that someone else could take our picture. We gave some good summit poses and then headed back down to camp. It was definitely a fitting end to our Appalachian Trail adventure to summit Katahdin twice, including once for sunrise.


Summit panorama from May 2009

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