MILLINOCKET, Maine — Climbing Maine’s mile-high Mount Katahdin once is something to be proud of. Nelson Daigle’s done it 462 times, and the wiry, gray-haired 73-year-old retired paper worker aims to make it an even 500.
“I thought I had a lot [of climbs] when I had 50,” Daigle said in his modest mobile home about 16 miles from Baxter State Park, home to Katahdin, Maine’s highest mountain.
“As I get older, the trails get longer and the mountain gets higher. It takes me a little longer,” Daigle said.
It took him a day to recover from his last climb of this season, which he accomplished without stopping, Daigle said. The trails to the summit and back are as long as 11 miles, but given the steep, often dangerous terrain, it can seem much longer, especially to the unseasoned hiker.
Between 10,000 and 20,000 climb the 5,267-foot mountain each year, said park director Jensen Bissell.
A Fort Kent native, Daigle came to the Millinocket area in 1955 and first climbed Katahdin a couple of years later. He’s long enjoyed other outdoor activities as well, including jogging, skiing, snowshoeing and bicycling. His obsession with Katahdin climbs began 17 years ago, and he’s carefully documented each one in notebooks. Mostly, he climbs between May and October.
Daigle said he’s averaged 20 to 30 climbs a year, less if the weather’s bad. His high was 45 climbs.
He’s become familiar with virtually every foot of the trails. Daigle even cautions companions not to step in places where others have scattered ashes of deceased hikers, said seasonal park ranger Matt Martin, who has climbed segments with Daigle.
Daigle has been featured in such publications as Backpacker magazine. He was also honored with a dinner and plaque four years ago by Baxter State Park for his climbing feats, said Bissell.
Daigle’s favorite trail is the 10.4-mile Hunt Trail from the park’s Katahdin Stream Campground, past the tree line and onto the Appalachian Trail to the summit. He’s also walked countless times across the famous Knife Edge, the 1.1-mile ridge of rock that includes precipitous drop-offs. Park officials warn climbers to never attempt it in bad weather.
“I used to run across there,” said Daigle, showing a photo of him on the ridge.
Daigle said he’s had to slow down a bit this year because he slipped and cracked a rib. His knees are wearing out, too. So are his shoes.
“I go through a pair every year,” said Daigle, adding that he buys the best at $480 a pop.
Still, even they don’t last. “Four months, and that’s it.”