I’ll roll out of bed at 4 a.m. for few things — a flight to Disney World, the birth of a child or to hike a big mountain. It was the anticipation of the latter, an epic hike, that caused me to obey my alarm on Sunday, braid back my hair and step out the front door.
Half asleep and nursing a hot chocolate, I heaved my pack and snowshoes into Fred the Subaru and drove down dark, frost-coated streets into downtown Bangor to meet my hiking companions for the day, Adam MacDonald and Perry O’Brian, both of Bangor.
The chance to hike up Mount Katahdin, Maine’s tallest mountain, came to me by text message.
Adam — a young man I formerly worked with at Epic Sports, a family-owned outfitter in Bangor — sent me a message Friday evening: “Hey. Was wondering if you were interested in snowshoeing up at Katahdin on Sunday.”
I’ve hiked the 5,268-foot mountain several times. Once a summer, I join a rowdy band of family and friends to camp and hike in Baxter State Park. Katahdin, covered in green foliage and rosy granite, is a familiar site to me, but I had never seen its peaks covered in snow.
While lazing about in bed, I texted Adam back: “That would be awesome, but how are you getting there? I thought it was at least a 2night trip.”
Adam: “We’re just going for the day to scope out conditions.”
Me: “Oh! Wow, that’d be cool. How many miles is it in?”
Adam: “5. We might go to the base of the slide so like 6.5 one way.”
The conversation continued about gear and who would be joining us. I’d never met Perry, but the best way to get to know someone is on a trail.
In the end, I wrote: “I’ll be there :).”
I know an opportunity when I see it.
Perry’s Jeep took us north, to Millinocket and the Golden Road. The rising sun cast orange and yellow light along the edges of the grand mountain ahead, illuminating the thin cloud shrouding Baxter Peak. Katahdin’s shape, two peaks bridged by a sharp, dipping ridge called Knife Edge, was as I remembered. I had never seen it appear more majestic; the frozen crags both beautiful and foreboding.
With high spirits, we bundled up in wool, fleece and down. My yellow compass clanged against the snowshoes fastened to the back of my pack as we walked to the edge of the winter parking lot and embarked on a two-mile trail that would bring us to Baxter State Park’s Tote Road — the one way vehicles travel throughout the park in the summer. During the winter, the road is only open to snowmobiles and those traveling on foot.
The trail and road, packed by snowmobiles and ski tracks, was easily traversible. Every once in a while, one of us would step off the trail and into a few feet of powdery snow, but there was no need for snowshoes.
Upon reaching the Tote Road, we slumped down to shed our jackets.
Just then, four snowmobiles rounded the bend and slowed to a stop. The front-runner made unreadable hand signals as his noisy machine idled. After a few quizzical looks, he realized we didn’t understand him and killed the engine to ask if we needed a lift. I suppose we may have looked odd, sitting in the snow and stripping off our clothing in 20-degree weather. We assured the crew of eight riders that we were fine. With a few friendly waves, they continued on their way to Abol Campground, our destination as well.
But we had three miles of uphill hiking before we got there.
The first mile was the steepest; the next more gradual. Sometimes we talked. I learned that Perry has long practiced law in Bangor and that he knows my uncle quite well. Sometimes we huffed and puffed, working hard to keep up a good pace. Adam, stripped down to his T-shirt, usually took the lead.
Veering off trail at Stump Pond, we waded in thigh-high snow to steal a good view of the mountain, now much closer. The cloud had lifted from the summit, and we could see snow dancing off the peaks in the wind.
At Abol Campground, we rested on the raised wooden floor of a lean-to and snacked on partially frozen sandwiches and candy bars before strapping on snowshoes and embarked on Abol Trail, the oldest, shortest and steepest route to the summit of Katahdin.
We were fortunate to find the trail packed down by snowshoes and skis. Getting used to the added weight on our feet, we traversed the gradually rising trail through a hardwood forest. We glimpsed Katahdin’s crisp, white ridge to our left, through the gaps between narrow, leafless birch trees groaning in the wind.
“It looks like the top of a meringue pie,” said Adam, thoughtfully, launching us into a conversation about ice cream.
After about an hour, the slope grew steeper and the trees thinned out, revealing just how far up we had climbed. Boulders scattered among stunted snowy evergreens. We had reached the old Abol rock slide, and ahead we could see all the way up the newer, treeless slide. The river of boulders leads to the edge of the Tablelands, a flat world of stunted shrubbery and glacial erratics. It rises slowly from 4,600 feet to the summit, Baxter Peak, at 5,268 above sea level.
We hiked hard, digging the metal spikes of our snowshoes into the steep snowy slope. But we hadn’t planned to hike to the summit. We would need crampons, ice axes and warmer gear to make it that far.
At noon, near the top of the old slide, we turned and began our descent. Our backs turned to the mountain, we enjoyed breathtaking views of the frozen land below until we were back in the forest once more.
On the steeper sections, my toes burned from jamming up against the tips of my boots. I solved the problem by sliding down the trail on the seat of my snow pants, lifting my legs in the air to prevent my snowshoes from catching on the packed trail, which was delightfully smooth, though I had to maneuver around a boulder or two.
Adam and Perry ran after me, laughing as I whooped with glee. They couldn’t catch up. It turns out, the fastest way down Abol Slide is sliding.
Though we had hiked much higher than our goal, the mountain’s base, we had caught the bug — the urge to reach the snowy summit. And though I’m no morning person, I would wake up at midnight to accomplish such a lofty goal. In hiking, as in many things, one challenge leads to another, one dream leads to the next.