Placing her hand on the weatherbeaten summit sign on Baxter Peak, Jacquelyn Lowman of Crouseville became what may be the first paraplegic to reach the top of Katahdin, Maine’s tallest mountain, on Tuesday, July 14.
But she couldn’t have gotten there without help.
Lowman was carried every step of the way by six Aroostook County men, hikers handpicked for their physical endurance and strength and, more importantly, their positive attitudes and willingness to work as a team to realize a dream. Her crew also consisted of porters, a cook, a ropes expert, medical staff and a photographer.
Earlier this year, Lowman met with Baxter State Park Director Jensen Bissell to discuss the logistics of the climb and ensure they’d stay within the park’s group limit of 12 people while hiking.
“I’m so humbled and grateful,” Lowman said. “These people came together to do something that I really do think was and is amazing.”
Lowman, 63, is a professor at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, where she’s known to her students as “Dr. J.” To everyone else, she’s just “Jacqui.”
Born with spina bifida, the most common permanently disabling birth defect in the country, Lowman lost the use of her legs in 2010 but continues to live independently, thanks to a power wheelchair, a hand-controlled van and her service dog, Saint.
Lowman also has been diagnosed with scoliosis, which a sideways curvature of the spine, and lupus, an autoimmune disease.
“Amazing,” Lowman said, looking out over the mountains of Baxter State Park. “I’d seen photos, but I couldn’t really picture it.”
She sat on a fold-out stool, her feet resting on the summit’s lichen-encrusted granite.
“The point was not to get to the top,” she explained. “I mean, I’m ecstatic that we did, but the point was to come together and show that with a group of people, anything is possible.”
The expedition, which took a year to plan and involved about 20 people, was conducted under the banner of Beyond Limits, a nonprofit organization Lowman established a year ago to expand adaptive recreation programs in the County and send a message of hope to all people struggling with challenges.
Climbing Maine’s most iconic mountain is just one way that Lowman plans to send that message. Lowman personally funded the $5,000 expedition.
“We really didn’t know if we’d be able to do it, but we wanted to try,” Lowman said. “So I think that’s what I’d like people to know, don’t not try because you don’t think you’ll be amazing at something — just try.”
The 11-mile journey up and down Katahdin took three days, as planned, and was co-led by Amanda Baker, recreation program coordinator at UMPI.
“I knew that I had some skills that would be beneficial to this trip that she wanted to do,” Baker said. “I decided that even though it was going to be really hard, it would probably be something I’d benefit from as well. … It was a good challenge for me.”
On the first day of the trip — Monday, July 13 — the team hiked 3.3 miles up the mountain on Chimney Pond Trail. The six “sherpas” carrying Lowman — who estimate she weighs about 100 pounds — took turns using a modified PiggyBackPack child carrier, switching every 10 to 15 minutes. The hike took them about 3.5 hours.
“It was a lot better than we’d hoped for,” said one of the sherpas, P.J. Kinney, 39, an insurance agent from Presque Isle.
Lowman initially planned to use a special wheelchair to propel herself along sections of trail. However, the team decided that wouldn’t be practical. The terrain of Katahdin was too rough.
“That was very difficult for me,” Lowman said. “That was something I had to wrap my head around, because I kept thinking, maybe I could help a little bit. Then it was like, OK, for three days, you’re not going to be able to move anything but your upper body.”
It gave her some comfort that the park allowed her to bring Saint, even though dogs are not permitted in Baxter State Park.
When the team reached Chimney Pond — a pristine tarn nestled in the arms of mighty Katahdin — they set Lowman down on a lawn chair by the crystal clear waters. Beyond the pond, Katahdin reared up on all sides.
“The look on her face — that was memorable,” Kinney said. “She just stared at it for two hours. That made me really appreciate what we were doing.”
Kinney and the other five sherpas had no special connections with Lowman before signing up to participate in the expedition. They simply wanted to give Lowman the opportunity to see and experience Katahdin as they all had.
“She was a trooper,” Kinney said. “She said, ‘I trust you guys. I put myself in your hands.’”
After a hearty meal at Chimney Pond, the team slept in a bunkhouse and lean-to tucked in the woods, then rose early the next morning to attempt climbing the 2.2-mile Saddle Trail to the mountain’s summit. Known as the “easiest” trail up, Saddle Trail is a steady climb, ending with a rock slide that is filled with loose rocks and slippery gravel. The going was so rough they decided the leave Saint behind in the bunkhouse.
“I felt like I was climbing every step those guys were taking up the slide,” Lowman said. “Its interesting, because people were saying, ‘Well, big deal. You’re just holding onto these people.’ But it’s physically taxing. It’s like riding a horse up a very steep hill.”
Smith, chief operating officer and program director of Maine Winter Sports Center, played a key role in monitoring Lowman’s health throughout the expedition. Before the journey, he had spent a great deal of time talking to Lowman about the hike and the mission of Beyond Limits. As the team neared the peak of Katahdin, they decided he should carry her for the long, final stretch of the climb.
“Mike kept saying, ‘Hard isn’t impossible, it’s just hard,’” Lowman said.
“I think we’re all sort of metaphorically riding on some else’s back,” Smith said.
“It’s easy to look at this situation and go, ‘Oh, wow, you guys did all this work to get this person up here.’” he said. “And, yeah … but a lot of other people did a lot of work so I could up here. I may have not actually been riding someone else’s back, but someone else built the trail. Someone else made the shoes I’m wearing. You know what I mean? I think we like to think we do these things alone, but we really don’t. This just sort of exemplifies that.”
At the top of the mountain, Lowman cried silently beneath her sunglasses and explained she was thinking of her father, Jack Gower Lowman, who died when she was 21 years old. He always encouraged her to push her limits, she said. A Seabee in WWII, he taught Lowman to live by the Navy’s unofficial mantra: “The difficult we do at once; the impossible takes a bit longer.”
“I say to my students all the time, ‘Don’t feel sorry for me because I’m the luckiest person alive because I’ve been so incredibly blessed.’ And I think that’s what motivates this [trip] — because I’ve been so lucky. And so it’s kind of paying it back to my dad and paying it forward to all of those other people who aren’t lucky, don’t have people that will support them, or don’t think they don’t.”
After a break at the summit and the obligatory summit sign group photo, the team helped Lowman back into the carrier and retraced their steps down the mountain, moving naturally as a unit.
Just below treeline, Lowman became motion sick, dehydrated and exhausted, despite the team’s efforts to keep her comfortable and properly fueled. They paused for a break, and Smith ran down the trail to fetch some supplies from camp that might help. Meanwhile, Lowman drank water.
About 20 minutes later, he returned — not with medicine or food but with Saint.
The dog climbed up on the mossy rock where Lowman sat, exhausted, and gave her the strength she needed to continue the increasingly painful descent.
They made it to Chimney Pond that evening. The next day, they descended the rest of the mountain without a hitch.
“Now that it’s over, I’ve asked myself, ‘How do we build onto this?’” Lowman said Thursday, the day after returned home. “Share it and spread it. Keep that momentum going, and let people know never to stop hoping. And not just to hope, but do something to fulfill that hope.”
Lowman doesn’t plan to hike Katahdin ever again, but she will continue to explore the outdoors — likely by canoe and a hand-powered bicycle. And she’s eager to share those adventures with others.
“I want Beyond Limits to really expand,” she said. “We need to stop those negative voices — the ‘can’t, can’t, can’t’ — because we really can do anything. We just need to get over our biggest barriers — ourselves.”
Donations to Beyond Limits in support of the Katahdin expedition can be made at gofundme.com/katahdinadventure.