Day 143 – Summit Day

I’m writing this the day after my summit day, but since I have a separate reflections post that I’d like to write later today, I’m post-dating this one.

Slept pretty poorly the night of the 24th. For the first time in a while I had a nice flat camping spot and it wasn’t horribly sticky and humid like so many Maine nights had been, but still didn’t sleep well. A mix of nerves and excitement kept me up. I woke up at 4:45 to a few friends breaking down camp to head up to the summit. We all had different plans on when to get up, the earliest was at 12:30 am to catch the sunrise on top, the latest being myself and 2 others who wanted to get up at the usual time. I thought about getting up at that point, but decided that more sleep would be better. Woke up again at 6 am to more people leaving, but figured that at least a few people would be around to keep me company when I got up at seven, so went back to bed again. But when I got up the only person left in camp was all packed up and just about to leave. He offered to wait for me, but was visibly shivering and obviously eager to go, plus I wanted to hike solo anyways, so I said I’d meet him at the top.

I rushed to pack up camp, stopped by the ranger station to drop off the bulk of my gear (so that my pack would be as light as possible going up), and started the climb. At first, it felt just like my first day in Georgia. I was nervous, excited, and pumped up all at once and was hiking pretty quick. Soon though the real climb set in and it became just like any other hard climb. I struggled with fatigue at first, then pushed through it and started feeling good. Kahtahdin has four main parts in my mind: the approach, a mile and a half or so of flat or nicely graded trail. The sub-tree line rock scramble, a section of rock scrambling that isn’t too difficult, but harder than a usual trail. The above tree line rock scramble, a very technical section of some of the toughest rock scrambling on the trail. And finally, the tableland, the last mile before the summit which is pretty much flat.

Once I hit the sub-tree line rock scramble I was feeling pretty good. A lot of people on the trail had told us how difficult a climb Kahtahdin can be, but I wasn’t impressed. I figured they didn’t really know what they were talking about and had exaggerated. The sub-tree line section really wasn’t that bad at all.

Then we broke out above tree line and the real climb started. Bar none, it was the most technical climb on the trail. We’re talking near sheer rock faces, close to 90 degree climbs at some points, and not much room for error. Plus It was a pretty windy day with 25-30 mph gusts. I was having a blast going up it, but it was more than I was expecting.

Right before the tableland I met up with my friend who had left camp just before me. He was really struggling with the climb. He doesn’t like heights and hates technical rock scrambles, so he was pretty unhappy and unnerved. I tried to make him feel a little better, but the hard stuff was over with by the time we met up so it didn’t matter all that much.

We climbed together from there to the summit. We chatted like it was any other day at first, but conversation eventually turned to the totality of our hikes. He asked me if I had achieved what I wanted to with this hike. I said I absolutely did, he said the same applied to himself.

Finally we hit the last crest. I was starting to get excited, so my pace picked up and he drifted back a bit. I had wondered for a while if I would cry when I reached the top. I’m not a crier by any means, but I thought the release of finishing might overwhelm me. As I started getting closer, tears started welling in my eyes, but in a good way. I tried to choke it back, to hold out to the summit at least. But then a shout broke out from the summit. All of our friends were already there and we’re cheering us on. It blew away the tears. Like a switch being flipped, in that instant I went from those deep emotions to just being happy. Oh so happy. I made it to the sign that marks the end of the trail, which I had seen so many times in other’s Kahtahdin cards, and just stared at it for a good long while, one hand pressed against it. Happiness melded with relief and a feeling of wonderful well being.

I stayed on the summit a good long while. We took a ton of photos. Group shots, individual shots, small group shots, jump shots, retakes of all the above, and more. It started getting crowded at the top with day hikers and we were obviously hogging the sign, but it was hard to care. This was the moment we had waited so long for and had envisioned time and time again.

Eventually the crowd that got up early left, they had been on the top for a few hours at that point, but I stayed up top with a few other friends who had camped elsewhere. I was getting cold and had all the pictures I could ask for, but I just didn’t want to leave.

Finally though I got too cold and started my way down. Going down was definitely more more nerve wracking than going up. The wind had picked up to near blow-you-off-the-mountain levels and the terrain did not lend itself to down climbing. Midway down the above treeline rock scramble, I stopped to take my windbreaker off and got passed by an older looking man. Up to this point I had been passing tons of dayhikers and so it was frustrating to get passed by someone I had thought I put behind me, particularly because the section coming up was a bottleneck and I’d have to wait for him to go through it.

Pretty soon though I realized that this guy was flying down the mountain. In truth I was struggling to keep up. After spending 4.5 months hiking I had devolved a pretty good eye for judging hiking experience and skill. It was clear that this guy was no ordinary day hiker.

I caught up with him and, during a break in the wind, casually asked him how many times he had done the climb. He replied “this is number 473. I’m 74.” I thought I had misheard, so I asked again, but no, I had heard correctly. I ended up following him down the mountain. I quickly realized he has the climb down to a science, he knew all the best places to put his feet and hands and there were times when I truly marveled at this grandpa’s dexterity. I chatted with him on the way down and got a lot of his life story. He’s 74, nearly deaf, going blind from cataracts, has cancer, agonizing pain in his knees, moderate blood pressure problems, and yet still summits about 5 times a month and can beat most thruhikers down the mountain. He decided 18 years ago, when he retired, to summit Kahtahdin 500 times before he dies and has been working on that goal ever since. He say’s he’s slowed down a bit recently, every climb takes a lot out of him these days and so close to his goal there’s less pressure, but back in the day he used to summit close to 50 times a year (during the ~4 month hiking season). To top it all off he’s the current record holder for most summits and has been written up numerous times by magazines and newspapers. It was great talking to him. Beyond all that he had worked on the mountain for years and had tons of awesome stories, like the time he snuck some thruhikers into the park after it was closed so they could finish their hike.

Through it all I had to marvel that even on my absolute last miles of the trail, it still had another awesome experience in store for me.

When we got to the bottom, a bunch of my friends were hanging out waiting for their rides or families. Old man of the mountain (the bad ass record holding grandpa) offered to give us a ride into town, but I wasn’t quite ready to rush off and had to turn him down. After a feast of homemade whoopie pies (I had five, enough to make even a thruhiker sick) we said our goodbyes to a lot of the group and parted ways. I ended the day at the hostel in town with my friend from the 100 mile wilderness and a few others.

All in all, the day wasn’t what I expected it to be. There was no big bang, no big moment of achievement, emotion, or revelation. It was a great day, of course, but not the end all, be all, day of days that might be expected. But it was fitting. In the end, doing the trail is not about the summit day, it’s about all the days before it. And besides, we had been, to some extent, reveling in our success for the past two weeks so, as one friend put it, it was hard to feel an order of magnitude more accomplished after summiting than before.

And so, that’s how my hike concluded. Not with a bang, but not quite a whimper either. After a night at the hostel I’m now riding home in a greyhound bus and will soon be home. I plan on writing a hike recap post that I’ve been planning for a while during this ride, so hopefully that will be up later.

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