Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Adventures on Mt. Katahdin

Throughout the six years I've been blogging, I've occasionally asked Shaun if he would do a guest post.  If you've been married for more than a day, then you know how differently men and women think and process life.

Shaun always has great ideas and I love the perspective he adds to life.  What you read on my blog each week is a very one-dimensional view of our lives, so I've often thought how neat it would be to get Shaun's take on things.

Well...that day has come!  Somehow I always pictured his first post to be detailed record of all the reasons he loves his wonderful wife {wink} but for now we'll start with the account of how he almost made her a widow!

Please welcome Shaun to Blessed........ (photo credit to my BILs Colombo and Nathan)

Partly from being the first born and partly from genetic providence I have a double share of calculation, caution, prudence, and responsibility; we'll abbreviate that CCPR.  Because of my excess CCPR there was very very little left over for my younger brother Nathan who was born with a negligible amount of these traits.  For many years he and I have wanted to climb Mt. Katahdin.  Katahdin is a popular hike as it is both the terminus for the Appalachian trail and the highest point in Maine.  I had climbed Mt. Washington a few years back and while the summit of Katahdin is 1000' lower, so is the beginning of the hike at the base, therefore both mountains are a 4000' climb from base to summit.  Having experienced Washington,  I felt well prepared, although many of Katahdin's trails are considered substantially more technically challenging than those of Washington.

This was the year we finally worked our schedules out to make the climb.  On Tuesday Nathan texted me to confirm we had parking reservations for Friday, June 20th and that he checked the weather (sunny temps in the 70's)  and "it looks like we will have the perfect day".  Fateful words indeed.  Katahdin's trails are rated between "difficult, extremely strenuous" up to "you have some damaged chromosomes if you attempt this".  The original plan was to take one of the "difficult, extremely strenuous" trails with our wives and some of the older children.  Due to pre-game jitter attrition, on summit day we were left with Nathan, Colombo III, Ray and me.  Hardly the demographic mix to help a CCPR person make a case for taking a safer trail.  

On Friday morning the 4 of us were off at 4:30 am with the only early morning event of note being that Colombo and Nathan had encouraged Ray that shorts and a short sleeve shirt might not be enough and that he should maybe bring a jacket and sweatshirt.  Katahdin is a serious mountain.  Many hikers have died on its slopes and according to a park ranger every couple of weeks the national guard has to come out and airlift by helicopter an injured hiker off to the hospital.  As a result the rangers limit the number of hikers per day and want to make sure that those who do attempt it are in the right frame of mind.  The ranger at the check in station didn't find the humor in Colombo's quip of "Where do we get the 'this car climbed Mt. Washington' bumper stickers at?".  She stone faced peered over her glasses at us and asked if "something was funny?"  After we assured her we had the mandatory "water, warm clothes and flashlight" she reluctantly allowed us to proceed 8 miles down to the parking lot at the trail head.

At the base of the mountain you are required to sign-in with your planned route so they know where to look for you if you don't return.  Nathan as defacto leader suggested "damaged chromosome" trail on the way up to give us a good adrenaline rush and a different more moderate trail on the way down to preserve our knees and ankles.  While he was filling out paperwork the other non-CCPR deficient members of our fellowship chatted with the ranger at the station who cautioned us about the high winds today and the wisdom of taking some very challenging yet safer trails.  We listened intently to her and the 4 of us tacitly agreed with her wise and prudent plan.  Not 5 steps off the ranger station porch when CCPR deficient leader whispers "she's just trying to scare us,  let's do the knife edge trail anyway, that's what I signed us in for".

Katahdin has a half-dozen peaks around 5000' set up in a horseshoe pattern with Pamola peak being on one end at 4950' and 1.1 miles away along the ridge of the mountain the main Baxter peak at 5250'.  The "knife edge" trail goes between these two peaks with they rest of the peaks intermittent along the "trail".  I use the term "trail" extremely loosely.  You can see the ridge line which represents the "trail" on the left side of the model in the picture above.  Due to a different genetic issue,  Nathan presumably doesn't know why it is named "knife edge".  I'll leave you to your own deduction as to the genesis of the name.

Ray just celebrated his 18th birthday and as such has both enthusiasm and inexperience in excess.  He took off running up Helon Taylor trail toward Pamola peak and the beginning of knife edge excited about our adventure and thinking, I presume, that this would not be much different than the "hills" he runs at Windham High for football practice with ease and regularity.  
Most 1 story house staircases are about 10 ft high.  A 4000' vertical climb is the equivalent of climbing those 400 times in a row with the added challenge of not having uniform steps and handrails.  Our trail up to Pamola peak was about 4 miles long with the aforementioned 4000' vertical rise.  At about 3000' you lose the tree line and get exposed to the wind which was blowing about 20 mph out of the north by mid morning.  At this point the reality of our situation began to settle in.  Due to the wind and cold, we crossed paths with other hikers who had already given up on summiting this day thousands of vertical feet and many hours from completion.  We also were taking inventory of our warm clothes and all, save Ray, were pacing ourselves for what was to come.   About this point we took a break to fuel up.  Ray had shown exceptional preparedness by packing a half dozen bananas for potassium for our grueling day.  He showed exceptional inexperience by putting said bananas on the bottom of his pack under a gallon of water.  His morning jog up the side of the mountain had transformed his pack into some sort of nasty mixture of water bottles and banana and peel purree unfit for even being used in banana bread.   

Mostly joking but with a hint of seriousness, Colombo and I pondered videoing goodbye messages to our wives and children in the event they could read the memory card off our smashed phones taken off our smashed bodies at the bottom of the mountain after being blown off the edge.  This photo was taken while still under the tree line at about 3000'. It gives perspective about how high we already are and how far still to go.

By about 11 am we had summited Pamola.  The temperature had dropped to the mid 40's and the wind picked up to 25 mph by this point.  We all were starting to get cold.  I had taken off some layers in an attempt to dry off some of my shirts that had gotten wet at the beginning of our hike, because at best we were only half way done with our journey and the weather conditions were getting worse.

From Pamola peak there are 3 choices; back the way you came, down the steep and treacherous Dudley trail or out across the "knife edge" to Baxter which affords many trails back to the ranger station.  Knife edge trail bears the warning "Do not take in bad weather".   Here is a youtube video of the trail taken by another climber.  I'll let the trail topography speak for itself.

Of note, is that at our point of reckoning the temperature in the video is about 20 degrees higher than we had, and the wind was about 20 mph less.  Surely we would decide to revel in our triumphs for the day and head back down and have magnificent tales to tell of our adventure.  Instead from our leader the CCPR deficient query and comment: "Y'all good?" followed by, without waiting for our response "C'mon, let's go!" and off he went toward the knife's edge.  The panoramics below show you where we are going with baxter peak off in the distance.

Knifes edge begins with a 30' straight vertical decent with a 15' wide base followed by a 30' straight vertical ascent known as "the chimney".  Nice little warm up.  The notch in the summit ridge has an exhilarating wind tunnel effect while traversing this feature.  You can see "the chimney" in these photos taken from the other side of the mountain.  Our weather further deteriorates.  Low 30's, rain showers,  30 mph winds.  

At the knife edge half mile mark Ray's condition has dramatically worsened exhibited by the fact that now Colombo is leading followed by Nathan, Ray then me.  I have been in "ok" condition all day due to a combination of old age, uncomfortableness with heights, being out of shape, and having a head cold which was a non-issue at sea level, but was having me struggle for oxygen above 4000'.  I have offset those issues with carefully pacing myself, Ray has not.  He collapses onto a rock in front of me grabs his right leg just above his knee and yells "I can't move my leg".  I calmly state and ask: "don't roll left, is it a bone or muscle issue?".  "Muscle, my quad is cramped".  "Ok, don't roll left, drink some water, you need to hydrate".   In his haste to summit this morning, he has forgotten to drink properly and of course he is potassium deficient due to the banana incident.  "I'm cold, I am going to put my jacket on".  "Ok, did you hear me? Don't roll left." "What?" "Don't roll left".  At which point Ray, who has zero fear of heights, looks over his left shoulder at the 1500' vertical drop below left knee and spins over onto his right side up against a safe boulder.  The other three of us sheltered ourselves behind rocks to try to preserve body heat while Ray puts on his jacket and recovers from cramping.  After a 5 minute break we continue with Ray having inherited 2 new nicknames "Lebron James" due to his cramping issue in a big spot and "don't roll left".

The weather further deteriorates.  I don't remember much of high school geology other than the vertical mineral deposits formed on floors and ceilings of caves are called stalactites and stalagmites.  I'm not sure if horizontal ones have names, but the temperature had dropped enough that they were forming in ice from the rain blowing up from the valley and freezing on the windward rock faces.

We all bore angst for the rest of the summit attempt about how to get an incapacitated Ray off this mountain if he couldn't continue.  We all agreed, after the fact, that there is no way to help someone off knife edge.  It is all you can do to get yourself safely across the trail.  A badly injured hiker is spending the night, because there is no way to help them off and no airlift in the weather conditions we had.

Shortly after noon we summited Baxter.

Tired, beaten, bruised but thankful the worst was over.  We took pictures, commiserated with hikers who were not CCPR deficient and had taken easier trails and generally congratulated each other. You can see nasty looking clouds behind us in the above photo.  The weather further deteriorated.  25 degrees, 35 mph wind, moderate to heavy snow squalls.  Time to get off the mountain.   There are no pictures documenting this.  Much too cold and unsafe to expose skin by taking your phone out to get pictures.  The first hour down was rough, biting cold and snow, but thankfully a sloping safe trail to go down.   Below 4200' feet the temperature warmed enough where the snow changed to rain, but we had to climb down a rock wash that required 4 points of contact and was obviously very slippery on the now wet rocks.  None of us had gloves and our hands got cold and beat up.

We all made it back safely with no permanent injuries and lots of great pictures and stories.  All in all a fantastic day.  There is an awesome camaraderie from a formidable shared struggle and conquest.  Something the 4 of us will always have.  Nathan tells us at the end of the day "thanks guys, I can now cross this off my bucket list".  There is a lesson in that about CCPR deficiency.


lily said...

Such amazing photos of the mountain climb. Those guys are warriors! And Shaun's commentary is delightful to read, so matter of fact and definitely written by a 'guy'!

Elizabeth said...

Awesome tale and well written, Shaun! As another soul with an abundance of CCPR, I understand your point of view and appreciate it, greatly! : ) Glad you are all safe and sound.

Amy said...

Shaun, you're a genius! Loved the writing and re-telling. Hope it's not long before you post something again. Lisa, I'm glad we're not widows :)

The Bug said...

Loved this! The pictures are fabulous! I was laughing & tell Mike, "you have to read this!" Laughing because those guys are CRAZY! And Shaun told it so well :) Glad they survived.

Carrie said...

Loved his telling-and you must.have.died hearing it and then reading it. Scary!

Melody said...

This was a breathtaking story, Shaun! I was literally holding my breath through parts of it!

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