Katahdin’s Knife Edge – Day 2/3

I had a poor night’s sleep in lean-to #5.  The wind was loud, and I was concerned that it would affect our plans.  #5 is rumored to have once encountered wind so ferocious that it once tipped over.  Tenzing took advantage of his own awakening, when he made a 1 AM foray back down to Chimney Pond where he watched the stars, saw a couple shooters, and took this picture of the moon over the ridge.

Moonrise over Ridge –
all photos by John Clark

At 8 AM we signed in with the Ranger and started our arduous ascent of the Cathedral Trail,  a 1-and-3/4 mile strenuous climb up to Baxter Peak ( 5,271’).  The trail ascents 2,300 feet in that distance , a ridiculously steep challenge, and the shortest way to the summit from this campground. I am not sure if there is anything in New England this steep. It’s not even a walk. Better described as a boulder scramble, working the top half of your body as much as your legs. It’s tough!

Uncle Tom negotiating the start of the Cathedral Trail

Once up on the heights, it was difficult for us to recognize where the First Cathedral ended and the Second began.

First Cathedral
I highly recommend wearing full-fingered gloves for this trail.  Tenzing bloodied both his thumbs that morning.

When I reached the top, I preceded six Appalachain Trail thru-hikers who were just arriving- running, and then kissing the iconic summit sign. One shirtless fellow was running BAREfoot to the finish. Baxter Peak is the northern terminus of the 2,200 mile AT.

Tenzing, Uncle Tom, Roy, and Mike Gundel
All four of us summited, and after our obligatory group photo, Tenzing, Mike and I decided to continue over the mile-long Knife Edge.  Roy wisely elected to head back down the Tableland and exit via the Saddle Trail.

The Knife Edge traverses the ridge between Baxter and Pamola Peaks. Katahdin has claimed 19 lives since 1963,  mostly from exposure in bad weather and falls from the Knife Edge. For about 3/10 of a mile the trail is  a mere 3 feet wide, with a 1,500 foot drop-off on either side. Rangers post announcements that the Knife Edge is closed during periods of high wind.  Last year, General Lee, Bill Gifford and I completed it while enshrouded in a cloud, rapidly moving to avoid the rain and thunder that arrived as we reached Pamola.
We took our time today, but moved steadily.

Uncle Tom and Mike traverse Knife Edge
  I do fine with this trail, except for the short drop while descending the cleft known as the Chimney.  One hiker I met told me it is a Class 4 section while headed in our direction, and I have read that hikers have turned back at this point rather than risk a fall. I do not understand why there are multiple steel aids on the rocks along the Hunt Trail ( AT) on the other side of the mountain, and not even one placed here.
I was in the lead today, so I had to get myself down myself.  First, I lowered my day pack to a ledge below me with the aid of my Leki pole, then tossed the poles to the floor of the Chimney. Then I remembered General Lee’s advice last year encouraging me to turn around, face the wall, search with my right hand for a lower hand hold, and then stretch my right leg  waaaay down until I felt it reach a blade of a rock that was the key to completing the move.  Who knows if I will ever pass this way again?  This was my fourth time on the Knife Edge.

The last uphill segment to Pamola
One more steep section to go-  It did not help to watch another hiker scale his way up there ahead of me, very exposed, and scary to me- I remember freaking out on the Cannon Mountain tramway ride as a kid.

After settling our heart rates on top of Pamola (4,919′), we descended the Dudley Trail back to Chimney Pond. No one talks much about this 1-and-1/4 mile trail, originally blazed in 1910 by Leroy Dudley. Now, we’re dropping the 2,000 feet we labored to gain.  I packed away my Leki poles, donned the gloves again, and shifted into survival mode.  Surviving the jumps, leg stretches, and lemon squeeze passages between the thousands of boulders on the way down was my goal.  A few times, the loose crumbled talus under foot caused skids that could have been disastrous.  This was total focus hiking.  I was out of water ( 2 quarts), and eventually gulped down a bracing half quart I collected from a dripping bare root coming out of a emerald patch of moss, close to the end.

Sometime, and somehow, we safely reached Chimney Pond in mid-afternoon, where we signed out with the ranger, and headed over to the 10- person Bunkhouse, and rendezvoused with Roy.  He saved us three lower bunks in one of the two sleeping areas.  The place had a few windows, but was very dark within.  Two gas lights were on the walls in the group room, and they were turned on well before it was dark out.
I loved my supper- a MRE ( military meal ready to eat).  That suspicious-looking Escalloped Potatoes and Ham, went down just fine with the addition of a tiny bottle of Tabasco sauce, crackers, jelly, fruit drink, applesauce, hot cocoa, and chocolate covered brownie.
Our bunkhouse mates were a young couple from Worcester, MA and three older guys from Dexter who were headed up the Saddle Trail tomorrow. The woman from Worcester had the most amazing MassHole accent I ever heard.  She was too freaked out to even complete that Saddle Trail up. I trust the Dexter trio will have better time of it tomorrow.

John Clark’s Knife Edge photo album here.

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