Date: July 7, 2016
Distance: 11 miles round trip via the Saddle Trail (see map here)
Elevation: 5,268 feet
Elevation gain: 3,900 feet
Bathrooms: Pristine privies located at the trailhead and Chimney Pond
Time: 10-11 hours for our group
If this post reads like the transcript of a hallucination, that’s because it felt that way. The hike started off well enough. Five of us decided to give Katahdin a try in face of some pretty iffy weather reports. We talked to the ranger at the Roaring Brook trailhead. He advised us not to do the Knife Edge, but the Saddle Trail, while slippery, would be fine as long as we gave ourselves an “extra hour or two.” He noted that most groups take about 8 hours on the Saddle Trail on a nice day.
Despite some drizzle and light rain, the lower part of the hike was gorgeous. A mildly sloping trail led us by a clear and rushing river. We were all happy to be hiking someplace new. We maintained a quick pace to Chimney Pond (3.3 miles in), but every once in a while we’d just look around, amazed to be someplace so remote and picturesque.
When we got to Chimney Pond, the fog started rolling in. Seemingly out of nowhere, another ranger jumped in front of us to not only suggest we not take Knife Edge, she forbid it. She also wanted to make sure we had no plans to go up or down Cathedral. Later, we ran into a couple who had tried Cathedral, but found it too dangerous, and was descending without making the summit because they were spent, so good advice there. Saddle was the only trail this ranger was permitting hikers to attempt and we had to agree to come down the same way. She surveyed us to make sure we had trekking poles, headlamps, food, water, and extra layers. Baxter State Park requires all hikers to carry a headlamp, so our bet is that this ranger would not have let us through without them. Next, she talked us through what we would face on the Saddle Trail, taking care to point out the last .2 miles of the Saddle Slide, and the section of loose pink rocks on the final approach to the summit. She sent us off with parting words reminding us that the Saddle is the “most moderate” way to summit Katahdin because “there is no easy way.”
It was only 2.2 more miles to the top. What could be so hard about that?
The trail changed almost right away. What was a gentle slope turned to some pretty good rocky elevation gain. As is the norm with these types of trails, we could see that going up was going to be much easier than going down.
Things were fine until we got above the tree line, and to the last .2 miles of the Saddle Slide. There the wind began to whip, and the drizzle turned to frozen pellets of ice. Climbing the slide would have been fun on a sunny day. On a rainy, icy day it was a challenge.
Past the slide the trail gets flat for a moment, and we began to think our troubles were over. Mother nature had other ideas, because soon the winds got even stronger, the rain began to beat down, and the fog got so thick we couldn’t tell the difference between rock formations and boulders. (No one took pictures of the Saddle Slide, but we found these online.)
Raina, our friend Rachel, and Jill’s brother all made it to the summit, but didn’t stay for long. Jill saw them descending .2 miles from the summit and decided to go down with them. At that point getting back below the tree line seemed more important than getting another highpoint.
And it was a good decision. We fought our way back down the Saddle Slide. The rain was constant at that point, and everything waterproof we’d brought was soaked through. We couldn’t stop anywhere because instant shivering would set in. There was no way to get warm or dry. Just below the tree line the thunder and lightening started. We all felt like the universe was throwing us a bit more than we were planning on at that point, but we were also really glad we had not lingered up top. Thunder and lightening is scary in the woods, but above the tree line we obviously would have had no cover, and the Saddle Slide would not have been easy to navigate quickly in the pounding rain.
When we made it back to Chimney Pond we were crushed to see that those last “easy” 2.2 miles (4.4 round trip) had taken us from 9:30 am to 3:30 pm. It was just that difficult to navigate back down a wet, rocky incline. Our party decided that we were all dangerously close to hypothermia (if we didn’t have it already). We made plans to keep hiking independently without stopping until we got back to the tents. Here we leave off names to protect the innocent, but the hike from there was bad. Our gentle trail had turned into a rushing stream, which was now unrecognizable from the morning’s ascent. You had the choice of hopping from wet rock to wet rock, or keeping your feet soaked by wading through the water. The water was streaming so forcefully and deep down the mountain, that at one seeming fork in the trail, two of us (separately, but at the same juncture) nearly continued straight down the path, which was actually a riverbed. Thankfully, the blue blazes kept us on the right path.
Soaked and freezing for several hours, we began to feel not quite all there. One person saw a porcupine and a banana peel on the trail that were not there at all. Another decided to take a shortcut and ended up flat on their back after attempting to cross a slippery log.
We obviously all lived to tell the tale, but we also see how people end up having to get rescued on Mt. Katahdin.
If you’d like to read more about our camping experience at Baxter State Park here’s a great post from our friend, Dana, at Blisters and Bug Bites.
There are some really nice places to visit in Baxter State Park besides Katahdin. We enjoyed the Togue Pond Beach and the Sandy Pond Trail.
Jill and her brother very much enjoyed and appreciated the hot coffee, pancakes, and toast made from homemade bread at Ruthie’s Diner in Millinocket.
If your journey takes you through Portland, Raina suggests a stop at the Holy Donut. While waiting in the rain in a line wrapped out of the building and down the street was unpleasant after the soaking on Katahdin, these delicious donuts made with mashed potatoes were worth it.
Also in Portland, check out a free tour of Allagash Brewing Company, which includes free beer!