When you’re an Appalachian Trail thruhiker, you dream of Mt. Katahdin. You picture your moment atop the legendary mountain in Maine, the northern terminus of the trail. You envision blue skies and views for miles and miles. But you’ve seen enough of your comrades’ summit photos to know that half the time the mountain is shrouded in fog. Sometimes the giant sign is covered in rime ice, even in September.
Viewing the mountain for the first time with your own eyes, far in the distance, you stare, amazed. For a long time. You take photos. You note that you can see the top and that means the thruhikers up there are celebrating with a great view.
When you see the mountain again the next day from Rainbow Ledges, you stare. For a long time. You take photos. You relish the sight of another gorgeous clear day atop the mountain and hope you’ll have one as well.
When you reach Abol Bridge campground just ten miles from the mountain's base, you stare. For a long time. You’ll be on the summit in two days. You set up your tent so you can watch the sacred mountain all night, shooting stars falling around it like magical celestial fireworks.
When you reach Katahdin Stream campground, you’re five miles from the summit. It’s been a beautiful day. It’s a strangely warm night. You and your hiking buddies can barely sleep. It’s like the night before Christmas. You’ll summit in the morning. These two women you've hiked through much of the 100 Mile Wilderness with - they're on their final night hiking the AT. It's momentous.
You hit the trail before 6:30 a.m. It’s cloudy. Hmm. At about 7:00 it starts to rain. Hmm. What should you do? You take a short break. Perhaps it will clear up. More hikers come by – they let you know that the weather report isn't great and hiking is not recommended above treeline. Half the trail to the summit is above treeline. You pause, hesitating. Then you remember - you're a thru-hiker. You’ve come so far. Your friends are going, so you go as well.
Perilous. That’s how it feels hiking up the side of Mt. Katahdin on a day when visibility is less than 20 feet. The whole journey isn’t perilous, just this tricky part where you have to climb up the side of giant rounded boulders and there are drop offs all around you.
At least it’s not too cold – not at first, anyway. You’ve abandoned poles and hiking sticks early on – you need your hands too much for the practically vertical trail.
The weather seems to be holding, and after crazy climbs and scrambles, you finally reach the tableland, where the trail flattens out. You stare ahead, trying to make out the sign in the fog, but knowing you’ll practically be on top of it before you see it.
Finally, after what seems like ages, you see the sign – the sign! The giant Katahdin sign! You shed a tear or two of joy and relief. Time for photos – permutations and combinations of hikers- group and individual shots. You're so happy to complete the trail with other women hikers who you've known since back in Virginia.
It’s blowing. It’s raining. Everything is covered in a fine mist. Cameras aren’t taking clear photos because their lenses are fogged over. It’s getting cold. It’s blowing more. You still have a five mile descent back down those crazy rocks. Not much time to celebrate. You head down the mountain with hopes that the weather doesn’t deteriorate further.
You slide on your butt much of the way back down. The rock is too steep and too slick to trust it standing up. You’ve come this far – you really don’t want to knock out your teeth or break something at this point. You pick your way, slowly but calmly, until you’re enveloped in the trees again. Now if it blows and rains, it just doesn’t seem as scary. You finish the trail.
You spend the rest of the afternoon in a bit of a daze, waiting for the shuttle to take you into Millinocket. You read the other thruhikers’ summit entries in the trail log at the ranger station. You write yours. You can’t believe you did it. When you think about it too hard, you start to cry. You can’t call your family – it’s too overwhelming. You have to settle into the news a little more first.
If like me, you're a flip-flopper, you'll still have 700 miles of the trail to hike, southbound from central Virginia to Georgia, and that will take another two months- but it seems like it will be easy compared to what you’ve just done. And comparatively, it will be. You’ll fly that last 700 miles.
Are you dreaming of a thruhiking the Appalachian Trail? NOBO, SOBO, or flipflopping? Wondering what your own Katahdin photo will look like? Want to hear stories of other women thru hikers and get support and coaching? Join our virtual campfire of women experts who can help you plan your thru.