Matt (eor) wrote,

the great mountain always wins

This is the tale of our second attempt to summit Mount Katahdin, by far the greatest of the Maine mountains.

On Wednesday we got up early and got things together quickly. We signed out at the Hunt Trail trailhead at 5:10am. The early part of the trail was uneventful, pleasant walking, good quick progress. Our shoes and lighter packs seemed to be working out well. We got up to the treeline in about three hours. (See last year's entry for more description and photos of the actual trail.) The sun was playing across the top of the fog/low overcast in the valley. All was right with the world.

We worked our way up the Iron Ladder to the bottom of Hunt Spur. Still beautiful day, feeling a bit more tired, but doing good. We actually made great progress up the gnarly boulders of the Hunt Spur. On the top of the Hunt Spur the clouds moved in, just like last time. In the last 100 feet before the tableland we were greeted by something. It could have been freezing rain, it could have been small bits of hail. It was irritating, but light and easily ignored. We put on our rain jackets, keeping in mind that the weather forecast called for occasional showers, and finished climbing up the last difficult climbing of the hike around 10am.

A word about the tableland: This area is virtually flat and a mile or so long. There are are small rocks scattered across it, but no trees, no large rocks, no significant ups and downs. On a clear day you can basically see the whole thing from any point. That means there is no shelter or wind break anywhere. The elevation is around 4,700 feet. At one end is the summit cone which goes up to 5,279ft.

As we were just coming up onto the tableland, the easiest part of the hike, the hail turned into rain. Not a rain shower, a steady downpour. The whole time we were walking across the tableland and up onto the summit cone it was raining in varying degrees, with lashing wind. For the most part the precipitation was coming sideways. Visibility wasn't as bad as it could have been, it was still possible to see from one trail marker to another, but that was about all (20-25 feet). Before we even made it half way across the tableland our pants were soaked to the skin. Shortly after that the moisture ran down our socks into our shoes, which were making a valiant effort to hold the moisture out, an effort utterly defeated by the flanking action. My guess is the temps were somewhere in the 40's f and the gusts were around 40mph.

Occasionally either the wind would let up or the rain would die down from pounding downpour to steady rain, but it didn't clear or even come close.

On the way up the summit cone the wind picked up again (no surprise). About halfway up the summit cone my legs wouldn't do "up" anymore, my quads were too tired and too bloody cold to put up with this treatment anymore. I called for a retreat at between 200 and 300 vertical feet from the summit, probably less than a tenth of a mile of trail. If it had been clear we probably could have read the summit sign from where we turned around, but survival trumps summits. We probably could have pushed on, taken a half hour or so to make the last bit and gotten back down. I judged "probably" wasn't good enough. I wanted enough energy and heat to be able to make the tricky downclimb of the top of the Hunt Spur.

The way back across the tableland was the same as the way across, whipping rain and biting wind. The difference was at this point all the low parts of the trail were covered with a couple inches of standing water, the shoes were soaked through and squelching, and we were headed downhill and home (two very strong motivators). We were on the tablelands for just about an hour, but it felt like three. We did get one tiny bit of no rain, no wind, just on the edge of the tableland. There we got some food and warmed up a tiny bit before starting our descent down the Hunt Spur arete.

The descent down the Hunt Spur was less difficult in the rain than I thought it would be. It was slow going, cold when the wind came up, and not pleasant to be in wet cloths, but with each foot of descent the air temp increased and that changed the effects of the weather a lot. There are some scary bits on the spur, but those are well defined and we'd already been up over them twice and down them once (we took this trail last year). At the first really good spot of shelter we munched on some more food and put on what additional layers we had in the packs. Much of what we had in the packs was already damp from the two plus miles of downpour, but it felt good just the same.

Because of the wind direction, the Iron Ladder (the scary bit at the end of the spur) was easy. It was actually sheltered and the air temperature was high enough that we were starting to warm up. The remainder of the hike down was remarkable only in its unremarkableness. We were tired and wet, but aside from expected muscle fatigue we had no problems with pain or injury. We actually made fairly good progress down, despite having to take it slow on all the wet rock. We arrived back in the camp at just a touch after 4pm, after 11 hours on the trail. That's an hour quicker than last year, despite needing to go slow on the wet rock and actually getting closer to the summit than we did last time.

When we got down everything was varying degrees of wet, depending on which pack it was in or which body it was on. But everything was wet. The shoes we wore on Thursday are still not dry today, Sunday. I had them sitting in the sun in front of a fan yesterday afternoon in hope of accelerating the process. They are still gross wet. That was a bit of rain.
Tags: hiking, katahdin, mountains, triplog, vacations

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