Thursday, February 5, 2009

High points

It's morph-the-meme time! Callan started it by asking people to tell which of the US state high points they had visited. ReBecca, Geology Happens, and Silver Fox responded. Hypocentre adapted it to the UK. And then Geotripper changed it into a story about one peak experience.

I've only climbed three state high points: Mauna Kea (by car), Elbert (Colorado), and Katahdin (Maine). I've been to more 2nd highest peaks, actually - Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. (I climbed everything in Vermont higher than 4000 feet... except for Mt. Mansfield. Don't know why.) And I circumnavigated the high point of Massachusetts last year, after finding that the roads to the top were closed. My husband has done more - Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. But I've been to the top of Katahdin several times, and I've got an old essay about climbing it that I can dust off and post here...

It was more than thirty years ago, my first time climbing Katahdin. 1978. The photos of me at the top show a rather dorky-looking girl, with a Dorothy Hamill haircut that needed a trim, thick glasses, wide-legged jeans, and a bright orange backpack with the shoulder straps tied together in front because they couldn't be adjusted down to my size.

Climbing the mountain wasn't my idea. It wasn't even my father's idea. A family friend had a long tradition of climbing the mountain regularly, and was planning to take his 11-year-old daughter along, and asked my father and I if we wanted to go as well. We said yes.

We climbed the mountain from the southwest side, along the Appalachian Trail. The trail started gently enough, climbing slowly through the mixed hardwood and evergreen forest typical of once-logged places in that part of the state. There is a spectacular waterfall about a mile after the trailhead. After the waterfall, fewer people followed the trail, and it continued to climb. And it climbed. And climbed. Still in the woods, still climbing. Two miles, three miles. An Appalachian Trail through-hiker wearing a frame pack passed us as if we were standing still. Finally, the trees started to get smaller, turning into the twisted little evergreens that grow near treeline all over New England. And then, at about 4000 feet, we came out into the open. I hadn't realized how high we had come with all that climbing. The view made me dizzy. And there ahead of us, the white blazes continued up, painted on rocks now. The trail followed a broad ridge -- I can tell that now looking at a topo map, but I wasn't aware of it then. All I was aware of was the immensity of space below me, and the size and exposure of the rocks I had to crawl over to get to the next white blaze. Our friends led the way up, and I, terrified, followed them. I don't know how I made it over those rocks. I think I may have stopped and cried and told my dad that I couldn't do it, but I don't remember. If I didn't say "I can't," I certainly thought it. At one point we reached a wall of granite, and the blazes on it said that the way to go was up. There was an iron handhold drilled into the rock. My dad helped lift me up, and our friend pulled me up from the top, and I was past it. From that handhold, there was no turning back. I couldn't quit -- not without having to face that handhold a second time. So I kept going.

Finally, after what seemed an eternity of scrambling (though it was no further than a mile), we reached the Tableland. Katahdin is flat on top -- at least on the southwest side. Flat, and covered with a jumble of lichen-covered rocks and little alpine flowers and signs warning that the vegetation is fragile, so stay on the marked trail. The marked trail went across the Tableland and to a second, much gentler ridge that let to Baxter Peak.

When you're on Baxter Peak, you know you're at the highest point in Maine -- 13 feet short of a mile high, with a large cairn that tries to make up the difference, as if those 13 feet are the source of all the state's insecurities. The north woods stretch around you in all directions like a dark green shag carpet. The other mountains look tiny. The lakes are the only thing that breaks up the forest -- well, the lakes and the clearcuts. And to the south, that year, we could see the scars of a forest fire that had burned a few years before. On a clear day, they say you can see the coast, but I must never have climbed Katahdin on a truly clear day. Certainly the top of Katahdin tells how great the trees-to-people ratio of northern Maine is.

It is the nearby topography that is the most spectacular, though. The climb to the peak is gentle from the west, but the eastern side of the peak is a near-vertical drop, down a cirque filled with the blue (or gray on a cloudy day) waters of Chimney Pond. From the peak, it felt like you could easily fall and land in the pond's middle. Technical climbers scale that wall. To the south of the peak, there is an arrete called the Knife Edge. And a knife-edge is what it looks like -- a ridge that is no wider than a yard in places, with 1000 foot drops on either side. A popular route to the top follows the Knife Edge. I looked at that ridge, and the people on it heading for the peak, in horror. It is still the only trail to the top of Katahdin that I have never hiked.

We descended by a different trail, the Abol Trail, which ends at another campground on the southwest side of the mountain. The Abol Trail is a much more direct route to the top than the Hunt Trail... which means it goes straight up. Or in our case, straight down. It follows an old rock slide, which means that a hiker descending the trail frequently feels like she is at the angle of repose herself, ready to tumble down the mountain in the middle of an avalanche. I did as much of my descent as possible on my rear end. After a painfully slow, too-exposed-for-my-tastes descent, we finally reached woods again. My dad couldn't believe how fast I hiked once I was on level ground again -- it was as if I wasn't at all tired.

That day on Katahdin wasn't the first time I realized I was afraid of heights, but it was the most memorable. I've been consciously fighting that fear ever since. I've been to the top of Katahdin at least four times since then, and I've climbed the steep part of other trails a few other times but abandoned the hike short of the top due to bad weather. I coaxed a college friend without a sense of balance up one trail, while hiding my own terror. I climbed a particularly steep, exposed trail called the Cathedral Trail with another geo-woman -- she was impressed by its difficulty, though she had spent time climbing mountains in Colorado.

Since my days climbing Katahdin, I have faced scarier climbs. I spent a summer in Colorado, working for the USGS and climbing 14,000 foot mountains on my weekends off -- there, I learned to scree ski and how to get down a too-steep slope without falling or losing my balance. I spent two summers mapping in a treeless mountain range in northern Alaska, trying to keep up with large men with no patience for young women who were afraid of heights. The Kigluaiks ("sawteeth" in Inupiak) were a mountain range made almost entirely of Knife Edge-like arretes. In Alaska, I not only had to walk the Knife Edges -- I had to scramble down their sides with a pack full of rocks and very little food to eat. Katahdin might seem easy to me now. But it still looms very large in my mind.


kurt said...

You've traveled to some cool places!
Reading about your travels inspires me to want to get up and go do something.

Do people call these travel lists "memes" because they are transmitted by repetition, or because travel is a central cultural element in geology?
Do the lists evolve much during transmission?

p.s., Yay Richard Dawkins!

Callan Bentley said...

It loomed large in Thoreau's mind too. Have you read his Ktaadn?

Memes are just sort of ideas, a collection of commonly-themed posts, that spread through the geoblogosphere like the flu in February. They're kind of junk food for the busy blogger -- easy, but generally not too deep. Kim's post is the exception to this 'rule,' with a detailed essay that shows memes do evolve as they get transmitted.


GeoProf said...

Kim, I'm thoroughly enjoying your blog and really pleased I "discovered" it.... Just wanted to say 'Hi'.

Mary Leech

Silver Fox said...

Yes, I had thought of evolving the meme to a purely Nevada list, but I like the story version, which Kim started here, better.

Kim said...

Callan - I've got a copy of The Maine Woods (bought in Jackson, Wyoming, when I was homesick during field camp).

Kurt - internet memes usually get transmitted without much change. Maybe they're more an example of punctuated equilibria or something. The geo-bloggers seem to latch onto memes dealing with travel a lot, but I've seen more internet memes dealing with books or crazy things people have done.

Mary - Hi! Great to see you! Thank you!

Silver Fox - Geotripper started in on the stories - I just had one sitting on my hard drive, waiting to be re-told.

Chuck said...

Is that what it looks like? When I went up there, visibility was less than 10 meters.

Marla Vail said...


I too am not a 40 something woman. I climbed Katahdin with my son last year at the beginning of his AT trek.

Facing the granite "wall" with the hand hold (last year there was a foot hold & an iron bar near the top of the boulder), was a point on the mountain where I too was intimidated, and I too crossed that threshold of rock.....with trepidation.

Once we crossed that threshold, I told my son, we would have to find another way down the mountain, because there was no way on God's green earth I wanted to go DOWN that rock! Beyond that point, even though I wanted to quit, I kept saying to myself "I have no choice...I must go forward".

To this day when things get tough and I begin to lose faith, I remember being on the trail, saying to myself I had no choice. Katahdin is a life experience I will treasure until the end of my days. Katahdin was a life altering experience in pushing past limits.

Thanks for sharing your story!