Speck Pond Lean-to, Day 8, 31.9 miles

It was nice to once again have a shelter to myself for the night and enjoyed a good night’s sleep despite temps dropping down to the low 30s. My vapor barrier worked but the warmth of my sleep system made me resistant to getting up. I got hiking probably around 530 but I couldn’t know with having my phone battery dead. The sky was clear for the time being but I knew rain was forecast. I would enjoy the dry weather for now.

My least favorite type of climb
My least favorite type of climb

I was having a tough time getting my legs moving, a trend that I would learn was going to become typical of each day’s hiking. The first 10 miles were always very, very hard, getting warmed up and dealing with sleepiness and mental exhaustion of having to do it all over again. This morning, without having any music to pick me up, I really got inside my head. I also had gone nearly 24 hours without seeing anyone besides a passing car at one of the road crossings. The early part of the day’s hiking was marked by undulations like in the picture above with just quick ups and downs, known as PUDs (pointless up and downs) to hikers.

A couple miles north of Hall Mountain Lean-to I asked a section hiker if he knew the time and the weather forecast. It was around 10am and heavy rain was predicted to roll in within the next hour. He told me his plan was to set up his tarp in the valley to keep dry but I knew I wouldn’t have the luxury of stopping. By the time I made it to the lean-to after navigating my way through some more blowdowns, I was in a drizzling cloud. I threw my stuff in the shelter, undid my sopping shoes, and laid down. Consciously I knew I needed to keep going, but physically and emotionally I was exhausted. I was so sick of being wet, so tired of hiking in the damp clouds, and couldn’t be more fed up with the uncleared trails. I closed my eyes without thinking about the many more miles I needed to cover.

I was down for maybe a minute before the tougher more inspired part of myself riled the lazier half to get back up. I needed to act quick before I changed my mind and decided on a snooze within the comfort of the shelter walls. I laced up my shoes which hadn’t been dry for a minute since I started. There was a layer of mud, pine needles, and small stones on the insole and massive holes were splitting open on either side. I put on my poncho and leapt out of the shelter. I had taken maybe a 4 or 5 minute break but that’s all I could afford.

A mile later I came up to a large man walking toward me with a chainsaw. The guy, long frizzy hair and thick red beard, muddy ripped t-shirt with MATC in small font on the front, carhartt pants, ear covers, walked toward me on the trail carrying a massive chain saw. He towered over me at probably 6’4″ and from his disheveled look appeared to be the epitome of a Maine mountain man. He was the trail crew, all one of him. Down south whole parties of people will descend on the tamest of trails to clear it of brush and twigs and clean up switchbacks and drainage channels. In Maine the process seems so much more badass. One guy in the rain on a clouded summit wearing a t-shirt clearing blowdowns with his chainsaw. I was ecstatic to see him, a feeling not too many people can understand with greeting a stranger in the woods with a chainsaw. But it meant the next mile or so of the trail would be clear of the fallen trees and that made me want to hug him. I practically jumped from excitement when I saw him and thanked him a million times. He certainly had his work cut out for him and I appreciate all that the trail crews do.

Sure enough, for the next mile the trail was littered with sawdust and massive logs thrown off to the side. I was amazed at what he done by himself and thought my spindly arms could never have hoisted the massive trees off the trail. He was a hardass, no doubt. I pranced along for the next half hour over the clean trails and was thrilled to be moving at a faster clip. It was the kind of excitement I had needed to get me going and despite the foul weather, I was rocking and rolling.

In the afternoon I began my climb up toward Frye Notch Lean-to and the sky really opened up and started dropping buckets. I tightened up my poncho to try to keep the cold rain from seeping in under my armpits. The rain was cold and a touch of hypothermia was setting in. If I stopped I would start shivering in minutes so I simply couldn’t stop, no matter how tired I became. I told myself I could take a break at the next shelter but I knew by the time I made it there I would just tell myself I could make it to the next shelter still.

Not knowing the time or my location, I had just been adding mileages from signs along the trail to ideally get to around 35 for the day. Normally the GPS on my phone will tell me exactly where I am and how far to any location on the entire trail. This luxury was something I had become accustomed to. However, I still avoided using it because sometimes ignorance was bliss. The day always went by faster and more enjoyably if I just hiked with no concern for the time or distance.

On the climb the rain was still persistent and I was getting a little worried about my ability to maintain my body temperature. The next shelter would be a welcome respite to warm up if things spiraled out of control. I ran into a couple section hikers heading north and they told me they had left the last shelter three hours earlier. I was devastated for a moment before they warned me they were hiking very, very slow. They told me the blowdowns were really bad up the mountain but I figured I could traverse them easily enough. What I didn’t account for was that in the driving rain, there was no way for me to take off my poncho tarp and protect it. I just needed to hike carefully and cautiously work my way through the brush. Normally I can plow through a blowdown without much hesitation and come out the other side with just some bloody scrapes on my legs. But the poncho tarp was my livelihood. It needed to last me the rest of my trip, or at least to an outfitter where I could replace it. I sent myself patches to each of my mail drops but they would only be good for a small tear.

The blowdowns were much worse than I expected but I navigated it alright, albeit slowly to make it to the next shelter. Once there I saw the sign pointing south on the AT directing me 3.5 miles south to Baldpate Lean-to. By this time I was exhausted from climbing through the rain and all the fallen trees but I naively thought of course I could traverse another 3.5 miles to get to the next shelter. I had not considered that maybe the reason for the proximity of the shelters was because the terrain between them was tough.

On the climb up Baldpate Lean-to I began my vow that I would never try anything like this ever again. The climb up Baldpate was steep slick featureless bedrock. At some ridiculous grade it would be a test for the grip of most shoes on a dry day. And with pole tips dull after traversing over 200 miles, I was bound to not have a very fun time. But the worst part was the concern that the descent might be just as bad. On the climb if I slip and fall I just get some scraped knees and hands while I slide down trying to grab a stray tree root or rock ledge. On the descent, however, I’m likely to fall on my butt or head first, neither of which are good positions for stopping myself.

Once up the climb on the more gradual summit the wind tore at my poncho. The rain had let up and I was warm from the climb so I decided to take off what had now turned into a parachute. I depended on my thin nylon wind jacket to keep me warm and it did the job. At least now I wouldn’t have to worry about ripping my poncho on the granite if I fell. The summit of Baldpate was anti-climactic from within a cloud and I really just kept thinking about getting down. But when I caught my first glance of the descent down the open rock I was devastated. The slick moss covered rock was dripping from the day’s rain and I was certain I would fall at least once trying to get down.

 

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The granite on Baldpate

And sure enough I did. One of the most distressing parts of the descents was the lack of things to grab on to if I did fall. In addition to that it was a series of ledges, some of them 5 feet or more. So I slipped and fell on my hip just above one of the ledges, this one probably 6 or 7 feet tall and continue sliding on my bare thigh down toward this drop off. On the green film coating the granite I slid slowly and painfully down but managed to turn over and stop myself just before going over. I couldn’t imagine what would have happened had I tipped over the edge of one of those lips. I probably would have landed on my side and continued sliding and tumbling down to a tree before I could grab hold and stop myself.

Hiking to me is extraordinarily tame. I get a kick out of paddling a kayak over the horizon, or winter expeditions into inhospitable terrain. This challenge was meant to be an athletic feat with little concern of dangerous summits, wildlife, or hypothermia. It was tame by nearly all standards. So to get up on this climb and not feel safe in the least bit was extremely distressing. With better balance on less fatigued legs or in better weather the climb and descent would hardly have even been memorable. But with the wind threatening to turn my sideways and the rain, I just wanted to be off this mountain and frankly I really didn’t want to be out in the woods at all anymore. I wasn’t scared and certainly not having any fun.

The descent stayed steep down in the trees but at least I had something to grab on to. I made it down to Baldpate Lean-to without any more issue and was thrilled to be safe. I walked the short side trail off to the shelter without knowing whether I would continue or stay the night. I had not remembered what the trail conditions were like for the next few miles and without my guidebook on my phone to turn too, needed some info from other hikers. At the shelter there was one SOBO who had started a month ago without summiting Katahdin, two SOBO flip floppers who had started in late May, and one NOBO. They were very encouraging and helpful but couldn’t believe I had started just a week earlier. The NOBO told me the trail was fine and clear for the next few miles and the next shelter was only a little over 6 miles ahead. I would be traversing the Mahoosuc Notch, undeniably the gnarliest mile on the trail, tomorrow and didn’t need to worry about it tonight. So I continued on down the mountain.

In Grafton Notch, I threw away a couple packets of Starburst and the rest of my trash in a parking lot trash bin. I no longer had the patience to open individual Starburst and had plenty of food to get me to my next resupply tomorrow. The maintaining organization switched over to AMC which I was pretty certain was a hired trail crew so I was hoping for a little bit clearer trails and wasn’t disappointed. Throughout my time on AMC trails I was amazed at how well maintained the trails were.

I started working my way up Speck Mountain and some tibialis anterior tendinitis I had dealt with just north of the Kennebec returned. It would end up coming on even stronger 600 miles in and is likely the reason my trip ended. But for now, I felt no need to push too hard and risk it getting worse, especially after salvaging a pretty solid day from some crummy conditions. I decided to bail before making it to Speck Pond Lean-to, a decision that I would wholeheartedly regret the next morning.

Continue reading: Day 9

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