Surviving The Knife Edge

by Sydney Kahl / Mar 09, 2014 /

Fulfilling my Dad’s birthday wish meant getting up at 4am to get in line to hike Maine’s Greatest Mountain, Mount Katahdin. Mount Katahdin is located in the heart of Maine in Baxter State Park, which was protected by Governor Percival Baxter in the 1930’s. Katahdin is the northern end of the Appalachian Trail.We had driven up the night before from our rustic summer camp, and stayed in a cheap motel to arrive at the Park gate as early as possible.


Mount Katahdin, Maine


Mount Katahdin, Maine


As we sat in our car in the dark, we prepared our packs and counted the line of cars in front of us, trying to determine if we would land ourselves a parking space at the trailhead. We didn’t have reservations, but we believed the Park authorities save a few spots for the early birds. A park employee came to our window around 5:30 a.m. to say we were the last car in - whew! We signed in at the welcome center, and I studied the 3-D model of the mountain carefully to scout out the route for the day via Chimney Pond, to Mount Katahdin, over the Knife Edge, and onto Pamola Peak before returning to our car. We put on our backpacks and our ascent up the trail had begun with us feeling full of energy and ready to conquer the mountain. Our first stop of the day was at Chimney Pond, where there are bathrooms and a great spot for a snack and pictures.

Next, we began our 10 mile journey. The trail is steep! We had to resort to climbing on all fours up the vertical portions. The trail, Cathedral Trail, has certainly earned its name, as there are three spires of rock reminding one of a Cathedral with spires. Each view got better than the previous one. I pulled out my SLR (which my parents thought I was crazy for deciding to lug up the mountain), but I wanted to document this trip well. However, I found my pictures didn’t do the mountain justice. The feeling of being on rocky ledges with drop offs hundreds of feet or more is something you must experience for yourself.


Cathedral Trail, Mt Katahdin, Maine


Cathedral Trail, Mt Katahdin, Maine


Cathedral Trail, Mt Katahdin, Maine


As we neared the top of Baxter Peak, surprisingly we found a grassy slope. This was a welcome respite from all the boulder climbing.


Grassy slope at Baxter Peak, Mt Katahdin, Maine


Many hikers were on the summit on this beautiful, windy day, taking pictures at the summit sign to prove their presence. I met some “through hikers,” as they are called at their final destination of the Appalachian Mountain Trail after hiking for months. One person told us about the 6 pairs of shoes they had gone through! I was glad to hear they preferred sneakers as opposed to hiking boots, as I also prefer sneakers. My Dad and I have been debating whether sneakers or hiking boots are best for hiking. He insists my sneakers don’t give the stability I need. However, I prefer the flexibility my sneakers allow as I step on and over boulders and roots.


Hiking Mt Katahdin, Maine


At the summit, Mt Katahdin, Maine

At the peak, Mt Katahdin, Maine


The next portion of the hike was the infamous Knife Edge. Earlier we had heard of fierce 45 mile per hour winds, but at the point that we had to make up our minds whether to proceed, there was no wind. At least not until we were committed and far enough along the trail that it seemed easier to push on through the unknown than to retrace the difficult portion we had already covered. None of this section was a stroll. The views are certainly nothing short of spectacular, as long as you don’t have a fear of heights and can remain relaxed in between wind bursts. I periodically stopped to take in the views while clutching rocks for stability. I didn’t dare take my eyes off the trail while I was moving, either on all fours, or watching my every step across the uneven, rocky trail. The wind gusts were strong enough to make you lose your balance if you happened to take a step at the wrong time. I have never been afraid of heights, but I was certainly nervous.


Knife Edge, Mount Katahdin, Maine


Knife Edge, Mount Katahdin, Maine


Knife Edge, Mount Katahdin, Maine

At one point, I found myself trying to figure out how to navigate a steep rocky stretch with no clear footholds. I couldn’t see my parents, and called to my dad for some assistance. On his way to find me, he fell and cut open his hand. I heard him yell for my mother to bring the first aid kit. I figured out my footing around the massive boulders to find the rocks covered in blood and my Mom trying to bandage my Dad’s hand while trying to brace against the wind.


Knife Edge, Mt Katahdin, Maine


From that point on, the trail only got harder. Next, we were faced with a vertical descent, which seemed suited to very experienced rock climbers. I honestly had serious hesitations as to whether I’d be able to climb down it. We could see the painted trail markers on the rocks below. We threw our packs down and climbed down backwards, with our backs facing outwards, making it so we couldn’t see where we were stepping. We slowly lowered ourselves, reaching for secure footholds. The problem was we were all different heights. So, what worked for one person didn’t work for the rest of us. We coached each other down. This area was called the Chimney- a steep u-shaped cleft in the mountains.


Surviving the Chimney, Mt Katahdin, Maine


Finally, we reached Pamola Peak, the final summit of the ridge, and were able to look back at the ridge we had just navigated over; it was such a relief to know we had made it across without falling off the mountain. We began our descent as the last few hours of daylight approached. After accomplishing the Knife Edge successfully, I felt confident this last stretch would be a piece of cake, as the trail’s now smooth rocky surfaces gradually descended. I thought we had made good progress but realized we had just reached tree line as we came across the first small shrubs. My legs were beginning to feel like jello. The trail seemed to continue on forever. My mom and I joked that someone was playing an evil trick on us and was stretching the trail longer and longer. This managed to cheer me up for about 5 minutes, until my legs gave me a friendly little reminder of how much pain they were in. 


Pamola Peak, Knife Edge, Mt Katahdin, Maine


Much to my frustration, my parents were handling this part of the hike better than I was, and seemed to be in less pain. This worried me as I was the young, four-season, varsity athlete.  Maybe the fact that my legs are shorter was part of the difference. I was looking for some kind of explanation.

Finally, and by finally, I mean FINALLY, we reached the parking lot, where I was never so happy to see our car in my life. We had been gone for 12 hours. We shared stories with another couple that had hiked the trails in the reverse order, wondering who had made the wiser decision.  They were on a “date.”  I think if they survived hiking Katahdin together and were still in good spirits, cracking jokes, they’ll do just fine as a couple. I sunk into the seat of the car without any energy even to untie my shoes.

As much pain as I was in at the end of the trail, I was so happy we had done the Knife Edge and not decided to turn around at the summit of Mount Katahdin. This journey has since prompted me to a new goal of climbing all the forty-eight 4,000 foot peaks in New Hampshire.  I’ll return one day to hike Kathadin, but I don’t think I’ll take the same route again; there are plenty of alternatives, and my memory of our ordeal, the views, and the accomplishment will linger a long time.





Sydney Kahl is a member of the Youth Travel Blogging Mentorship Program


All photos courtesy and copyright Syndey Kahl



Hiking Maine’s Greatest Mountain, Mount Katahdin.

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