#17 Thru-Hiking the AT: Thru-Hike Complete!

Above: Mt Katahdin viewed from Rainbow Ledges, a 16 mile hike to the base of Katahdin. Baxter Peak is covered in cloud.

Originally posted by Great Miami Outfitters on September 11, 2015

Posted by Great Miami Outfitters.
 This is the 17th and last blog entry of his trip. Chris “Pacer” has completed his thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail. Chris “Pacer” began his 2015 Appalachian Thru-Hike on April 7, 2015.

#17. Monson, ME to Mt. Katahdin, ME

2,189.2 miles hiked; summitted Katahdin on September 10th, arriving at Baxter Peak at 11:15 am. AT THRU HIKE COMPLETE!!!!!

What a surreal morning of climbing that was… no more hiking after 5 months and 3 days–day after day. 157 days total–140 hiking days; 17 zeros.

BigSky, Pom Pom, and I arrived in Baxter State Park (BSP) on 9 Sep and planned to stay outside BSP that night to make it easier to meet up with our spouses; Loraine, Ethan, and Jamie, respectively. As planned, Jamie met us at Katahdin Stream Campground (where the Hunt Trail climbs up Katahdin, finishing the Appalachian Trail) and took us into Millinocket for lunch, then dropped everyone off at their lodging locations. The weather report looked good for 10 Sep, and we were so relieved. Bad weather can delay summiting.

I woke up at 1:30 am; wide awake–I was ready to hike. Jamie and I met BigSky and Loraine at Dunkin’ Doughnuts at 5:15… breakfast sandwich, coffee, donuts. BSP opened at 6:00 am. We arrived at the the gate a little after 6:00 and saw Pom Pom and Ethan were right behind us… we had about a 20 minute drive to get back to Katahdin Stream Campground. The ranger station opened at 7:00 where we’d get our last AT number, so the 6 of us sipped coffee, talked, and took photos until then… we could see the summit. I was the first thru-hiker to get my number that day… 494. We all got our numbers and walked over to the Hunt Trail… our last hiking day started.

Ethan was hiking with us to the summit, so the 4 of us set out… the skies were clear and blue. The hiking profile was a 4,200 ft climb over 5 miles. The hike started out pretty tame for about 2.5 miles ramping up 1,700 feet. Then, it went straight up. The Trail became a rock climbing exercise for 1.0 miles, gaining 1,800 feet in elevation… we all had a great time scrambling up the rocks, figuring out the holds and routes. After the rock climbing, we leveled off on “The Tableland” that is the gateway to the summit. We took a quick break and started the last 1.6 miles of the AT and only had to gently climb 700 feet. In about 30 minutes, the journey would be over–emotions and adrenaline was pumping. I could see hikers on the summit several hundred yards away, and could also see the iconic Katahdin sign. When I arrived, I got a round of cheers and applause from those that were there. I had just completed my thru hike… it was EPIC! I could see BigSky, Pom Pom, and Ethan working their way up–I watched them all the way to the sign… what a feeling. The traditional finish is taking a lot of pictures around the Katahdin sign… we had beautiful blue skies.

The end of a 2,200 mile hike! The beard was shaved off that night.

After pictures, we ate snacks and talked to everyone on the summit. Of the 30 or so that were on the summit, only a handful were thru-hikers completing their thru-hikes. The others were day hikers that hiked other trails up to the summit. They were quizzing the thru hikers about our journeys. We had planned to descend the Hunt Trail, returning the way we ascended. There is a more dramatic descent by crossing the 1.1 mile Knife Edge in the opposite direction; then, going down the Helon Taylor Trail that’s also strenuous and slow. So many hikers find ways to avoid the Knife Edge because of its notorious difficulty… too windy, too cloudy, etc. I wanted to see it and decide in real time. Before I started the day, I coordinated a way to signal Jamie with my GPS locator if I decided to take the Knife Edge route. Once I saw the Knife Edge from the summit, I knew I would regret it if I didn’t do it–clouds were moving in, but I was reasonably confident it wouldn’t rain.

BigSky, Pom Pom, and Ethan stayed with the original plan and headed back down the the Hunt Trail. I started working my way across the Knife Edge, climbing up and down over the sawtooth rocks. Clouds were thick on my right, but the sky was clear on the left. As I left the summit, the trail is reasonably wide, but over time it narrows to points where the trail is straight down on both sides. As I worked my way across the Edge, I passed a couple hikers that decided to turn back after they saw the Chimney. The Chimney is near the end of the Knife Edge; it drops straight down into a narrow pass, then goes straight up the other side to Pamola Peak, 4,900 feet, where the Helon Trail starts. I thought the Chimney was actually on the Helon Taylor Trail, so I didn’t realize I had down climbed 40 feet, the most difficult side of the Chimney, until I was at the bottom with my backpack still on. Backpacks are recommended to be removed and lowered to the bottom by rope, which was my plan… too late. Next, I had to free climb up the other side… again, no metal holds, no ropes, no elevator. Every step and hand hold was carefully considered once I realized I was already in the middle of the Chimney. There were several tough moments during the climb out of the Chimney, but it was great fun and a great way to end my thru hike. At Pamola Peak, I took a right turn down Helon Taylor Trail and worked my way to the bottom over the next 2.5 hours. I saw Jamie reading a book and I let out a celebratory yell–hugs and kisses. I climbed the approach trail to Springer at the Southern Terminus, and now I descended the Knife Edge off Katahdin at the Northern Terminus–it was a fitting end for my journey.

I’m looking at Knife Edge from Baxter Peak. If you can view this photo with a larger screen, you should be able to see hikers on the Edge. You can also see the Chimney between the 2 far peaks–Pamola Peak is farthest away.

So, I went straight to the end and skipped the 100 Mile Wilderness… here’s how we got to Mt. Katahdin.

Maine has been a kind of “greatest hits” of all the states. We have been so fortunate with the weather; I can tell the Trail would be nasty and tough if it was wet. So many SOBOs had wet stretches. Despite how soggy the AT can get in Maine, I’ve been so impressed with the level of trail maintenance. Trees are brushed back well, wide trail, bog bridges, and more rock work than I’ve seen in any state. Trail maintainers have built long stair cases from rock up and down so many of these mountains. They also use rocks to hop across the swampy parts. Rock ditches are built along the Trail to help move water. Moving rock is very hard to do and to see so much of it is so impressive–very well built to. The trail maintainers have a lot to work with too. The AT through Maine is staggeringly beautiful… the blend of trees, plants, clear water everywhere, animals, mountains–I could go on and on.

Same as last update; absolutely perfect hiking weather. I’m starting to see little signs of fall colors. Over the past couple days, I’ve seen red and purple maple leaves on the Trail, and yellow leaves off the birches. A few days ago, a gusty breeze started blowing more leaves around. Still mostly green leaves, but it’s starting. Some of the forest floor scrub leaves are yellow spotting too. Mornings are crisp at higher elevations… I can see my breath. We were truly blessed with great weather. So many hikers had bad weather in Maine–not us, it was awesome!

Before we left Monson, Big Sky, Pom Pom, Blazer and I met at Pete’s next door to our hostel for breakfast one last time before heading to the AT. Pete’s was my favorite breakfast place on the whole AT. At 7:30, we shuttled back to the AT, but Blazer stayed behind to meet his 4 friends that are finishing their AT section hikes… he’s hiking to Katahdin with them… that was always the plan. All 4 are from the Dayton area.

We entered the 100 Mile Wilderness, the most remote section of the AT. As we entered, a sign suggested you carry 10 days of supplies and that this section’s difficulty should not be underestimated; the sign also said there is no support until you reach Abol bridge at the end of the 100 miles. Well, we planned 6 days to cross the Wilderness and entered with 3 days of supplies. Our hostel has a resupply spot at mile 51. We fill up a 5-gallon bucket with supplies, and they hide it in a known location–we have to find it… a treasure hunt. We each put a couple more days of supplies in the bucket, paid our $25, and hoped it would be there.

Our first day back on the Trail was pretty straight forward and had minimal climbing. We usually plan a short day when leaving town so we only had 15 miles to cover. Water is the defining feature of the 100 Mile Wilderness… lakes, ponds, brooks, springs, streams–everywhere. When it’s raining, there would certainly be a lot of mud… this day, it was pretty dry… nice. That night we tented at Long Pond Stream Lean-to.

The next morning, we had a climb up Barren Mountain and a series of other mountains that are just numbered… like Mountain 3, Mountain 2. Hiking was slow because of the footwork. Late in the day, we descended off Chairback Mountain down to West Branch Pleasant Stream… we had to ford it. I met an ATC ridge runner named Moxie at the stream. She said the hiking was easier ahead of us and that we just covered the toughest part of the Wilderness… good news. We crossed the stream as many weekenders were going the other way. We made it to our targeted camp, but had to hike about 45 minutes with headlamps in the dark. We quickly set up camp, ate, and went to bed–it was a long 20+ mile day.

The next day, I was awake well before 6:00 because of a few red squirrels–red squirrels are bonkers. They’re much smaller than a gray squirrel, but have 4 times the energy and are 10 times louder–incredibly mischievous. They make a long vibrating chatter noise that can go for several seconds. When one does it, others join in. This was the noise I was hearing very high above my tent. Next, I heard pine cones being dropped on and around my tent, then their chatter shifted to a kind of giggling noise. They were definitely having a great time waking me up. We started hiking at 7:00. There was a beaver pond just 10 minutes from the shelter and we saw a cow moose and her calf feeding in the pond. We tried not to disturb them, but they saw us and moved into the woods out of sight. We had a couple thousand feet of climbing to knock out over 4 mountains in the AM… the climbs went by pretty quick, which set us up for a relatively flat afternoon. The footing over the last 7-8 miles was awesome. We could fly!  We got to the spot on the Trail where we needed to locate our resupply bucket–the 51-mile mark of the Wilderness. I pulled out the treasure map we were given and quickly found ours and about 10 other buckets. We reloaded our packs, off loaded the trash, and guzzled Gatorades we also put in the bucket. Next, we headed for camp; we got a huge camp area at Cooper Brook Falls Lean-to before 6:00. There was a long cascade that fed into a large pool right in front of the lean-to… very pretty spot. It’s a great place to swim and cool off. We just soaked our tired feet for a while at the end of a 19 mile day.

On Monday, we had a 21.5 mile day planned and hoped the good footing would continue; it did for about 12 miles. We made great time most of the day. As the Trail got closer to the streams and lakes, the footing became roots and rocks… slowed us down a little bit. As I was hiking along a stream, I recognized a hiker headed toward me–it was Red Pepper–signature red hat and water bottles on his chest. We heard he came off Trail due to a medical need last week. I didn’t think we’d see him again. We all caught up and got 1 last piece of his licorice. He flip-flopped and had about 100 miles left to hike south to finish his thru hike. If you remember, he was part of the original hiker family… he’s gonna make it.  We made it to Wadley Lean-to before dark, and there was Corky, another original trail family member. She introduced us to Pilgrim and Mofo who have each hiked the AT 3 times so far. This is their fourth thru hike! We ate dinner and got in our tents just before the rain started. It rained about half the night. The next day would be our last full day and night in the woods.

The next morning was muggy, and we started the day with a mid-size climb. We were soaked with sweat by 8:00 when we got to the top. Big Sky and I rung out our shirts–hopefully for the last time. We made good time through the day and hiked almost 20 miles. The shelter was full of thru hikers. As we hiked, we talked a lot about the next day. Abol Bridge was only 3.5 miles away and is the gateway into Baxter State Park where Katahdin is located. We planned to take a break at the Abol Bridge Campstore for sodas and snacks, then hike 9 miles through the Park to the Katahdin Stream Campground where we met Jamie. The whole day was a kind of celebratory victory lap before the final finish.

Trail Tale:
I’ve rambled a good bit about my trail family throughout many of these updates. But, there are a couple of remarkable DNA matching families I want to describe. I wanted to bring them up for quite some time, but I wanted to wait until the end of the hike to see if they were going to make it. They are, so now is the time…

The first family is a group of 4, Mama Bear and her 3 cubs. The 3 cubs are ages 5 (boy), 5 (girl), and 8 (boy). The 5-year-olds are twins. Last year they hiked from Springer Mountain to Harper’s Ferry, a total of 1,023 miles–at the time, the 2 twins were just 4! This year, they’re picking up where they left off at Harper’s Ferry and headed for Katahdin to complete their 2-year section hike. I think I’ve only seen them once and thought they were day hikers. I remember seeing them in New Hampshire going the opposite direction up the Presidentials. Turns out, they were slack packing. In the pile of resupply buckets, I saw their bucket–they weren’t far behind me. I have seen a couple pictures of Mama Bear and her 3 cubs–amazing.

The second family I’m more familiar with. As a family, they’re called the Biff Network, and when they sign a shelter journal, they finish their entry with a rubber stamp of a chicken emblazoned below with “Biff Network.” There are 7 in the family: Dad (Simple Man), Mom (Chocolate), 17 year old young man, 16 year old young lady, 12 year old boy, 10 year old boy, and a 9 year old boy. They have 5 more kids that are older and in college. Some of the older kids came out for part of the summer and even brought a couple friends to hike for several weeks. Wherever they are, there is a hiker bubble. I first heard about this family when I was in North Carolina. If they completed the AT as a family, they would be something like the 15th family to do it. The first time I saw them was at Harper’s Ferry. Since Harper’s Ferry, we’ve swapped and passed by each other countless times. They planned to summit Katahdin the same day as me. The Biff Network is well organized and everyone has responsibilities. They always take a zero on Saturday for religious reasons. They seem to really be enjoying the adventure. The youngest ones are escorted by a family member, but everyone else hikes their hikes and gather at the end of the day. They can knock out big miles… don’t be fooled by young ages. These kids can fly! When the littlest hook up with the oldest, Dash, they motor those 2 foot long hiking poles–quickly. I don’t think I can keep up with them… not kidding.

Thank you for following my Appalachian Trail progress. I’ve enjoyed all the support, feedback, and questions throughout the hike. I’m considering my next hiking adventure and am strongly considering “redlining” the 800+ miles in the Smoky Mountains.

Chris “Pacer” Ford



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s