I stood below the huge, sloping rock, looking almost straight up. I was trying to figure out how to ascend, doubting whether my sneakers would provide sufficient grip.
My son William had already climbed up, with minimal difficulty. As I mustered the courage to continue, another hiker, a man from the Czech Republic who we had spoken with earlier, approached from below.
I welcomed the idle banter and the extended breather, and he climbed up with no issues. Before I could proceed, two more hikers emerged from the rocks.
An older man, his boots reinforced with black duct tape, sprang expertly up the rock with minimal effort. He spoke loudly, and seemingly impatiently, in a foreign language to a younger man, who we think may have been his son.
He obviously had his own reservations, but made his way up while being yelled at by the older man.
Finally, with some technical guidance from William, I gripped the edge of an adjoining rock, lifted myself up onto the ledge and dragged myself to safety.
It was the most significant challenge of a grueling day climbing Katahdin on the testy Cathedral Trail. I had no idea what I was getting into.
Some cursory research for our first trip to Baxter State Park had led us to believe Cathedral, while considered perhaps the toughest trail on the mountain, would be doable.
It was a rude awakening for a 61-year-old who, while in decent shape (thanks to regular sessions at Wilcox Wellness and Fitness in Bangor), is not a hiker or rock climber.
Taking on Maine’s storied mountain is not for the faint of heart. Our ascent, which took us along the Chimney Pond Trail, then up the steep face of Katahdin, lasted more than five hours.
I stopped frequently, voicing my surprise at the amount of strength, agility and stamina required to pick one’s way along the painted blue hashes that mark the trail. Some occasional wind gusts also got my attention.
Even William, who is 23 years younger and who has done a considerable amount of rock climbing, couldn’t deny Cathedral was a testy trail, harder than he had been led to believe.
Admittedly, I was concerned about what potential hazards I might encounter on the mountain. My dad died of a heart attack at 58 and even though I have taken much better care of myself, I’m no athlete.
BDN colleague Mike Dowd told me after the fact about a book titled “Death On Katahdin: And Other Adventures in Maine’s Baxter State Park,” which lists men over 60 who die of heart failure as the largest demographic for deaths on the mountain.
“I’m glad you didn’t mention that before I went,” I told him.
That cloud of uncertainty followed me throughout the ascent, which included numerous short rest stops in spots where I was able to lean comfortably against the rocks. William remained patient and didn’t let himself get too far ahead of me.
For some reason, a song that had come into my consciousness out of the blue a few days before began repeating itself in my head.
“It’s a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll,” the AC/DC lyric goes. I even began hearing the sound of the bagpipes in the song during long exhales. It was weird, but completely appropriate.
We hadn’t rushed the process. We arrived at Bear Brook Campground on Tuesday afternoon, spent the night in a tent and slept soundly.
We awoke the next morning, drank coffee and water, and ate Canadian bacon, egg and cheese breakfast sandwiches on an English muffin. We checked at the ranger station at Roaring Brook and started up the trail.
It was a cool, sunny morning, perfect for a hike. And the 3.2 miles to Chimney Pond were relatively uneventful, save for a couple of water crossings that resulted in wet toes.
We sat down for maybe 10 minutes for a quick snack and some water. By that time, it had already occurred to me that I had forgotten to assemble and pack the sandwiches that were to serve as our lunch.
Instead, we had to settle for two energy bars each, some electrolyte drink mix and ample water to get us through the remaining 7 1/2 hours on the trail.
The absolute best part of the climb up Cathedral was the incredible views of Chimney Pond, the steep adjacent cliffs, and the mountains, valleys and waters visible in the distance. It gave me even more excuses to stop and take photos.
At long last, my quads burning and my hamstrings aching, we trudged up the final piece of ground to the summit. Hikers posed for photos in front of the sign and we did likewise, to preserve the moment.
We did not get to enjoy the amazing views from the top as a persistent layer of thin clouds obscured most of the landscape below. But it wasn’t the least bit disappointing.
Reaching the summit was all the reward we would need. We sat down for five or 10 minutes for a snack and a water break before heading down.
The descent, while markedly different from the climb, was sufficiently excruciating to make me wonder how so many people could speak at all fondly of taking Saddle Trail.
After negotiating the scree in the higher elevations, we were greeted with a steep, narrow, slippery, unpredictable trail that seemed to never end. Only the overhanging bushes and trees kept me from falling.
Fatigue was becoming a real factor as we went down, down, down from rock to rock, through water and mud. Everyone has always said going down is harder. I think it is more so because the physical demands are taking their toll. William stayed out in front and patiently waited for me to catch up.
Finally, exhausted, dirty and wet, we made it back to Roaring Brook. Our reward was delicious steak, potatoes and asparagus cooked on the grill. A celebratory drink and a hug made the day complete.
We went to sleep talking about the possibility of trying a different approach to the summit next year.
It was gratifying to accomplish the hike and climb with William, who also got his first glimpse of northern Maine from the state’s highest peak. The shared challenges and joys of the trip undoubtedly will stay with us forever.