Butt Sleigh – That time I was schooled by a mountain.

Our Week of ManCamping Women is kicking off with Devon O aka The Smoking Hiker! We’ve known Devon for a long damn time and loved reading through this story so we had to get it up for everyone to read!

Devon O likes to smoke, hike and travel… make sure you give her a follow on Instagram!

By: Devon O – The Smoking Hiker

Oh to be somewhat young and naïve.
At the end of September 2018, I read about the ‘knife’s edge’ trail on Facebook, a section of narrow trail connecting two peaks atop Mount Katahdin in Maine, the final mountain of the Appalachian Trail. A crazy narrow mountain ridge trail? Yes! That can be hiked in a day? YES! Within driving distance? YASSSS! I was sold. I went to the Baxter State Park website and secured 3 days of permits (in case of inclement weather once I got there), and 10 days later I was driving through Quebec to Maine to attempt my first mountain hike. Solo.

Knife's Edge Trail

Now, I had hiked for a few years by then, knowing I finish hikes in less than the estimated times. Having done 2,000 ft. at the Grand Canyon in 4 hours quite easily the previous year, I was confident I could do 5,000 ft. in the estimated 8-10 hours, plus an hour for the knife’s edge itself, despite all the warnings that this is a very strenuous trail even for experienced hikers. That’s me! An experienced hiker! I can do it!

I got to my hotel by the park and the forecast for the next day was ok, but not for the two days after that. First day it is. I’m ready! I got to the park at 6:30 a.m. The weather was ok, a bit drizzly, could potentially change over the course of the day, but the trail was open. Awesome! Not a problem I thought, I had the required gear and I had enough time.

It all started out great. “Oh this is pretty”, “oh this is peaceful,” I thought. PSYCHE! The mountain pulled a fast one on me. I soon realized, damn, there’s no switchbacks on this trail, this trail isn’t peaceful, this trail is STRAIGHT UP! I’m sure there will be sections that level out, I thought. There weren’t. And not just straight up, but like a 45-60 degree incline straight up. Then the trail more rocky. Then the trail got bouldery. I was climbing boulders. Was this a hike or was I on some secret American Ninja Warrior show? Also, know what sucks about climbing boulders in drizzling rain? Slugs. I must have put my hand on and squished about 5 slugs. So gross. But I endured, climbing this steep, increasingly bouldery and rainy trail. Then I got past the tree line. Half way up. I can do this!

Over the next few hours came more rain, wind, and the fog. So foggy I couldn’t see the top of the mountain. Hard to say if that was a good thing or not because I may have turned around sooner if I had been able to see just how far I still had to go, but not knowing how much farther it was made me think it can’t be THAT much farther. It was. I didn’t know how far I still had to go but I knew I didn’t want to climb this same steep boulder trail back down!

Knife's Edge Trail

By this point 6 people had passed me on the trail going up. A young solo dude hiking in sandals, (sandals people!) and a young solo dude with a massive pack who must have been finishing the Appalachian Trail. Given the time of day they should have passed me on the way back down but I never saw them again so they not only made it to the top, but across the knifes edge trail too. Bad-asses? Dumb-asses? I guess that depends on the outcome of their hike. There were also 4 young ladies hiking together in shorts and t-shirts. I had three pairs of pants on, a tank, long sleeve, a zip up, vest, and a rain jacket. I was hot as hell and they must have been freezing. You’d think after dressing ourselves since we are 4, we ladies would be better at deciding what to wear. The struggle is real.

I kept climbing and this young lady came into view, climbing down. She must have started out before me since she didn’t pass me on the way up. “How much farther is it to the top?” I asked. “Not much farther”, she said. She had reached the top but had turned around opting not to attempt the knife’s edge as she was solo and the wind, fog and rain was just too dangerous. I had admitted defeat by this point as well due to the fog and wind. I knew I wouldn’t get to go across the knife’s edge trail, but I had come so far I at least wanted to reach the summit of Mount Katahdin. I kept going, wondering what people’s interpretation of ‘not much farther’ actually meant. Then I heard voices. The good kind. The kind you want to hear when you are on a mountain trail in bad weather solo. It was the 4 young ladies who had passed me earlier. They had put on some more clothes but I swear a couple of them were still in shorts. They had also turned around at the top deciding it was too dangerous to cross the knife’s edge in the current weather. “How much farther is it to the top?” I asked them. “Oh not far, it’s just at the top there, 15 minutes to reach the Cairn”. It was too foggy to see but fifteen minutes! Omg, I was going to make it! Over the next 5 minutes I climbed while the wind picked up. I started crouching when a gust of wind blew by just in case. Then a gust of wind came where I HAD to crouch so as not to be blown off the top of the mountain. That was it, I was turning around. I could endure the steep ascent, I could navigate and climb the rocks and boulders, I could survive the weather, but I sure as hell couldn’t fly.

On the way down, the fog got worse and I started struggling to see the next blaze in order to stay on trail. Then I lost the trail. You don’t know fear until your in open mountain terrain thinking I can’t even bloody see the next blaze how in the hell is someone going to find me? I had to re-trace my way back up the mountain best I could in order to find the trail, which was about as fun as it sounds having read my story so far, but I did it, found the trail, did the cross sign across my chest, and continued down the mountain.
Now, you’d think going down a mountain is much easier than going up it. PSYCHE! The mountain pulled another fast one on me. Trying to climb down slippery boulders on a steep trail solo should be a new Olympic sport. Butt sleigh? Solo butt sleigh. So I mostly solo butt sleighed down the boulders and focused my effort on not slipping on the wet rocks and roots of the trail. This is where I learned the value of trekking poles, because I didn’t have them. And god help me if I injured myself; I was solo and there wasn’t a single other person who was going to pass me on this trail. As I descended, my legs started wobbling more and more with each step. I started to worry, could I even physically make it down the mountain? My thighs were beyond not happy, they were downright angry. Then my knees starting giving out and this is where I learned the TRUE value of trekking poles. I kept going thinking if I have to call mountain rescue, the less they have to climb = the less mad they will be with me for not turning around sooner. I must have thought I was close to reaching the bottom about 26 times. “This looks familiar! I must be getting close to the bottom!” PSYCHE! My brain pulled 26 fast ones on itself, deluding my legs into thinking I was always just 50 ft. from reaching the bottom. The more I continued and the closer I got to the bottom, the more embarrassed I felt I was going to be if I indeed had to call Mountain Rescue. I’d be 75ft from the bottom and mountain rescue would show up, ask “really?” then just piggy back me out of there. If I could just get far enough that I could yell for help, then the park rangers could just come get me. Oh, and this whole time I couldn’t stop to take a break or rest either because once I did the cold would set in since I was soaking wet and I knew if I stopped and couldn’t start again, that would be way worse.

But I made it to the bottom, no mountain rescue for this girl! And goddamn, at the bottom it was a warm sunny day. Young people in the car park were talking about how beautiful the day was, how warm the water was, how glad they were they came to Baxter State Park on this glorious October day. All I could think was, ‘I fucking hate this mountain’. That, and just how bad my legs will be tomorrow. I drove to my hotel and although sore, I could still walk. Praise Jesus. Until the next day. Technically I could still walk, but I could barely go up a single step. My quadriceps were toast. You have no idea the pain of trying to sit down and get up off the toilet.

I decided to drive 14 hours straight home in case I needed medical assistance. Let me tell you how fun it was at the food, gas and washroom stops along the way, looking like some weirdo going up and down curbs and steps like a penguin. Good thing I live at the top of a 4 story building that doesn’t have an elevator. I had climbed 5,000 ft. (almost) over about 9 hours the day before, and now the 35 stairs to my apartment were going to do me in. I left all my luggage and gear in the car and with the stairway railing to help me I was able to reach the top. Success! Thankfully I didn’t do any permanent damage to my legs; after a week I could walk normally again within a couple months I could hike again.

Will I go back to Mount Katahdin to attempt to do the knife’s edge again someday? Possibly, but at a time of year with better weather and more people on the trail. And I will definitely be bringing trekking poles because Mount Katahdin taught me a lesson I never want to learn the hard way again; you don’t hike a mountain, you climb a mountain, and when you play the game of mountains, you bring trekking poles or… there is no “or”; you bring trekking poles.

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