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Appalachian Trail

Day 156 – The Birches to Mount Katahdin Summit

It’s been two weeks since this day actually happened. For a while I thought that the picture was enough, that that said it all. And I guess that I knew that writing this post would be the very last thing I do “on the trail” and I didn’t want it to end.

This final day began early. Earlier than any other day on the trail. I was lucky to have slept at all. It would have been even earlier but the ranger station at the park didn’t open until 7 am and that’s where we left all our excess gear in preparation for slack-packing the summit. As it was we were up before six and on the way down to the ranger station around 6:45. We unloaded some gear – tents, sleeping bags, anything we didn’t need for Katahdin, and then started the trail, one last time.

Only 5.2 miles to the summit. As we began we found a super nice trail, rising only gently, and mostly free of rocks – a nice surprise. It lasted maybe a mile and then turned upward, becoming steeper and getting more rugged at the same time. We passed Katahdin Stream falls and the trail turned away from the stream shortly after. The difficulty continued to increase, but the caffeine and adrenaline had me in a zone where none of that mattered. I felt like I was pulling 3 mph where normally the pace would be less than 2. We started hitting some bigger rocks and nearing what seemed to be the start of the boulder climbing section while Landon and Miranda were talking about how that should call their parents from the summit, “we could try but it’s Sunday, they are going to be in church,” Landon said. Only moments later, we rounded a curve in the trail, and there were two older people with a video camera pointed at us. It was Mom and Dad come all the way from Florida and trying to make it to the top of Katahdin on their first hike! L & M took a few minutes to recover from their shock. They couldn’t believe their parents were there, or had made it half way up Katahdin. We all hung out there on the side of the mountain for a few minutes – chatting, having a few snacks, and feeling our hands start to go numb from the still cold morning air. We saw why they had chosen this point to stop and cancel their ascent to the summit – this is where it got serious. There were metal handholds attached to rocks ahead and you had to pull yourself up onto the huge boulders.

Soon the parents headed back down to the campground and we began the last few miles to the top. The weather that we had once feared would be rainy had turned out to be clear blue skies, comfortably cold temperatures, and almost completely wind free. Perfection. Good thing too because most of the rest of the way was navigating a sometimes near vertical boulder field. There were probably a dozen or more times where we were hauling our bodies up rocks with hands and arms. Still we were moving as quickly as possible, fueled now by being able to see the high ridgeline ahead with the summit on it. After some solid climbing the trail levels off again on “the tableland,” a reprieve from the vertical ascent for at least 1/2 a mile. As we walked along the tableland the summit itself became clearer, we could see the crowd of people massed at the top, lingering about and enjoying the view. The final climb from tableland to summit was short, and over all too quickly.

We arrived at the summit just after 11 o’clock in the morning on Sunday October 6, 2013. The end of a 2185.9 mile journey. I had thought about this moment quite a lot throughout these five months and I was never quite sure how I’d react when I made it. I think if there weren’t 30+ people within 30 yards of the summit sign I might have yelled, or cried, or something; but as it was all I could do was sit down, silently, and just think about the trail. That it was over, that I had made it. That we were done, and this was it. Of course there were a few Team Hustle & Flow hugs, and pretty soon we got started with the most important photo shoot of the trip. We started by celebrating with the champagne Miranda had carried up, and moved into all the shots of us and the Katahdin sign. I called home to say Hi to Mom and Dad from the summit, and then after about 75 minutes up there we turned around and went back down the mountain. Back down into the real world, back into civilization. The past few weeks I really felt like I was ready to be done, but now, actually being done is making want to stay out here forever. I knew that phase would hit eventually; for a lot of people it starts a few days or a week before Katahdin. These were the greatest five months of my life. The sights were spectacular, the journey was incredible, and the people were amazing. I feel so fortunate to have made it all the way, and to have met Miranda and started a relationship out here on the trail makes it more incredibly special than I could have ever imagined. It will be a summer that I will always remember, an adventure I will never forget.

Douglas Labbe