Climbing Knife Edge

After two previous ascents, Elizabeth Peavey finally braves Katahdin’s famed Knife Edge.

By Elizabeth Peavey / Photographed by Mark Fleming

Clip toenails. I can’t say this was the most romantic item on my Knife Edge checklist, but it was the first. In fact, it was the only item for almost 11 months, until the trip truly started to take form.

It all began around a conversation with my hiking friends Lynn and Ivan involving an unfortunate incident that occurred the last time they’d hiked Katahdin. It seems Lynn had not fully and properly trimmed said nails, and what with the constant bumping of her big toe against her boot during the descent, she — well, you don’t want me to elaborate, do you? They’d been hiking with friends who reserve a couple of parking spaces every year at Roaring Brook Campground (a necessity for day hikers) and who often welcome outsiders to their fold. And usually, Lynn said, they attempt the Knife Edge.

As a lifelong Mainer who had summited Katahdin twice via the Hunt Trail, I wondered why I had let tackling the Knife Edge elude me for so many years. Braving this 1.1-mile-long ridge of jagged, exposed rock nearly a mile in the sky isn’t required for making you a true Maine outdoorswoman, but it’s close. “I’d like to tag along,” I told my friends. “I’d like to do the Knife Edge.”

So it came to pass that nearly a year later I could be found sitting on the steps of our cabin at Big Moose Inn just outside the entrance to Baxter State Park, trimming my nails by headlamp the night before our ascent. I was trying not to fret about the forecast — which ranged from 30 to 60 percent chance of showers — because if anyone knows anything about the Big Fella (that’s woods lingo for Katahdin), it’s that you have to be prepared for anything, including a change of plans. The park, and especially the mountain, have microclimates all their own — capricious, mercurial, and oblivious to the oracles at the National Weather Service. I, like so many others, have more than once been thwarted in an attempt to make a climb. A light mist or a bit of a breeze at the base can transmogrify into a gale and hail on those open cliff faces. Snow has been reported in every month of the year. A gust can throw off your footing that might already be sketchy on slippery rocks. It is not extreme or good sport to try to tame the mountain in foul weather. It’s foolishness.

Which is why, when our party of 10 meets in the parking lot the next morning a little after 6 in a light drizzle, we concede to take the day as it comes. Already, three of the four members of Team Peavey have lowered their expectations. Right before the trip, my husband, John, tweaked his hamstring. Lynn is battling a frozen shoulder, and Ivan has a double whammy of iffy knees and a twisted ankle. Ivan was going to be my hiking partner. At a certain age, it’s not just the mountain that presents obstacles.

My team is going to ascend the 3.3 miles to Chimney Pond, but go no farther; beyond that, I will be hiking with strangers — Lynn has assured me her friends are all very nice, and they seemed so in our flurry of hellos. I am aware of the challenges awaiting me, beyond endurance (guidebooks say to plan on 12 hours of hiking). If we are able, crossing the Knife Edge is going to entail some very tricky terrain, a lot of hand-to-toe scrabbling, and some pretty heart-stopping drop-offs.

Oh, did I mention I’m not crazy about heights?

At 54, I have to confess I felt most assured about my stamina. The moment we were officially invited and made our cabin reservations six weeks out, I ramped up my daily workout regime. John and I started hiking almost every weekend, beginning gently with Bradbury “Mountain” (the closest lump to Portland) and ending with Old Speck, Maine’s fourth-highest peak, located in Grafton Notch State Park. I made myself climb the fire tower there, even though you have to step off the ladder’s top rung, stand on a teeny deck no bigger than a cutting board, and open a wooden gate to access the viewing platform. But on that day, I carried a full pack and the four liters of water (weighing in at nine pounds) I would take with me on Katahdin and managed okay. (All right, in a moment of super hubris, I told my friend Joyce that I spanked it.)

Then came the material prep. I am a packing-list fanatic, so gathering the gear was easy. I’d been breaking in new boots since January, and after numerous tweaks (including a fancy way of lacing and tying them shown to me by a clerk at L.L. Bean), they felt good. I upgraded my daypack. A friend who hiked Katahdin two weeks before our trip told me about miraculous electrolyte tabs that would help stave off all manner of dehydration and heat stroke. (Confirmed. I actually had water to share and still came down with surplus.) I updated my first-aid kit, which includes a large biohazard bag and two enormous safety pins, the use for which I do not like to envision. I would pack my phone, extra batteries for my headlamp, my Swiss Army knife, lip goo, sun goo, bug goo, climbing gloves, two hats, extra socks, Gore-Tex anorak, and enough gorp, peanut butter sandwiches, and PowerBars to take down an entire allergy-sensitive elementary school.

The first time I hiked Katahdin, in 1977, I was a freshman at UMaine Orono, and the trip was a lark decided upon the night before. I have one photograph of my three hiking companions on the trail. I see parkas, but there is not one pack between them, and no sign of water. Did we even have water bottles back then, or just canteens? Did we ever use the word hydrate?

The weather seems to be lifting when our group arrives at Chimney Pond, and for a moment I allow myself to hope the charge to the Knife Edge might be on. I spent the hike in getting to know the rest of my party. Sam, cheerful and chatty, is a real estate agent from Belfast. Sam’s niece Robin, who is 50 (and only eight years his junior), has an office job, a huge smile, and the confident demeanor of a woman who is always chosen first for the volleyball team. When I walked with Lynn and Ivan’s friend John, we talked about his years out west. Soon, he would spring ahead of us and maintain that lead most of the day.

The second half of our pack: Robin’s younger sister, Regina; her fella, Alex; and their friend, another John (that’s number 3), got a later start, so we haul up to wait for them. As we move toward the ranger station, a huge swath of cloud is pulled back like a curtain, and there it is: this big, crazy, craterous bowl that is the east side of Katahdin. It literally took my breath away. I’m gonna get me some of that, I think. Today the mountain is mine.

Except, oh yes, remember that thing about taking the day as it comes? Well, when we report in to ranger Mark and tell him of our intent to cross the Knife Edge, he informs us there’s a threat of thunderstorms and winds coming, and he’s cautioning against it. “Now, I can’t tell you not to do it,” he adds, “but that’s my advisory.”

I am traveling with seasoned pros. Sam and Robin have been climbing Katahdin for the past nine years, Regina for 13, and when a ranger makes an advisory, they heed it. It is decided we will ascend the Cathedral Trail and return on the Hamlin Ridge Trail. Robin is actually enthused. This is the one trail she’s yet to hike. “Sounds great,” I say, glad I’m with strangers who don’t know a sulk in my voice when they hear it.

The shore of Chimney Pond is thronged with hikers — young people mostly, squealing and shouting and tossing PowerBars and posing for pictures: the early-morning rush. All this noise and humanity is not fun for me, but still, you can’t help being bowled over by the cliff faces flashing above you in and out of fog and clouds. I’m starting to get itchy and eager to get a move-on, and John (2) and Robin agree. Just as the second half of our party arrives, I give John (1) a kiss goodbye and take off to face the Cathedral Trail.

Within moments, I am staring at a wall of rock. Boulders the size of clothes washers confront me. I don my gloves, grab a crag, wedge the toe of my boot into a cranny, and hoist. Okay, not bad. Just need to do that several dozen more times. Robin, who had given me a head start, quickly catches up, and I stand aside. We had hiked at pretty much the same pace to Chimney Pond, but I have a feeling my novice rock-climbing abilities might slow her down. Sure enough, she gives me a wide smile and says, “This is my favorite part,” and is gone. What seems like moments later, she’s a speck above me. John (2) is in front of us both. Sam, who had lingered behind with the group, joins and then passes me, too. Another speck. I forge on.

At one point, I am stymied. My legs are just a bit too short to make a certain stretch. I try different handholds, but there is nowhere I can reach to secure my footing. I wait for a solution to appear. Like a game of chess, every move impacts the following one, and the one after that. Eventually, the mental clouds part, and I see a way. I hoist myself around the outside of the rock and heave myself over. It ain’t pretty, but it’s forward motion. Yet, even when I feel iffy about any of these challenges (including when my entire group ahead of me waits for God knows how long to help me up a particularly steep and smooth spot they know I wouldn’t be able to navigate on my own), I keep telling myself, “You can certainly hurt yourself here, but you cannot die.”

Focused on the rocks before me, I don’t really notice how increasingly lovely the day is becoming. On my various stops to hydrate or consider strategy, I would gaze down at Chimney Pond sparkling in the sun or the ring of clouds below me, but I wasn’t making any calculation in my brain. Not at that point.

And yet, when the four of us reach Baxter Peak and settle in for lunch, the sun is streaming, there’s a light breeze, the views are unobstructed in every direction — and the Knife Edge is crawling with hikers.

I wasn’t going to say anything. This is not my trip. It is up to me to go with the group. But we all mention how the weather has changed. Sam wanders over and talks to a couple hikers our age who have just come across from Pamola Peak: perfectly dry and not too breezy, he is told. We say we’ll decide once the rest of our party joins us. When they do, they’ve already made their call: Knife Edge it is.

The ridge before us looks nothing like a knife. It is more like the bent blade of a giant ripsaw, or in places, sets of broken teeth. Maybe the spiny back of a dragon. It does not look inviting. It curls away from the peak in a massive, diving cauldron that appears like it could — and would like to — swallow us whole.

As the seven of us hike, I become aware of an accordion effect. At times we kind of squeeze together, like we have here on the summit; at other times, we spread apart. I frequently find myself solo in the middle. Occasionally, I catch up with Robin or Sam, and we traverse and chat for a while, but eventually they move ahead. I happily plod on, picking and poking my way across, giddy that I am here on the Knife Edge.

That is, until I confront what appears to be a suicide drop. Where the blazes are, there is no discernible trail. Hikers have to face into the mountain and literally grope their way across, finding and feeling for both hand- and footholds. Except I have frozen. I can’t use the Cathedral Trail “at least you can’t die” consolation here. One glance back at the sheer drop-off confirms this. I’m not exactly panicked; paralyzed is more like it. I know I can’t stay here, but nothing is moving. My face is so close to the cliff I’m almost kissing it. And that’s when the true appreciation for the Katahdin experience strikes me. Because no matter how much planning or practice or pumping iron you do, no matter 
how much prepping — right down to the smallest, toenail-size detail — you can’t control what’s going to happen when it’s just you up there with the Big Fella.

At that moment I turn my head to the trail ahead of me. Up a steep rise, perched on a rock, Robin is watching over me. “I’m not happy,” I shout into the wind. I don’t know if she hears me or not, but she smiles her big volleyball-team smile and gives me two thumbs up. That’s all it takes. Whatever has seized up in me loosens. I reach out my hand and grab a hunk of cliff face. Time to move forward.