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Runtrails' 2005 AT Journal
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JANUARY 13, 2006
"The ladder of success is best climbed by stepping on the rungs of opportunity."
- Ayn Rand

Chunky wooden ladder in Vermont. 8-19-05

It wasn't until I got to northern Virginia on the Appalachian Trail that I found myself facing some large boulders and vertical rocks that required more climbing skills - and upper body strength - than I knew I possessed. I was forced to quickly learn the easiest ways to get up (and down) those suckers using my own brain and brawn.

More than once I wished for a ladder, rope, steps, or an easier route. But then the AT wouldn't have been so satisfying to complete, would it??

Although there were some wooden steps (or perhaps just "water dams") employed in a few places in the southern and mid-Atlantic states, I don't remember seeing any ladders until New York, serious steps until Connecticut, or metal grab bars until New Hampshire (except for a couple near Dragon's Tooth in Virginia).

Of course, there was this rope-assist in Connecticut, but I don't think that was provided by the local AT club - more likely by the elderly local resident I saw on the Trail that day (Day 100):

As in many of my rock photos, you just can't tell how steep the slopes are or how large the rocks are. That looks pretty flat but it wasn't. However, I got down it just fine without the rope.

I have it on good authority from AT maintenance crews and ATC guide books that steps, ladders, bog boards, trail relocations, and other "aids" along the Trail are usually NOT put there for the hikers' convenience.

No, siree. They are used primarily to prevent erosion of the Trail or destruction of the environment. Any benefit to hikers, per se, is secondary.

In other words,

  • the occasional longer-but-flatter relocations around mountains instead of up and over them;
  • the placement of bog boards through wet areas and fragile alpine zones;
  • the rock steps or wooden ladders on steep slopes;
  • the metal grab-bars on near-vertical rock slabs . . .

. . . all are designed to either reduce/prevent erosion of the Trail or reduce/prevent destruction of the environment next to the Trail, NOT to make it easier on the hikers. So they say. Hikers appreciate them anyway.

More of these "aids" are needed in some places, particularly New England, and I'll tell you why.

Because if it is too hard to stay upright on slippery, slanted, or rotted bog boards, hikers will walk next to them and destroy the vegetation instead of falling off and hurting themselves. If it is too difficult to pull themselves and their packs up a huge boulder or rock slab, hikers will grab onto trees and shrubs along the side and eventually pull them out of the ground. If the rock faces are too slick to walk down safely, hikers will go off the Trail completely, onto dirt, and make new paths where they can get a grip (literally).

I speak from experience. It was quite obvious that I wasn't the only one seeking safer routes because the renegade trails, the trampled plants, the uprooted shrubs were there before I arrived.

I care deeply about the environment along the AT, but I care more deeply about my physical safety. It's one thing to try to make the AT as challenging as possible. It's another thing for clubs to compromise hikers' lives and limbs when alternatives are possible (maintaining decent bog boards, installing rungs or ladders, etc.).

End of rant.

I was a happy hiker when I found effective ladders, grab bars, and steps to use, some of which are shown below. Even with them, the Trail was still challenging fun to negotiate.


I found ladders to be the most effective method of climbing up or down short, steep places on the Trail. They were fun to climb and I felt like a ten-year-old tomboy again.

The first really nice ladder I photographed was on the puddingstone rock formation shown below on Bellevale Mountain, soon after I crossed into New York state on Day 92.  At that point I hadn't yet been climbing very many steep rocks with my hands so I was grateful for the ladder going up. (Funny, I remember on every one of these ladders whether I went up or down!)

Some of the ladders were quite hefty, made from thick logs, such as the one in the photo at the top of this page (Day 112 in Vermont) and the one below left, from Day 119 in New Hampshire.

What's interesting with this one is the legal alternate route, below right, which was steeper than it looks in the photo (so is the ladder). Going up, I might have chosen the rocks, but going down, I used the ladder.


I was also grateful for the ladders in the next two photos as I went down one of the steep Goose Eye peaks in Maine between the NH border and Mahoosuc Notch on Day 127.

This was a very tough day, and I didn't need any more obstacles than I encountered. Although I couldn't run down these steps or ladders, the rungs were wide enough to negotiate going forwards, not backwards like I had to go down some of the others. It's clear that these ladders help preserve the sub-alpine environment and prevent erosion of the soil.


Below is an unusual "ladder" that is on the very steep (i.e., reach-out-and-touch-the-trail-in-front-of-you-without-bending-over) grade going up Old Blue Mountain in Maine on Day 131. Hikers have a choice of using the notched log or three metal rebars drilled into the rock face.

The gap between the rungs was large even for my long legs, so I took the "easy" way up on the log (keeping my balance wasn't so easy, however).

Without those aids, hikers would walk in the dirt to the right and eventually destroy the roots and soil there.

I found several variations of metal grab bars and rungs in New Hampshire and Maine. They are easier to negotiate going up than down - and when they are dry. It's easy to slip off them when they are wet. If the rock in the photo above had been wet, it would be very difficult to climb up using the bars. I'm glad the log was there.

Here are more grab bars and rungs.

The first example from Day 130 going down the rugged south side of Moody Mountain in Maine shows very effective metal rungs. This was one of the days I went south-bound to avoid two steep knee-killing down hills, but I still had to go down this one in the SOBO direction.

I  had to be careful not to slip off the narrow rungs. Grab bars and rungs were always easier for me when I was going UP.

Another set of rungs near these were a bear to negotiate because they were slanted. The only way I could get down was to go backwards, carefully, placing my feet just so.

Mt. Moosilauke in the White Mountains in New Hampshire has several metal grab bars to help hikers climb up and down the very steep north slope, such as the one in this photo from Day 116 (it's hard to see - look in the moss to the right of the Trail).

This grab bar was obviously put there for hikers' safety. Thank you! As usual, you can't tell how steep this is from my photo. <sigh>

On another set of hand- and foot-holds on Mt. Katahdin in Maine on Day 148, below, I simply could not manage to hoist myself up without some assistance from an accommodating young lady behind me.

You can't see the 6-inch wide rungs in the photo below, but you can see where the "crawling" guy has his feet placed on them. The first rung was up about three feet and I couldn't reach the top of the rock to hoist myself up - despite being 5'9" tall with an inseam of 32 inches! I had to grab the rung where his top foot is with my left hand, but then I couldn't get my left foot on it, too.

Everyone that I could see ahead of me at this bottleneck needed help from a friend. Although it would be a lot easier with three rungs, I was grateful for what was there.

OK, enough whining!


The third major way to climb up and down steep rocks or slopes is with steps and stairs. I found a wide variety of wooden and rock types on the AT.

One of the nicer sets of wooden steps is at the appropriately-named Winding Stairs Gap in North Carolina (Day 9). The steps serve as a good water dam as they switchback down the hill for several hundred feet. They aren't easy to run down, but they look nice!

In contrast, here are some water dams in Maryland (Day 61) that are clearly there only to control erosion, not to look nice or make it any easier to hike or run the Trail:

Another form of wooden steps is unusual and probably tricky to install. We found the "wedgies" in the next two shots on the north side of Mt. Moosilauke in New Hampshire on Day 116. Also note the metal hand-rail on the left in the first photo:


Tough as it was to climb up the steep slope (I was going south again that day), Jim had the pleasure of also going back down the wood wedges since he was doing an out-and-back run/hike. These things would be really slick and dangerous on a wetter day than we had (it was just foggy). But without them the climb or descent could be suicidal. It doesn't look that steep from this angle, but see how Jim is leaning forward so he doesn't fall?

Rock steps take many forms along the AT. Some have been placed to look almost natural, as in the photo below, also on Moosilauke:

Others appear more deliberate, as in the next photo from Day 99 in Connecticut coming down (going north) from Caleb's Peak and St. John's Ledges.

This is one of the steepest descents on the whole AT (despite what it looks like in this photo) because of the pitch and distance between the ninety rock steps the local trail maintenance crew has installed here. That was a lot of work! This is just one small segment of the stairs. I think the descent would be difficult to negotiate with a large backpack, but nearly impossible without any steps - so I was glad they were there. I wonder what that climb and descent were like before they put in the steps?

These stairs are used for training by the local rock climbing club, by the way . . . What does that tell you??

[Side note: in many cases I prefer NOT to have to use steps, but I stayed on them everywhere on the AT so as not to damage the plants or soil next to them. It's usually easier to run or walk on trails without steps, particularly large ones, because I don't have to pick my feet up as high or bend my knees as much. It takes less energy to just shuffle.]

This is one of the more attractive rock "stairs" on the AT. It's made of white marble and/or quartz stones and even has some little cairns along the side. This is from Day 110 in Vermont. I can't remember if it was on Killington Peak or Pico Mountain. It was pretty easy to run down these steps because the slope wasn't as steep as some of the others in New England.

I'll close with my very favorite rock stairs on the entire AT, this colorful set of stones on the north side of Whitecap Mountain in Maine (Day 144). Just look at all the great colors!

The rocks weren't spaced evenly enough apart to run down hill very fast (and they were wet that day), but I was more interested in going slower and examining them anyway.

There are many more rock steps and stairs on the Appalachian Trail, but I'll let you find the rest of them!

Next up: more "structures" common along the AT - bog boards. I must have been pretty fascinated with 'em because I've got 61 photos of bridging across wet areas and fragile alpine zones! I'll have to carefully pick and choose which ones to show . . .


"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and Tater

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