Thanks, Aaron! Jim and I both had a few of each of the "ills" above, mostly in New
Hampshire and Maine!
I've said that if I knew then what I know now (e.g., how hard those last two
states would be), I might never have had the courage to begin my journey. In
that regard, I'm glad I didn't know! Once I got there and found out, it would
have taken a major disaster to prevent me from finishing because I was so close
to the end.
On the other hand, knowledge is power. If I'd fully realized how rugged and
dangerous the last two hundred miles would be, I probably would have
flip-flopped north halfway through the run while I still had energy, was well-conditioned from the
mountains in Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, and had
longer hours of daylight to complete some of the long roadless sections in
northern New England.
It's too late now for me to do that, but readers contemplating thru-hikes or
runs might be able to benefit from my hindsight.
There are plenty of thrills and chills in the lists below of
what I consider to be some of the toughest climbs and descents along the Trail
and other dangerous places I discovered. Hopefully, others won't
have as many spills as I did.
Your wills will be tested throughout the journey, I guarantee -
whether your goal is going end-to-end in one season or tackling smaller chunks
one at a time.
Hang in there and have fun!!! You're tougher than you think you are.
TOUGHEST CLIMBS AND DESCENTS ON THE A.T.
I whined about some of the steep climbs and descents in the southern half of
the AT before I knew what steep really meant!
Perspective. Kinda like bouldering, I
found out that it was "all training for Maine" (and New Hampshire). These
steep and/or long climbs are listed in order of south to north, not in
descending order of difficulty.
A word of caution: these climbs and descents are challenging fun
the rocks are dry and you aren't in too big of a hurry. If they are wet, either avoid them entirely or go very slowly
and be extremely careful. Your life literally depends on it!
1. Port Clinton, Pennsylvania - the northbound (NOBO) descent to this town
began gradually for a couple miles, then dropped precipitously in the last
quarter mile from 1,300 feet to 400 feet. I had read in hikers' journals about
the difficulty of this steep, rocky drop but was still surprised because it was
the worst descent I'd encountered on the AT up to this point. It was not only
steep, but also slick with loose rocks that behaved like ball bearings among the numerous rock water dams and steps.
2. Lehigh Gap, Pennsylvania - this 1,100 foot incline in a mile going
north from the valley was a wake-up call for me as it was my first encounter
with dangerous, exposed rock cliffs and verticals that would have spelled serious
injury or death if I'd slipped. I described my fear in
entry and the feeling of exhilaration after conquering the mountain safely.
There is an alternate blue-blazed route that is longer and safer, especially if
you're going downhill (southbound). I took only one bad-weather (high water)
route the whole way, and this wasn't it. This is a photo from the top:
4. West and Bear Mountains, New York - both of these mountains also have
loose rocks that act like ball bearings on the descent, going northbound. I
managed to fall twice.
The reward at the bottom of Bear Mountain is getting to
run or hike right through the middle of a wonderful little zoo! Neither hill would be
as dangerous going up because you'd have better traction.
5. Caleb's Peak and St. John's Ledges, Connecticut - at this point, I
still wasn't very experienced with super-steep downhills.
I stopped to take a deep breath at the top, but my heart
was racing the whole way down. Despite the installation of
ninety rock steps it's still a treacherous descent going NOBO because of the pitch and the
distance between the rocks. As with many of the other steep climbs and drops on
the AT, I can't imagine anyone negotiating this descent with
a big backpack. The AT guide says these cliffs are used frequently for
rock-climbing instruction. See, I told you it was steep! Uphill would take your
breath away in a different manner, but would be kinder to your knees.
6. Jug End, Massachusetts - Jim met me part way up this steep descent
near the end of the section I did on
saying, "You're crazy!!" I responded, "You should have seen the
top part of this drop!" Jug End has a nasty descent of about 1,000 feet in a
mile on rock verticals and high "steps" that tested my range of downhill
save-the-knees techniques. Meanwhile, everyone knew this was still just a
warm-up for New Hampshire and Maine.
7. Mt. Greylock Massif, Massachusetts -
long, steep, difficult descent going northbound with 2,900 foot drop in about
six miles. The massif includes Saddle Ball, Greylock, Fitch, and Williams mountains. The
steepest part is the 2,300-foot drop from Williams to the town of
North Adams in less than three miles. All of it is
rocky, rooty, and slick with loose rock. Are we ready yet for the White
8. Mt. Moosilauke/Mt. Blue, New Hampshire - Jim and I tackled this
monster southbound so I wouldn't have to go down it (steep downhills were harder
on my knees than uphills). Jim did an out-and-back on Moosilauke, so he got to
experience the free-fall back down, too. There is a 2,600-foot elevation
gain (or loss, if you're NOBO) in two miles - that is steep. The footing is
rugged, with some wooden "steps" and metal hand-holds on the worst vertical
rocks (see photo below). A wild creek with numerous waterfalls and cascades serenades you as
you're going up or down.
See Day 116.
9. South Peak of Kinsman Mountain, NH - I managed to choose a
wet-weather day (#117)
to hit this awful drop going southbound and there was no bad-weather alternate
route. Can you say "suicide slabs?" This was another one of those
heart-in-my-mouth scary descents from the summit on exposed bedrock. I
managed to fall on the slick rocks, but thankfully some shrubs kept me on the
mountainside (see photo at top of this page). The AT guide even warns hikers
about this one. Do this one northbound on a dry day. The only reason I went
south was because there was no parking for Jim to wait for me at the north end of the section I ran
10. Mt. Webster, White Mountains of NH - this 2,700-foot ascent going north
from Crawford Notch includes 2,000 feet up in two miles with some exposed rock
and climbing required. The valley views are marvelous, taking your mind off the
strenuous climb. See
11. Mt. Madison, White Mountains, NH - the fourth steepest climb up or
down on the entire AT is the north side of Madison, with a 2,000-foot elevation
change in about one mile. Much of the footing is rugged, too. Based on what I'd
read about this drop, I chose to climb UP, going southbound from Pinkham Notch.
Either direction, you'll be real glad when it's over. It's not dangerous
weather-wise until you get above tree line in the boulders. There's a photo
closer to the bottom of this page that I took just above tree line on Madison.
12. Peak "E" on Wildcat Mountain and Carter Dome in the Whites of NH -
since these two mountains are fairly close, I combined them here. They were part
of a very tough day in the Carter-Moriah-Wildcat Range on
with a total elevation change of about 15,000 feet in twenty-one miles - yikes!
The steepest parts are a 1,000-foot gain in only a quarter mile up Peak E and
700 feet up the lower one-fifth mile of Carter Dome. I'd say these are the
second and third steepest climbs (NOBO) or descents (SOBO) on the whole AT. The
photo below is from Carter Dome looking down at Carter Notch Hut and Lakes only
a half mile away on the Trail (I told you it was steep!):
13. Success, Mahoosuc Arm, and Old Speck in Maine - the
Mahoosuc Range also has some tough climbs, particularly these mountains that I
did northbound in dry weather on
Day 127. There was
6,700-foot elevation gain and 8,300 foot loss over nineteen miles that day,
making it even tougher than Day 125. The steepest climbs/descents were on Success Mountain (800 feet up in less
than a half mile mid-way uphill) and Mahoosuc Arm (1,400 feet up the south side
in about a mile). Neither is exposed, but the south side of Old Speck is. Jim
did an out-and-back on Old Speck, so he got the exposed rock cliffs in both
directions. He's not likely to forget that day! The climb up is steep. Going
down the north side is more gradual and mostly in the trees, but the 2,685-foot
drop in just over three miles is still memorable (as are the roots).
14. Baldpate West and East Peaks, Maine -
going north, Baldpate has a 2,185-foot climb in three miles with a steep ascent for a
mile, then a leveling for a mile as the trail traverses the side of the
mountain, then another steep mile to the peak. This climb reminded me of the
grunt through Mahoosuc Notch with all of its rock slabs, large rocks to climb over,
and roots. The 1,532-foot descent on the north side of the second peak in less
than two miles was also quite steep. On
in this section there was a 6,400-foot elevation gain and loss in only
ten miles - good training for most any mountainous ultra!
15. Moody Mountain, Maine - going NOBO there is a fairly steep 1,030-foot climb
in a little over one mile with very few switchbacks. Getting up Moody, however, was
much preferable to getting down the other
side, one of the worst downhill sections I've run into on the AT. Not only was
it steep, it had very rugged footing, lots of large step-downs, wooden ladders,
and several metal hand- and foot-holds on nearly-vertical
walls of rock. The only way I could go down the metal "steps" was to do it
backwards. The rocks below are very steep, although they don't appear that way in
this photo. See
16. Old Blue and Bemis Mountains, Maine -
the 750-foot rise in the first half mile on Old Blue sure got my
attention! This is reach-out-and-touch-the-trail-in-front-of-you steep.
It was also narrow, overgrown, and rugged, with large steps and metal
rungs required to negotiate the rocks. The climb became more gradual and
moderate the next mile and a half, then was steep again with lots of
rock slabs the last half mile to the peak of Old Blue. The total gain
here was 2,190 feet in three miles. Soon afterwards is a 1,000-foot
drop, sometimes quite steep, from the north side of Bemis Mountain to
Bemis Stream. See
17. Sugarloaf Mountain, Maine - so here I am on
Day 134, nearly 2,000 miles into this
adventure run, and I describe the northbound descent of this mountain as
one of the worst yet. That should tell you something! Not only is there
a 1,700-foot drop over two miles down to the South Branch of the noisy Carrabassett River, but 1,000 of those feet are in about 2/3 of a mile
and include a huge boulder field and rock walls to slide or jump down. I
was a very happy lady when I successfully completed that descent and the
nerve-wracking rock-hop across the river. As usual, this would be
strenuous going up (southbound), but oh, so much easier on the knees and
18. Mt. Katahdin, Maine - reputed to be the mother of all
climbs and descents on the entire AT. I agree, but I was ready for it
after nearly a million feet going up and down hundreds (thousands?) of
mountains the past four months. The official 5½-mile AT route (Hunt
Trail) to the summit from Katahdin Stream Campground climbs 4,200 feet.
The steepest, most difficult part is halfway up, starting near the tree
line. Everything you've learned about climbing boulders and rock walls
is put to the test here.
The last two miles (a plateau called the "Tableland" and the last 800
feet of ascent) are the easiest - sweet reward for reaching the top.
Next is a view of the plateau from the summit. You can clearly see the
steep pitch on the left compared with the easier grade on the "Tableland:"
Then you get to come back down. If you're a section- or thru-hiker
going northbound, the southbound miles "don't count" in your official AT
mileage. That means
you can choose which route to take back down. (Reverse that for south-bounders.
They can go to the summit on any trail they wish, but must take the
official AT route down.)
Some alternate trails are
supposedly a little easier than others but all of them put you at a
different finish than Katahdin Stream CG at the bottom, which is a problem if you don't have a
vehicle at the end of the trail you're descending!
The closest alternate trail to Katahdin Stream CG is the Abol Trail,
which ends two miles down the road at Abol Campsite. Reported to be
easier than descending the Appalachian Trail, Jim and I decided to
descend by this route and just run the road back to Katahdin Stream.
This was NOT an easier trail by any means!!! The descent is actually
steeper than the AT (same drop in a shorter distance from the plateau).
The two advantages (which some may question) are coming down through
more boulders and scree than rock walls, and being able to run more
below tree line.
Any way you come down or go up this mountain will be steep. You
mainly choose how many miles you want to spread it over and whether you
want to dare hike the Knife Edge. See
Day 148 and the
Katahdin page for photos and details.
Have fun!! (This is definitely one mountain you want to tackle only on a
OTHER POTENTIALLY DANGEROUS PLACES
As if I haven't already mentioned plenty of places to get seriously
injured or die, here are some more general and specific locations
along the AT where you need to be very cautious.
I just went back to read
Prep #11, where I discussed health and
safety issues before hitting the Trail. Very interesting! I was aware of
many of the dangers I'd face, but not all of them. Some I had to
discover for myself. Mentioning them here will hopefully serve as a
warning to others.
1. Busy 4-lane highways with no pedestrian bridge, light, or even
warning signals - sad to say, two of the worst road crossings
are in northern Virginia (my home state) and were both on
Day 58: Hwy. 50 at Ashby Gap and Hwy. 7 at Snickers
Gap rattled me because they were nearly blind crossings near curves on
roads with traffic going 60 MPH or more.
Hwy. 11/30 in Vermont on
Day 107 was similar. There are more
crossings like these in other states, too.
2. Railroad tracks - plenty of these to cross, too. The most
dangerous are the triple tracks heading north out of Duncannon, PA just
before the ascent to Peters Mountain (see
Day 69). Although I was subsequently wrong about which
railroad tracks in Duncannon were the site of a hiker's death soon after
I was there, these are still the worst tracks to cross on the entire AT.
3. Treacherous bog boards - I can't count how many times I
fell off those suckers. I learned to avoid as many as I could that were
on drier ground (some you have to walk on). I tried to be as
environmentally sensitive as I could possibly be while on the Trail, but
after several falls I decided if the doggone trail maintaining clubs
didn't maintain safe log crossings where they don't want you to damage
the plants, it wasn't my fault if some plants got stepped on! It is not
safe to cross many of these rotten, narrow, broken, very slick,
teetering, sloped, or canted-to-one-side logs and boards.
This is another variation of the problem - where beavers have built a
dam on TOP of the boards!
Bogs, swamps, and wetlands are, well, wet. So the boards are
often wet even if it hasn't been raining. They get slimy but you can't
always see the slime - kinda like black ice. And they are every bit as
slick as black ice. It is safest where there are two parallel logs or
boards so you have a 50-50 chance of one foot having some grip. The
single ones that are only five or six inches wide are most dangerous,
even when dry, flat, and in good repair.
Heading north, bog boards start in New Jersey, I believe. The very
nicest ones are in the Pochuck Swamp - actually a mile-long elevated
boardwalk that cost beaucoup dollars. Bog boards (AKA puncheon)
increase in frequency and state of disrepair the farther north you go,
except for Maine. They are in better repair there, although that's where
I encountered the one in a deep swamp that rolled from side to side and
almost threw me off!
4. Very narrow ridges - the next three types of treacherous
places are mentioned in
Prep #11 but I'd like to mention them
again here. Narrow ridges can be as dangerous as exposed rock slabs if
there isn't anything to break your fall for several hundred feet or
more. I encountered them in several states. An example
that comes to mind is in the Smokies between Newfound Gap and Davenport
16). It was so foggy that day I couldn't see the drops off
the side, which may have been A Good Thing. This is a view of how close
the Trail comes to the edge of a cliff in this section:
The most narrow, exposed ridge I saw was the Knife Edge on Katahdin,
but it's not on the official AT route. There is a photo of it on
5. Any bald or mountain above treeline when it is foggy, raining,
sleeting, snowing, or so windy it knocks you off your feet - this
one is pretty obvious, but even cautious Sue proceeded on
Day 117 in the Kinsmans and especially
Day 121 on Mt. Madison when I probably
shouldn't have. (I had my reasons!) I never encountered lightning on a
peak, fortunately, but had trouble standing up in the high wind on
Madison and Whitecap Mountains (Day
144), could barely see the blazes and cairns on Madison in
the fog (Whitecap, Moosilauke -
Day 116 - and the Kinsmans were marked
more clearly), and had trouble negotiating ice-covered rocks on Madison
after the sleet began freezing.
Folks used to the higher elevations out West are familiar with the
warnings about sudden storms and temperature drops in the mountains.
Those warnings apply to the "lower" mountains in the East, too. You're
just as vulnerable to the elements above tree line at 4,000 or 6,000
feet on the AT as you are at 12,000 or 14,000 feet in the Rockies. Trust me on this one.
6. Streams (which can include wide rivers) in New Hampshire and
Maine after several inches of rain - I'll betcha if I ever get
Alzheimer's Disease (a likely scenario, since my mother and probably her
sister had it) I won't ever forget
Day 141, when I chose to cross four
murky, waist-to-chest-deep raging rivers and creeks after several inches
of rain fell overnight in the Hundred-Mile Wilderness in Maine. The
trauma and drama of that day are firmly etched in my mind and are still
causing occasional nightmares nearly a month later.
This is where I crossed the Little Wilson River the first time,
clinging to a half-inch rope. Although it doesn't look that bad in the
photo, the water was up to my chest and so strong it swept me off my
It wasn't like we weren't warned.
"Bear" at The Cabin in Andover was
the most clear: it's safer to hike while it's raining than a day
or two after. He is an overseer with the Maine AT Club in the Hundred-Mile Wilderness and very familiar with the water hazards there. I thought on Day 141 that the water from the mountains
wouldn't cause flooding yet in the valleys, but I was very wrong. (Other
hikers did confirm the next day was even worse. I wisely took
off that day.)
Flooding is not as big a deal in the other twelve states. They tend
to have more (and more civilized) bridges than New Hampshire and Maine.
Of course, they are routinely damaged by massive flooding sometimes.
There was one bridge still out in southern Virginia and I chose to follow
the white blazes and ford the river anyway instead of taking a road and
bridge offered as an alternate route. If the river had been too deep, I
could have back-tracked, but it was OK.
There are very few bridges across the numerous creeks and rivers in
New Hampshire and Maine. I don't know if this is an economic,
environmental, or macho decision, but it is reality. Heaven forbid there
are any hikers out on trails this week in that area. There is currently
serious flooding in both states, much worse than in the middle of
September when I encountered flooded streams.
BOTTOM LINE: the AT is fraught with perils, but I'll never
regret running and hiking it. After overcoming so many obstacles, I feel
entitled to bragging rights for life.
As I said in Prep #11, Don't let your fears stand in the way of your dreams!
OK. Enough gloom and doom! The next entry will cover some of the most
runnable (or easiest hiking) sections of the AT and my top picks for
scenic beauty. I'll try to get that entry posted on or before Monday,
October 17 (we get the most web site hits on Mondays, probably because
folks dislike working that day!).
Meanwhile, we're going to enjoy the weekend at the nearby Mountain
Masochist 50+++ mile trail run with a bunch of our ultrarunning friends.
I'm crewing Jim, who has been too tired to train adequately but has
decided to try it anyway because he's in Horton's series of races. This
is one of my favorite ultras, the very first one I ran back in 1992.
I'm sorry I'll be sitting it out this time but I am still pretty much
exhausted from the AT run. (I'll do a "physical assessment" entry in a
Have a great weekend, everybody!