Grand finish to a speed hike
Woke to a beautiful (if buggy day) and all the people who were southbounding for the weekend told me I would have a great summit day, Made Abol Bridge by 9 and got some food for the last 15 (20, if counting the way down from Katahdin) miles and ordered myself two breakfast sandwiches–I was pretty hungry coming out of the 100 Mile Wilderness. I kept telling myself to hurry, hurry. I remembered the line from “Gattaca” about saving no energy for the way back. I remembered the line from “Return of the King” about not saving food for the way back.
I frequently think of the AT (or any hike) in terms of a computer/video game, especially Oregon Trail. In some ways, I felt like my last 15 miles on the AT were the “final level” of the game where all the demons from past levels come out and I have to battle them. The fords in Baxter were high and swift–probably the gnarliest I’ve forded on any trail. It wasn’t going to stop me (and I wasn’t about to take tbe blue blaze bad weather route either–I hadn’t taken a bad weather route the whole trail and wasn’t about to right before the end, though I think it’s a good idea depending on the situation). Then, I saw a snake. But the worst challenge flung at me was the nasty sky filled with thunderheads that emerged as I went up Katahdin.
At 12:30, I rushed past the sign so didn’t know what class day it was. I got pretty far up the mountain without seeing anyone, and was actually concerned it was a Class 4 day (no one is allowed up and if you are caught, they confiscate your gear and never let you in Baxter again). At first, I pretended the rumbling I heard was the water sloshing around in my pack, but then, even over my headphones, it became very obvious. I was scared but kept moving—I *had* to finish that day. Finishing in 80 days was so important to me–I would bring the gap between the male unsupported record and the female unsupported record to less than 3 weeks (a gap that I find really unfortunate). Finally, I saw people on the mountain, but they were all headed down in fear. I kept going up, telling them that I was finishing the AT and nothing was going to stop me.
Finally, I heard a huge clap right by me, and with much thought, decided to turn around. Getting the record was important to me, but I have all sorts of other things to look forward to other than hiking, and it just wasn’t worth the risk. I had a choice and I didn’t have to continue. Turning around was one of the hardest decisions I’ve made in my life. I was 2.5 miles from finishing my hike, and was going to wait another day by my own choice. I kept thinking of all the friends I would disappoint–especially my friends Lint and Pi from the PCT who were sending me encouraging texts along the lines of: “Sleep is for the weak.” (Just kidding, kind of). I also felt like I had pushed it so hard, had abandoned so many potential friends, meals, interesting conversations…all to make it to Katahdin and finish quickly. I kept thinking of the zero I could have taken, the night hikes I didn’t need to do, the rain I didn’t need to walk in…but I knew I was making the right decision.
I walked down the mountain and it took all the energy in me not to cry. (Not crying during the entire hike was one of my big goals). At 2:45, I walked down to the ranger station and chatted with Ranger White (?) for a bit, told him the situation. Sometime during our conversation, *every* cloud in the sky disappeared. Ranger White said, “Well, normally we don’t let people up past the cut off time, but…” and kind of waved his hand. A big smile crossed my face and I ran up the mountain.
Of course, when I got to the Tablelands (about 1.5 miles in), the skies were looking thunderheady again. But I pushed on, going faster than I thought myself capable. I kept telling myself to move quickly and get off the mountain before the lightening started again. I touched the sign at 6:01, grabbed a quick photo, and ran down. By the time I was a mile down, the skies had cleared again.
I went back on the 5th (a *beautiful* day) with my boyfriend and had the pleasure of climbing Katahdin in Chacos over 10 hours and had a Mammoth Double Nut Brown (he had my favorite beer, only found in the Eastern Sierra, shipped out for the occasion). Katahdin was *way* more fun this way than the more-or-less two times I had done it the day before. I got lots of photos on top–at least one of which will turn out.
And thus ends a spectacular thru-hike. I met my goal of not crying and not doing anything I felt unsafe, and exceeded my goal of hiking it in 81-86 days by at least a day. I had a ton of fun—which I hadn’t really been expecting. And, my lesson on the last day, that finishing the trail at all costs is not worth it, was a good reminder. In the register at Kathadin Stream, I wrote “If I can turn around because of lightening, so can you.” I’m not sure the people I consider “real” record holders–Odyssa or Dave Horton or others would have done it. But I know I made the right decision for me. It’s just lucky the sky cleared up so I could have my righteousness and my finish.
Thank you’s and photos to come!
Liz "Snorkel" Thomas
Liz Thomas is a well-traveled adventure athlete most known for breaking the women’s unsupported speed record on the Appalachian Trail in 2011. She has completed the Triple Crown of Hiking–the Appalachian Trail, the 2,650 mile Pacific Crest Trail, and 3,100 mile Continental Divide Trail–and has backpacked over 15,000 miles across the United States. While not on trail, Liz lives in Denver, Colorado.