The Suburb Woman
The Greatest Mountain
Posted on November 23rd, 2013

Mike convinced me in Sept. 2008, climbing Mount Katahdin in Maine would be our next hike.  I always measured whether I was game for a new adventure he was planning with two questions: 

First, “Is it harder than hiking out of the Nantahala Outdoor Center (North Carolina) to the summit of Cheoah Bald?” Mike’s answer, “No.” [A story for another day – but it did include lying on my back on the side of the trail, refusing to go another step, and too exhausted to swat ants off of me.]

Second, “Is it harder than hiking out of the Grand Canyon?” He paused, then answered, “It’s comparable.” Comparable. Hmmmm.  Our rim-to-rim hike was a spiritual experience. So much so that I’ve hiked to Phantom Ranch and the Colorado River edge twice. However, I’ve only hiked out from the river to the south rim in one day - once. There were no ants, but it was grueling.

The fact Katahdin is at the end of the 100-mile wilderness as well as the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail in Maine was appealing in and of itself. I’ve seen hundreds of photos of AT thru-hikers finishing their 2,180-mile hike standing at the summit. I dreamed of standing there myself.

Mike had summited Katahdin one other time.  It had been a decade ago and he climbed it with four men he’d been hiking with for several years. I give him all the credit for our successful hikes because he’s a magnificent planner and we always have what we need to survive a trip. He’s the conservative one and rarely under estimates how long a hike will take.
The day before we hiked, I sat in a chair across the lake staring at the lumbering giant.  To see the mountain in person from a distance was intimidating. “How many miles is it from the campground to the summit?” I asked. It was 5.2 miles to the summit. Round trip was nearly 10.5 miles. 

The Native Americans called it “Kette-Adene” meaning “Greatest Mountain.”  It’s only 5,267 feet above sea level, which seems mild compared to the Rocky Mountains, but many people have died on its ancient rocky slopes. Henry David Thoreau was unable to reach the summit.

The fact that half of the Katahdin hike would be downhill gave me confidence it shouldn’t be as tough as the Grand Canyon.  The hike from Phantom Ranch was nine miles …ALL uphill.  Mike assured me as I sized up the mountain all we would need was a couple of Nalgene bottles of water each and some snacks. “The hike shouldn’t take long,” he said.

It was an amazing view at the top. We had a rare clear day where our view was as far as the eye could see. The landscape looked like broken glass as all of Maine’s small lakes and ponds glistened in the sunshine.  But the steps in getting there and returning to the trailhead feel much like what we’re experiencing now. 

There was the optimistic, idealistic beginning. We walked alongside a creek, photographing waterfalls and snacking on chilled, sweet wild Maine blueberries picked from bushes as we hiked.  Then, began the anticipation of ascending above the tree line to get our first views of the landscape and the expansive wilderness. 

Exhaustion and doubt crept in as we reached the never-ending boulder field. It took an hour to go less than one mile – the rock scramble only aided periodically by iron handholds to reach the Tableland.  Fear and anger takes over as you step from rock to rock for another mile to reach the summit – a site you can see, but takes an another hour of careful walking.

Five hours and five miles to sit on a rock in the sunshine eating an apple and finishing off one bottle of water and starting on the next.  We took our photo by the summit sign.  I’d like to say it was a romantic and memorable moment.  I was already doing the math on the ascent as every muscle in my body screamed, “Stop!” Mike was well aware of his underestimation of the strenuousness of the hike that had taken much longer than he’d planned. He was stressed about the descent.

No matter how much we worried - the only way home was down.  The only way we would get there was putting one foot in front of the other. I did inquire about a helicopter and how much that would set us back.  No cell service ended that plan.  We each had one bottle of water, no nutrition, and at least five more hours of hiking in the hopes to reach our car before sundown.
As much as we were on the hike together – a team – it was our individual journey too.  Mike couldn’t carry me and he couldn’t get me off the mountain on his own. I had to walk.  Retracing our steps over the rocky tableland, the reverse scramble over the boulder field, muscles shaking from fatigue, losing track of time, and swearing I’d never hike again only proved to make the last five miles more difficult. 

Mike gently encouraged me to keep going. He made me rest, but made sure I didn’t stop walking. He took my pack and added it to his weight. He did all he could do to get me home, to keep me safe.

It wasn’t until we received his diagnosis that I’ve thought of our trip up the “Greatest Mountain” as a comparable experience.  Except, we feel like we’ve climbed Katahdin 50 times since Sept. 27.  Each climb we take turns encouraging the other.  There are moments we taste the blueberries, cherish the view and God’s sovereignty. Other times we curse the day and despise the boulders.

Unlike that fall day five years ago, there are many others on this journey with us. They carry our packs, offer encouragement, nutrition, and give us the strength we need to face the next few steps.
​Yesterday (Nov. 22, 2013) was radiation treatment #12 of 30 and today will finish chemotherapy round #17 of 42.  Mike is experiencing more of the fatigue the doctors prepared us would come with radiation. 

We had a wonderful visit from his son and family who live in El Paso, Texas this week. It was a huge boost for him. Having four grandkids sitting on your lap, wrapped up on a cold morning always does a heart good.

However, this stretch will be tough because Mike will only have three days off radiation in 14 because of the holiday treatment schedules. We’re hopeful the four days over Thanksgiving without radiation will give him needed rest and healing as we pass the halfway point of the treatment plan. 

Our focus and prayer is on Jan. 14, 2014, we will be able to rejoice and rest in the knowledge that the post-treatment MRI will show no trace of tumor regrowth or new developments. That will be like standing at the summit knowing we can make the trip home - a trip which will include a year of monthly chemotherapy and MRI checks every two months. If I were using Katahdin as an illustration for where we are now … we’re in the boulder field approaching the Tablelands.

Link to the video of our Mount Katahdin hike http://youtu.be/vbScVJPVFvc


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