The weekend before the 4th of July holiday was the date for our 2017 summer challenge. We decided to hike Mt. Katahdin, via the Knife's Edge - a roughly 9 mile hike with an elevation change near 4,000 feet. Now, this is quite the challenge for me personally due to my ever growing and persistent fear of heights. Everytime I saw a picture or video of the Knife's Edge, anxiety would creep in. Physically, yes, it will be a challenge, but one that I knew I could handle. Mentally, I knew this would be one of the greatest challenges I would ever face.
What I didn't expect was a full blown panic attack on our way up the Helon Taylor Trail.
I'm not entirely sure what happened, we started out the hike at a pretty good pace. It was a beautiful trail, moose poop and all, but as we ascended past the treeline, and the trail became more steep, I made the mistake of looking back several times. My heart was racing due to my attempt to keep up with our group and my anxiety levels increased with every step. We took very few breaks on the way up as we knew we needed to hit the treeline before noon. I needed to eat and drink more water, but didn't realize this as we hiked. I needed to calm my nerves, and collect myself, but I didn't. Not until I had that moment where my world came crashing in - there was one very steep section that can be scaled alone, but my legs were beginning to fatigue and cramp. My dear husband and another close friend saw me descending into distress and stayed by my side, offering assistance. I resisted their help for that brief moment, not entirely understanding why, but I guess I just needed to do that one small bit of climbing by myself. I was losing control and I believe this was my attempt to regain some of it. I saw how high we were, saw how far of a drop off down one side of the mountain, and panic started to set in.
Once over that hurdle, I needed a moment. A break. I sat down and began to cry. I never expected to have such a surge in emotions. I haven't experienced a full on panic attack in 20 years. I've always been as cool as a cucumber, in complete control, but for some reason, I felt powerless. I could barely talk but managed to force myself to eat something, as tears came streaming down my face. Then the clouds began to roll in. For some reason, this helped me collect myself. I could breath again, I even managed a smile in conversation as we continued our break.
As we put our backpacks back on, I made a personal request of my group - just stay close. I was regaining my composure, but still mentally fragile. They obliged and we continued our ascent. We finally hit the Pamola summit, 4,902 feet, with clouds heavy in the sky. The winds were picking up dramatically and we couldn't actually see the Knife's Edge.
After a few photos at the Pamola summit, we began to continue down the trail, but the winds were daunting. When a father / son hiking duo came back up the trail and told us they were going to wait out the clouds and high winds, I suggested we consider the same. We sat down, ate, and waited. There was a "Holy Sh!t" moment when the cloud covering let up and I saw the trail, a near 100 ft vertical drop, then the ascent up, but thankfully that did not trigger another panic attack.
The group, overall, decided it would be best to turn back. Now, I had been staring out over the trail, trying to ensure I was mentally capable of going forward. I didn't want to be the reason we turned back, but thankfully, for the most part, we all had enough sense to recognize the high wind risk. The gusts were enough to make you lose your balance and the trail only became more difficult. We turned back. Our challenge was not achieved today, but we still did accomplish one peak.
And I managed to overcome a mental challenge, one I didn't realize was as bad as it was. On our descent, the clouds began to clear and I was able to fully appreciate the beauty that is Baxter State Park. It was glorious, and with every step down, I felt great. It is true, when you face your fears, and overcome them, you can truly appreciate and enjoy that which held you back. Do I still have a fear of heights? Yes, but it's tempered with the knowledge that if I was able to make it up one side of the mountain, surely I could make it back down.
I am looking forward to hiking Katahdin again. And next time, yes, we will hit the peak and the Knife's Edge... so long as the weather cooperates!