AT Sobo Part 9 – Mahoosic: ‘The hardest mile of the Appalachian Trail’
And there I was, within a day of the part of the AT that I’d been hearing about for a year in books and exhilarating posts online by previous hikers; Mahoosuc Notch, the ‘hardest mile of the Appalachian Trail’. I woke that morning on the northern side of Baldpate Mt knowing that today was the day; I’d had a restless night thinking that it would be difficult. After a Snickers and a coffee I headed out in the dawn semi-darkness, up the side of the first Bald Pate. It wasn’t a bad climb but there were plenty of fallen trees to navigate over, giving me places to sit briefly and look at the beautiful sunrise through the forest.
It wasn’t until the second Baldpate peak that Hambone caught me. We chatted briefly and then he moved on at his usual fast pace. We eventually descended to the bottom of these two big peaks and were ready to approach Old Speck. Just before we went up, we stopped in the car park and chatted with a previous thru hiker who had come out to show his grandson the trail. It’s lovely meeting previous hikers that come to do trail magic, show support, give water or offer a ride; such incredible community spirit. After a brief chat I was keen to keep moving because I knew that Old Speck was massive and the day was moving fast. I lost Hambone quickly (again!) and ploughed up steadily, filling my water bottle at a wide waterfall not far up.
I was already feeling tired and beaten down by the heat. It was a ridiculously tough climb and I was sweating hard. I began to run out of water and felt concerned, as I had a long way to go to the summit and as far as I knew there were no water sources until the bottom of the other side; down on the Mahoosuc Arm to the still, dark Beaver pond beyond. Thankfully I passed a hiker coming down the mountain with his dog. He explained he was filling in part of a northbound section before he flipped to go south for a while. He gave me his water and said he was getting off trail at the bottom so he didn’t need it. I was so grateful.
It took me a long time to reach the top, but there was a Firetower as my reward! We climbed the rickety ladder and enjoyed incredible views of peaks in all directions. Descending the mountain was insane, as it was the Mahoosuc Arm. This was the nemesis of northbound hikers; a steep slippery vertical ascent for them that seems to last forever. We had previously passed a Nobo who said that he couldn’t imagine how a SOBO could manage it as a descent because it was just too dangerous. In reality it was fine, if a little scary. I needed to hang off tree branches and drop in some places, bounce off of bent-over trees to slow our pace and slide down steep slick rockfaces, grabbing metal stakes screwed into the rock to help. I arrived at the bottom, thighs burning and body shaking.
I sat by the beaver pond and at this point believed I probably couldn’t continue up any further elevation, even though it was short, and definitely couldn’t head along the Mahoosuc Notch. The Notch is a one mile- long horizontal boulder field deep in a gulley, with boulders as large as small houses lying jammed against and atop each other with smaller, car-sized boulders thrown in the gaps. Then, below this Jenga-style challenge were ice sheets we could slip and slide on – inconceivable after the heat of the day that hovered above but real nonetheless. A deep stream ran further below adding yet more depth to this eerie and immense stretch of wild landscape. It would have taken all of my concentration, effort and energy even at the beginning of a good day, and now I had to face it at the end of a day with jelly legs, scratched and bleeding limbs and near total exhaustion.
When I tried to keep my body still I could feel a deep juddering in my system that wouldn’t stop. What should I do? Hambone looked at me and said, ‘You can do it’. ‘I don’t think I can’, I said, to which he replied, ‘If you need to stay to be safe then stay then.’ But I couldn’t give up, didn’t want to fall behind and I definitely didn’t want to be weak, so, nearing the most exhausted I had been in my life I returned to my feet and decided to push on, whilst at the same time feeling deeply anxious.
The Notch was incredible. It completely rejuvenated my exhausted legs and body with a burst of euphoria as I jumped between boulders, used tiny finger and foot holds to climb, and balanced over crevices to avoid the dark water and ice deep below. I climbed under and into cracks where the temperature dropped by huge degrees, making me shiver.
Hambone stayed close and I followed his steady surefootedness, happy to find myself incredibly and surprisingly nimble. It didn’t take long though for whatever adrenaline spike I had been riding to peter out, and I was halfway through as my legs began to jerk involuntarily and feel as though they might buckle. As my vision narrowed I knew I had no choice; there was no back, only forward, and so we did. Inch by inch. Eventually the end hoved into view; the elevation rising along with the temperature as we emerged onto a flat piece of dirt at the end of the Notch, still deep in the gully.
All I could do was lay on the ground. I lay, panting, with stars bursting behind my eyelids. What was happening to me? My legs wouldn’t stop shaking and I couldn’t speak. I began to cry, which turned into a torrent streaming from my eyes and pooling by my ears into the dust. Hambone stood above and looked down on me. ‘It’s only a mile up to the shelter’ he said. I didn’t speak. ‘Are you crying?’ I still didn’t speak. ‘Are you crying because you’re so tired?’ He asked.
I couldn’t explain at that moment that yes, I was. But I was also crying for my broken little body and how proud I was of it, for all the times I’ve tried to carry on but had to stop before the end because of pain, for all the times spent sobbing on my parents sofa asking them to please end my pain because it was too much. I was crying with gratitude, that I’d come so far and that this day had afforded me so much.
‘Yes’ I finally replied. ‘There’s no water here’ he said, frowning. ‘I know, but I’m staying. Please stay with me’. He looked at our half empty litre bottles and back to me, thinking. ‘Ok’ he said, smiling, and pulled out his sparse emergency-blanket groundsheet, laying his sleeping bag on top. Hambone didn’t use his tarp if he could sleep under the stars. I thanked him, eventually put up my tent and crawled inside, buzzing with pain, achievement and awe at all that had transpired.