(HOST) Mountain weather can be tricky, even dangerous, as commentator Tom Slayton found out on a recent trip to Katahdin, Maine’s highest mountain in far-northern Baxter State Park.
(SLAYTON) The temperature was already in the 70s, so I felt somewhat foolish as I double-checked my pack to make sure my wool hat was there. And even more foolish when I stuffed in a fleece sweater along with my rain jacket.
But there was a possibility of showers in the forecast. And Katah- din, the highest mountain in Maine, is a known weather-breeder with a huge area above the shelter of tree line. So, all the extra clothing went in along with extra food and two full liters of water.
The only clouds in the sky hovered over the top of Katahdin itself. Surely they would burn off by the time we got up there.
An hour later, my friend Michael and I were well up the Abol Slide, and an hour after that, we stood on the tableland, Katahdin’s broad summit plateau. Unfortunately, we couldn’t see much of it because we were immersed in thick mist. Those clouds hadn’t dispersed; we had literally climbed into them.
The air was moist and chilly when we finally got to the highest point, Baxter Peak; so I pulled on my fleece and rain jacket and sat down to eat my sandwich. We had hardly been there ten min- utes when we began to hear low mutterings of thunder. Michael and I looked at each other and immediately began to pack up.
But before we’d gone 200 yards down the trail, the first drops of rain began and quickly turned into a downpour. Fortunately, there was no lightning. But the rain was cold, hard, and getting harder. We’d have to find a different way down the mountain. Abol Slide was not recommended for use in bad weather.
We eventually descended by the Appalachian Trail. It took us four hours to get down, and I was completely exhausted by the time we hitch-hiked back to our campsite. But we were alive and unin- jured, and our safety had never been in serious jeopardy.
I wish I could say the same for some of our fellow hikers on the mountain that day. There were plenty of people in shorts and t-shirts – outfits that offered comfort a few thousand feet lower down, but zero protection from bad weather above tree line.
The ultimate absurdity was the thin, muscular kid who came lop- ing upward through the pouring rain, still trying for the summit in sneakers, shorts, an enormous leather hat – and no shirt! He was hypothermia personified, hypothermia waiting to happen. And, as it turned out, he did become hypothermic further down, when a roar- ing wind turned each raindrop into a whiplash. Fortunately, a mem- ber of his party had an extra sweater. I’m still wondering if that kid knows how close he came to being permanently dead.
As we descended the rocky ridge down the mountain, the clouds parted, and a vision of absolute wildness in all its splendor opened beneath us: mountains in all directions, clouds and rain boiling off them, blowing past us, shafts of sunlight bursting through.
It was a truly wonderful vision, one I will never forget. But I wouldn’t bet my life on it. I’m still glad I packed all the extra stuff – including that wool hat!
Tom Slayton is the editor of Vermont Life magazine. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.