Break through: conquering the AT, one scramble at a time |

Break through: conquering the AT, one scramble at a time |

Around 9 p.m. on Sept. 6, I climbed off an empty bus in Gorham, New Hampshire, ready to begin the last gap of the Appalachian Trail that I’d left unfinished during my thru-hike attempt last year.

I was dropped off at Libby House Hostel, set-up my tent in the backyard and opened a box that Broccoli Rob had sent me. I was desperate to put on my winter gear, considering it was quite cold near the New Hampshire-Maine state line.

My stomach was in knots the next day. The terrain was much different from the 277-mile gap I had just finished, but regardless of difficulty, I kept putting one foot in front of the other. I met many northbound hikers on the trail. These would be the people I’d most likely be hiking alongside until my final day on the trail.

One of these fellow hikers, who went by the trail name of Reboot, was impressed by my willingness to get back on the horse, as it were, after experiencing a traumatizing hike-ending fall last year. We were headed to the same campsite that night, and once we arrived, Reboot approached me with sincerity in his voice: He insisted that I allow him and his buddy, Why, to hike with me past the spot where I’d injured myself.

He didn’t want me to be alone for something like that. I was totally speechless, moved beyond expression — and even teared up a little — as Reboot walked back to his tent.

The next morning, I felt a strange mixture of calmness and fear. I wasn’t sure if the calmness was trying to settle me down, or if the fear was consuming me, but I was too worked up to tell the difference.

Either way, I was elated to have company as I crossed into Maine. All 13 states behind me were completed. Perhaps this time would be different, I thought. Perhaps this time I’d safely pass through to the end.

A half-mile later, we reached that notorious spot: the most gnarly downward scramble of boulders I’ve ever seen. It was exactly how I remembered it, perhaps even worse. The three of us stopped in our tracks, nearly piling on top of one another. We agreed to remove our packs before descending. Reboot winked at me and whispered: “You’ve got this.” I felt a fire light within me.

I looked back at these two kind strangers watching with wide eyes and razor-focused attention. I went first, choosing a different path down the rocks this time. It was an easier route, to be sure, especially without my pack on. Reboot and Why were right behind me, and their presence relaxed me as I finished my descent.

One by one, they handed me their packs, and we all made it safely to the bottom of this beast of a rockface, this meddling roadblock that had ruined my confidence — and ended my thru-hike attempt — the previous year.

I felt a wave of relief. It was over. I’d replayed that fall in my head so many times that it was hard to believe that I was back in the Maine wilderness, conquering it.

The next few days delivered intense, technical hiking that tested me physically and mentally. I started to wonder if it was worth the risk. If not for the people I’d met, I don’t know if I would’ve had the spirit to push forward. Maine was proving to be an intense battle not only for myself, but those around me. I met a gentleman in his late 60’s by the name of Splinter at the trail shelter right before the Mahoosuc Range, one of the most intense sections of the trail, and by the end of the evening, we had plans to complete the following day’s hike together.

I wasn’t looking forward to the Mahoosuc Range — a steep rock face slab that goes straight up for a mile. A thick early morning fog hugged the mountains the morning we set out, making everything wet and slippery.

We moved forward, one hand and foot at a time. Every inch had to be discussed and precalculated. We worked like a well-oiled machine, wedging our way through six different cave-like rock tumbles, stuffing our packs through one at a time. We had to move up and over enormous boulders, and down deep drops, just to make it to the next white blaze. Through the struggle, we enjoyed ourselves. We were moving methodically. I felt safe.

My confidence was returning as I continued northward, yet mountain summits, like the one on Old Speck Mountain, would challenge my will to survive. The summit is essentially a vertical rock wall. I examined the sides, then the middle, and there seemed to be no way to ascend the thing. I felt stuck. Nervousness crept in.

I eventually decided to pancake my body against the granite rock face and inch my way up, grasping at whatever finger and toe grips I could find. I felt like Spiderman, without the courage. I froze multiple times in complete fear, yet the vertical rock slab just kept cresting. Once I’d made it to the top, I refused to look back. I had no interest in seeing what I’d just completed. I wanted to get as far away from Old Speck Mountain as I could.

I was anxious about the second half of Maine, but I plodded northward, toward my ultimate goal: Mt. Katahdin. The end seemed within reach now. I dug deep, putting on foot in front of the other, just like I’d done all along.

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