By John B. Rogers, HPA Board Member
In 2020 my good friend Dana Bowman from Strong, Maine, and a Board member of the High Peaks Alliance Board brought me to a couple of meetings of the High Peaks Alliance. I was very interested and eventually got elected to the Board in January 2021. I learned that ten of the fourteen 4000+ foot mountains in Maine were located in Franklin County–the High Peaks Alliance region–so I decided in the winter of 2021 that as a newly elected Board member, I needed to climb all ten.
I learned a lot along the way, and my journey started with Sugarloaf Mountain on May 23, 2023, and ended with Mount Redington seven weeks later to finally bag the ten high peaks. However, I was on a roll and continued to hike the other four 4000+ footers ending with Hamlin Peak and Baxter Peak on Mount Katahdin on August 16, 2022.
After climbing Sugarloaf Mountain, my brother-in-law told me I really needed hiking poles (tip #1). They were great coming down the mountain as a 65-year-old with weaker knees than I had at 21. The next mountains I climbed were North and South Crocker, alone on the same day. My wife told me to stretch before and after the climb, which made recovering much quicker (tip #2). I met tons of great people on the trail, including many, many Appalachian Trail hikers (of course). I was amazed by how friendly they all were and how little they carried. One couple hiking the AT together recommended I document my trips (tip #3). From then on, I took a few selfie pictures at each summit with my mug shot and the elevation signs in the same photo.
I headed to the Caribou Bog Road gate a week later to climb Spaulding Mountain. This was one of the hardest of the 10 high peaks to climb (but in fairness, none compare to Mount Katahdin). Looking back, if I were to do it all over, I would drive to the Caribou Bog Road gate to climb Sugarloaf and Spaulding together and then come back at another time to climb Redington, North Crocker, and South Crocker together from the same gate (tip #4).
I moved on to Mount Abraham from the Barnjam side with HPA Executive Director Brent West, Board member Gina Oswald, and three other people. It was great hiking with people because we shared our stories and experiences. Scott, a man about the same age as me, had his 8-year-old grandson with him. Watching a young child enjoy the outdoors and his climbing experience was great. He wanted to lead the pack up and down the trail, but his grandfather kept him close. Brent West has a world of outdoor knowledge from his personal and graduate school experience, and he shared all kinds of information with Scott’s grandson about the trees, plants, frogs, and rocks. It was amazing to see him learn and grow. From that day on, I learned the best experiences are those shared with someone else (tip #5).
My next summits were Saddleback and Saddleback Horn with Brent, Scott, and his grandson from Berry Pickers Trail on June 20, 2022. It was a great day to climb, made even better by friends, but I have to tell you the most amazing thing I experienced while climbing all fourteen mountains was meeting a woman climbing in her bare feet. We first met her climbing down from the Horn and again climbing down from Saddleback Mountain. Of course, I had to engage her in a 20-minute conversation about her experience! She said it was therapeutic for her and had seven of the fourteen high peaks in Maine already done, with Mount Katahdin being her first summit. I can’t believe her feet weren’t killing her! Always take the time to talk to people and get their stories about climbing, as everyone is different (tip #6).
I took the Fire Wardens Trail up to West Peak and Avery Peak on Bigelow Mountain. I was amazed by the cabin near the top of the mountain; someone(s) had to carry all the lumber, windows, shingles, etc., up the trail, and I couldn’t imagine it had been easy. On the AT access trail, the Appalachian Mountain Club had built rock steps into the steep bank for about a mile many years ago. Again, I was blown away by how much work by hand that must’ve taken. At the top of Avery Peak, I ran into my first southbound AT through-hiker, composing a song on his guitar. He was a solo hiker from Quebec, and he was writing about Flagstaff Lake, looking down from above. His goal was to write songs about all the most beautiful places on his 2000-mile journey, with this spot being the composition.
In Oxford County sits Old Speck Mountain, and at the top, I climbed the fire tower from which you can see many New Hampshire ski mountains. I came down the Eye Brow Trail instead of going up it. This trail had cables to hold on to up and down because of the steep cliff face. Here, I got my first blisters on my heels from holding onto the cable while walking backward down the trail. Take it from me; if you climb Old Speck, go up the Eye Brow and not down it (tip #7).
Next, I drove four hours up to Baxter State Park in the rain and climbed North Brother Mountain. It was a nice climb in the rain; however, above 3500+ feet, there are no trees to speak of. Thank God for rock cairns to guide hikers through the clouds to the peak. I took my selfie and started down. The reality is the rain was not bad, but the rocks were very slippery, and my hiking poles saved me from falling down five or six times. After that, I try not to climb in the rain (tip #8).
I climbed Mount Redington and then South Crocker a second time with Scott, his grandson, Brent West, and Sam Shirley, who also works for HPA. Brent and Sam continued on to climb North Crocker. Again, it was great to climb with Scott and his 8-year-old grandson. After climbing 5 of the highest mountains in Maine with them, I know we have inspired a young person to climb many more mountains in his lifetime. What a rewarding experience for all of us.
The last two mountains that I climbed (#13 and #14) were Hamlin Peak and Baxter Peak on Mount Katahdin. After leaving North Brother on July 7, I stopped at the Baxter State Park gate and talked to the ranger about coming up the next week to climb Mt. Katahdin. He asked me if I had a parking permit and I said “no,” he told me to go online, and for $5, I could get one. The next day I went online to get the permit. However, it took almost 6 weeks to get an open climbing day. For Katahdin, I climbed with Brent West again and his college roommate, Chris Richards. Both mountains, including crossing the famous Knife Edge Trail, took thirteen hours, with the last 45 minutes in the dark. I would recommend bringing plenty of water (2-3 liters), flashlights, lots of food and snacks, and above all, obtaining your parking pass way in advance (tip #9).
For this 65-year-old retired guy, my goal to hike all 4,000-foot mountains in Maine was one of the best and most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. We are incredibly fortunate to have ten of those “high peaks” in Franklin County that all can be done with a day climb (even with an 8-year-old in tow). The journey has opened my eyes to the remote beauty that we have here in Western Maine. All you need to do is go out and look at it, bike it, snowmobile it, ATV it, horseback ride it, or just hike it.