Columbia man scales new heights on Appalachian Trail through-hike

PLAYING AROUND

Howard At Play

July 23, 2000|By Lowell E. Sunderland

Numerologists might relish this: Columbia retiree Chuck Daniels began his Appalachian Trail through-hike in Georgia on 2-7-00. He completed it in Maine on 7-2-00. But seemingly endless rain, not digital poetry, determined the end of his 2,165-mile adventure.

Daniels, 60, was one of the first "Class of 2000" AT through-hikers to finish. He and his wife, Andrea Almand, who finished on famed Mount Katahdin together, are home after subsequently exploring Maine's coastline, Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard and Newport, R.I., on the way back.

"All I worked so hard to achieve these five months has just stopped, and I'm left with memories," Daniels writes in the final journal entry about his hike. "In life, I'm a happy man."

He awoke in Baxter State Park at 3:15 a.m. that last day to meet Andee, as he calls her, farther north, where his journey's last leg began. Their 6 a.m. meeting was joyous.

"In the middle of the wilderness after weeks of no communication," writes the man who averaged just under 15 miles a day on some of the East Coast's toughest terrain, "I feel my journey is over - but that final task of climbing just one more mountain looms unmercifully before me, the biggest challenge of the entire trail."

The day was cloudless, sunny. The 4,150-foot final climb began in aromatic evergreens that quickly led to "knee-high boulders among shoulder-high rock faces." Daniels and Almand had to grip tree roots and branches to pull upward.

Daniels' very readable journal (see it all at http://www.stri ders.net), edited by his wife, tells the rest best:

"The bulletin board description notes that this portion of the climb is a one-mile `ascending boulder field ... which is very steep and difficult.' I put our hiking sticks away; this face requires all-fours and complete focus. ..."

"I look up at this monstrous pile of boulders and realize that I have not seen anything on the trail as big, as long, or difficult to climb. ... We follow the white blazes up, over, around, under, and between boulders, feeling for crevices, for hand- and foot-holds."... The wind is picking up the higher we climb, and there are gusts where I drop down to a lower profile so not to be blown off these rocks. But we can see the end. Then, as we finally summit the boulders, we reach `The Gateway,' and I immediately understand the meaning of the word: this is not the end. ... There are still nearly two miles to go to the peak. There's nothing like it on the AT."... The final ascent is a trail of small boulders that doesn't require so much climbing as stepping from stone to stone. Then, a short, rocky ridge walk puts me in front of that famous wooden easel sign signaling Katahdin's summit. I just stare at it, expecting some quiet moment of inner peace, something magical to happen, some epiphany that culminates the end of my journey.

"But, instead, I focus on the 30 or so people sitting, snacking, standing, or milling around, enjoying the sunny day, having summited by a variety of trail choices. Their numbers and casualness somehow dilute the immediate experience.

"Andee announces that I have just this minute completed the entire trail. As I pose behind the sign for the obligatory photo, there is a huge round of applause. ... Now the magnitude of the moment hits me, hard; I have accomplished something truly astounding for me. ... It turns into an emotional and dramatic end to a long trek."

After lunching on ham-and-cheese sandwiches, cherries, cookies and peanut M&M's , the couple realized that clouds were building and the wind increasing.

"I look in vain for the chairlift to take [us] off the summit," Daniels writes. "This means [we] now have to climb back down those 5.2 miles to get off this mountain. I'm supposed to be done with this trail!"

But this man, who says he felt like a "hiking machine" during those last days on the AT, already is thinking of new challenges. Just read his journal's end: "Who knows? Maybe next month, I'll start training for qualification into Boston's marathon."

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