The TASC List: Survival instincts

Mount Katahdin rises a mile high in central Maine’s Baxter State Park. Revered by the Indians, and the earliest North American place to greet the morning sun, it is the much-sought-after end of the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail for dedicated hikers.  

Her routes to the top are classified as strenuous, require eight to 10 hours for a round trip, provide little if any drinking water, and can witness weather changes that are dramatic and dangerous.

But the climbing challenges are offset by brilliant scenery, remarkable wildlife, the joys of solitude, and the satisfaction of matching preparation and fitness against altitude, rain and wind, and wilderness.

Three of us from the comfortable Boston suburbs, a bit out of shape and without any real orienteering or mountaineering experience, equipped with a bucket full of potato salad and a trunk load of beer, embarked on a Friday afternoon for Millinocket. There at the logging center gateway to Baxter we began the journey and mission we hoped would end at Katahdin’s peak. It was to be no ordinary weekend.

After a campfire dinner and the shelter of a reserved lean-to, we arose the next morning for our three-man assault of the top. It wasn’t long before our scrambling over refrigerator sized granite rocks and loose gravel trail beds began to take its toll. The mountain’s unseen strength was unflagging, and her vast dimensions were never out of sight or mind. We felt the early onset of fatigue, thirst, hunger, and pain. The temperature dropped and the winds turned gustier. We felt or imagined blistered feet, and wondered why our boots seemed inadequate for even the most modest of changes in terrain or groundcover.

On we pressed, hoping conditions might change. Instead they grew worse. So in a quick collective decision we decided to follow the direction of park rangers to hikers: “Turn back if bad weather or darkness approaches,” and “With good planning and an eye to the sky, you should get below treeline before a storm arrives.”

Of course, hiking downhill is more stressful to the knees than climbing upward. Yet we were encouraged to know that we were campward bound. It was an abandoned journey with quite a few lessons learned about ourselves and our skills, and the kinds of forces that Mother Nature can unleash.

Recently, a notable obituary has reminded us of the requirements for a safe return and the realities of an actual rescue or assistance on the mountain. Survival after mishap or misreckoning is by no means assured.

Donn Fendler, aged 90, died less than a month ago. His story Lost on a Mountain in Maine recounted an almost unbelievable experience surviving at age 12 for nine days after separating from his hiking party in the wilderness surrounding Katahdin. The book is now required reading for Maine schoolchildren.

Near the summit when bad weather set in, Donn parted from his climbing friends and headed back down to find his family. As the conditions closed in he became disoriented and then hopelessly lost. Boy Scout experience allowed him to exist on wild berries and find comfort among tree roots and moss; a found burlap bag afforded some warmth.

His wanderings covered 35 miles over the period, while rescue teams, bloodhounds, and circling aircraft searched the area without success. Finally he emerged by a lakeside cabin, startled the owner with his dreadful appearance — and then was provided with life’s essentials. His family and an anxious nation were overjoyed.

He had been devoured by insects, was scratched and bruised all over, was lighter by 16 pounds, and was seriously weakened. But his faith and will to live had kept him going. He refused to give in. A useful lesson from 1939, and just as valuable today, 77 years later.

Footnote: If you plan to climb, take two quarts of water per person and a buddy, flashlight, trail mix plus lunch, extra clothes/socks, rain gear, hiking boots, first aid kit, compass, map, cell phone, whistle, knife, and matches.

TASC stands for Toward A Stronger Community. Contact: