Hiking the Precipice Trail

A lesson in dealing with fears
By Frederick Freudenberger | Oct 18, 2010
Courtesy of: Kenny Flynn This sign was along the trail at several locations. The trail seems safe enough, right?

I don't like heights. We are not friends.

That may seem odd seeing as my previous column was about flying in jet planes, but, for some reason, planes don't bother me.

However, I don't like things such as, but not limited to, Ferris wheels, steep cliffs, tops of trees, tall ladders, ropes courses, etc. Thanks dad, by the way, for that first one. You rocking the bucket at the peak of the ride did not help.

So, when my friend Kirby, who lives on Mount Desert Island, said we were going to hike the Precipice Trail in Acadia National Park you might see why I was a little less than ecstatic.

If you don't know about the trail let me tell you.

To put it shortly, "this is the most challenging and well known hiking trail in Acadia National Park with an exposed and almost vertical 1,000 foot climb up the east face of Champlain Mountain," according to Acadiamagic.com.

Government caution signs at various points in the trail call it a "non-technical climbing route not a hiking trail." At the bottom of the sign it says: "persons have received serious injuries and others have died on this mountain side!"

Now, by reading these last two paragraphs you are 10 times more prepared for the trail than I was at the base.

You see, when I started my day, here was my plan: take photographs at the Acadia Triathlon in the morning and then enjoy Acadia's Oktoberfest in Southwest Harbor around noon. However, I was up to the Island with good friends and they convinced me to go "hiking."

I was duped.

I didn't know much about the trail but my first warning was when we pulled up to the head of the trail and it was explained to me that the path was straight up the cliff.

I said, "Guys, you do know I am afraid of heights? Right?"

At that point they got this worried look on their faces. "Oh, you'll be alright, we can turn around if it is too much for you."

Again, duped.

Kirby explained that the trail is fun and the scariest parts are just ladders. "It's like a tree house," she said. "Just like your backyard."

Looking back I feel very gullible.

My second warning was at a place called the "Jersey Cutoff." There, a few metal rungs were cemented into boulders so people could climb up the rocks. Rungs like those would later be good friends.

The cutoff wasn't that hard but apparently it is enough to scare off those not-so-confident outdoors people or anyone interested in self-perseverance.

We continued the hike, climbing up the mountain. It is pretty much straight up, but there are some places with neat steps and places to boulder hop. There is even a place where you go into a cave-like section as you ascend. At that point, it didn't seem so bad.

I can't specifically remember when things took a turn for the worse but sooner or later the trail got steeper, there was more climbing, and my nerves were not doing so well.

In many places, there were ladders but there were also rungs that you had to grab onto to not only get up rocks, but around them, and simultaneously up and around them as well.

On the plus side, however, the views of the surrounding land were calming and certainly made the trip more pleasant.

Physically the trail wasn't so bad but the higher we got the more nervous I became. As I look back I feel kind of bad for my friends who had to put up with me. I was not looking on the bright side of life nor was I taking this adventure with a spoonful of sugar.

So we made it past more climbs, a bridge with missing wood, and cliffs with a couple of feet for walking space, etc. My language was, to say the least, colorful.

I kept thinking this is what Indiana Jones or the Prince of Persia had to go through on a normal basis. My friend Kenny agreed. The rest of them called us nerds.

Kenny, by the way, did a healthy portion of the trail sans hands. He was even eating an apple as he climbed for a while.

We went through more of the same and after about 30 to 45 minutes Kirby said that the hard part is coming up. What she meant was that if I wanted to turn around now was the time.

"Turn around and do what," I thought. It wasn't like I was going to climb down backwards. So I kept going.

She didn't lie about the hard part.

The last section of the trail was nothing but vertical ladders, upward cornering climbs, thin walkways, and a lot of time spent on all fours. At several locations the rocks were nice and wet. Kenny joked that it was convenient to get your shoes wet and slippery before you had to get on the metal rungs.

I laughed but the thought of slipping on rock or rung only to fall down several hundred feet did not sit well.

Finally, after my nerves,were shot, Kirby said the worst was over. This time, she told the truth. Kind of.

We had one more push to get to the top: another section of rungs and bars. But compared to the gauntlet we just faced it was doable.

Then, after an hour's worth of hiking we reached the summit. Like on the trail, the views were incredible. You could see the surrounding mountains, Bar Harbor, and much of the coastline. Not that it wasn't worth it, but I had had my fill of looking down.

Kirby had said there was an easy way down and I wasted no time making sure we would found it as soon as possible.

The trip down wasn't so bad. At this point my legs were almost shot and the hike had gotten to my body but, like a guiding light, I had Oktoberfest to steer me down.

Then the trip down turned back into the trip up. You see, our car was at the base of the Precipice Trail, not the easy trail. So, to get to the car, we had to take another trail to connect with the Precipice Trail at its halfway point and go down; I use the term "down" loosely as it meant going "up" at many different locations.

By this point, many of us, Kirby not included, were getting tired. She kept going like a machine, leading the group without break.

I, on the other hand, took it upon myself to make everyone else look good. I made my way up and down huffing, puffing, and notably, slow.

I stumbled down to the bottom after retracing many of our steps on the Precipice Trail, which was supposedly more dangerous going down then up.

Eventually we found our way to the Jersey Cutoff and I knew my goal wasn't far away. I circumvented the cutoff, taking a shortcut and made my way to the car, ready for Maine's finest brews.

Looking back I am glad I did the trail and it actually wasn't that difficult. I did it. I didn't win the war against my fear of heights but I certainly took this battle. I climbed one of the most difficult trails New England has to offer and lived to tell the tale.

Let us not forget, most importantly, I lived to make it to Oktoberfest.

Village NetMedia Sports Reporter Frederick Freudenberger can be reached at 207-594-4401 or by e-mail at fritz@villagesoup.com.

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