And the Weather’s Good

To quote Carbon/Silicon, whose song “The News” did not leave my head for several hours on Saturday: And the weather’s good. In fact, the weather was perfect on Saturday, December 8, for our 18.5 mile/30km hike-run over five of the Catskill Mountains’ highest peaks. This Monday morning, as I type, there’s a freezing rain outside that has already cancelled school (again!) and would have made our adventure totally and completely miserable. Last Thursday, there was a strong cold winter wind blowing through the north-east that would have rendered it equally unpleasant. And it snowed throughout the day before the planned hike; had we been out on the mountains during those conditions, we would hardly have been able to see beyond our noses.

But on Saturday itself, the weather hovered just above the all-important freezing mark, with the bonus addition of late day blue sky. And as it turned out, the fresh snow was a Godsend. It covered up the sheets of ice on the mountain surfaces that would otherwise have made our trip quite perilous. Yet it didn’t drop so much of the stuff that we had to wade through it. Instead, it provided us with just what we hoped for: a winter wonderland.

I’m not experienced in this kind of all-day winter hiking, which is one of the reasons I jumped at the invitation. While such opportunities for adventure are not the specific reason I moved up here, they’re certainly part of the attraction, and something I want to be doing more of. My companions were all proven triathletes, ultra runners and mountaineers, and I knew I could not ask to be in safer hands. The week leading up to the hike, during which time winter hit our region with rare early-December vengeance, our e-mail exchanges grew simultaneously more serious and witty, as we added item after item to the packing list until one of the group just went right ahead and ascended Slide Mountain (the “easy” way, a two-and-a-half hour round trip) the very day before our hike to judge the snow levels on the mountaintop. Thanks to his advance scouting, we ended up leaving the ice pick and snowshoes in the cars, but it turned out we were wise to bring the climbing rope. And we packed enough first aid supplies – blankets and bandages and ankle braces included – to ensure that if anyone did take a nasty fall, we’d be able to keep them warm and protected for the several hours that would be spent carrying them out. Nobody wants to come a cropper on a mountain when, for the sake of some extra caution, they don’t have to.

Woodland Valley Trailhead, 8:30 am.

We headed off from Woodland Valley Road near Phoenicia at 8:30 am. This was half an hour behind schedule. The goal was always to get to the other side of Peekamoose (where a van had been pre-parked earlier in the morning) before dark – a tough schedule, meaning we’d need to go much faster than the usual two miles an hour one generally hikes in pleasant conditions. That explains why, as soon as we hit the trail, a lead group shot up the mountain as if there was a pot of gold awaiting the first man to the top. I kept company in the rear with Dick Vincent, founder of the Escarpment Run, who is closing on a 32-year streak of everyday running. (That means, yes, he has run every single day for almost 32 years.) He pointed out that too fast of a start means releasing unwanted acids into the body. It also can mean building up a sweat, when what you want to do on a hike like this is start out cool, almost cold, and add layers when you need them. Fortunately I was wearing a Mountain Hard Wear Gore-Tex anorak courtesy of another companion, Jimmy Buff, who writes a column about this stuff for the Catskill Mountain Guide. Read his latest and you’ll get a sense of what a real all-day hike feels like.

The climb up Wittenburg Mountain was approximately 2400 feet over four miles; we covered it in just under two hours. It seemed like a breeze, a beautiful way to spend a Saturday morning, even though one or two patches merited some care. At the peak – 3780ft – our heads were in the clouds, quite literally: it took some serious peering through the haze to realize that that was the Ashokan Reservoir sitting below us, in the distance. It was also cold and windy, and as we stopped for some Power Bars and liquid, several of us swapped out lighter gloves for heavier ones and put on an extra layer of clothing.

The top of Wittenburg, 10:20am. That’s the Ashokan Reservoir in the top right corner, 3200 feet below us.

We made the top of Cornell Mountain (3860’) barely half an hour later: the walk between the two peaks is only a mile along a ridge. The cloud cover made Wittenburg’s limited view look like a picture postcard, but there was no need to complain about the absence of panoramic vistas when we were hiking our way through snow-laden balsam trees, ice-covered birches, and powder-covered rocks, the kind of pure winter surroundings you see in the movies but rarely with your own eyes. Besides, we didn’t have much time to sit and take in the scenery; we were on a mission. On we went, then, rest stops apparently for losers.

The rope was soon used to ascend this one awkward and icy rock face near the top of Slide. 12:00pm.

There are three routes up Slide Mountain, the highest peak in the Catskills at 4180 feet; naturally, we were on the most difficult. My guide maps stated that the last 900 feet were steep and involved climbing many a rock ledge; maybe it was the beauty of the surrounding snow, but it felt less daunting than it probably actually was. However, soon after we passed another 3500 foot marker – that’s the height that delineates the 35 Catskills “high peaks” from the 60+ other mere “mountains” – we did come up against one nasty eight-foot climb. We noticed by the footprints up above (once we got there), that another set of walkers had turned back rather than try and descend it. I was literally pulled up by hand, after which it was decided caution would be the better side of valor and the other hikers used the mountain rope.

Moments later, it seemed, we found ourselves at the plaque that honors John Burroughs, naturalist and writer, who frequently camped out on top of Slide mountain in the early 1900s. “Here the works of man dwindle,” he wrote, and one could hardly disagree. (Read Burroughs’ writing about his climbs up Slide mountain here.) That said, in Burroughs’ day, the mountaintops seemed to have less tree cover; pictures at a surprisingly in-depth Wikipedia page show a very different mountaintop to the one we scaled. Of course, Wikipedia must always be taken with a large dose of silicon salt. The claim that from various parts of the summit, one can see all but one of the 34 Catskills high peaks seemed somewhat ludicrous to this group of us in a hurry on a cloudy and snowy day: I couldn’t see as much as a single mountain in any direction. That said, we had made it to the top of the very peak of the Catskills: 4180 feet above sea level. That’s good enough of itself. And it was still only 12:30pm.

The 3500 foot marker on the way up to Slide from the col below Cornell. The Catskills “high peaks” are defined as 3500 foot mountains at least half a mile from each other. Conveniently for those who like to collect the set, there are 35 such 3500 footers. 12:30pm.

We’d been on the go for four hours, we’d covered seven miles, made a vertical ascent of 3620 feet, we’d apparently done the worst of the climbing. But we still had over eleven miles to go and less than five hours to safely do it in. This is why most of us were wearing trail shoes – albeit it with screws in the bottom of the soles to grip better the snow and ice – rather than hiking boots, and we set off on a refreshing jog for the next mile. I was surprised how easy it felt to pick up speed despite the multiple layers and back-packs, though I soon took to keeping my distance from other runners; every time someone pushed through a tree branch, the snap-back of ice-covered wood was painful enough to feel like a beating. I took to ducking under the branches instead, which probably explains why my upper body came out so sore.

Looking back on Wittenburg and Cornell from near the top of Slide. Photo by Dick Vincent, who obviously noticed the views better than I did!

At around eight miles, we said goodbye to three of our crew, who were taking one of the easier routes down Slide to where they’d also pre-parked a car. Did I want to join them? Having not done this kind of distance since the Escarpment run sixteen months ago, having been injured throughout this spring and only picked up my distance running in the last couple of months, I had never committed to doing what we had labeled “the full Monty.” But no, I felt completely invigorated, energized, enthusiastic and in love with my surroundings. Climbing Slide had been so much easier than I’d imagined that I couldn’t contemplate any difficulties from here on in. I elected to stay with the other five hardened athletes. As we jogged the next couple of miles downhill into the valley that separates Slide Mountain from Table Mountain, I talked with Stewart, another Englishman, about our roots and destinations. Stewart said he came to America for the “space.” Not necessarily the physical space we have in the Catskills. (After all, he had lived for many years in the Scottish Highlands, where he mastered this kind of all-day adventuring.) It was the personal space he had welcome, the metaphysical space. I knew what he meant.

Running between Slide and Table, 1:36pm. This part was fun! Photo by Joe Brown.

I’m a runner, not a mountaineer or hiker, so this part of the day was my metaphysical high. In fact, I selfishly left Stewart behind after a while, and did my best to stay with Tommy, who was consistently at the head of our group. What I had earlier taken for his impatience I now realized was leadership; as one of the fastest in our group and the most experienced in these particular peaks, he was determined to keep us on schedule, and we should be grateful that he did. He knew we didn’t want to still be climbing in the dark, however far off that concept may have seemed in the early afternoon. I should perhaps be less thankful that he under-talked the long slow climb back up from the Neversink River in the Valley to the top of Table Mountain. In effect, we were starting our day all over again, except by now we’d been on the go for five-and-a-half hours with no more than a five-minute break here and there, our legs were feeling the cumulative effects of climbing, descending and running, my own feet had finally gotten wet from unavoidable stream water on our jog (though the trail socks, underlying ski socks and Asics gel trail shoes did an admirable job of keeping me mostly warm and dry), and our backpacks were starting to weigh heavy. Those who had jogged more slowly than me – like Stewart, of course – knew what they were doing: they were saving their energy for the 1600 foot climb back up.

This part seemed like fun, too: crossing the Neversink River by plank rather than walking over the shallow part by stone. 2:06pm. Two seconds after this picture was taken, I lost my footing and nearly fell in! Moral: focus on what you’re doing, not the camera!

That ascent up Table was nothing short of miserable. It went on for ever. It was steep. Very steep. There was ice, tree trunks and sharp rocks under the snow waiting to trip us up at every turn. Each step felt like taking three stairs at a time… on a treadmill, where the last step is always just out of sight. One by one, we stopped talking. One of the hardened triathletes in our crew visibly tired. Other than the two leaders who had boldly gone ahead, we all would have gladly taken an exit route at this point had there a) actually been one, and b) been a warm car awaiting us at the end of it. Neither of those options existing, we silently acknowledged that no all-day adventure like this comes without its challenging moments, and quietly trudged our way up, up, up and up some more – though we did pause for a photo op at approximately 3400 feet. The remaining 500 feet were the hardest. When I started talking to myself – a familiar experience from the last few miles of a marathon – I knew I had bonked. Yet interestingly, although I felt like I was walking backwards at times, I stayed ahead of the other three in our pack: uphill appears to be my forte, even when it’s as unpleasant as all this.

Dick Vincent took this beautiful picture early in the day.

And then suddenly, I was walking downhill. I backed up a few feet and waited for the others at what appeared to be the crest in the footpath. “Is this the peak of Table?” I asked. “Guess so,” came the reply. I’d had pictures taken of me on top of the other peaks, as proof of our ascent. I didn’t bother with it here. I was too exhausted, and there was nothing to photograph of any merit. Besides, study the map and you’ll know there’s no way we could have done the rest of the day without climbing Table Mountain (3847’) too. As it turns out, the ascent had only been an hour-and-a-half. Out of what turned out to be a magical ten-hour day, that’s approximately 15% of relative – and entirely self-induced – misery. Would most of us take that ratio to get us through life: 15% bad times as the price to pay for 85% great times? I think so. Certainly, I have no complaints. At least not now that it’s over….

There on the Table top, the four of us took five, but no longer: it was less than another mile to Peekamoose Mountain (3843’), the last of the day’s peaks, and we knew that our leader was probably already waiting for us there, determined that we should reach it by 4:00pm. Feeling the chill at last, I put on my reliable old CPFC tracksuit top underneath my coat; the extra layer got me through the rest of the day. I do believe a couple of us broke into a gentle jog as we went briefly downhill before a mercifully short 150-ft climb back up. And what do you know? We hit that ‘Moose on the nose. Literally. Four o’clock on the dot. We may have been tired and worn and just possibly – but not really – wondering why we agreed to come out in the first place, but we had stayed on schedule, and that was as much of an achievement as climbing the five peaks to begin with.

Dick took this Winter wonderland shot as well: Joe Brown somewhere between Cornell and Slide.

Our beloved leader had a fifth of whisky waiting for us as a victory nip. I had spent a decent part of the long slow climb up Table imagining the taste of my reward that evening: a Keegan‘s ale from the keg or a glass of Gigondas. But in reality, my stomach was churning from the day’s diet of Clif bars and Clif shots and nuts and dates, and I wasn’t ready to sip down some whisky when we still had a four-mile, 2820’ descent and not much time to do it in. Four of us looked at Tommy like he was mad. The fifth took a celebratory sip. Tommy had himself a swift swig, and then hit the ground running. Some people are hard-core and then some are just totally hard-core. Tommy, the next time I raise a whisky glass, it will be to salute your stamina!

It’s always fascinating to see others people’s strengths. The same triathlete who had visibly tired on the ascent up Table was completely re-energized now that he was facing downhill: he was out of there like a rabbit. I hung back with Stewart, and Joe Brown, who takes in a 100-mile run every other year for the hell of it; for him, this was such a casual walk in the park that he did it wearing a sun-hat. His tactics, gained from those 100-milers he said, were admirable: he appeared never to break into a run, never to slow down, he simply speed-walked his way through the entire day.

The lack of cloud cover not only blessed us with an additional, and much needed thirty minutes of light; it made for some beautiful views just below the peak of Peekamoose, and the three of us stopped to soak it up and take some photographs of the icicles in front of the sunset. It was a stunning moment. If there was a downer to the day, it had been the fact that we had to – literally, needed to – move so fast that we had little time to stop and admire the vistas. But nature had put on a fine display of the winter wonderland all around us and again, compared to conditions that could have been icy, wet, cold or muddy, we could only be grateful. I witnessed only one person amongst us trip over, once, all day; we didn’t need as much as a Band-Aid.

This is what it’s all about: icicles on tree-tops frame another Catskills sunset. 4:22pm.

The three of us covered the four-mile descent in just over an hour, jogging part of it, speed-walking more of it, talking and chatting throughout, admiring the sunset, knowing that we’d make it home safely, and before the darkness truly descended. The last half-mile was almost flashlight time, but soon enough we could see the van’s lights in the distance: it would be nicely warmed for us. We got down to the predictable cries of “what took you so long?” though in reality I doubt we were more than five-ten minutes behind anyone else. It was 5:10pm. We had expected the day to take us nine hours, so we were twenty minutes ahead of schedule. We surely had the perfect weather to thank for that.

It was the best part of an hour’s drive back around the Catskill Mountains until we reached Woodland Valley. I sank a can of V8 in approximately 3 seconds and then, I believe, spent the next 59 minutes marveling that one of the foulest drinks on earth could ever taste so good. (Next time I do such a trip I need more liquid, that’s for sure.) My own drive home was less enjoyable; my car of course was freezing, my cold clothes were now turning damp and wet, and even putting my ski jacket over the already worthy (and borrowed) Gore-Tex climbing jacket couldn’t help for the first fifteen minutes until the car finally blew some hot air at me and I stopped shivering.

If they measured mountain heights by tree-tops, they’d have to add about 40-50 feet to Slide’s 4180′ peak. Note the human being in lower right corner. Photo by DV.

But then I was home, running a hot bath, making a cup of tea, wondering whether to pour a beer or open a red wine when my body was warmed up (I opted for the former; my dehydration and low carb levels demanded it). Sunday morning, first thing, I was looking out my office window, trying as I have so many times since we moved to our new house to identify the various peaks off to the south-west. Is the one on the left Wittenburg or Cornell? If it’s the former, is it the latter then that’s poking up in the distance? Or is that Slide, declaring its vertical superiority from afar? It will probably take me a while longer here to successfully identify them all. But either way, I’d climbed both those peaks and three more, all in one day, and was still home in time for tea. What’s not to love about life?

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