Are you fucken crazy?!! In this weather?!! In those mountains?!!
Questions I’ve heard often over the years in response to my adventures in the out-of-doors. For the average person in my neck of the woods, it’s inconceivable that anyone would willingly wake up before first light, on a frigid winter morning, to drive over two hours north to a mountainous region firmly locked within winter’s clutches….
I laugh and shake my head in disappointment. It’s understandable though. People fear what they haven’t experienced and Saturdays, especially wintry Saturdays, are to be spent under the sheets, sleeping in….
It also requires a heightened sense of confidence along with more clothing and technical equipment to travel safely in the mountains during the fourth season. I’ve been at this game for years and the prospect of hiking through snow, climbing icy peaks, and surviving the elements has become enthralling……
Besides, what choice do I have? I reside in a region of the country that offers no escape from old man winter’s perversity. My state of mind, my disposition, and my level of happiness and contentment also hinge upon ample exposure to the wilds. I can’t afford take a season off. Not to mention the fact that it’s fun and undeniably empowering….
The drive north from Jersey to upstate New York is one I’ve completed more times than I care to admit. It can be a drag sometimes, especially if you’re going at it alone, but something pseudo magical starts to happen as you leave the exits behind, inching ever closer to the border and beyond. The Garden State Parkway, aka ” The paved bastard”, is empty at this time of day and allows for an efficiency of travel that is almost eerie in a sense. Once you cross over into the Empire State, you settle into an anticipatory groove as the scenery becomes more and more rural and the hills of the Highlands start to appear…..
Approaching the two-hour mark, the horizon plays host to the Catskills’ most famous skyline, the peaks of the Devil’s Path. They appear from east to west, bathed in the loveliest blue haze, soft, familiar, and grand. But experienced hikers who’ve climbed these seemingly tame mountains know all too well of the treachery that awaits them within their lofty embrace. Indian Head, Twin, Sugarloaf, Plateau, Hunter, and West Kill have kicked the asses of many attempting to achieve passage onto their summits….
I reach the exit that grants me entry into the splendid Catskill Park, a seven hundred thousand acre expanse of public and private lands protected by New York state’s constitution. In no time after driving through sleepy towns tinged with the memory of Rip Van Winkle, I begin my ascent of the incomparable Kaaterskill Clove. Nature spared no expense when it came down to creating this mountainous passageway lined with precipitous cliffs, precariously balanced trees, and a waterfall of the same name that makes sublimity come to life in an awe-inducing manner….
The clove disappears behind me as I arrive at what the locals call the “mountaintop”. The peaks of the Devil’s Path re-emerge to my left but in a more menacing fashion. It’s from this close-up perspective that one is able to come to terms with the height, size, and grandeur of these peaks. A few minutes later, I’m at the trailhead for my hike. Boy does it feel good to get out of the car and stretch after two and half hours of semi-dazed driving….
It’s a bit of a ritual, the process of getting dressed and equipped for the start of a hike. Feels like you’re getting ready for combat or the “big game”. You start to get psyched and focus starts to set in. Clothing layers, check, gloves, check, snowshoes, check, trekking poles, check, ice axe, check, keys and wallet, check, every piece of gear serving a purpose, allowing for safe passage through the mountains. Eight miles lie between me and my return and I experience a bit of nervousness as one usually does upon wondering what the trail will be like ahead. You prepare to the best of your abilities before the trip but conditions in the mountains are ever-changing and unpredictable. I love this shit….
Off I go into the woods leaving my car and civilization behind. It’s a crisp nineteen degrees Fahrenheit, not terribly cold, and up above me, the solemnity of an overcast sky. The sort of conditions that add an air of ominousness to a trip. I sign the trail register which serves to alert the proper authorities in the event of an emergency and within seconds, the sound of crunchy snow under boot commences….
It takes a little while to shake off the cobwebs during the start of a hike. Your muscles have to warm up, balance has to be activated, and your mind has to rid itself of the urban residue that follows one to the mountains. The farther you walk into the woods, the better you feel. The first significant uphill wakens the body as your heart rate increases along with your breathing and level of perspiration. You become a furnace of sorts, a welcome relief in the coldness of a February morning. I’m always amazed by how comfortable you can remain while wearing the thinnest of layers, so long as you’re exerting yourself. No one believes me when I tell them this but trust me, it’s true….
The deciduous forests of the Catskills exist in a dormant unbelievable state this time of year. Unbelievable in that in about a month’s time, these trees will begin to flower and by May, instead of white, hikers will be greeted by a wall of green. A new cycle beginning all over again. But until then, I’m more than content with the contrast that exists between the snow-covered trails and the bare canopy above. The nuances inherent within nature, the aesthetic value of wilderness, the visual treats and surprises, the insignificant details that take center stage during winter. These elements capture one’s attention when the longing for summer days intensifies. It’s an appreciation that matures the more you spend time in the least favorite season of the masses….
At this point, I’ve fallen into a rhythm. The Views along the lower slopes of Sugarloaf toward Roundtop mountain and Twin are striking. The land feels so vast here, so in your face. And for a region so close to the New York metropolitan area, that means a lot. The next delight arrives in the form of a gorgeous mountain stream that delicately tumbles into a crystalline pool of sienna colored pebbles. If it were June, I’d have dipped my bare feet into the water but the crust of ice guarding it slapped me quickly back into reality. Onward I trekked towards Pecoy Notch….
The trail continues making its way passed a beaver pond framed by Sugarloaf to the west and Twin mountain to the east. Perfect company for such a pretty feat of engineering, courtesy of our friend, the Beaver. The pond’s margins were barely discernible as it blended into its white surroundings. Framed by the dark greens of Hemlock and Spruce, it’s a spot that begs one to stop and revel in nature’s abundant beauty. I could have spent the rest of the morning here but the notch beckoned….
I took one more survey of my surroundings and hiked on. The snow became deeper as I ascended closer to Pecoy Notch. Excitement heightens for me as I attain higher elevations and the challenge of a steep climb that burns the quadriceps brings a smile to my face. I am a bit of a masochist, I will confess. Pecoy Notch, notch being another name for a saddle or low point between two adjacent peaks, marks the beginning of the last push up the eastern ridge of Sugarloaf. As you probably guessed, the stiff climb out of the notch also marked the height of my excitement and joy. A test of cardiovascular endurance and persistence….
At this point I was ready to pull out my ice axe for added stability and assistance on the final march up to the summit. Step by step, I carefully navigated my way up the trail past ledges of crusty snow and pockets of ice. In case you were wondering, the ice axe serves as a “third leg” that provides balance and can be employed to arrest a fall if you happen to slip. Ascents like these are a matter of problem solving as you scan the terrain above you for footholds and the safest line through what can be very dangerous terrain. You don’t want to fall in such exposed locations, take my word for it….
Eventually after about half an hour of careful foot placements and breaks to take in the surrounding panoramas, I succeeded at safely making it up the toughest part of the climb. A lovely treat in the form of a mountain top forest of Balsam Fir and Paper Birch greeted me upon arrival. It’s not hyperbole when I tell you how much I die for these high elevation gardens. Balsam Fir emits the most romantic of mountain aromas and its abundance up here makes one feel as if you’ve been transported to the Rockies or the far north. Verdant in appearance, even in winter, It’s a landscape of evergreens and peeling Birch bark that begs for an extended stay….
The summit of Sugarloaf is viewless but totally worth the effort as the feeling of hiking through another world becomes the real reward. I stop to stretch and have a quick bite to eat before re-adjusting my boots and layers for the descent down the mountain’s western face. The infamous descent into Mink Hollow has scared the shit, literally, out of many a hiker, newbies and veterans alike. And rightfully so. A mis-step in the wrong place on this portion of the Devil’s Path can send you plummeting off a cliff in a hurry. The Devil in Devil’s Path takes on a very clear meaning as you peer down into the hollow from just below the summit….
Picture a trail, a heinous MOTHER F’ER of a trail that drops over a thousand feet through trees, boulders, packed snow, bulletproof ice, and if that wasn’t enough, down sections of cliff face that cause hikers to shake in their boots, literally. I’ve descended off of Sugarloaf through here before but that was on a sumptuous day in May sans the terrifying patches of snot slick ice. The first part of the descent was relatively easy and I found myself making good time. Thank God for the small trees that seem to be rooted in just the right places that allow one to safely reach the next shelf of flat land. BUT, I knew conditions were a little too good to be true….
At one point I was faced with a short section of rock hard ice that was angled towards a slope. One mistake here would have sent me careening down the hill and into the trees faster than I could say HOLY SHIT. The problem arose from the fact that my Microspikes, traction devices, weren’t up to the task of penetrating deep enough into the unforgiving ice below my boots. Crampons, what alpinists use to travel over glaciers, would have been the tools of choice for such a situation but I had to make do with what I had. I tried to squat so as to avoid taking a nasty legs up in the air kind of fall but not even this positioning helped. I ended up sliding in an out of control manner down the trail for a few feet, eventually reaching a stop. What took only a couple of seconds felt like an eternity. In the nick of time, my spikes dug into the softer ice below and my pack helped create added friction which assisted in putting on the brakes….
My eyes were wide, my breathing was as fast as a thoroughbred’s during a race, and my humility was restored. You never fully know what you’re going to encounter in the mountains, especially in winter, and this was a reminder to check and double-check conditions throughout the area of your proposed trip. This is something I always do but I neglected to pay more attention to reports on the conditions on the west side of the mountain. LESSON LEARNED! But not for nothing, those moments when you’re gripped by fear, scared shitless, and in a predicament that could potentially land you in a hospital or worse, are the ones in which you feel the most ALIVE. It sounds cliché’ and it’s a strange phenomena that other adventurers can attest to but it’s incredibly hard to deny. Everyday life has become so safe and tame for the majority of us in the “civilized” world and it takes experiences like the one I had to remind us of how quickly it can all end. It’s a primal feeling and one that gives you a new-found appreciation for life, even for the part of it that plays out within the cushy confines of the city….
The rest of the trip was an inviting breeze. No more icy cliffs to contend with, no more treacherous slopes, no more precarious footsteps. I hiked out of Mink Hollow through another expanse of solemn hardwood forest and stopped for lunch to allow my experience to sink in before reaching the car. On occasion I’d glance back behind me for a glimpse of Sugarloaf, proud and grateful to have made it down in one piece. Mission accomplished.
The mountains are a gateway into a world that’s disappearing by the day. With the proper clothing, equipment, and JUDGEMENT, one can experience a place that has seemingly been forgotten by time. A place that exists and dances to the beat of its own drum. A large piece of my heart resides in these mountains we call the Catskills. The true “empire” of New York resides here, not in the city. An empire that rejuvenates, inspires, and offers its embrace if its presence is met with respect.
This is the essence of my life, of my Vida Taina…….