Driving north on the Thruway, I peered through the windshield, seeking a glimpse of the Catskill Mountains, curious how their appearance today would compare to past trips. But a layer of clouds had spread across the sky and blocked the sun, and when the mountains’ southern escarpment finally came into view, it was just a dark gray wall beneath a gray horizon. A dim and gloomy scene, with little contrast or detail, lacking energy, listless. My heart sank. Gone was the dazzling light I’d experienced in late December, when a fresh cover of snow and rime ice flashed brilliantly under clear skies. Today it seemed better to sit by the fire, drink coffee, read a book — yet I was determined to climb several mountains this weekend, even if it was pitch black: surely there would be something to see and feel.
Before hitting the trails, I stopped at the Catskill Interpretive Center to give a talk on Running the Long Path, and it was fun time and the presentation was well-received. But then it was back out on the road and into the perpetual twilight. By the time I reached Woodland Valley Campground, it was a little past 4:00 PM. After a few chilly steps out on the trail I encountered a group of hikers descending from the summit.
“How was the view,” I asked one hiker.
“It was great,” he replied, “but you’ll miss it by the time you get there.”
“Sunset’s at 4:30,” a companion added.
They were right, of course, as the summit was almost four miles distant, and the gray light was already fading.
Nevertheless, I persevered. The path was steep, but dry and covered in fallen beech leaves for the first two miles, until at about 2700 feet in elevation, where it became wet and then icy. I ran into another hiker who warned me about difficult ice-covered rocks up ahead, a frequent obstacle in the winter Catskills, and potentially dangerous. He’d had to use his hands to get over them, he said, and he’d seen another party give up and turn back.
I continued along, with micro-spikes strapped to my trail-running shoes giving me adequate traction, but mindful of the consequences of slipping and falling. At 3100 feet, I encountered the obstacles he’d referred to, but found there were plenty of handholds. And once I’d gotten past the icy rocks, I found myself suddenly in very good spirits.
To be sure it was fully dark now, with not much visible outside of my headlamp’s cone of light. But it felt energizing to be on the move. With legs moving and heart beating, whether the surroundings were white, gray, or black no longer mattered.
The summit of Wittenberg was indeed pitch black, and the vista that spread out below me might as well have been the ocean at night. The Ashokan Reservoir was barely visible: a dark gray void with three or four lights sparkling on the causeway that crosses its narrow point. A collection of lights off to the southeast might’ve been the town of Kingston. It was very still. Suddenly the wind started rushing through the fir trees behind me, and then I heard it whistling downhill and to my left, as if a giant snake had uncoiled itself and then slid off. But where I stood on the summit’s rocky shelf, only a very slight movement of air stroked my face.
After a few minutes, I turned around and headed back and was soon charging downhill, running where the terrain allowed and hopping and skipping elsewhere, from time to time pausing to adjust the micro-spikes and discovering at one point I’d strapped them onto the wrong feet (which was why the straps were beginning to pinch). In the headlamp’s narrow cone of light, a rock suddenly materialized in front of me — it looked a little wet, but it must have been ice, because I slipped and came to a stop on one knee. A moment later, I spied another wet-looking rock — and was just thinking how similar it looked to the first one — but it was too late, and once again I slipped and this time fell down with a shout of alarm. But no harm was done. Now more attentive to the subtle shades of rock, ice, and water, I hurtled down the trail a little bit more slowly, until I found myself back at the trailhead, and then headed off to to the hamlet of Phoenicia in search of a late dinner.
A burger and a couple of cups of coffee later, I was back in the car and on the way to Windham. It felt cold at the trailhead, with the temperature probably in the low 20s. Crossing a short bridge, I moved purposefully up the trail, walking briskly and trotting in a couple places where the grade wasn’t too steep, which was about as quick a pace as a full stomach would allow.
The path was dirt and mud frozen rock-hard and covered in oak leaves. There was almost no ice, and upon reviewing the map, I can see why: rising along a southwest-oriented ridge, the trail gets the full benefit of the winter sun. I made steady progress uphill, feeling cheerful, moving quickly. Up above the moon had passed behind a thin film of clouds, creating a vaporous ring of light with tinges of red, orange, green, and blue.
At the summit the path passed along grassy hummocks and through a grove of stunted birch and maple trees whose branches were covered with the tangled filaments of bushy fruticose lichens. A vantage point offered a view directly south, where the familiar 3-humped silhouette of the Blackhead Range rose against the night sky, and down in the valley shone a few lights in the small town of Windham. A second vantage point opened out to the north, where a distant haze of lights was probably the city of Albany. Miles away the blinking red lights of an antenna farm caught my eye.
I skipped back down the trail. Above me the sky was now clear, and the gibbous (almost full) moon shone brightly, while a handful of stars sparkled above the horizon.
It was now about 1 in the morning. I considered another climb but decided instead to give a sore tendon in my left foot a rest. Returning to Woodland Valley, a 1/2 mile hike up the trail brought me to a relatively flat spot to pitch my tent. My sleeping bag is only rated to 32 F, so I’d brought an extra blanket to wrap in, and until 6:30 am I slept reasonably well. But then I woke up feeling cold, and then next two hours passed slowly.
A little after 9 AM I met my friend Alan and his wife Jen at the Phoenicia Diner and then we drove to the Spruceton trailhead. Our destination was Westkill Mountain, and as soon as we crossed the Westkill Creek, it was clear that the trail would be sheathed in ice from bottom to top — the reason being that unlike Windham, this trail clings to the northern slope of a narrow valley and gets little light during short winter days. Lacking proper spikes, Jen soon turned back and instead took the trail to Hunter Mountain, which due to its southwest orientation was ice-free.
Alan and I continued. The icy obstacles weren’t dangerous, but the grade was steep and every step was icy. Some of the ice was white and some gray, the latter being slicker and more treacherous, even with spikes.
We gritted our teeth and trudged on and eventually were rewarded upon reaching the top of the ridge, where the trail flattened out and tunneled through a boreal environment of fir and spruce — and here we began to run. The cloud cover had cleared, and now sun beams began peeking through the forest, but it was exhilarating to be moving so quickly through the forest, light or dark didn’t matter.
Upon arriving at Buck Ridge, a vantage just below the summit, we looked east into brilliant sunshine. Hunter Mountain rose above the far side of the valley, with its firetower visible at the summit, the long trail Jen was following cutting across its flank, and snow-covered ski-slopes dashing down its northern shoulder. Deep in the valley to the south lay a small village which I took to be Phoenicia. To the north were the familiar three humps of the Blackhead range.
After reaching the summit, we paused momentarily and then turned around and ran back across the flat ridgetop trail. Now it was Alan’s turn to slip and fall, but he was quickly back on his feet, and we careened down the trail until we reached the steep section that drops down into the valley, and here we slowed to a crawl. The grade required caution, and even with spikes the ice was slippery, and eventually we found it easier to crunch through snow on the side of the trail. By the time we got back, I was ready for home.
On the drive back, I reflected on the weekend’s three climbs. Without question, sunlight is a wonderful phenomenon; the eye hungers for the resolution and clarity, and the stimulation is so energizing. But I find that once I get moving, energy starts flowing from within, and then even gray and black are beautiful, and there’s always something to see or feel.
I have a long ways to go on the Grid, but I’ve now completed 25 or 71% of the Catskill’s 35 high peaks during winter, and incidentally, 21 of them at night!
Running the Long Path is now available on Amazon – click on the image to check it out