On the drive up to the Catskills, the early morning clouds were tinged with red, and then as the road snaked higher into the mountains, a burning eyeball appeared in the rear view mirror, a circle of fire smoldering between mountain ridge and lowering sky; it was like someone had opened a furnace door. But on reaching the trailhead, all was gray again, and snowflakes were twirling in the air.
A few minutes later, my friend Amy arrived. Her friend Serguey was supposed to meet us, too, but he was running late and had texted her not to wait, so the two of us set off. My weekend goal was to bag six peaks, four of them off trail, and these would be first-ever winter bushwhacks for both Amy and me…
[Author’s note: after writing this blog post, I recalled that my first ever winter bushwhack was almost a year earlier, when some friends and I attempted to complete the Nine.]
In prior years I’d avoided the Catskills during winter, not caring to battle with treacherous icy terrain or mess with extra gear, and mindful that conditions can be unforgiving — especially when you step off the path and wander into the woods. Thus I was glad for Amy’s company. We hadn’t seen each other since 2015, when she had beaten me by two hours in Manitou’s Revenge, a 56-mile race along the Devil’s Path. We had a lot to catch up on as we sauntered along the trail, laughing, talking, crunching on firm snow, spikes and snowshoes strapped to packs but not needed. The first two miles passed in a flash.
Soon it was time to leave the trail behind and turn into the woods. Out came compass, and at first the azimuth had us scrambling through a ravine, but after that the slope was surprisingly mild. I had climbed Fir three or four times before, but always from the east, which is like assaulting a mountain fortress: the approach goes up a steep slope with grades approaching 50% in some places, the footing is loose and each step difficult, the summit shielded by stone walls and tangled thickets. But coming from the west was totally different. The grade was only 15%. With all the leaves down, we could see through the forest. Smooth firm snow made each step a breeze. This was a walk in the park! And then we discovered footprints from a previous hiker, and we might have put away the compass and followed the tracks all the way to the top, but the steps veered a little bit off to one side, whereas we stuck to the crest of the ridge for easier walking.
Along the way, Amy and I admired the forest. We discovered a large mountain black cherry tree with two enormous trunks fused together at the base that reached separately into the gray sky. In his accounts of California’s Sierra mountains, John Muir sometimes referred to insects, birds, plants, and trees as “people.” We stared at this cherry tree, and while it seemed childish to imagine that it would have thoughts or a personality, what about feelings?
Here, too, are most of the lowly plant people seen yesterday on the other side of the divide now opening their beautiful eyes.
John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra
Soon we were at the summit. Three cheers for Amy and Ken! We’d successfully completed our first winter bushwhack. But the day was still young, and we had a long way to go. The next objective, Big Indian, would require precision navigation: any misstep and we’d miss the turn onto a narrow ridge and risk getting sucked down into deep valleys on either side, a costly error I’d made last summer when attempting to thru-hike all 35 of the Catskill high peaks.
To reach Big Indian you walk a third of a mile north from Fir’s summit, then turn abruptly west-northwest. There’s no visual cue for this turn, there’s nothing to do but watch the distance on your GPS or count steps and then plunge boldly into the woods and down the mountain, hoping to stumble onto the ridge. During the summer, I’d come through at night, turned a few feet too early, and found myself climbing around rock ledges in the dark. I didn’t reach Big Indian until dawn.
But this morning Amy and I stayed precisely on course, and soon the terrain opened up below, and there in front of us lay the saddle between Fir and Big Indian with a narrow ridge hanging across like a suspension bridge. Thinking back to that long and difficult night, a feeling of wild joy suddenly swept through me. “I’m so happy!” I shouted at Amy, “We’re exactly on the crest of the ridge!”
John Burroughs once wrote that
[the student of nature] sees that there can be no life without pain and death; that there can be no harmony without discord; that opposites go hand in hand; that good and evil are inextricably mingled…that the sun and blue sky are still there behind the clouds, unmindful of them…
John Burroughs, Accepting the Universe
Bushwhacking seems to bear out Burroughs’ point that you can’t have pleasure without pain, joy without sadness, health without sickness, good without evil — or the exhilaration of moving swiftly and surely through the woods, without the frustration and exhaustion of sometimes getting stuck.
We marched across the saddle in high spirits, and the far slope led us straight up to the summit of Big Indian, our second successful winter bushwhack.
A few steps down from Big Indian brought us back to the trail we’d first started on, and it was only five miles back to the safety and comfort of our cars. But the day’s third bushwhack was waiting for us: the summit of Doubletop Mountain lay about two miles off along another pathless ridge. We wondered if Amy’s friend Serguey might have headed out that way, but there were no tracks in the snow. And there was no response when we shouted his name.
The snow was a little deeper on this ridge, and the forest a little more tangled; stepping around some hobblebush branches my leg suddenly sank into a snowbank up to the knee. Looking up, I saw Doubletop’s two summits brooding in the distance, the higher slopes dusted with snow and ice.
The ridge we were following was relatively level until right below the summit, and then the grade became steep. Amy and I chose separate routes up one especially slippery slope, grasping short trees and bushes to keep from sliding. This was more challenging than the earlier summits, but also more rewarding, as we soon found ourselves tunneling through an eerie snow-crusted boreal forest. When here last spring, I’d admired the lush moss and lichen that covered the trees, but now everything was white. I imagined the lichen asleep under their snowy blankets, dreaming lichen dreams, while the “tree people” stood straight and tall, seemingly unfazed by the elements.
We reached the summit, signed in at the canister, and turned back. Now Big Indian rose before us, and above it the clouds were tinged with a pearly luster. It was getting dark. We made it back to the trail and picked up the pace. A little way from the trailhead a surprise was waiting: a message from Serguey scrawled across a snow-covered boulder, “Hi Amy!”
Amy left for home, as she had work tomorrow, while I drove into Phoenicia for some dinner, not having eaten or drunk anything since the night before, as is my practice, except for a cup of espresso in the morning. But I wasn’t done quite yet….after dinner, I drove to the McKenley Hollow trailhead, where I’d planned to spend the night in a lean-to, and then headed out towards Eagle Mountain, hoping to bag another peak before bed.
The trail took me across a tributory of the Esopus Creek and then headed up a very steep slope on a staircase fashioned from stone steps. Soon my calves were aching from the ascent, my breath was running short, and I got warm and stripped off my shirt to keep from sweating. The trail kept rising. There wasn’t much to see in the headlamp’s cone of light but for the snow at my feet and the trunks of large trees looming alongside the path. I stared at the bark: hoary furrowed tan and grey for the sugar maples, mottled yellow and green for the birches, dark and scaly for the cherries. As the trail neared a saddle in the ridge, gusts of wind dashed among the trees with a sense of urgency, as if they were carrying important messages — and perhaps the wind is a messenger of sorts, I reflected, bringing tidings of atmospheric disturbances that might be drifting this way.
From the saddle, I turned left and headed along a level ridge. Snowflakes streaked across my field of vision and sparkled in the distance. The wind picked up for a moment, chilling me, and a tree creaked. The two mile hike to Eagle took a long time, and I paused there only briefly, but I was feeling good, and upon returning to the saddle I couldn’t resist the 0.8-mile jaunt up to the summit of Balsam. After a 500-foot climb I found the tiny clearing and small obelisk that marks this summit and for just a moment turned off my light and stood still. Slowly the darkness began to resolve itself. The trees were dim presences. The wind gusted on one side of me, and then the other. And then it was time to get moving again, lest I get chilled. I tried to run back down the mountain, but the snowshoe straps were hurting my feet, so I settled for a brisk walk.
The next morning snow clouds hung in the west, but the southern sky suddenly cleared. After the dim winter hues of the day before, the brilliant blue was startling. Evidently Burroughs’ comment was accurate, that sun and blue sky were indeed “still there behind the clouds, unmindful of them.” But when I reached the trailhead for the morning’s climb, all was soft gray again, and a handful of snow flakes drifted among the parked cars.
My friend Todd was waiting there, and Alan and his wife Jen soon arrived. The four of us took the path toward Hunter, and then Alan, Todd, and I stepped into the woods, aiming to bushwhack our way to the summit of Rusk, while Jen continued on the trail. Rusk is a short bushwhack, but steep. This is where I’d aborted the 35 thru-hike attempt: after two days, 23 peaks, and not very much food or sleep, I hadn’t felt up to a nighttime bushwhack in the rain.
For today’s hike to Rusk, I’d planned to swing a little bit west, hoping to sidestep the steepest slopes. But there was a crusty trail in the snow, and we soon fell in step, figuring the tracks would lead us the right way. But after a few minutes we found ourselves scrambling up a very steep grade, grasping desperately for branches, rocks, bushes, anything to haul ourselves up the slippery snow. This was grim work. I was tired from the night before, and my stomach was complaining too. But there was no option but to keep toiling upwards. Suddenly the clouds cleared, the snow-covered woods flashed with light, and the sky shone a brilliant azure hue. Off came shirt once again, and I reached for sunglasses, but the shadows quickly returned.
We eventually reached the summit, and the sun splashed around us one more time, but just as suddenly withdrew, ceding the field once more to gray winter clouds.
We stumbled back downhill, keeping to the same crusty tracks we’d followed up. But when the tracks dropped down that steep face, the one I’d meant to avoid in the first place, this time I paused and looked around. Before me the ridge flowed down to the valley floor, and through the leafless woods the parking area was visible a mile away. I stepped out of the tracks and headed straight down the slope, and what a difference! Now we were sliding through fresh snow, weaving between the trees, running easily downhill, and it was wildly exhilarating — “I’m so happy!” I shouted to Todd, “this is how winter bushwhacking’s supposed to be!”
This weekend’s six peaks leaves me with only five more to complete the Catskill 3500 Club winter series. And I’m now 28.1% of my way through the Grid, which means just over three hundred climbs to go…
Running the Long Path is now available on Amazon. Click on the image to check it out.