The way the winds dash about among the Catskill Mountains’ highest peaks, it sometimes seems like each gust has a separate purpose: one tussles with a particular tree, another darts down the slopes, while others roar overhead en route to distant locations.
A couple of weeks ago the weather forecast caught my attention: a major front was moving across the region, and heavy rains were predicted. I thought of how John Muir once hiked out into the Sierra Mountains to observe a gale: “When the storm began to sound, I lost no time in pushing out into the woods to enjoy it. For on such occasions Nature has always something rare to show us….”
Accordingly, I pulled out the map and began planning a quick hike in the Blackhead Range, timed to be in and out before the brunt of the storm burst upon the scene.
When I arrived at the trailhead around 2:00 PM, the skies were overcast and the temperature still hovering in the 50s, conditions for late February that felt eerie and somewhat ominous.
Mindful that conditions can change rapidly, I was carrying a full kit with shelter and extra warm gear, and I’d studied the map to have a clear understanding of the shortest way down off of the ridge for each peak on my itinerary.
The parking area was sheathed in wet ice, while the path up the valley was flooded in places before giving way to a few inches of crunchy snow. On the way up to the ridge, there was one spot where the trail crossed a thick flow of ice at a treacherous angle, making it easy to slip even in spikes. I made a mental note of this obstacle in case rough conditions required a hasty retreat.
So far it was relatively calm. But when I reached the saddle between Black Dome and Blackhead, which is almost 3,500 feet in elevation, I found the winds howling high above, no doubt due to the displacement of great masses of air in advance of the approaching front. I pushed up along the shoulder of Black Dome, where a vantage point offered a view across the saddle of Blackhead’s hulking mass and the tendrils of mist curling about its shoulders.
I passed across Black Dome’s summit and a few minutes later reached Thomas Cole Mountain. The temperature was still in the 50s, and the rain so far had held off. I turned back and had almost made back to the saddle when the winds began to churn and dance around me, and suddenly an especially strong gust roared across the path shaking the trees and bushes just twenty feet in front of me — but where I stood only the faintest breeze roiled the air. Thoreau’s experience camping on Mt. Ktaadin came to mind:
Some more aërial and finer-spirited winds rushed and roared through the ravine all night, from time to time arousing our fire, and dispersing the embers about. It was as if we lay in the very nest of a young whirlwind.
— Henry David Thoreau, Ktaadin
The next leg of the hike would take me to the summit of Blackhead along a trail that is steep and exposed to the elements for part of the way. But I was feeling good, and my escape route wasn’t long or difficult, with only that one tricky spot on the slanted ice.
The climb up Blackhead was uneventful, and after a little while the trail leveled out and entered a forest of balsam fir and red spruce. I ran slowly along and reached the summit, which is marked by a large boulder and a trail intersection, but no views.
What next? The hike to Windham was too far. I considered venturing down Blackhead’s steep northern face, but found after a few steps that the trail was sheathed in ice, thick and slick. It didn’t seem prudent to venture further, so I turned back for the saddle.
During the descent from Blackhead, the winds were calm, and the mountain was shrouded in mist. Somewhere beyond the clouds the sun was starting to set. The path led down through patches of dried grass and a thicket of stunted cherry and birch, hardly bigger than bushes, and everything seemed to glow with a tawny orange-brown hue as if the colors of the setting sun had somehow penetrated the gloom.
The temperature remained mild on the way back to the trailhead, with only an intermittent drizzle, and I thought perhaps a light rain would develop during the evening, instead of the violent weather I’d feared. It got dark, and I switched on my headlamp. It began to rain more steadily, and then suddenly it was pouring. The temperature dropped very quickly. Now the rain was stinging my face — it had changed to sleet — and it was rapidly chilling my shoulders and chest. I reached the car a few minutes later to find the windshield covered with wet snow, and on the drive out, the car was sliding around in a quarter inch of slush that had quickly accumulated on the road. Now the wind was really howling, hurling rain around, shaking the car, and then a flash lit up the night sky.
The next weekend I returned to the Blackhead Range, once again curious to study the ways of the wind. It was late morning by the time I arrived at the trailhead, clear and cold, with the temperature in the low teens. No fronts were coming through, but computer models were forecasting windspeeds in the mountains of 35-45 mph.
The trail was covered in ice. Hikers descending from the peak warned of slick conditions ahead. That slanty icy spot on the way to the saddle was even more treacherous this time through, and I followed the steps of other hikers who’d chosen a different route up the slope.
From that same vantage point on Black Dome, I looked back at Blackhead, and now the mountain sat beneath a blue sky, with white clouds massing in the distance. The boreal fir thickets on the mountain’s head stood out from the leafless hardwood forests on its shoulders — no doubt where it got its name. Blackhead’s a serious-looking mountain and brings to mind the qualities of purposefulness and deliberation, reminding me of a 13th-century Japanese tribal leader whose people called him “the Mountain” because he stood behind his soldiers during battle watching over them, never flinching at the vicissitudes of combat, “as immovable as a mountain.”
By the time I returned to this point, however, after summiting Black Dome and Thomas Cole, the mists had rolled in.
During that storm in the Sierras, John Muir climbed a tree to better observe the elements, and he was able to make out the sounds of individual trees in the wind. As I walked along the trail, I was relatively sheltered by the fir and spruce, but above me the treetops waved about and shuddered. I tried to distinguish the sounds of the fir and spruce from the leafless hardwoods, but the winds were too variable and inconsistent.
Even when the grand anthem had swelled to its highest pitch, I could distinctly hear the varying tones of individual trees,— Spruce, and Fir, and Pine, and leafless Oak,— and even the infinitely gentle rustle of the withered grasses at my feet. Each was expressing itself in its own way,— singing its own song, and making its own peculiar gestures,— manifesting a richness of variety to be found in no other forest I have yet seen.
John Muir, The Mountains of California, 1894
Once again I made the climb up to Blackhead. Wind gusts were whipping across the exposed ridge and then tearing down the slopes toward a small frozen lake in a neighboring valley, which seemed like a good spot to whirl around once or twice before journeying on. Far above, the sky was thundering with a relentless flow.
I can understand how our distant ancestors saw spiritual qualities in winds, mountains, and trees. In the modern era, that attitude seems a little childish because science provides no basis for attributing spiritual qualities to natural phenomena. However, modern science provides no basis for attributing spiritual qualities to humans, either. In which case, we might as well regard the winds, mountains, and trees as our distant brethren, since we’re all derived from similar interactions of energy and matter.
We all travel the milky way together, trees and men; but it never occurred to me until this storm-day, while swinging in the wind, that trees are travelers, in the ordinary sense. They make many journeys, not extensive ones, it is true; but our own little journeys, away and back again, are only little more than tree-wavings— many of them not so much.
John Muir, The Mountains of California, 1894
On Blackhead’s summit my small thermometer indicated a temperature around 4 or 5 F, and on the descent, the wind got up to its full force, which certainly felt like the 45 mph predicted by the computer models I’d seen earlier. Despite my wrap-around mountaineering headgear, the right side of my face began to smart from the cold, and I was happy to make it back into the valley, where it was strangely quiet.
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