Plateau in the Snow

Spring arrived on March 21st, and what a relief to put aside spikes and snowshoes and head to the mountains unencumbered.  Rain was in the forecast, but with a new Goretex jacket and plenty of warm gear, this didn’t faze me in the least.  Friday evening of March 31st saw me on the road to the Catskills for a nighttime attempt on the eastern mountains of the Devil’s Path.

There was a cleverly conceived goal for the evening, which would be appreciated only by those working on the Grid:  specifically, to climb four mountains by midnight, thus getting credit for them on the last day of March, and then, once the clock struck twelve, to return the way I’d come, thus getting credit for those four again on the first day of April.  No doubt this would be a long night, but the effort would be well worth it to get eight peaks closer to the ultimate Grid goal of 420 (which is the product of multiplying the 35 high peaks by each of the twelve calendar months).

As I turned onto route 28 in the southern Catskills, the light was dimming, rain was falling steadily, and to my surprise a light sprinkling of snow covered the ground.  By the time I pulled into the Devil’s Campground, the rain had changed to snow, although the accumulation didn’t look too thick.  Accordingly snowshoes were left behind in the car.  After all, winter had officially ended some ten days earlier, and what a relief it would be to finally to walk upon the trails unencumbered by extra weight on the feet.

The climb up Plateau is very steep, with a gain of 1,500 feet in the first mile, for an average grade of almost 30%.  I struggled upwards, feeling slow and sluggish.  To my right, the sound of cascading water echoed in the woods.  Snow was falling heavily now.

Pausing for a moment on top of a boulder, I watched with fascination as a rivulet of snow poured slowly over the edge.  It looked like sand spilling off the crest of a dune.  Now I was trudging upwards again, each footstep splashing through this strange dry granular crystalline stuff and scattering it around.  Based on the slow pace, a reassessment of the evening’s goals seemed in order:  Perhaps three mountains by midnight was more realistic than four.

Eventually the trail leveled out at a vantage point looking north, but nothing was visible in the darkness except blowing snow.  From here the trail follows the mountain’s long flat top to the summit, some two miles distant.  Now was the time to pick up the pace — but underneath the fresh precipitation lurked a foot of crunchy partially compacted snow, and it was impossible to develop any rhythm:  as I took one step forward the surface bore my weight, but with the next I plunged in to the ankle, losing all momentum.  It was a shame to have left the snowshoes behind.

The trail wound through a lush forest of fir and spruce.  Snow-laden branches glistened in the headlamp’s beam as a northern wind whipped overhead and snowflakes swirled through the air.  I’d never before experienced a nighttime snowfall in the boreal forest of the Catskills’ high peaks.

In due course, I reached the summit of Plateau, only to find that on the far side, the trail fell away steeply — and here the three or four inches of fresh granular snow was covering thick sheets of ice.  Even with spikes now attached to shoes I found myself sliding downwards on my butt, grasping at trees to break my speed, and then peering nervously downwards at the next leg of the descent.

There was possibly still time to make it down to the next saddle and then up to Sugarloaf’s summit, which would bag me four summits toward the Grid.  But sliding downhill wasn’t sensible, especially at night and by myself.  I gave up on my ambitious plans, and turned back up the steep slope.

It occurred to me that I could stop just short of the summit and wait until midnight, that way gaining credit for Plateau in both March and April.  It was now 10:30 PM, and I considered setting up my tent and hanging out for a little while, but the trees on either side of the trail were so thick, and the snow so deep, I couldn’t find a spot to stop, and I wasn’t going to stand around and wait.  I kept moving.  I settled for a single peak out of the original plan of eight.

My tracks led me back through the dark windswept forest, snowflakes blowing among the branches.


Running the Long Path is now available on Amazon — click on the image for more info

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Plateau in the Snow

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