The goal for Friday evening was to get a climb done before dark, and Plateau Mountain seemed like a good candidate — and if I got moving quickly enough, it might be possible to reach Orchard Point, a sandstone ledge that juts out high above the valley floor, in time to witness the sun’s last rays. But my stomach objected to the prospect of skipping dinner, and thus the early start was delayed while I grabbed a quick dinner, and by the time I’d finished eating, stopped for gas, and made the hour-long drive to the trailhead, the valley was already filled with shadows. There was still an hour until sunset, and thus a chance of making it to Orchard Point before the day was gone, but this is one of the Catskills’ more daunting climbs: the 1.3 mile trail rises 1,500 feet for an average grade of 22%, and the middle part is even steeper, averaging 44%, with the path in some sections leaping up crude staircases fashioned from blocks of stone. This would be a race with the setting sun.
With time of the essence, I strapped on sandals (as going barefoot would be too slow) and gave myself permission to make the effort. For someone who’s been nursing a sore ankle for several weeks, this meant taking on some risk — but a sunset was at stake.
I signed in at the register and charged off along the trail and was soon lunging up the ever-steepening slope. After a few minutes of progress, there was an encouraging sight: the last of the afternoon sunlight was playing against the mountain forest several hundred feet above. But down below I was still moving through shadows, which had welled up from the valley floor and were lapping against the mountain slopes and rising inexorably. Whether a solitary, aging, and injured runner could beat the shadows to Orchard Point was very much in doubt.
Breath short, heart racing, stomach churning, I was determined to win although not sure I could. Birch, maple, and cherry trees flew past, as did moss and lichen-crusted rocks. There’s a waterfall off to the right of the trail, but I never heard it.
Then, after a few more minutes of ragged effort, suddenly there were spots of light stippling the trees and rocks, and I realized I’d caught up to the sunlight. This line of light slanting through the forest marked the exact margin between afternoon and evening, and I knew it would continue its relentless journey skyward, marching along the trail at a speed that would correspond to the distance and angle between this spot and the western mountain wall behind which the sun was steadily sinking, until it reached Orchard Point — and then it would leap into the sky and vanish.
I’d outrun the shadows and caught the light, but the race was not yet over, because now the trail leveled out, turned sharply to the left, and tunneled back into shade. I labored along, wondering whether the line of last light had moved back above me and could I catch up yet again. For a few yards the path was crowded with cow parsnip, and I ducked and weaved among these plants, avoiding even the slightest brush against their large serrated leaves which can impart an itchy rash or burn.
The trail turned steeply upwards, and I grasped for rocks and roots to hoist myself up to the next ledge. I hadn’t looked at GPS watch at any point, so never knew how much distance or elevation I’d covered — which wouldn’t have mattered, because it was all about sustaining maximum effort — but now I recognized this as the final scramble to Orchard Point, and I threw myself at the rocks until finally I dragged myself up and onto a broad sandstone ledge and lay there in the sunlight, gasping for air and feeling faintly nauseous.
I’d made it with a few minutes to spare. The sun hung in the sky a couple degrees above Hunter Mountain in a perfect cloudless sky, and silhouetted against its yellow flame was the firetower on Hunter’s summit with steps zigzagging up to the cabin, about 2.5 miles away. To the south, great tongues of rock descended from Plateau mountain and curled among deep valleys, and one of these ridges, I knew, carried the Long Path down from Plateau’s summit and across Tremper Mountain en route to the town of Phoenicia nestled somewhere in those valleys. After a bit, I caught the glint of sunlight on the cabin window of Tremper’s firetower, almost 8 miles away to the south-southwest, and then I saw that the shadows had climbed about two-thirds of the way up Tremper’s western flank. I stared at the line of last light, that margin between afternoon and evening, to see how fast it was moving, but before I could detect any motion my eye was distracted by the silhouettes of several peaks lined up in enfilade directly behind Tremper, including Wittenberg, Cornell, Friday, Rocky, Lone, and Peekamoose, the latter almost twenty miles distant. Off to the side lay the Catskills’ tallest peak, Slide Mountain, the dominant shape along the skyline.
I sat on the rock at Orchard Point, as flies buzzed about in the waning light, and pondered my victory. The 1.3-mile trail had taken me 42 minutes, for an average pace of 1.9 miles per hour, hardly an impressive speed for a runner, but there was 1,500 feet in vertical gain to contend with. Later on, I would look up the azimuth of the setting sun, measure elevations and distances, and calculate that the shadows I’d been racing had climbed the mountain at an average pace of only 0.6 miles per hour. Shadows move on average with the speed of the Earth’s rotation, or 1,000 miles per hour, which means they flash across flat terrain in a blink. But when they encounter mountains, they slow down while climbing them, just like runners. The shadows’ pace up Orchard Point was so slow, because shadow-casting Hunter Mountain was both tall and nearby, which meant that the shadows would have started early and taken much of the day to cross the narrow valley and steep slope. In contrast, when the shadow-casting mountain is low or distant, the shadows gather late in the day, but once moving, slide up slope quickly until they join the wave of darkness rolling in from the east.
According to my calculations, the shadows were climbing Tremper much more quickly, perhaps as fast as 6-10 miles per hour. This is because the western mountain casting shadows over Tremper is Mount Halcott, eleven miles away, and the angle between Tremper’s base and summit and Halcott’s peak is small, taking the sun but a few minutes to traverse.
The sun finally sank behind Hunter, the firetower disappeared in the yellow flare, and the sky began to darken. Miles to the south beyond Peekamoose, clouds boiling up into the atmosphere were now tinged with color. Dark orange-red light pooled in the valley behind Hunter and then drained away.
There were two more miles to Plateau’s summit, so I packed up, pulled out my headlamp, and moved on.