I was dimly aware that people had climbed Wittenberg from a trailhead or parking area on Moonhaw Road in the tiny hamlet of West Shokan.
The name “Moonhaw” had caught my attention. I pictured moon-glow in a dark forest, and then imagined a donkey braying. “Moon” and “haw” are two familiar-sounding syllables, yet the sense conveyed was of some kind of atavistic lunar exuberance, an experience or feeling that would be completely alien in a modern, urban, high-tech world.
The Internet yielded no clues to the origin or significance of Moonhaw. You would pronounce it, I thought, like this: “moon-HAAAW.”
And so this became the focus for my next Catskills adventure…
I headed out for Moonhaw Road on a Saturday evening in late July after co-directing the Ellenville Mountain Running Festival. Organizing races is hard work. After parking cars, issuing radios, and dispatching course marshals, I hung out on the mountain for most of the day, pointing which way to go, writing down bib numbers, and helping the Race Director keep track of where everyone was. At one point I noticed the wind was making different sounds in the pitch pine and birch trees, but otherwise the day was spent focused on the tasks at hand.
Maybe that’s why I felt tired that evening on the drive north. When I finally reached West Shokan, it was twilight. Turning onto Moonhaw Road for the first time ever, I saw colored light tinging the clouds overhead, but down in the valley shadows were spilling down the slopes and pooling along the forest floor. The road ended abruptly, blocked by wrought-iron gates mounted in stone pillars. Some kind of private redoubt, it would appear, lacking only moat and drawbridge. I backed up, turned around, and found a spot to park on the side of the road, hoping the vehicle wouldn’t attract attention.
As is often the case, I’d set out full of excitement, but upon arrival a sense of reality set in, and now the enthusiasm was cooling. The slopes on either side of mysterious Moonhaw Road looked uninviting in the dim light; they were densely forested and steep, and the evening air was turning chilly. Maybe I should have spent more time planning the route, or at least measured the distance, which now looked rather long as I glanced at the map on my phone. Memo to self: think twice before tackling unfamiliar bushwhacks at night.
The plan had been to go barefoot, but feeling a little unsure about what I’d gotten myself into, I strapped on sandals and crossed the Wittenberg Brook, which was flowing in the shadows besides the road. At first the going wasn’t too difficult. Steep yes, but relatively open underneath the trees, and the dry ground offered steady footing. I moved upwards at an angle, the Wittenberg Brook running down in the valley to my left, across the valley a steep mountain wall looming in the last light, and above that wall the half-moon “hawing,” I suppose, in the sky.
After a little bit, I found a faint trail, or perhaps imagined one, but it seemed level and firm and easier to walk on, especially where it tunneled though dense thickets of mountain laurel. In some places branches had been broken off, and in other places, when I stopped to examine, they were cut clean through. I muttered, “thank you,” to whoever had brought along clippers. My mood improved and some enthusiasm for nighttime adventures returned.
It was fully dark now. I clicked on my headlamp.
Then the trail petered out, or I missed a turn and lost it. I stood in a clearing and panned the light up and around a rocky slope, surrounded by tall laurel bushes with wavy, twisting branches. There was no choice but to push through. The laurel branches were stiff and scratchy. I got scraped on the chest and slapped in the face and began to wish I wasn’t out here. Then I got poked in the eye, which hurt my feelings more than anything. Less than a mile in, and already trapped in a cage of stiff, scratchy, twisting branches.
The best escape was to point straight uphill and hope the top of the ridge offered easier passage. The laurel persisted, but somehow I eventually emerged into a grove of hemlocks on the crest of the ridge. What a contrast! Underneath these tall trees, the ground was open, flat, and soft. And what a relief to have escaped the laurel — it was as if the mountain, ever mercurial, had suddenly changed its mind, pulled away its obstacles, and granted me clear passage.
This would be a perfect spot to set up camp, but there was a long ways to go if I was to complete the hike by tomorrow afternoon, so I pressed on for another 1/2 mile before calling it a night. Rolled out sleeping pad and bag and left the tent in the pack. The trees were stout and tall, and they soared above me like columns in a cathedral, branches arching and interweaving to form a domed ceiling, stars peeking through the gaps.
I awakened at first light to the song of a hermit thrush. It was cold, probably in the 40s. I pulled on shirt, packed up, and this time clipped sandals to belt and headed out barefoot, finding the surface to be a soft mix of leaf litter, moss and club moss, and hemlock needles. Early morning sunshine slanted in from the east.
After a few minutes of steady progress, I clambered up a small rock ledge and found myself in a clearing. Thin soil atop rock slabs doesn’t support root systems for large brush or trees. I’ve seen similar clearings on Winnisook Mountain and in the Willowemoc Wild Forest. But this clearing made me feel like I was back in the Shawangunks, because it was covered in blueberry bushes, dry yellow moss, ferns and wavy grass, and of all things a short oak tree. (Mike Kudish’s Catskill Forest map indicates this area was once burned over).
My direction was due west, and with the sun rising in the east, all I had to do was follow my shadow. I passed boulders covered in toadskin lichen, another common sight in the Shawangunks.
Soon enough I reached a shallow saddle before the final climb to Wittenberg’s summit. For whatever geologic reason, Catskill mountains are asymmetric, and the eastern slopes are typically the steepest, like the leeward side or “slip face” of a sand dune. The east face of Wittenberg has an especially tough reputation, perhaps because from a distance the mountain peak juts out like a shark fin. But it’s not just image. Facing me now was a 1,260 foot rise over 1/3 mile for an average grade of 73% (equivalent to an angle of 33 degrees), with the steepest part, consisting of series of rock ledges, at a 144% grade (55 degrees). These aren’t slopes that require ropes or technical skills, but you could hurt yourself if you slipped and fell off a rock ledge, and it would be difficult for rescuers to find and extract you.
This is untamed terrain, a wild scramble of rocks, roots, dirt, moss, leaves. No-one has improved the treadway. Therefore every move is tentative: you grab a fir sapling and it bends, but will it break? A birch root looks strong, but it’s rotten and comes off in your hand. The foothold is covered in moss and loose dirt which may slide off the rock. Every move needs a contingency plan: elbows dig in when the hand-hold rips off, knees back up a sliding foot. Without shoes, you dig toes into the moss for grip and find the foot really stretches as you climb upwards, which isn’t the case in a hard-soled boot, and you’re careful not to jump because there’s no telling what you’d land on.
But aside from a couple of ledges that required some judgment, I made my way steadily upwards, feeling with hands and feet how the soil was warm in the sun and cool in the shadows. After some time, a glint of blue sky above indicated the top was near, and then I heard voices. The trail must be ahead, I thought, and then noticed an empty water bottle and then a full one, both which went into my pack (I pick up trash to atone for the litter I’ve on occasion accidentally left behind).
I pulled myself up onto a ledge and found myself face to face with a small white dog and four college kids who were packing up their tent and sleeping bags. I warned them that camping over 3,500 feet was not allowed and that DEC Rangers would be unhappy if they found them here. Then, having done my duty as a member of the community, I wished them a good day and walked over to the summit ledge on Wittenberg.
The late July sun was beaming down, strong and hot, while the sky was clear, and the air cool and dry. This was real mountain weather, like you’d expect in the high deserts of the Rockies or maybe northern Canada.
Spread out below me was the long ridge I’d climbed during the night and morning, and I could just make out the knob (or “bump”) where I’d found the small clearing and oak tree. In the distance, the Ashokan Reservoir basked in the sunlight. Farther off, the Shawangunk Mountains stretched out in a long continuous ridgeline with several dips and breaks. The four college kids joined me on the summit and I pointed out Skytop Tower to them, a needle just barely visible on the horizon. Then looking to the right, past Sam’s Point in Minnewaska, I made out, or perhaps imagined, another needle, the monument in High Point State Park in New Jersey. Just to be sure, I measured a 200 degree magnetic azimuth so I could check it once back home. Further to the right, there was a gash in the ridgeline — could that be the Delaware Water Gap?
(Upon return, I verified the High Point Memorial Tower is 50 miles distant at a 199 degree azimuth, and the Delaware Water Gap is indeed visible 72 miles away at a 217 degree azimuth.)
The college kids were from New Jersey, Delaware, and Florida, and this was their first time in the Catskills. The dog’s name was Snowy. They asked me to take their picture with the reservoir in the background. Then another hiker appeared named Bill. He confirmed there was no trail back to Moonhaw, no choice but to bushwhack down another steep eastern slope, but I already knew that. It was mid-morning now, and I’d need to get moving if I wanted to make it back to the car before dark.
As I got ready to leave I found a small piece of blue foam which looked like it had broken off a shoe. This, too, went into my pack, and then I headed off towards Cornell Mountain. I found another piece of blue shoe foam in the “Cornell Crack,” which is a short scramble on the way to Cornell’s summit. Without shoes I didn’t want to jam a bare foot into the crack, instead I used my back for traction against one side of the rocks and placed my feet on the far side and levered myself up and onto the top. As an aside, some people climb barefoot, and John Muir used to take off his boots when climbing polished granite faces in the Sierras.
From the shoulder of Cornell, there was a view of Wittenberg showcasing its steep eastern face. From this angle, it made me think of an open jaw. And the fir and spruce bristling across the top looked like teeth. A tough climb gives you an entirely different perspective on the character of a mountain from walking the trail.
Past the crack, the trail turned wet and I splashed through cold mud. To the side loomed a dense thicket of fir and spruce. Last time here, I’d taken a few steps into this and given up. The laurel had been bad, but this was worse. I’d measured an azimuth toward my next destination, Friday Mountain, and for as long as I could convince myself that the trail was heading that way, I stuck to the path, but eventually it was time to take the plunge.
Green fir branches aren’t too bad, they’re relatively soft and pliable and you can slide through them. Spruce needles are sharper and they feel prickly when you grab a branch. It’s the dead branches of either tree that cause problems: they are stiff and sharp and require careful weaving around to avoid getting scratched or stabbed. Especially if you don’t wear a shirt. Yes, a shirt would offer some protection, but I’d rather stay cool and avoid sweating, as there are few water sources at elevation, and in any case the shirt wouldn’t protect your face. Equip yourself with goggles, helmet, and full body armor, and then you could possibly crash through the trees at speed, but I’ve borrowed a mantra that special operators from SEAL Team 6 use for clearing rooms of hostile occupants: “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.” My goal is to slide through the thickets smoothly, and if it’s a slow pace or fast, that’s fine either way.
I pushed through the thicket, weaving around one cluster of trees, pulling some close-growing neighbors apart and slinking between, breaking off branches where necessary, and accumulating a few scratches on shoulders and arms. The slow pace began to wear on my nerves — the real challenge of bushwhacking is mental. Eventually I discovered a very narrow social trail, and this allowed me to move just fast enough to relax and enjoy the beautiful summer day. The long unfamiliar bushwhack back down to Moonhaw was a concern, but there was no rush, and there wasn’t anywhere else I’d rather be, not even a restaurant or bar (I mention this because I hadn’t eaten anything or drunk more than a swallow of water since late afternoon the day before).
In due course I arrived at the summit of Friday and signed in at the canister. I sat down in the shade, took off my pack, and listened. The wind had died, and except for the whine of flies, it was totally silent. I scanned the surroundings for movement or sounds, and it felt like my sense of awareness was expanding outwards in all directions, but there nothing registered. The silence seemed to thunder all around me, sort of like when you hold a seashell to your ear.
On the ground was another small piece of blue shoe rubber. Whoever I was tracking, their shoes were steadily disintegrating, and by the end of their hike they might be walking practically in bare feet, much like me.
From Friday it was time to descend into the chasm: back down to the saddle and then off the steep eastern slope, another 70% grade, and dropping downhill was much worse than climbing up. It was an exercise in instability: a rock suddenly tilts, a rotten log collapses underfoot, so many branches and plants you can’t see where you’re stepping — and worst of all is the pile of leaves where the foot punches through into a hole between rocks — if you fell, you could twist an ankle or break it (the thing to do is get your hands or butt down to the ground quickly, rather than toppling over). I slid down on my butt in some places, crab-walked on hands and feet, stepped over branches, ducked under them, landed on devilish tilting rocks, hung onto a stout trunk and gingerly lowered myself down, all the while groaning with frustration and then bellowing in anger when a foot shot through a gap or a branch whipped me in the face. I suffered no injuries, nothing that really hurt, but the frustration was enormous. Meanwhile, the map on my phone showed my pace had slowed to a crawl.
It took a long time to drop down 1,000 feet on this terrain, and then to move a little faster I finally put my sandals back on, but now the pressure on my soles was replaced by straps biting into feet, and twigs getting caught between skin and rubber, so it was not much better. Memo to self: next time bring other footgear for back-up on a steep downhill bushwhack.
Eventually the slope leveled out and I found myself under hemlocks once again, where the terrain was open and the walking easier. My spirits immediately rose. I noticed the air was cool and dry under these great trees, the sun peeked through their branches, a breeze rustled the canopy. A beautiful forest and I almost stopped to sit on the side of this chasm and enjoy the atmosphere, but curious about what was next around the corner, I found myself eventually on an old logging road that deposited me back on Moonhaw Road.
The drive back home took me along the southern side of the Ashokan Reservoir and on a whim I pulled over into the parking area, intending to take in a few more minutes of glorious summer sunshine. Suddenly I was staring straight at the mountains I’d just climbed.
That evening I was exhausted, and during the long drive back to the city, I experienced one final bout of frustration, this time it wasn’t fighting through laurel or fir thickets or clambering on steep and unstable terrain, but getting stuck in stop-and-go traffic. When we finally got home, I went straight to bed…
…and when I woke the next morning, I was already planning my next trip to the mountains.