This Sunday I hiked Kaaterskill High Peak — for the 7th time in the last three years– and this completes the Grid for January, which means I have over the last few years managed to summit all thirty-five High Peaks during the month. With 286 High Peak ascents now under the belt, my journey toward the completion of the Catskill Grid is 68.1% complete, with only 134 peaks left to go.
But 134 is a lot of work, especially with close to half in winter months, when covering ground is so much slower and more difficult. Indeed, whether the Grid can be finished during 2018 is an interesting question. The test will be February — a dismal month for those of us who don’t like winter — and for me, with only 15 February peaks complete, this leaves a daunting 20 to climb. Even worse, all this must take place during the second half of the month, as I’ll be out of town for the first half. In other words, 20 peaks in 14 days, and the trick is, for someone with aging knees and ankles, to make it to March in one piece, so that I can confront another 16 peaks, and then another 19 in April. May, however, is almost done, with only a single peak remaining.
“There’s no rush,” I’ve been counseled by people who are older, wiser, and more experienced. But in any case, we’re getting ahead of ourselves — back to KHP….
It’s a clear, warm day, with the temperature almost 40 F, and here I am trudging out to Kaaterskill High Peak through 3-4″ of snow on top of thick gray ice, as this trail is one of the wettest around. The grade, however, is pretty mild: from the parking spot to the base of the summit, the path rises about 800 feet over roughly three miles (that averages about 4%). I’m wearing micro-spikes and carrying snowshoes and hiking crampons strapped to my pack.
This trail isn’t new to me, as I took it last August and then again on a Sunday evening in October, and frankly it’s not the most dramatic Catskill hike, just a snowmobile trail that loops along the mountain’s northern slope through a mix of hardwoods and some hemlocks. Today as I’m walking along, Little Roundtop’s bulk appears through the trees off to the right, and then a little later the ridge leading to Kaaterskill High Peak itself comes into view, but otherwise I mostly ignore the surroundings, focusing instead on sustaining a moderate pace through the slushy snow without antagonizing ankles or knees.
You’ve almost reached the base of the scramble when you pass a curiously-curved birch tree (possibly an Indian marker tree). And soon enough, here it is, which means it’s time to brave the icy scramble to the top. This northern approach is pretty steep, rising 600 feet in less than half a mile, for an average grade of 33%, and there are a couple of steep chutes leading up between ledges which are sort of like climbing up a playground slide — and very treacherous when coated in ice. From marks in the snow, it seems that recent visitors have elected to utilize five points of traction on the descent, which is to say, they slid down on their butts. I did the same during a trip here last winter after a difficult nighttime ascent from the south. That trip was memorable, but frustrating: I’d slipped and scrambled upwards across snow-covered ice-slicked rocks, wondering why my spikes weren’t giving me any traction, only to discover at the top that they’d slipped off my shoes and were dangling by the velcro retention straps.
But this morning the spikes perform adequately, and here and there a tree branch or root lends a helping hand, and soon enough I’m at the top. And then a short distance further the trail deposits me on Hurricane Ledge, where I stand gazing out at the mountain landscape under the midday sun: sky and mountains shimmering in shades of blue, milky haze splashed across the horizon, a snow-covered field flashing in the distance. Behind me tall fir trees with curling green and blue-green needles, luxuriating in the sun, and that’s how I feel, too: what pleasure to feel sun-warmth on cheek, shoulder, and chest! And the faint breeze feels warm, until it stirs a little more vigorously.
The descent is going to be more difficult, of course, and while there’s no exposure to speak of, yet a slip on the ice can send you flying, and it only takes a couple of feet to accelerate violently, spin around, or tumble into jagged rock edges. Someone fell here once and broke their ankle, or so I’d heard. And sure enough, as I begin the descent, my spikes slip on a patch of ice — no big deal, it isn’t yet the steep section — but it seems like now would be the time to test out the brand new hiking crampons strapped to my pack which I’ve never actually used. What an improvement! The crampons’ longer, sharper metal fangs bite with authority into the ice, and I crunch down the slippery chutes still in a cautious mindset but with each step feeling pretty secure.
Once back at the base of the summit, I change back into spikes, but today is not to be a great day for these normally reliable traction devices: not only were they outshown by the crampons, now the spikes proceed to slip off my feet during the walk back. I keep pausing to straighten them out, but with each step the front of the spikes shifts ever-so-slightly off the toebox of my running shoes, until after a short distance it’s time to fix them yet again. Possibly it’s the slushy-crunchy snow balling up underneath the teeth and chains. Eventually the lefthand pair comes completely off the shoe, despite the velcro retaining strap which is supposed to prevent that from happening. Giving up, I clump all the way back to the car with one spike on the shoe and one spike in my hand.
And so ended January for the Grid. After this unremarkable slushy tramp, the next day I ran seven miles in the park and in comparison it was such a wonderful experience — but who said that the Grid had to be all fun?