Starting the November Grid

With twenty-nine ascents remaining in the Grid, it’s time to bring this aircraft in for landing…

When I was a young child on vacation somewhere, and not having a great time dragging along behind my parents, looking up there was an object scudding low over the forest and then a second later a fighter-jet flashed overhead, its roar trailing behind by a fraction of a second, and ever since then (like any small boy) I’ve been enamored of speed…..but years later, I had the opportunity to sit in the cockpit of a jet coming in for a landing, and what caught my attention was the steady concentration of the pilots as they went through their procedures, and that impressed upon me the idea that to execute a mission at high speed requires deliberation and focus.

The Grid entails climbing each of the Catskill high peaks in each month of the year, for a total of 420 ascents (35 high peaks X 12 months), and while the project does not need to be completed in a single year (there is no time limit), with only 29 to go, I’m eager to finish the remaining peaks this year (all of which lie in November and December), so that I can go on to other objectives.

However, I’m looking at twenty peaks for November, which is a big month.  2018 has been full of big months:  February, March, April, and September all required nineteen or twenty peaks.  For November, there are additional considerations of deteriorating weather and time constraints on the calendar, including house guests, social activities, career-related meetings and travel, and the Thanksgiving holiday.  Therefore, detailed planning will be paramount.

Some good news:  I went back and did some research on November 2014, a period when I was first becoming interested in the Catskills, but before I’d gotten in the habit of documenting every trip.  This research entailed checking photos stored online for location stamps, and then cross-referencing the grid coordinates with topographic maps to see if there were any peaks climbed that were not recorded in my training log and or captured with GPS watch tracks.  The photograph shown below of myself underneath a summit canister turned out to be location-stamped on Southwest Hunter — which was surprising since I had absolutely no recollection of climbing that peak.  And then another surprise: after checking training log and GPS tracks, I found that the climb was documented in both those places, too, which somehow I had missed previously.

Since Southwest Hunter was climbed in November 2014, it does not need to be climbed in November 2018, which means there are only nineteen peaks to climb this month, instead of twenty.

Summit of Southwest Hunter
SW Hunter track 11 14
GPS track showing SW Hunter in the lower right (as well as West Kill)

Still, nineteen is a lot of peaks to climb in one month, and I felt myself becoming somewhat anxious about getting everything done.  After all, missing even a single peak would delay completion of the Grid until 2019….

So to kick the month off to a quick start, I prepared an ambitious plan that involved summiting multiple peaks and camping out overnight, all this being in the spirit of moving fast and far…..but this plan did not sit well.  As the final days of October ticked down and the start of November drew near, I kept hashing through this plan in my mind and feeling vaguely uncomfortable.  It took some time but finally as I was driving out of the city I clarified some of the considerations weighing against the ambitious plan, which included having some project and career-related issues requiring attention, an upcoming race a couple days later that I wanted to run hard, and a few twinges out of the left ankle (the site of an injury that significantly limited my running in 2016 and 2017) that ought to be respected.  Therefore, the decision was made to do an easier hike instead of the harder one.

This was an exercise in “toeing the line” (to borrow one of Thoreau’s phrases).  The right plan was one that balanced the mental burden of having a big month to get done and the disquiet associated with taking on risk and jeopardizing other goals.  Or put differently, the right plan would minimize the overall level of anxiety.

The night before:  instead of hiking in to a lean-to, I’m sitting at home in front of the fireplace, ruminating on some of those project and career-related tasks and managing to arrange my thoughts in a more orderly manner, which was a good use of time.

The next morning, after a good night’s sleep, I’m driving off for the Catskills, no longer feeling burdened or anxious, but in positive spirits, and this despite the unremitting gray skies.  A few spatters of rain against the windshield, a long drive, and finally arriving at the trailhead to a cool misty day and a temperature of 52 F.

Opening the register to sign in, the book falls open to a series of entries from April, and there’s my own name written on the page with the date of 4/23, as if I were staring at a ghost of myself.

To make a long story short, the 10-mile hike goes exceptionally smoothly, resulting in successful ascents of Graham and Balsam Lake Mountain, which are now complete with respect to the Grid.  Last time here, I was discomfitted by the rocky washed out trail, but today my feet twist around the stones and roll over them with hardly a complaint.  If my pace isn’t fast, it’s steady and comfortable, and all the familiar points in the trail flow by easily:  the S-turn where the trail first starts to climb, the turn-off to Graham where the trail initially descends then rises over a small bump then descends again into a saddle and then finally climbs to the summit, the small summit clearing on Balsam Lake Mountain after a tunnel-like path through the boreal forest (the path a mix of red clay and black mud, and such a whiff of sweet resiny fir scent upon reaching the summit!).

Today there’s a thick layer of cloud and mist, and the forests are still and wet, but it doesn’t rain.  Sometimes the mist is so thick, visibility retracts to 50 yards, and needless to say there are no views from the summits.  (On the drive home, there’s an impenetrable white layer at around 1,600 feet and everything above it disappears.)

But if there aren’t views, there are still many things to see in the forest.  Bright brown fungus fruiting bodies growing on dead wood:  Crimped gill (Plicaturopsis crispa) and Crowded parchment (Stereum complicatum)

Crowded parchment fungus

The thin brown stems of beech drops (Epifagus virginiana), which lack chlorophyll and instead gather nutrients in a parasitical fashion from the roots of beech trees, growing here among stands of shining club moss (Huperzia lucidula).

Beech drops growing among shining club moss

An example of tube lichen (Hipogymnia physodes).  I have some new equipment:  a 40x loupe (magnifying lens) with LED lights.  This device opens up a whole new world.  Now I feel like I am walking along the tiny lobes of these small creatures, stepping over the soredia clustered on the wavy margins….


And so many interesting rocks!  All presumably from what geologists call the Slide Mountain Formation, which is the layer of Devonian-era (419 – 359 million years ago) sedimentary rocks that cap the high peaks.

A typical sandstone slab, with a fine-grained sparkly gray-black interior (because these are so durable, they end up covering most of the trails and slopes in the Catskills):


Beautiful flaky red shale.  Where water has run down the trail, it’s carved a groove through this stuff, which you can break apart with your fingers.  Typically you don’t see these rocks but rather the red clay they erode into and the red dust coloring many of the more durable sandstone slabs littering the trail.


Some gray shale hiding among the sandstone fragments on the trail (the shale breaks apart easily into thin layers):


There are at least two kinds of conglomerate.  There are large durable rocks composed of fine-grained sandstone that also contain smooth quartz pebbles and other rocks:


And then another kind of conglomerate in small chunks with a rough grainy appearance.  These consist of large sand grains and many small quartz pebbles.  Often you can break these rocks apart with your fingers.  They end up eroding into the gray sand and pebbles that covers the path in some places.

The summit of Balsam Lake Mountain is marked by a conglomerate boulder.  But if you look closely, a small lichen with tiny red fruiting bodies is growing in a niche.



All in, the ten gray wet miles flowed by smoothly and easily, and these discoveries made the hike especially interesting.

But the next morning, I woke up feeling anxious:  Seventeen peaks to go for November is still a large number, and now there are only twenty-nine days left.

Running the Long Path is available on Amazon  (Click on the image to check it out)20170806_110648

Starting the November Grid

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