A few notes from my latest Catskills hike, in this case, the ascent of Eagle and Balsam with my friend Steve Aaron, for whom these were the final two peaks in his quest to join the Catskills 3500 Club. To spare ourselves the staircase-steep climb out of McKenley Hollow, we met up Saturday morning at Rider Hollow, where we were joined by Chris Rokos, an avid hiker and volunteer maintainer on the Long Path. I’d hiked these two peaks from this trailhead on November 3, 2017, and in addition to accompanying Steve and Chris I was looking forward to repeating the same route at the same time of year and seeing what would be the same and what different — but this visit was going to be a completely new experience….
9:00 AM, October 26, 2019 — It’s a cool morning, probably in the 40s, and the air is still, as the sun peeks over the ridge we’re about to climb. From the Rider Hollow trailhead Steve, Chris, and I move out along a path strewn with oak and beech leaves and some bigtooth aspen, too, pass a lean-to with smoldering fire in the pit and occupants still asleep in their bags, cross a couple of streams, and then begin the long steady ascent to the saddle on the ridge. I’m wearing a new pair of long underwear and discover they are quite warm; I strip off jacket and then shirt to keep from sweating.
I charge up the last section of trail and reach the saddle a minute or two before Steve and Chris, so I take a seat on a sandstone slab and look around. This is a large saddle, a hundred yards across in all directions, with Balsam looming to the north and Haynes to the south, while the ground falls away to the east and west. The morning sun is pleasantly warm on my skin, and it feels peaceful sitting here, as if I were lounging in someone’s green living room, only it’s populated with moss and ferns and twisted trees instead of people.
A moment later Steve and Chris arrive, and now the three of us are heading out toward Eagle, strolling through the green forest, enjoying the sense of vast spaces surrounding this ridge crest, as the light filters in through the leafless hardwoods. Not surprisingly on this nice fall day others are out here, too: we cross paths with a father and daughter, a young couple, and a woman with a dog, and upon arriving at Eagle we encounter Mike Siudy and his friend Ryan signing in on the canister logbook. They’ve bushwhacked up the mountain from the Seager trailhead and are planning to loop around and bag Big Indian, Doubletop, Graham and Balsam Lake Mountain, too. Mike’s a Catskills celebrity, as he holds the record for the Catskills “Direttissima,” which entails climbing all thirty-five peaks in a single trip. He completed this challenge last May, in a time of 57 hours, following a route that totaled 135 miles and over 30,000 feet of cumulative elevation gain.
A few minutes later we say goodbye to Mike and Ryan and head back toward the saddle. Along the way, Steve pauses to admire a tall mountain cherry with branches that seem to be grasping for the sky, while I take note of tiny oak saplings, only a foot tall, each with two or three broad, burgundy-colored leaves, an odd contrast with the gray-green mossy conglomerate we’re stepping across.
We’re hanging out at the saddle for a snack when the father-daughter team catches up. After mutual introductions, we learn that Jason has completed not only the 35 high peaks, but also the rest of the 100 highest peaks, and he’s also a veteran of the “All Trails Challenge” which entails hiking all 360 miles of trails in the park. With Eagle now under her belt, his daughter Luna has climbed 20 of the Catskill high peaks and might soon become one of the youngest members of the 3500 club. Her father comments that she has the physical capability to climb the peaks, although sometimes it’s a psychological challenge. Steve, Chris, and I agree that much of this is a mental game. We ask Luna, how old are you? Clinging to her farther’s leg, she peers shyly at us, then raises four fingers. I’m conscious of the vast gulf of years that separate us, for our ages range from 41 to 60. We compliment her and try to convey with gentle smiles our approval of what she’s doing.
A short climb takes us to Balsam’s summit, and that completes Steve’s quest. Chris and I offer our congratulations, and then I share some advice I once heard from Marshall Ulrich, the famous ultrarunner, adventure racer, and mountaineer: “Even as you get older, don’t stop setting goals” — and we joke about what projects Steve should take on next. A few steps past the summit lies a vantage point with views to the north and east. A talented photographer, Steve has timed our trip so that we’d arrive here with the sun in a favorable position for a panoramic image.
It takes a moment to orient myself. First my eyes lock on some structures down in the valley; then a second or two later I fix the location as the intersections of Routes 28 and 47. Route 28 follows the Esopus Creek as it loops around Panther Mountain and snakes between the massive spurs that roll down from the peaks to the north and south. The pine forests in the valley stand out, as the only green in the scene.
However, what’s most striking about the view is the glowing orange-brown color of the oak forests, especially those that cover the unnamed spur of Belleayre Mountain that lies directly to our front. I try to name the color — “burnt umber” comes to mind (it was a favorite Crayon color when I was Luna’s age) — but there are yellow bursts, too, so bright you can pick out individual trees. The oaks are southern hardwoods, I explain to Steve and Chris; they infiltrated this valley back in the day when the native Lenape burned the underbrush and then when colonial farmers cleared the slopes for pasture: see how they cluster on the sun-rich south-facing slopes, while the northern slopes are mostly barren.
I think back to November 2017, when I’d last climbed these peaks from Rider Hollow. Then the weather was cool and wet; the oaks were glowing in a softer pumpkin color from behind sheets of mist and rain, a subtle contrast with the dim slate-blue shade of distant mountains.
It’s time to pick out all the mountains we can see — Steve immediately calls out Westkill, whose roughly-chiseled summit stands out to the northeast; we trace its ridgeline west until we spot the distinctive bump known as St. Anne’s Peak. Then Steve points to the Blackhead range and Windham High Peak, and through a notch I catch sight of what must be the northern Catskills: Pisgah, Hayden, and Huntersfield. It’s interesting how the mountain profiles change from different angles. From this vantage point, Plateau stretches out before us, looking implausibly long and flat, reminiscent of a stretching cat, while its neighbor Sugarloaf, which normally dominates, is foreshortened and unimportant. Kaaterskill High Peak is merely a smear along the horizon.
In the days before maps and GPS, it was by studying the views from mountain vantage points that people learned the lay of the land. I point to a broad spur that rises from the valley and wanders up toward Westkill, commenting that one day I’d like to scout that route, while Steve admires the wide valley just below the spur, drained by two streams that converge and then empty into the Esopus Creek. Closer to us there’s another spur, long, straight, and narrow, pointing like an arrow to Westkill’s neighbor North Dome. It’s a route I remember from a hike with my son Philip, and from here you can see how the oaks peter out at 3,000 feet, above which point the spur is cloaked in northern hardwoods. Steve reminds me that the two of us descended that ridge on our recent hike across Sherrill and North Dome and then remarks upon the long ridge stretching west from Sherrill — and I point to a bump on that ridge which is called Balsam Mountain — so here we are on one Balsam Mountain looking across at another mountain with the same name.
Now we turn and study the terrain to the east. Steve is captivated by two spurs running down from Panther Mountain, with draws between them that look impossibly steep. We agree that this area would be interesting to explore, and you probably wouldn’t see another soul, since there’s no nearby trailhead, no reason for people to go there.
My eye keeps getting drawn back to the sunlit oaks. Late October/early November is the time of year when the oak forests dominate the landscape, since the other trees have lost their leaves. Sometimes oak leaves are a tawny leather shade, or olive, and sometimes you catch them in flaming crimson, especially on the younger trees. I recall in November 2015 driving east on Route 28, how I’d pulled the car over to the side of the road to admire the oaks on those south-facing spurs glowing like copper in the late afternoon light.
As I stare at the oaks today, it occurs to me that this vista has a strange quality: what’s remarkable is the juxtaposition of orange-brown oak against milky blue sky. And not only that, it seems that the colors of the sky have melted into the land, for the northern hardwoods are so bright in the sunlight, they’ve turned almost white, like a marshmallow frosting atop a sweet potato pie, while the distant mountains echo the robins egg color of the sky, just a little darker. It’s an unfamiliar palette of blue, white, and orange — a sight available for only a week or two this time of year, and only when the weather’s clear. A reminder that if you spend enough time in the mountains, you’ll be treated to sights that are astonishing and rare.
Steve pulls out a homemade sign that says 39/39, indicating that he’s completed the 35 high peaks and 4 of them again in the winter, which are the requirements for the Catskills 3500 Club, and asks me to snap a ceremonial shot. As I hand back the camera, I see the clouds above his head have assumed the pattern of cirrus vertebratus, with rows of parallel streamers joined by a spine-like column, as if a rib cage of celestial proportions had just materialized. How strange to think the skies would react to Steve’s achievement — and even stranger to think that such a sign could be the product of random chance, which if anything makes the scene more memorable.
It’s time to head back. We pass along Balsam’s summit ridge, which is covered in berry brambles with wilting leaves, fading asters whose flowers have turned to puffy seedheads, and here’s a solitary oak with a handful of leaves dripping from its branches, shiny yellow and crimson in the slanting rays. We thread between some slabs, give a nod to Belleayre towering to the north, and find our way back to the cars.