Afterwards, sitting by the fire, sipping Darjeeling tea, listening to a violin sonata, there was a feeling of completion. And a moment of contemplation. Beforehand, though, I wasn’t sure I had the energy. Maybe yesterday took something out of me. I hiked up the mountain behind the house, with 40 pounds on my back, in the middle of a snow storm. (How the tall slender maples whipped back and forth as the wind rolled through!) Maybe it was the thought of snowshoes, which following the storm would certainly be called for. I’m not a fan of the extra clumsy weight and hadn’t touched them in a year. Maybe life is variable, and our energy levels fluctuate for reasons that aren’t apparent. Or maybe this is how it feels as you get older.
In any case, it wasn’t until I was back home and going through the spreadsheet that I realized how many times I’d climbed Peekamoose Mountain in the Catskills, and its Neighbor Table Mountain….
It’s Sunday morning, and I’m hesitating. Winter mountains are not to be trifled with, especially with fresh snow. As an alternative, I could visit the gym and lift and swim. While fixing breakfast I go back and forth between these options. The morning sun makes the call for me, rising bright and warm in a cloudless sky, and out the door I go. But after driving half a mile, I stop. And turn back. I can’t remember if I closed the garage door.
It doesn’t matter how you feel — there’s no excuse for sloppy execution, especially in the mountains. So I recast my goals. Instead of climbing Peekamoose, I’ll aim to spend three (3) hours on the trail. That will justify the drive, regardless of how far I go.
Back on the road again (yes, the garage door was closed), the lively skies and sparkling sun draw me along until I crest the Shawangunk Mountains and see the Catskills spread out to the north — underneath a dreary layer. As if the mountains had drawn a dirty tattered shawl about their shoulders. I descend into the valley of the Rondout Creek. Slip back into shadows. Spotting a McDonalds in the town of Ellenville, I pull in to the drive-thru lane to order an espresso. “I’m sorry, sir, our machine is broke.”
I pass alongside the Rondout Reservoir in dim light, feeling drowsy. Shift to four-wheel drive on the narrow winding lane that leads into the mountains (the pavement’s caked with snow and salt and dirt) and I’m just rounding a bend — when here comes a big plow barreling straight toward me. I stomp on the brake and nose to the side.
At the trailhead, finally, fussing with snowshoe straps. I glance at the steep snowy grade. Wonder whether I have energy enough to sign in at the register. But the walking’s not that bad. There’s 3 or 4 inches of fresh powder. And someone got here before me and broke trail.
I head out on a familiar path — one I’ve taken many times before — and for the first time see a grove of red pine, which the trail passes through as it climbs out of the dark narrow valley where you park. An old plantation, no doubt.
Typically I’ve started this trail in the morning. With the sun hanging in front of me and to the right, long slender shadows lean across the path at an obtuse angle. They make me think of zebra stripes. I first noticed the shadows on August 25, 2016. I was powering up this trail with vigor, eager to scratch Peekamoose off the list and then its neighbor Table. (This would leave 33 more peaks to climb, since my goal was to thru-run all 35 of the Catskill High Peaks in one circuit.) I paused for just a moment and jotted down an observation about the zebra stripes in a small notebook carried for that purpose — and resumed the march, as I had 135 miles to go.
I was moving through here much more slowly on September 6, 2016 — indeed, I was picking my way along this trail about as fast as a mouse. This was my first barefoot hike in the Catskills. New to the practice, I studied the path with exquisite care before placing one soft foot after the other — gingerly — among the sandstone fragments, or, where available, upon matted leaves. My hiking partner, Odie the family Labradoodle, ran ahead chasing after chipmunks, which retreated to their holes and chattered at us furiously. As I inched along, I noticed the path was littered with small black berries. These must be hobblebush berries, I thought (although I wondered how the berries had gotten here, with no such bushes growing anywhere nearby).
The year before, on August 26, 2015, I encountered an adolescent black bear, at this spot along the trail. It came sliding down a tree like a fireman on a pole, and bolted. On my return that evening, the bear was back up in its tree. I snapped a very blurry photo and tip-toed past, not wanting to disturb the animal as it was getting ready for bed.
On August 28, 2013, I arrived here after dark. I’d walked and run for four days straight, covered 150 miles with little sleep. I was nearly to the half-way point of the 350-mile Long Path, New York’s premier long-distance hiking trail (my goal was to set a new speed record). I remember pausing in the parking area, pouring cold water into a dehydrated meal (I think it was lasagna). Then I stuffed the package in my tiny pack and started up the trail, mindful of the guidebook’s warning that the 2,300 foot ascent of Peekamoose (one of the Catskill’s biggest climbs) follows a “knife-edge” ridge.
The knives come later. At first, the slope is moderate. Call it a steady grade of 10-12%. The path meanders through a gentle forest of northern hardwoods — maple, beech, birch, cherry. As is typical of southern exposures, the forest floor is relatively dry and open. About half a mile in, a fallen tree lies across the path. Usually the sawyers remove the entire trunk. Here they cut a step out, leaving the rest of the trunk in place.
After a mile, the grade begins to steepen. The path clambers up a knob. It winds between gray sandstone rocks. Snakes between boulders. Until a band of rock bars the way. At this point, the path turns left, crosses the face of an outcrop, then doubles back and climbs three or four crude stone steps. It’s not hard.
But at night, even easy tasks get complicated, especially when you’re tired. Back in 2013, when I was running the Long Path (and trying to set a record), I must have stepped awry, as I presently found myself tangled in birch branches. Panning my light around, I saw nothing but foliage and tangled vegetation. Mindful of exposure on this “knife-edged ridge,” especially now that I’d climbed a thousand feet above the trailhead, I hoisted myself atop a sandstone block with care — looked around in confusion at a welter of branches — wondered where it was the cliffs dropped off into empty space. Finally I spotted the glint of a blue blaze and muscled my way through the brush and regained the trail. But I needn’t have worried. There are sheer cliffs in the Catskills that could be deadly, but this ridge, while narrow, has round shoulders (if you fell off a ledge you wouldn’t roll far).
This morning I have plenty of light, and while I’m not feeling particularly energetic, I move along steadily through the sandstone obstacles — except when a snowshoe gets caught in a slot between two rocks. This slight mishap elicits a growl, this being one of those days when small challenges feel extra personal. A few steps later, I realize the sun’s come out. Sunbeams are blasting through the leafless forest and lighting up the snow. I strip off hat and gloves and then my thin down jacket. It’s really nice out here today.
Now it’s back to red-brown dirt (covered in snow today) and that easy grade. After a quarter mile, there’s another trunk lying across the path, and once again a step cut out. At this spot I once crossed paths with a young woman, who looked plenty hot and tired. She wanted to know, how far to the trailhead? Glancing at my watch, I told her 2 miles. So now this waypoint is seared in my memory. By the way, there used to be two fallen trees here. The upper one has disappeared. Maybe it fell down and got rolled off somewhere.
After this, the path steepens again. It clambers up another knob, where the grade hits 20%. On the next knob, the grade’s 30%. Look up and you’ll see a lichen-covered boulder perched atop a slab, which looks like it would start rolling, if you but gave it a nudge. This is called Reconnoiter Rock. It lies a little short of 3,000 feet in elevation, up about 1,800 feet from the start. On September 2, 2016, I spent a moment exploring Reconnoiter Rock and discovered that many of the saplings growing in this spot are mountain cherry — and this solved the puzzle of those small black berries that I’d seen dotting the trail on my first barefoot ascent (they were not hobblebush berries after all).
In the summer, there isn’t much to see from Reconnoiter Rock, but in the winter, when the leaves are down, it’s an excellent vantage point (no doubt that’s why it has its name). To the southwest stands Van Wyck Mountain, whose sheer face looks like it was sliced with a hatchet (that would be a touchy place to find yourself at night). To the northwest lies the gentle summit of Table Mountain. To the northeast, looms the approach to Peekamoose’s summit, edged with spikey conifers.
March 12, 2017, was a bright day with clear skies, but bitterly cold and windy. I came here with my friend Alan Davidson. On this trip, we stopped at Reconnoiter Rock and admired the views. I measured azimuths with my compass to determine (once plotted on the map) what precisely I was looking at.
From the parking area to Reconnoiter Rock, the trail points north-northeast. Past the Rock it swings round to the east. And continues rising. In due course you scramble up to another vantage point — a small rock slab, elevation 3,500 feet, this one marked with a star on the map to indicate splendid views year round, and Van Wyck standing out like a shark fin.
And now the trail curls back north, for the final ascent to the summit (just under a mile away with 300 feet in climbing). The ridge is flat and narrow here, full of yellow birch, but at this elevation the trees are short and stunted and let in lots of light, while the shadowy conifers cluster on the ridge’s rocky shoulders where the soil is thin. A breeze stirs out of the west. The powder is soft. I’m moving steadily, if not quickly. When Alan and I came through here five years ago, it was just as bright, but the wind was rough and icy (it had sculpted the snow into standing waves), and I recall, after taking pictures with my phone, how my fingers smarted from the cold.
There are two steep climbs before the summit, where the slopes are thick with conifers and hobblebush, and the path winds between sandstone ledges. On January 18, 2015, Odie and I came out this way for our first-ever Catskills winter climb. Before then, I’d stayed away in winter, lacking proper gear and apprehensive about conditions. Somehow we made it to the top without issue. I remember Odie standing on a ledge near the summit, looking back at me (he liked to take point and scout ahead). That was seven years ago. We were both younger then, and faster.
I came up Peekamoose on April 12, 2020 with a different hiking partner — my son, Philip, back home on college break. I was going barefoot, he in shoes. There was still some snow on the summit ridge, but on a sunny day with temperatures in the 40s, that wasn’t a problem for my feet. Once up top we ventured a few steps off the summit to take in brilliant views to the east and south, including the Ashokan Reservoir. With binoculars, we were just barely able to make out, 46 miles away, along a magnetic azimuth of 210 degrees, the monument tower at High Point State Park, seemingly no bigger than a pin. (This is the starting point for the 70-mile Shawangunk Ridge Trail and the SRT Race held every year in September.) Then Philip and I returned to the car, without visiting Table Mountain, since Philip had schoolwork to attend to. Perhaps he found the pace a little slow.
This morning I make the last few steps to the summit through powder that’s now four or five inches deep. And soon reach the large sandstone boulder that marks the top. Peekamoose is complete. Low energy notwithstanding, I feel OK — so now it’s on to Table.
The path continues north, drops into a saddle between the two peaks. At one point, there’s a spot which is steep and slick. I grab a slender tree and hang on, struggling to keep snowshoes from slipping on the ice. Then there’s a short walk through the saddle. The climb up Table isn’t bad, although towards the end it’s like a staircase. The top of Table’s summit ridge is as flat as — you guessed it — a table. The path turns west, tunnels through dense thickets of fir and spruce growing close together, spindly trunks covered with sharp broken branches and about as welcoming as concertina wire. It feels like forever to reach the top, although the distance is not much more than a quarter-mile. The summit consists of a rise in the ground, barely perceptible, marked with a pile of rocks. There are no views.
Peekamoose and Table mark the southern tip of a 19-mile circuit through the Southern Catskills called “The Nine,” which includes nine peaks, four of which lie along a pathless ridge cloaked in those unwelcoming thickets. As you get to know the forest, you come to appreciate the beauty of this boreal environment — so long as you’re not trying to move through it too quickly.
On May 9, 2015 I was trying to go fast. I climbed Peekamoose and Table and then headed into the thickets, where I managed to go around in circles (even with a GPS) and nearly got scratched to pieces. I returned on May 17, 2015, thinking I ought to have practice bushwhacking in the dark, and ran the Nine at night, emerging on the summit of Wittenberg in the orange glow of dawn. On January 17, 2016, I came out with Aaron Anaya and Ian Ridgeway to run the Nine in winter (we skipped Wittenberg and settled for the Eight).
Over time, my practice changed. As I reached my limits for speed and distance, my focus began to shift. On April 23, 2016, I came at the Nine with a special format inspired by the ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes, who was said to practice “askesis” for physical and spiritual development. My plan was to complete the Nine in an ultra-minimalist manner: barefoot and carrying no food or water. But this proved difficult. And slow. After six of the peaks I gave up and pulled on sandals. I tried again on October 10, 2017 and gave up even sooner.
And then I forgot about the idea. Unfortunately, I’d mentioned it to my friend Kal Ghosh, and one day he reminded me. On June 12-13, 2020, Kal and I completed the Nine barefoot, without carrying food or water, and without using maps, compass, or GPS. We called this minimalist adventure The Diogenes Challenge.
The Nine takes a lot of work. A shorter alternative is the Six. Typically I’ve started on Moon Haw Road and then climbed Friday, Balsam Cap, Rocky, Lone, Table, and Peekamoose in that order. On February 28, 2018, I completed the Six enjoying unseasonably warm weather. On November 27, 2018 I came this way again with Alan Davidson, but this time conditions were quite difficult and lots of things went wrong — I lost my spikes, ripped the zipper off my shell, suffered frostnip on my fingertips. Three weeks later, on December 16, 2018, I woke up with a feeling of dread, but nonetheless returned for the Six one more time, on this trip together with Aaron Anaya and Dakota Inman. The mountains seemed to open up and let us through. It felt like a gift.
Life is variable — the mountains have taught me this again and again. Sometimes conditions are easy, sometimes not. Sometimes I’m feeling strong and energetic, sometimes not. The other day I was driving in to work full of exciting transformational ideas for our business, and after breakfast and a cappuccino at my favorite coffee shop, I had to hold back from going 100 MPH through residential neighborhoods. On the return that afternoon, pondering the massive challenges involved in implementing change — and having started an intermittent fast — time slowed down and stretched out before me like an empty chasm (18 hours until my next meal). I have a friend a year older than me, who’s very successful, but has struggled with his health. First he thought it was low testosterone, then environmental toxicity, and now perhaps a recurrent viral infection. He told me he stayed up late dancing — and had to spend the next two days in bed. “Now it’s all about metering out energy carefully.” Good advice, in my view, for all of us, except I would, borrowing from Pythagoras, phrase it differently — “everything is math.”
This morning I pause at the cairn that marks Table’s summit, but the pile of rocks doesn’t elicit much. So I turn about and retrace my steps. Now comes the descent. Down the long, gentle ridge. I can’t remember a time when drifting down Peekamoose wasn’t a mellow experience. On October 7, 2017, some friends and I attempted a “natural navigation” ascent of Balsam Cap (that is, without using map, compass, or GPS), but got caught in heavy rain and went off course. We opted instead for Peekamoose. About half way down the mountain, I turned a bend in the trail and there before me the narrow ridge fell away into the forest, and I saw how those trees on the eastern side were spattered so thickly with Flavoparmelia carperata (common greenshield lichen) that the trunks were almost completely green, while those in the depths of the forest were brown and gray, and in the shadows mist was hanging motionless.
On February 28, 2018, the weather was so warm I took my shoes off on the descent. Enjoyed the feel of smooth round stones and damp earth underfoot. Watched the moon rise. Three times a sprinkling of rain and mist blew through, as a corner of the western sky turned copper-colored.
Today’s descent is uneventful, except when a snowshoe strap needs to be adjusted. A few steps later it comes undone again. I often feel that my life is filled with too much junk — too much technology, too many applications and procedures and protocols, too much gear. On low energy days, my patience runs short, my temper is quick to flare — I blame this stuff for all of life’s frustrations. Especially snowshoes.
At the vantage point looking west, I pause to snap a photo of myself and Van Wyck Mountain, only to find later that cirrus clouds snuck into the image. They swept in from the west, reared up, spread arms wide, paused as if in curiosity at what lay below. I disengage from the digital world and come out here as often as I can. To reacquaint myself with strange creatures like these which inhabit the sky, prowl the mountains, lurk behind a tree, hide beneath a leaf.
I have but scratched the surface. Memories accumulate like layers of leaves lying on the forest floor. And then they turn to dust. So many gaps. Why have I no image of Peekamoose aflame in autumnal splendor? Or whipped by storm-winds that toss the tree limbs helter-skelter, like I saw once on the shoulder of Black Dome.
Today’s trip up Peekamoose was lifetime Catskill climb #521, and Table was #522. I have a philosophy — absent pressing business, time is to be spent in nature.
After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on—have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear—what remains? Nature remains ; to bring out from their torpid recesses, the affinities of a man or woman with the open air, the trees, fields, the changes of seasons—the sun by day and the stars of heaven by night.
— Walt Whitman, Specimen Days & Collect
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