Half-way through July, and I’ve completed just over half of the Catskill high peaks, many at night due to limited windows of opportunity during the day, but the rest of the month is tighter, and time is running out. The Grid has become a burden, and I feel a little like Sisyphus, doomed to push a rock up the mountain only to see it rolling back down again. But without burdens, life would be unbearably light, which is why Camus wrote that one must imagine Sisyphus happy.
Without enough time to write full articles on each climb, here are some notes from recent hikes, mostly for my own purposes in keeping track of the Grid Experience:
I’d spent all week at my work desk, focused and diligent, but deep in my heart the Catskills were calling, and every so often I’d pull out the map. The weather for Saturday looked good, and my weekend plans steadily became more ambitious: first to bushwhack up the Neversink River to its headwaters below Cornell Mountain, next to visit Wittenberg and taken in the splendid views from its summit ledge, then to return along a pathless ridge covered in some of the Catskills’ most ferocious fir thickets, and somewhere at some point to pitch a tent. And on Sunday there’d be time to do more.
But upon arrival late Saturday morning at the remote Denning trailhead, and despite a big breakfast and double espresso, my enthusiasm had cooled. A visit to the doctor’s had yielded a surprise: the sore ankle that had plagued me on and off for the last year was not a strained tendon after all, but rather a minor stress factor. This was good news, because the prognosis was better, and hiking (although not running) was still allowed….but, at the same time, the stress fracture was only one of a number of recent injuries. Perhaps there was a message here, that 54-year old runners should be a little more mindful of bodily wear.
In any case, it was time to get going, and so I marched out purposefully, feeling a bit like a knight in armor that maybe once was shining but now was somewhat dented and rusty, and instead of carrying a shield, I was wearing three shirts to ward off the morning chill and shoes with inserts to support the ankle….
The mission was to complete the remaining twelve peaks needed to scratch the month of May off the Grid, and accordingly I arranged to take a week off of work. But the Rock The Ridge 50-miler left me with a sore ankle, which required a reduction in speed and mileage. In Henry David Thoreau’s essay, “Walking,” he used the word “saunter” to describe the act of sallying forth into the woods, which was for him the adventure and escape of his day, and he likened this daily saunter to the motion of a stream flowing downhill to the ocean:
The saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea.
— Henry David Thoreau, “Walking”
To complete the Grid for May, I’d need to saunter instead of run — and rather than pushing myself, I’d need to “flow” through the mountains, just like a stream, except I’d be going uphill as well as down…
Men talk glibly enough about moonshine, as if they knew its qualities very well, and despised them; as owls might talk of sunshine.
— Henry David Thoreau, “Night and Moonlight,” 1883
Met Alan and Amy for dinner in Phoenicia, and then the three of us proceeded to the Woodland Valley Campground. It was 8:15 and pitch black, with rain in the forecast, which at elevation might well manifest itself as heavy sleet driven by gale-force winds, and accordingly I’d warned Alan and Amy to prepare for the worst — but they are experienced hikers and were totally unfazed. After gearing up, we headed out on the trail in high spirits.
Time is short and so in lieu of writing up a narrative, here are some notes and images from a recent traverse of Graham, Balsam Lake, Hunter, East Rusk, Rusk, and SW Hunter — 27 miles that left me tired and hungry, but which contained several memorable moments, thanks to glorious February sunshine, dramatic winds, and the unavoidable adventures associated with nighttime bushwhacking.
The pleasure and value of every walk or journey we take may be doubled to us by carefully noting down the impression it makes upon us….It was not till after I got home that I really went to Maine, or to the Adirondacks, or to Canada. Out of the chaotic and nebulous impressions which these expeditions gave me, I evolved the real experience. There is hardly anything that does not become much more in the telling than in the thinking or in the feeling.
Driving up to the Catskills early one morning, it was another dim day, with overcast skies smothering the light and fresh snow blotting out the subtle colors of the winter landscape. The Shawangunk Mountains slid by in the rear view mirror, slate gray and dusky taupe. The Catskills’ southern mountains looked like a bank of fog. The scene lacked energy, but this doesn’t matter when there are mountains to climb….
Slide Mountain is the Catskills’ highest peak, and one I’ve climbed many times, including both summer and winter, day and night — but always following the trail from Big Indian Valley. One day I was rereading “In the Heart of the Southern Catskills,” John Burroughs’ account of his first ascent of Slide Mountain in 1885. Burroughs had long been intrigued by Slide, but he wasn’t going to take a trail. Rather, he chose the more remote Woodland Valley as his starting point and then made his way to the summit through unmarked forest. Moving off trail like this is today called “bushwhacking,” and depending on the terrain, it can be exhilarating — or extremely challenging.
I put down the essay and thought for a moment. As a member of the Catskill 3500 Club, I had climbed the 35 highest peaks in the Catskills, of which a dozen or so require bushwhacking because there is no trail. But it had never occurred to me to seek a bushwhack route when an established trail was available. Why would you do that?
Then a light bulb went off: because it would be a totally new experience.
Pulling out the map, I measured a straight shot from the Woodland Valley Campground to Slide’s summit, about 2.5 miles in distance and 2,000 feet in elevation gain. Towards the top, the grade got steep, I noticed, exceeding 40% in places.
Two weeks later, a little before 9:00 AM, I was pulling into the parking area at Woodland Valley Campground to meet my friend Alan. Our goal: to reenact Burroughs’ bushwhack ascent of 1885 …