On October 26, 2019, Steve Aaron and I stood on a vantage point near the summit of Balsam Mountain and celebrated his completion of the Thirty Five. We stared across the valley at pumpkin-colored ridges and frothy marshmallow-mist swirling beneath cerulean sky, while overhead the clouds spread out into a celestial ribcage (the scientific term is cirrus vertebratus) and I thought, how strange that the sky would celebrate Steve’s accomplishment and then, wouldn’t it be even stranger if this was all coincidence….
(Photo credit: Steve Aaron Photography)
He staggered for a step or two. I saw the concentration in his eyes. The inward scan and assessment. He seemed to understand that he could not go on. He seemed to accept it.
Afterwards, we called my son to let him know. My wife relayed the news, while I tried to add a comment but somehow couldn’t speak. Later I retrieved an image and sent it to my son. And then I dove into a decade’s worth of photos and began the process of reflecting and understanding….
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….
In April 2021, I reached my 7,000th mile of hiking, running, and walking barefoot, accumulated over roughly seven years. Now — five months later — the mileage stands at 8,034. I seem to be picking up the pace. Which supports the thesis that practice makes you stronger (at least until age catches up). The real thesis, though, is that life is better with more nature and less technology.
Over the last few years, I’ve spent a lot of time climbing the Catskill High Peaks, traditionally defined as summits of 3,500 feet in elevation or higher. Not only have I climbed each of these, I’ve done each in every month of the year, which is called the Grid.
The Catskills All Trails Challenge is a different kind of exercise. It requires you to complete every hiking trail in the region, which total 347 miles in length. I embarked on this challenge with curiosity, for it would take me out to places I’d never seen before.
Since I’d been hiking and running in the Catskills for many years, I already had close to half the trails complete. Over the last year, I’ve made several trips in pursuit of this new goal, which has pushed my completion level to 66%. It’s been slow progress. Many of the trails are remote. Sometimes the trails I need are quite short, but require a long walk to reach a junction I’d never taken before. While there are some loops, most often I have to go out-and-back, which means it takes twice the required distance to complete the trail.
Like any challenge, this exercise provides structure, a specific goal, camaraderie, and a sense of meaning. I’m looking forward to earning the certificate of completion, which I’ll add to my collection of finisher medals and other trinkets. But the real question is what I’ll experience by going out to new places. What I’m finding so far is that the All Trails Challenge is a different experience from peak-bagging. Instead of rocky summits with distant views, I’m discovering lovely forests and meadows and so much water — ponds, lakes, streams, bogs, and falls.
What follows are a handful of images and some observations from trips taken over the last year.
The Nine is not for the faint of heart. It’s a daunting 20-mile route which summits nine of the Catskill High Peaks — and it’s longer if you get lost, for what’s especially challenging is that five of the peaks have no trails, which means it’s necessary to “bushwhack” or move through the forest using map, compass, and GPS. Even with this gear, navigation is no simple task, for the terrain is steep and rocky, and the forests thick and tangled, which renders “the eye of little service,” as Catskills author John Burroughs wryly noted.
I had completed the Nine, or parts thereof, on several occasions: once trying to run it for speed, once at night, once in the winter. In April 2016, as a novice barefoot hiker, I tried to complete the Nine without shoes, but after six of the peaks I’d had enough. A year later I tried again and this time gave up after a single peak, defeated by the rocky trails.
Over time, my practice of running and hiking continued to evolve in a minimalist direction. I developed an interest in “natural navigation” (moving through the forest without technology — meaning no map, no compass, no GPS). I began to incorporate intermittent fasting into my dietary and training plans. And I became somewhat more experienced at going barefoot. One day these themes coalesced in my mind, and I came up with a grand plan: to complete the Nine not only barefoot, but navigating naturally, and without carrying food or water. I would call this the Diogenes Challenge, after the ancient Greek philosopher who advocated for simplicity and self-discipline.
Upon reflection, however, the Diogenes Challenge seemed like a little too much, even for an arch-minimalist like me. I quietly let it slide and focused on other things.
Until one day my friend Kal Ghosh asked, when were we going to do it?
This is a guest blog post by Jeffrey Adams, an experienced ultrarunner who recently thru-ran the 358-mile Long Path in 7 days, 12 hours, and 18 minutes, establishing a new fastest known time (FKT) record on a supported basis.
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….
Some quick notes from my latest Catskill trip, the thought being that if it’s worth the effort to hike or run, then it’s also worth the effort to set down some impressions. John Burroughs commented:
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.
This hike consisted of bagging Doubletop and Big Indian, which incidentally brings me to 49 out of 420 for my second Catskills Grid. While another grid is not an immediate goal, it feels like slow progress in that direction would be a way to learn more about these beautiful mountains and thus worth a little bit of time and effort… Continue reading “Notes from the Catskills”
Here is the link to an article I published last fall in Backpacking Light on the subject of “Natural Navigation.” It’s based on my experiences in the Catskills, where several of the peaks have no trails, requiring you to “bushwhack” through the forest