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….
The mission was to climb Balsam and Eagle as part of the Catskills Grid, which is a project that entails ascending each of the thirty-five High Peaks in each month of the year. I didn’t realize it until I returned and checked the spreadsheet, but this was the 12th time I’ve climbed these two mountains, which means that with respect to the Grid, they’re done. (Although I will surely return in the future just for fun.) In terms of overall progress, I’ve now completed 350 out of the required 420 peak-month ascents, leaving 70 to go. And while there’s no time limit to complete the Grid, for such an important project I feel a sense of urgency to finish it this year.
Slowly whittling away the remaining peaks for April, the warmer weather finally making things at little easier — and not just for me, but birds everywhere calling and singing and flitting about from branch to branch or circling overhead. I started out this hike in high spirits, but well before the half-way point it was turning out to be more difficult than anticipated….
Saturday started out balmy and clear, but on the drive north a line of dark clouds appeared above the horizon, looking like a coven of ravens frozen in mid-flight. By the time I reached the Thacher Park Visitor Center outside Albany, the temperature had fallen into the 40s, a cold wind was whipping out of the north, and banks of gray clouds were massing overhead…
Last fall I was amazed by the autumn foliage. It was an especially vivid season, and also Henry David Thoreau’s essay, “Autumnal Tints,” had inspired me to seek out the colors. This year the foliage has been somewhat muted. A disappointment? — only if you must have big bright shapes. Lean to focus and there’s always something to observe. I’ve found when seen up close a single maple leaf fills the field of vision, just the same as the forest from a distance.
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:
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With inclement weather in the forecast, another barefoot hike in the mountains might’ve seemed a questionable proposition. But I had become determined to conquer all 35 of the Catskills’ highest peaks — and with six down so far, I had set my sights this weekend on completing four more — and then growing ambitious and impatient, imagined climbing six or even eight. But upon reaching the trailhead on a very grey afternoon, the car’s thermometer read 45 F, and it was raining. For a system still acclimatized to summer, this would be a shock.
As I dragged myself out of bed, the main topic on my mind was breakfast — not another bushwhacking adventure in the Catskills.
The day before, my friend Todd Jennings and I had put on the inaugural Ellenville Mountain Running Festival. Organizing the race and ensuring everything went smoothly had taken a lot of effort. That night I went to bed tired and didn’t bother to set the alarm. But once I was finally awake and suitably nourished, there were no other pressing tasks at hand, and in due course I found myself motoring down the Thruway in search of Bearpen Mountain.
Todd and I had designed the Ellenville Mountain Running Festival as a “minimalist format” event, meaning that the course wasn’t marked and runners had to carry maps. Many of the racers missed turns and ran extra miles, and a small number gave up and returned to the start. It was only fitting, therefore, that on the way to Bearpen I would get lost. And this despite having both Google Maps and NY-NJ Trail Conference maps on my phone. It was high noon before I pulled into the parking area, almost two hours later than expected. As they say, Karma’s a bitch.