My son Philip was in town for a couple of weeks before resuming college, and since he’s an Army ROTC cadet and expected to be able to navigate with map and compass, I offered to take him out to the Catskills for some practice.
Our goal would be to start from a parking spot in Peck Hollow, a place I’d never been to before, and then undertake an 8.5-mile bushwhack loop to the summits of North Dome and Sherrill and back, with Philip leading the way, me keeping an eye on the GPS just in case, and Odie along to supervise the both of us.
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….
Last Saturday, I climbed Sherrill Mountain, the final peak in my quest to complete all 35 of the Catskills’ highest mountains barefoot. It was also one of the most difficult, with briars, nettles, and steep slopes cloaked in dense thickets. But discovering new spring flowers made up for some of the strain.
After parking on Spruceton Road, the first challenge was crossing an open field with lumpy grass hummocks interspersed with briars. Then it was into the forest, where the briars gave way to the spring’s first growth of stinging nettles. I was wearing sensible long pants, but as for the feet, there was nothing to do but step thoughtfully.
I steered to the right of a little stream and began to climb straight uphill until eventually the nettles were left behind and I emerged into a grove of hemlocks. The last time I’d climbed Sherrill, I’d learned an important lesson, that it’s much better to turn and head up along top of a ridge, even if it means a little longer distance than following a straight line to the summit. On the prior visit, I’d stuck to the azimuth until I found myself cutting laterally across the face of a steep slope, where the slanted footing was slow and treacherous. I vowed not to make that mistake again.
Now I glanced at the map on my phone and realized that in my haste to head uphill, I had turned too early and was climbing the wrong ridge. To get back on course, I’d have to cut laterally across the face of a steep slope until I rejoined and then crossed that little stream. In my effort to avoid the mistake I made last time, I’d ended up making the same mistake.
After patiently picking my way along the slope, I hopped across the stream and headed up slope, now back on track. This was a difficult climb, as the slope was not only steep, but also carpeted with an extremely dense thicket of young beech and birch saplings, with plenty of hobble-bush thrown in for extra vexation. The only explanation for such thick young growth was that the hillside had burned in recent years, and it did seem that here and there a charred stump or log was visible poking up through leaves.
After a long time, I made it onto the ridge and turned left to head towards the summit. I reached a clearing and saw the summit up ahead after a short rise. But after climbing the rise, I saw higher ground further on. Along the way, I noticed familiar wild flowers, including Purple and Painted Trilliums, as well as unfamiliar species. Looking down, I saw a strange-looking plant with tiny white flowers shaped like pantaloons — but I didn’t have time to stop and examine it. Instead, I kept moving until I reached another clearing on a shoulder of the mountain, but upon checking the map, there was still one last rise in front of me.
I did eventually reach the summit and signed in at the canister. The trip had taken 2.5 miles, which was about double what I’d estimated from a quick glance at the map before heading out. That plus almost 2,000 feet in elevation gain made Sherrill one of the more difficult bushwhacks I’ve completed, with or without shoes.
The return trip took almost as long, even with sandals, but with the mission complete, I took the time to photograph some of the spring flowers. Crossing the open field, with the car finally in sight, I snagged a toe on a briar, necessitating a band-aid. No major harm done, although sensible people will likely continue to prefer shoes when bushwhacking in the Catskills. Upon returning home, I submitted a inquiry to the Catskill 3500 club, asking if they would award a certificate for completing all 35 of the highest peaks barefoot, but have yet to hear a response.