March started out on a difficult note with four different snowstorms — which left me slogging through deep drifts, sinking up to the knees in fresh powder, toiling upwards one step at a time — just miserable hard work. On one hike, I’d set out to climb four peaks but completed only one, which put me behind schedule. As month-end began to draw near, there were seven peaks left — a feasible load — but then conference calls and meetings popped up unplanned for, and time started to get tight. Now there would be little room for error, especially when the longest, toughest hike was left for the last day of the month….
“There’s no rush.” Wise people counsel patience when I explain I’m trying to complete the Grid for the Catskill High Peaks, an obscure project that entails climbing the thirty-five peaks in each calendar month. But the project is important to me, and I feel a sense of urgency to get it done.
February has been weighing on my mind. To start with, it’s a month of challenging conditions — and not surprisingly, my log shows I’ve tended to steer clear of the Catskills during February: only fifteen of the high peaks are complete, which means there are twenty to go. That would be a lot for a full month, but with a trip to New Zealand scheduled for the first half of February, those twenty peaks will need to be climbed when I return, that is, within a two-week period, of which, after subtracting various commitments and appointments, only a handful of days is available.
Some nights I lie awake, reviewing different approaches for each of the twenty peaks, trying to devise the most efficient routes to get them done in the available time. Be safe, I remind myself, it’d be fine to finish off February next year — but then I go back to calculating how to pull this off — and wondering whether I have the strength to do so — and feeling vaguely uneasy.
And now the plane from New Zealand is touching down at JFK, and here I am back in New York…
With 232 Catskill climbs under my belt, I’m 55% of the way through the Grid. I wasn’t able to put much of a dent in September, only 43% complete — there were too many conflicts, like the SRT Race and and a trip to the Adirondacks — but October is coming together nicely with 74% done and plenty of time left in the month.
Here are a few notes from recent hikes, the purpose being to document the experiences before they’re forgotten…. Continue reading “Random Notes – Fall Hikes”
In a recent post on lichens, I quoted from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself: “I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.” I also mentioned that Whitman’s poetry echoes 13th-century Japanese Zen Master Dogen, who wrote: “There is a world of sentient beings in a blade of grass.” These sages question the modern propositions that big is more impressive than small, that sentience is only a human quality, that loafing around is a waste of time.
My last climb for August would be Windham High Peak, and as I began to plan the hike, I suddenly recalled that unlike many Catskill mountains, the path to Windham is lined with grass. There would be, it seemed, the opportunity to achieve three goals with one hike: to reach the summit, to observe the grasses along the way (and perhaps identify a species or two), and to reflect on Whitman’s message.
With a sore ankle slowing me down and limited windows of time, it wasn’t going to be possible to complete the Grid for June, but if I could get a few more peaks done now, then there’d be less work next year. Meanwhile, with the weather finally warming, it would be a wonderful time to explore the mountains and experience the changing conditions of late spring.
Indeed, the variability of the natural environment is one aspect of its beauty. The east coast nature-writer John Burroughs commented that you cannot have good without evil, health without sickness, or pleasure without pain. Applying this philosophy to spring in the Catskills implies you cannot truly appreciate a cool breeze on a warm afternoon without suffering the humidity, haze, and insects that also come with spring. In any case, whatever the mountains might have in store for me would beat the climate-controlled office environment where I spend most of my time.
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…
Driving north on the Thruway, I peered through the windshield, seeking a glimpse of the Catskill Mountains, curious how their appearance today would compare to past trips. But a layer of clouds had spread across the sky and blocked the sun, and when the mountains’ southern escarpment finally came into view, it was just a dark gray wall beneath a gray horizon. A dim and gloomy scene, with little contrast or detail, lacking energy, listless. My heart sank. Gone was the dazzling light I’d experienced in late December, when a fresh cover of snow and rime ice flashed brilliantly under clear skies. Today it seemed better to sit by the fire, drink coffee, read a book — yet I was determined to climb several mountains this weekend, even if it was pitch black: surely there would be something to see and feel. Continue reading “Finding Energy in the Dark”
After slipping and sliding on microspikes that didn’t have spikes, I got a pair of the real thing from Catskill Mountain Storehouse and took them out for a 10-mile spin in the Blackhead Range. The reward for the effort was amazing views in all directions, with recognizable landmarks 20, 30 and perhaps even 90 miles away.
The goal was five more of the Catskills’ high peaks on one of the last weekends before winter, part of a quixotic mission to summit all 35 hiking barefoot. Odie and I piled into the car right after breakfast, and the drive to Windham went smoothly — except for route 23, where we had to stop at three traffic lights in a row, which sorely tested my patience, and then navigate a construction zone with a needlessly restrictive speed limit.
Yet once out of the car and on the trail, these frustrations vanished quickly. The path to Windham High Peak was a delight: smooth dirt at a moderate grade — a rarity in the rocky rugged Catskills — and I moved almost as quickly barefoot as I would have in shoes. From the summit, we looked south at the distinctive silhouette of the Blackhead range, which Odie and I had climbed just a few weeks earlier. Back then, we had marveled in the details: traversing three peaks and three notches, experiencing scrambles, slabs, and sometimes smooth trail, and discovering different plants and trees with each step along the way. Now for the first time, we got the big picture.