Saturday, August 23, 2014

Peekamoose and Table, 2014-08-17

On Sunday, August 17, I was feeling a need to get out and move (I'd committed a few dietary indiscretions at a Polish festival the night before), so I sneaked off to the southern Catskills to climb Peekamoose and Table Mountains, the southernmost of the 3500-footers. Since I was feeling the need of a workout, and since I'd just been at the Denning approach trail last month, I decided to go from the Peekamoose Road trailhead. By the time I reached the trailhead parking lot, it was full to overflowing, with several cars parked across the NO PARKING signs. Instead, I wound up driving another quarter mile (and losing some more elevation) down the road to the Bear Hole parking lot.

Since Bear Hole is right off the road, I strolled in to have a look. (I apologize for the image quality on some of these shots. I didn't have my usual camera with me, so all of these are taken with a cell phone.) It's a lovely little waterfall, with crystal clear water. I could see the bottom of the plunge pool as clearly as looking through window glass. I could also see trout lurking below some of the rocks and snags above the falls. Fishing was not on the agenda for the day, though. Getting up to the top of Peekamoose and Table was going to be time-consuming enough!
Bear Hole Bear Hole

While not particularly technical, Bear Hole to Peekamoose is a strenuous hike. In a little less than four miles, the trail gains about 2700 feet of elevation. The first 500 are on a well-graded woods road, but then there is a fork, and the trail turns right while the old road heads left. While unblazed, the road looks hikable, even easy. Maybe one of these months I'll get back in that hollow and see where it goes.
Woods road

Shortly after the fork, there's a bit of a sculpture garden, where hikers have built cairns on a slab of conglomerate rock that is making its eons-long descent down the mountain. I have no idea why this spot might have been chosen, nor what significance the cairns might have. So I just paused a moment, added a stone to one of them, said a prayer for the intentions of whoever built it, and hiked on.
Sculpture garden

Not far after the little array of sculptures, the trail starts to show its true character. From here on to the top the hike consists of walking a couple of hundred yards and scrambling a rock ledge,
Ledge on Peekamoose
walking another couple of hundred yards and scrambling the next rock ledge,
Ledge on Peekamoose
and so on, pretty much all the way to the summit.

The drudgery is occasionally relieved by a bit of trail maintainer whimsy, as at this spot where the maintainers, instead of removing a blowdown, have cut a doorway through it. Theyve even used the removed billets to build a little stoop!

At about 3000 feet elevation, one of the scrambles climbs to Reconnoiter Rock, a boulder perched precariously on the edge of a ledge. The guidebooks claim that it boasts a good view, but at this point, it's all grown in. There may be a limited view in winter when the leaves are off the trees.
Reconnoiter Rock

A few steps past the 3500 foot sign, a herd path branches right to a framed overlook looking west. This herd path is surprisingly well beaten. I suspect it's because northbound hikers mistake it for the view in the guidebook, which is only a little bit farther along. (There are several more rocks atop this cliff that overlook the same vista, with faint herd paths to them. Even if it's crowded, you can find a 'room with a view' for lunch.)
View from Peekamoose spur

By far the best view in this section is to be had from this boulder, which is right beside the trail. Stepping out on it reveals a panorama to the west. The most prominent peaks on the horizon are Balsam Lake Mountain and Doubletop at right, with Big Indian, Fir, Eagle, and Haynes partly hidden behind the bushes. In the foreground, Van Wyck Mountain, Woodhull Mountain, Red Hill, and Denman Mountain march off to the left toward the Shawangunk Ridge. (The view is actually wider than this image, but the trees were swaying so much in the wind that I couldn't capture the wider panorama.)
Overlook south of Peekamoose

Another few hundred feet of climb lead to the summit of Peekamoose. The actual high point is this boulder in the trail. It once had a view to the east, but the view has grown in.
Peekamoose summit

I grabbed the obligatory summit selfie.
Summit selfie

A short, steep descent to the north leads to a pleasant walk through boreal forest in the col between Peekamoose and Table. The innumerable footfalls and copious rainfall have worn away the sand and silt in the conglomerate rock on the trail, leaving only the white quartz pebbles. Like the Garden Path between Cornell and Slide Mountains, it looks like an artificial gravel path.
Trail through the
  Peekamoose-Table col

In another half mile or so, the trail ascends steeply once again to Table Mountain. The summit of Table is, as you might imagine from the name, flat, and the actual height of land is indeterminate. What hikers account as the summit is a small clearing at the north end of the table, marked with several little cairns.
Table Mountain summit

Of course, this sight occasioned another summit selfie.
Table Mountain summit selfie

I'm told that just north of the summit clearing, a herd path branches off to another fine view. I didn't explore this one, for no better reason than the fact that I completely forgot it was there! It's something to do for another trip, I suppose.

On the return trip through the col, I was surprised by an animal crashing out of the path into the woods to one side. I thought is was a fawn at first, but saw that it was a huge snowshoe hare, nearly the biggest I've seen. With only the cell phone, I was able to grab only a poor picture.
Snowshoe hare

I was also able to mosey a bit more leisurely, knowing that after the short climb up Peekamoose, the hike would be all downhill. I noticed that there were yellow and white wildflowers (some sort of chrysanthemum?) blooming anywhere that a shaft of sunlight managed to penetrate the canopy.
Wildflowers More wildflowers

In the shade of the summit rock of Peekamoose, I noticed a few Indian pipes (Monotropa uniflora) growing. These plants always fascinate me because of their complex relationship to the forest. They are flowering plants, not fungi, but they have totally lost the ability to photosynthesize - they entirely lack a functioning gene for chlorophyll. Instead, they live, like mushrooms, off other life forms. Unlike mushrooms, however, they also cannot break down leaf mould for sustenance, so they can survive only by parasitizing the mycorrhiza of the Lactarius mushroom (which itself, in turn, parasitizes tree roots). Because their ecological niche is so precarious, Indian pipes are uncommon. I'm always glad to see them.
Indian pipes (Monotropa

From here, I put the phone away and motored down the hill back to the car. I needn't have hurried as much as I did. I got back to Bear Hole with well over an hour of daylight left.
Map of the hike


Friday, July 25, 2014

Lone, Rocky and Balsam Cap - 2014-07-19/21

I'd been meaning to hike the Bushwhack Range (Lone, Rocky, Balsam Cap, Friday) for some time, but going to somewhere that remote as a solo hiker is beyond my risk tolerance. On July 19, I finally got my wish, as my hiking buddy Sarcasm the Elf agreed to give it a whack (no pun intended). (Well, maybe intended just a little bit!) He wanted some basic lessons in bushwhacking, because he wasn't comfortable at all about knowing where he is. The Bushwhack Range is a surprisingly safe place for that, since the fundamentals of navigation there are easy: up goes to the summit of whatever mountain you're on. Down goes to the river. Since we were parked at the Denning trailhead, the river goes to the car (although getting off at the bridges and following the Finger Lakes Trail out is surely the better option).

We got on trail in good order on Saturday. The plan was to hike Lone and Rocky on Day 1, Balsam Cap, Friday, and the plane crash on Day 2, and try to explore a route up to the Garden Path (the Burroughs Range trail between Slide and Cornell) on Day 3. Of course, my plans are always too ambitious. This is intentional; I almost never will go beyond what I've put in the safety plan, but have few qualms about cutting a trip short.

We came in to the bridges where the Peekamoose-Table trail crosses the Neversink, and got on the unblazed fishermen's path. On the way in, I started coaching Elf on pace counting and reading a sighting compass. (Not that either is all that useful on a Catskill bushwhack, but I try to follow the Army syllabus for land navigation. I gave him a ranger-style protractor, a couple of map scales for NYNJTC maps, and a set of ranger beads.

The path was reasonably easy to follow—it does get a little thready in spots—down to Donovan Brook, where I had my first goof with a rock-hop, and wound up with my boots full of water. Water-filled boots were to become the norm for this trip.

On the way in, we passed some fresh beaver activity. Seeing them that far up the Neversink surprised us a bit. The gorge there is pretty narrow, and the beavers can't get very much pond area. We wouldn't have thought they'd be interested.

We turned off a little bit past the brook, and started up the northwest spur of Lone.
The forest is fairly open there, and so I was able to show Elf the trick of sighting on a tree as far away as possible on the compass heading, walking up to it, and repeating the process. We got fairly easily up to the ledges around 2900 feet. The rock chutes that get around them are pretty obvious, and the herd path above them is fairly clear (although you'll still get scratched up by brush when you follow it).
The path leads right to the canister.
We signed in, checked out the viewpoints south of the summit (which don't totally grow in, even in high summer),
P7190283 - P7190284
and then made for Rocky.

The herd path drops down the northeast spur of Lone for a couple of hundred vertical feet, then veers abruptly right, angling downhill to cross below the base of the cliff on the southeast side of the summit. That drop places the hiker in the broad, flattish, col between Lone and Rocky. Here, of course, we lost the herd path in the woods. Sighing, we pushed forward into the balsam and spruce.

Spruce. Ouch. More spruce. Lacings on gear caught on the twigs. Christmas trees, two feet apart with their branches interwoven. Needles down the back of the shirt. Needles in the pocket of the pack. Branches suddenly breaking, allowing the branches next to them to swing into the hiker's face.

"Hey Kevin, did I tell you what an awesome idea it was when you told me to bring safety glasses?" becomes the tag line for the entire hike.

I do try to zig and zag a bit climbing the ridge, but spot very little in the way of paths until we're just about on top of the canister. This time, I walked right past it—it's on the back side of the tree from that direction—but the Elf spotted it right away. Once again we signed in, and saw that the hiker before us had claimed he got from Lone to Rocky in 37 minutes. We shook our heads in incredulity, barely believing that such a feat was possible.

On checking out the viewpoints, we saw why nobody gets onto the northeast spur of Rocky. The cliffs there are definitely top-rope territory. Rocky has nice views, though. The descriptions in the guidebooks underrated it.
P7190302 - P7190303

We took the advice from Catskill Mountaineer, and backtracked back down toward the col. We were able to follow a faint herd path a fair way down, but then lost it and dropped off the ridge to the north. We were able to angle laboriously down the slope into the drainage there.
The spruce was replaced with Viburnum. Viburnum runners getting wrapped around your ankles and tripping you. Viburnum branches at ankle level untying your boot laces and unzipping your pants legs. Viburnum leaves hiding the stiff branch that's about to stab you in the knee, and the gap in the rocks that is about to grab hold of your other foot. Not for nothing is the stuff called hobblebush.

"Hey, Elf, did I mention how glad I was that we remembered safety glasses?"

The drainage was slightly clearer than the stuff around it, in that very few things grew right in the center, so we could rock hop down that while pushing the rest of the stuff to the side. After a while, there was too much water to use it as a path. (Elf: "Uhm, Kevin, this isn't a wash any more. It's a creek.")
We scrambled the bank and pushed through the dense mat of vegetation near the stream. We found the occasional game trail to aid progress, but all of them petered out really quickly. Progress was slow enough that daylight was fading by the time we got down to the river. We found a spot to make camp off the path. It was just far enough from the river to be legal, and just big enough to pitch two Tarptents.
Striking my tent in the

I'm sure that my bear bag was very attractive, since when I sat down to eat, I discovered that not only had my little plastic bottle of olive oil ruptured, but so had both of the Ziploc bags that were supposed to contain any spills. There was olive oil everywhere. Oh well, my shrimp primavera was still tasty. Elf lent me another Ziploc to at least contain what oil was still available, since I still wanted to have some for the next day's cooking.

I had checked the higher-summits forecast for the weekend right before I left Niskayuna around 0600. It said "Precipitation: nil. Lightning: nil" for both Saturday and Sunday. So what blew in on Saturday night? A thunderstorm, of course!

"Yeah, Elf?"
"It's storming."
"Uhm, I kind of noticed."
"Just thought you might want to adjust the pitch of your tent."
"Just did."
"OK. Good night, again."

Next morning dawned hazy, but no rain. The only wet gear I had was my tent, socks and boots. We ate, packed up, and headed for the col between Balsam Cap and Friday.

The NYNJTC map, and Google Maps, show only one stream coming from that direction, but in fact there are two. This map shows both. The larger one is shown as the intermittent stream, and that's the one we started off trying to use as a guide to take us up the mountain. It took a little walking upstream, with careful compass reading, for me to be confident we were on the correct one. During that process, I stepped in the water again. My boots couldn't have gotten any wetter than they already were, but now I had wet feet again.

The streambed turns into a canyon pretty quickly, and we thought it was prudent to scramble up the wall to the ridge between the two streams.

Viburnum. Alternating with patches of spruce. Worse even than Rocky.
And then—the biggest field of blowdown that I've ever seen. Starting at about 2840 feet on that ridge, there's a bunch of trees piled helter-skelter like matchsticks, witth nary a one left standing. Elf suggested that it might have been a microburst that did it. I speculated that it had been a full-on tornado. The blowdown looked to be a few years old. It also looked to me as if, with the uprooted trees loosening the soil, there had been rockslides down both sides of that ridge. The slope on the side toward the brook we'd been following surely didn't seem stable.

If we wanted to get up to Balsam Cap, then, we'd probably need to go over, under, around or through the blowdown. We started clambering about in it. At times, the ground was a long way down, as we'd climb up on one huge log lying across another that is in turn supported by, who knows what? I think it took us the better part of an hour to go a couple of hundred yards through all the debris.
Then it was back to the spruce.

We worked our way along the canyon rim, sometimes catching a glimpse of lovely waterfalls below. (I suspect that the intrepid waterfall photographers of Catskill Mountaineer are making a note of this!) The canyon got progressively shallower, eventually turning into a dry streambed that we were able to hike up to about 3400 feet. Imposing ledges loomed before us, so we turned left and fought the spruce approximately on the contour line into the col.

Right at the edge of the cliff to the east, just as promised: a well-trodden herd path! We turned right, and with renewed energy tackled the three or four ledges between us and the summit, knowing we had good places to scramble because the rocks were covered with crampon scratches.

We paused only a moment at the overlook, planning a longer stop there after we'd signed in. We then proceeded to spend the next half hour crisscrossing the summit of Balsam Cap searching for the canister. Apparently we weren't the only hikers with the same problem, because the place has a labyrinth of herd paths everywhere. Elf found it eventually, and we signed in and went back to the overlook to eat lunch while drinking in the view out over the Ashokan valley.

Then came the inevitable strategy conference. It was already midafternoon. We'd got started late, because we'd both overslept after the storm. We'd taken about twice the time we thought we would up to this point, between the tornado and the hunt for the canister. And we were down to about a litre of water apiece. Friday and the plane crash, we decided, would still be there another day. We walked back down to the col and headed west.

We spotted a dry stream bed almost immediately, going in the right direction, We followed it, and others (the streams go underground at times), back to a larger gully that led into the canyon we'd skirted on the way up. It joined the stream well below the waterfalls (which had looked dangerous) but still above the debris field. We were able to walk carefully above the steep bank, sometimes clinging to tree roots or scrambling a ledge, below the mess, needing to dodge only a couple of trees and boulders that had slid off the rim into the gorge. If you're going to sneak up on Balsam Cap and Friday from behind, this is definitely a better route.

When we got to the Neversink, we decided to try to hike out on the fishermen's path. We were thinking that perhaps we'd make camp late at one of the campsites by the bridges and try for Peekamoose and Table in the morning. By this time, the thought of reclimbing Friday and hiking out in a day was out of the picture for both of us. Before long, we were hiking by headlamp, and eventually we reached a point where we faced the choice—in the dark—of fording or rockhopping the river, or finding our way on the bank around the intersecting creek that the path was crossing the river to avoid. We decided that safety dictated that we camp where we were. We got as far as we could from the water, set up, had a cold dinner (neither one of us felt disposed to cook), and crashed. The Bushwhack Range had done us in for this trip.

On the morning of Day 3, I found the skin on my feet all red, cracking and peeling from two days' immersion in the alkaline river water. Climbing Table did not sound like a pleasant possibility, even if it is pretty easy as these things go. I promised Elf to treat him to lunch, and we agreed just to hike out to the cars. We took our time, pausing to admire some nice trout along the way,
gave 'two thumbs up' for a successful trip (showing, of course, a few battle scars)
2 thumbs up for a successful
and drove out to Ellenville for a hamburger at the diner there.

So, what went right? Practically everything. Our names in three canisters. Elf's a great partner for me. We've got a similar style and he's content with a slow pace. Balsam Cap has a great view, and the Neversink is one of the loveliest trout streams I've ever seen. Did I remember to mention how glad I was to have thought of safety glasses?

What went wrong? Running out of time on Day 2. Because of the storm, we both overslept, and then got further slowed by the huge blowdown field. But we didn't give in to 'get-there-itis' and were back down to a safe campsite rather than getting stuck on the mountain. (I've slept on a ledge on a Catskill peak before. I don't recommend it.) Friday (and the B-25) will be there another day.

Lessons to share: The big one is: if you're doing Balsam Cap or Friday from the west, avoid that tornado-damaged spot. (It starts around 3840 feet on the ridge between those two streams.) It's bad news. Even the spruce is better than that. Aside from that spot, the climb from the west, although unpopular, isn't a bad route at all. It's got a lot less elevation gain than from the east, and no scrambling to speak of. There's very little spruce to speak of: the tangled brush is mostly hobblebush and beech saplings. And we ran into no nettles at all.