Thursday, December 29, 2011

Trip report: Slide Mountain, 2011-12-28

Yesterday, my daughter and I decided to do something a little different, and hiked Slide Mountain - at 4180 feet (1274 m), the highest peak in the Catskills. (It's one of the four that the Catskill 3500 Club requires aspirants to hike in the winter.)

Map of Slide Mountain hike, 2011-12-28
Because of last minute preparations, departure from Niskayuna was delayed until well after 0700, and it was about 0945 when we finally got on the trail. We were bringing our Kahtoola MicroSpikes, a first trial of them for both of us. After signing in at the register, we were good to go.

Register kiosk at Slide Mountain trailhead

Because of some recent rain/sleet, the Neversink branch at the trailhead was a bit higher than normal, and many of the steppingstones were awash. The remaining ones were quite icy, but the spikes performed admirably. Indeed, they did so for the whole trip: preliminary assessment is that they beat the pants off of YakTrax. (And at the price, they should!)

We walked in for 1.65 miles on the Phoenicia-East Branch trail, a low-altitude connecting route that for the most part follows what was once a carriage road. The trail was quite wet, since it crosses many small tributaries of both the Neversink and the Esopus. (Trivia: The Phoenicia-East Branch connector and the Burroughs Range trail nearly follow the Catskill divide; some of the streams wind up in the Hudson, while others eventually flow into the Delaware.) Only one of the streams is bridged, and it's not even the most dangerous of them. (The Neversink has claimed the life of a hiker as recently as 2000, when Timothy O'Lear was swept under debris and drowned attempting the ford at high water.) The three-log bridge was iced over, but with spikes we were sure-footed on it.

The one footbridge we encountered all day

Ascent was by the Curtis-Ormsbee trail, named for the two hikers who laid out the route.

Curtis Ormsbee trail junction

Curtis and Ormsbee perished in an a blizzard in the White Mountains of New Hampshire in June of 1900; a small cenotaph in their memory marks the trailhead on the old carriage road.

Curtis Ormsbee memorial

At the turnoff, we overtook a group of some twenty Chinese hikers who had paused to don crampons, and all of us started up the mountain. (We met up with the Chinese several more times that day.)

Kevin starts up Curtis-Ormsbee Trail

The trail is reported to have some quite nice overlooks in better weather, but the snow and blowing snow meant that we could see nothing off them. So we kept on trudging upward into progressively colder and snowier weather. The Curtis-Ormsbee route ascends some rock scrambles, and these definitely required extra traction, since they were also iced over. Cathy attempted pictures of a few, but it's really hard to get the scale right in them. Here's looking down from the edge of one of the ledges:

Ice scrambles

Kevin got anxious about time on the way up, owing to the late start and the fact that the markers for the 3500 foot elevation were off the trees, making him think that we'd not come nearly as far as we had. (In retrospect, we saw a couple of birches with neat rectangular areas of damaged bark, which must have been where the markers once had been.) At one point, he said to Catherine, "we'll push on for a while longer, and then turn back." Shortly thereafter, Catherine paused to read her GPS while Kevin was trying to stretch out a leg cramp, and got the happy news that we had already reached 3700 feet and were nearing the junction with the Burroughs Range trail.

The Burroughs Range trail makes a considerably more gradual (but rocky and icy) ascent, through a balsam forest of a sort normally found only at much higher latitudes.

Kevin approaches summit

We made the summit in plenty of time, and snapped the obligatory pictures by the Burroughs memorial just beyond:

Cathy at summitKevin at summit

We had told Mary Ann that we might bring her back a bottle of water from the spring that is about 0.2 miles beyond the summit, but the trail on the east side of the mountain is considerably tougher, and Kevin was daunted by it. Cathy decided to push on solo to get the water while Kevin looked for a bit of shelter from the gale to cook lunch. But when Catherine hadn't returned for an unreasonably long time, he decided to follow her down, fortunately meeting her on the way back up triumphantly waving a bottle of spring water and saying, "Oh, Daddy, I'm fine." (She later confided that the trail was considerably worse than she imagined, and there were a few points where she seriously feared a fatal fall, and that she should have listened to the old man's more conservative advice. Live and learn.)

Conditions at the summit were mild for a Catskill winter: temperature about -13 °C, howling gale from the west, light snow falling, boot-deep snow on top of an inch or two of ice. Nothing requiring snowshoes or ice axe, which are often needed at Catskill summits in winter. A few brief breaks in the whiteout allowed us to glimpse some of the views (all but one of the other 34 Catskill high peaks are visible from the top), but none were long enough to photograph them. They also allowed a fairly legible picture of the Burroughs plaque.

Slide Mountain summit plaque

We decided that we no longer had time for a hot lunch, abandoned that plan, grabbed some more snacks, and raced the sun back down the west side of the mountain, following the Burroughs Range trail the whole way. Frozen energy bars, frozen raisins, crunchy slush in the water bottles. Delicious. At least we had the foresight to pack the water bottles upside down, so that we could crack the ice at the mouth of the bottle, rather than needing to reach in an implement to break it.

The Neversink ford was more difficult on the way out: either the river had risen a bit higher or we were more tired. Kevin wandered up and down a bit looking for safe steppingstones, while Cathy got a bootful of icy water when one of her steps (a submerged log) collapsed under her. No problem, a car was only a few steps away.

We met only three parties all day: the Chinese group, a threesome (an old man and two young men about 17 and 20), and a woman who was coming out as we went in, who we suspect had just soloed the entire Burroughs Range. Everyone was properly equipped (the woman had snowshoes and ice axe lashed to her pack, and wore a balaclava-mask with goggles pushed up on her forehead); everyone wore crampons and proper layers of clothing; everyone had a bulging pack, so likely brought all essentials; and everyone gave the air of knowing what they were about. A welcome change from these trails in the summer, which are frequently crowded with the clueless.

Summary: Mission accomplished, a first Catskill high peak for both of us. (The highest one, and in winter, for style points!) About 7.5 miles (12.1 km), 1850 ft (560 m) of elevation gain, plus another 450 ft (150 m) getting back to the summit from the spring.

Good gear:

Assisted traction was indeed necessary, and the Kahtoola micro-crampons performed admirably.

Clothing worked well, we stayed toasty even though we were both soaking wet from the snow, despite the conspicuous absence of names like North Face and Patagonia. Base layer was cheap polypro thermal underwear from Ocean State Job Lot . Midlayer was generic polyester fleece sweatpants (Ocean State) and fleece jackets. (Kevin's jacket was an Eddie Bauer, a present from a project lead at work; Catherine's was from a clearance sale at Eastern Mountain Sports.) Both wore Kevin's nylon dress socks under Job Lot polyester-wool blend boot socks. Windshells were Wally World polyester jackets (both of us), REI convertible nylon pants (Kevin), generic no-name ski pants (Catherine, I'd have to ask where she got them, it was either Dick's Sporting Goods or a thrift store). Kevin wore a Carhartt tuque that had a Thinsulate core, and Catherine a knit wool one with ear lappets, from Claire's Boutique of all places! Both wore well-broken-in Timberland leather boots. Dry socks and puffy layer were stuffed in the day packs; we needed the down only for stops. Kevin carried his Tough Traveler 25 litre day pack, and Catherine her Kelty 25 litre technical pack, both lined with plastic trash bags in the compartments that needed to be kept dry.

Gear not evaluated:

No hot meal, so winter performance of the cooking system (GSI pot, homemade alcohol stove) is still not assessed.

Bad gear:

Nothing, really. Everything worked pretty well, although Catherine would like to have a daypack with a proper hip belt.

Good technique:

Catherine was pleased with her technique doing seated glissades. (Catherine just corrected me to "butt slides.")

Bad technique:

Kevin needs to be more assertive about safety. Catherine will be better able to judge trail conditions next time.