Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Trip report: Balsam Mountain (Ulster County) 2012-03-17

Balsam Mountain

Saint Patrick's Day, and the last weekend of winter by the calendar: Kevin and Catherine decide to try for one more "winter" high peak in the Catskills. Alberto, a colleague of Kevin's from work, has been asking to come along on these outings, and so Kevin invites him as well.
The three get on the road about 0730, and hit the trail before 1000. (Everyone shakes their heads at the all-too-obvious evidence of Hurricane Irene's wrath in the Schoharie Valley: it will be years before things are rebuilt there.)


At 3610 feet, Balsam is one of the 35 Catskill 3500's. (And it's one that the club says has to be climbed in the winter.) It seems a little like cheating to claim a "winter" ascent in such wonderful weather, but all technicalities count.

We start up from Rider Hollow to the west, climbing the Oliverea-Mapledale Trail. The trail has had the benefit of two newly rebuilt footbridges: one fellow hiker tells us that one of them went up in the last week.


Nevertheless, it has several extra stream crossings because of washouts. Catherine and Alberto rock-hop all of these confidently. Kevin, whose balance is considerably poorer, decides to put on Neoprene kayak shoes and wade across. (FSM bless wetsuit material, this process is comfortable even in fresh snowmelt.)


We find that the Rider Hollow lean-to is a pigsty, bring out a big plastic bag and trash it out. (Why, oh why, do so many hikers expect others to clean up after them?)

The trail conditions continue poor for some distance, as the streambank is badly eroded and there's a considerable amount of blowdown. At one point, we lose the trail entirely (we don't lose ourselves, because we know that the trail more-or-less follows the creek and we'll run into it again), and suddenly realize that it's some distance above us. We whack up the hill and rejoin it.

Lost the trail

The trail ascends steeply all the way to the ridge between Balsam Mountain and Haynes Mountain. On the way, we pass some magnificent old-growth trees, including some majestic hemlocks that must be 3-4 centuries old - look at the diameter of that behemoth at far right!

Majestic hemlocks

Turning left at the trail junction, we climb more gradually up the ridge past the 3500 foot marker.

3500 feet

Very shortly after it, the trail goes up a short ledge and steps into another world: the ash, beech and striped maple are suddenly replaced by balsam fir and scrubby gray birch. The abruptness of the transition never ceases to amaze.

Entering the subalpine zone

The Balsam Mountain summit lies only a few steps beyond, and we stop for the obligatory summit photos.

Alberto at the summitKevin and Cathy at the summit

The actual summit is almost viewless, but there's a nice overlook a short distance to the north, where the trail briefly crosses over from state wilderness into Nature Conservancy land. At this point, since we're descending on a north face, the trail starts getting icy. Catherine is able to rock-hop confidently - she's a native of a cold climate. She lends Alberto her microspikes, so Kevin and Alberto are able to be sure-footed. When we reach the overlook, we engage in compulsive photography and cook lunch.

View from the overlook
Cooking lunch
Panorama from the overlook

After lunch, everyone's feeling strong, and we've still got a lot more daylight. We decide to make an attempt at a second Catskill high peak, Eagle Mountain, a couple of miles (and a couple of 500-foot or so elevation gains) to the south. We get as far as the viewless summit of Haynes Mountain (which stands 80 feet short of being a high peak in its own right) and descend to the col between Haynes and Eagle. When we get down there, the safety factors start running against us:
  • Alberto is having trouble with a boot. (Kevin would have helped with the burgeoning blister, had he heard sooner!)

  • The party is starting to tire.

  • The slope faces due north, and is icier than anything we've encountered all day. Cathy wants her spikes back if she's going to try it (and Alberto has no traction aids, wouldn't really have needed them on the hike we planned originally).

  • Haynes took longer than we thought, and if we summit Eagle, we'll be running out of daylight by the time we're back at the trailhead.

So we make the hard decision of leaving Eagle Mountain for another day, and turn back.

Descent is uneventful. We stop off at the spring on the west side of the pass to pump some more water - we're all running a bit short, and have an easier time following the trail down the hill (although there's still some steep scrambling to 'whack around the washouts!). Kevin even keeps his boots on.

Out to the trailhead, and on the road home with an hour of daylight to spare.

What worked: Kevin and Alberto seem to be reasonably well suited as hiking partners. One is a tortoise, the other is a snail, so neither is going to hold up the other.

Kahtoola microspikes were a wonderful invention. Crampons would have been overkill, but Kevin and Alberto needed something. (And they seemed to be the uniform of the day on the other hikers we met!)

Cathy was a trouper, hauling more than her share of random stuff (including rubbish from the lean-to).

The spirit stove burns hot, cooks fast. Its flames are invisible in daylight, so be careful. (Nobody got burnt!)

Turning back was 100% the right decision. Arrival is optional, safe return is mandatory.

What didn't work: Kevin's Android phone's GPS is still problematic, despite having got a kernel patch that ostensibly fixes that bug. Alberto's Droid kept the track well, even though Kevin's crashed a couple of times.

Freezer bag cooking in a Reflectix bag cozy is not a guaranteed process. The contents of the bag got rapidly dumped into the pot after it burst. (No more than a spoonful of food was lost.)

Lessons learnt: Alberto needs his own traction aids, and needs to duct-tape his heels before starting out - or at least at the first sign of a hot-spot.

The electronic version of the DEC trail map lies. It misplaced the campsite above the Rider Hollow lean-to as being by the parking lot, it misplaced the lean-to itself as being up at the fork in the stream, and it placed the lookout directly on the north (false) summit of Balsam. And it misrouted the blue Pine Hill-West Branch trail - the magenta track in the map above shows us following the trail both directions. (Why would it take any route other than the ridge?)

Google Earth visualization of the route:
Google Earth visualization of the track