Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Panther Mountain (Ulster County, NY), 2013-12-29.

Kevin hadn't managed to get out hiking since late October (November is always an insanely busy time at work), and jumped at the chance when an Internet acquaintance named Jon (I give first names only) invited him for a day trip in the Catskills. After some negotiation, we chose Panther Mountain, coming in over Giant Ledge. Jon brought along two friends of his, Alex and Kevin. (Not me, I'm another Kevin!)

[UPDATED: I've included a few pictures from Jon's album of the hike. Thanks, Jon!] The hike wasn't very photogenic: the views were all whiteout. As Jon said at the summit, "I could have taken this picture in my backyard!" Read on for why Kevin didn't manage to get pictures...

Map of the hike

Because of the length of travel for Jon, Alex and Kevin (they were coming up from New Jersey), the group got started fairly late, about 10:30 in the morning. The weather forecast was, frankly, atrocious. It was expected to start raining heavily in the valleys at about 2 pm, and change over to snow sometime before evening. There was only one other car at the trailhead, a minivan; obviously, the weather has kept most climbers away. The four got going in good order across the two bridges that lead in from the road. That's Another Kevin in the orange beanie:

As it happened, the rain started before the team even made it from the hairpin turn on County Road 47 up to the ridge and the Giant Ledge trail junction. It turned the trail to a slippery mess of slush with a thin layer of sound ice underneath. Kevin began to bless the inventor of Microspikes.

The group stops to peel some insulation and don raingear as the sky starts to drip. As Kevin is putting on his pack cover, he has an "Oh my god!" moment. The little snap 'biner that had attached his camera case to his pack strap is still there, but the camera case is no longer on it. He decides (a) that he'd not likely find it among the jumbles of rock, and (b) if he were going to find it, he'd find it just as easily on the return trip. Not wanting to hold up the group any more than necessary, he simply decides to press on and begins rehearsing his apologies to Mary Ann for losing a second camera in less than a year.

On the group moved, as the rain continued to get harder and colder. The ascent to Giant Ledge was uneventful (with Kevin lagging far behind, as usual: he's slower than just about everyone). At one of several stops that Jon made to wait for Kevin to catch up, he noticed a creature that, uhm, didn't survive the last storm. I don't think I've ever seen a dead mouse hung in a tree like that before: an owl decorating for the holidays?


All pause briefly to enjoy the view, which is somewhat obscured by sleet and fog.

After a few refreshments, everyone moves on, with Jon shouting, "Last one down to the col buys a round of beers!"

"I'm perfectly willing to buy a round, but not as a badge of shame!" Kevin answers, knowing perfectly well that he'll be the last one down.

On the way up to Panther, the four encounter the group from the minivan coming down. All smile and wave, but everyone is looking to keep moving. The wind is rising, the temps are dropping, and the rain has changed to sleet.

The hike again is uneventful, although the scrambles are quite icy. 


Microspikes and poles are entirely adequate to the job, and the four all make it readily to the summit of Panther Mountain for lunch. By now they've climbed into heavy wet snow, falling hard - probably an inch an hour. There is no view from the Panther overlook, which is shrouded in white-out. A quick squat and gobble, and everyone is more than ready to return to the cars! All pose for a "thumbs up at the summit" picture.

The hike down is uneventful, with very little lallygagging, over footing that has grown quite treacherous.

In fact, the three faster men don't even trouble to wait for Kevin at the overlooks or the trail junction - everyone is simply interested in getting off trail! Kevin does halloa and whistle for them at Giant Ledge, since he's walked the yellow-blazed trail on the west side of the narrow ridge in case there was a view. (No such luck. Still whiteout.) Kevin's pack feels much heavier than usual, without the weight of the camera in it.

Kevin goes slowly over the last quarter-mile, scanning the ground carefully for his camera case, to no avail. Disappointed, he trudges out to the car and greets the others (who did wait at the trailhead, in a nice warm car). As he's stowing his gear, he hears Jon, "Did you find your camera?"

"No, I looked, but I don't know if I'd even be able to spot it in all that broken rock."

"No, I mean, I saw it, and picked it up for you! It's in the register box."

"God bless you!" Kevin puts his microspikes back on, walks back to the box, opens it, retrieves the camera, and comes back with a much lighter heart. (And a much lighter pack - he discovers that his pack cover has accumulated about an inch of ice on it. No wonder it felt heavy!)

"Thanks again! Now, do you want me to buy that round I owe you?"

One of the younger men begs off: it turns out that he's brought nothing dry to change into (oops!) and just wants to get home. Kevin finishes putting stuff away and drives off into what is clearly shaping up to be an epic ice storm.

Some four hours later (the trip would ordinarily take just over two), Kevin pulls in at home, with one of the four winter 3500's in the bag. He's soaked to the skin, but stayed warm all day and is satisfied at a challenge met.

What went right: Peak bagged. That's three of the four winter peaks out of the way.

Kevin made good time (for him): up and down in  under 5 hours. He ordinarily would have budgeted six: 30 minutes per mile and 40 minutes per 1000 feet of elevation change (there is about 2000 feet of climb on this hike, since the hiker descends into the col between Giant Ledge and Panther, and climbs out of it again).

The system of layering in the boots worked like a charm. Polyester sock liners, doubled newspaper bags, merino wool hiking socks, well-sealed leather boots, gaiters. The sock liners came out wringing wet from condensation, but the wool socks stayed bone dry and Kevin's feet stayed warm. Vapor barriers are a good thing.

Trusty microspikes came through again. By the time that Kevin was out to the cars, there was an inch or so of ice on everything, but Kevin remained surefooted.

What went wrong: The camera went astray again. It's recovered, but obviously a snap 'biner isn't enough to attach it to the pack.

Everything on Kevin's body got soaked. While he had dry stuff in his pack, and wasn't cold at any time, he could have been in serious trouble on a multiday trip. On the other hand, in heavy sleet and freezing rain, it's not clear it's possible to stay dry. The Frogg Toggs rainsuit holds enough moisture in that Kevin's baselayer got soaked from condensation, but he wasn't wearing a midlayer at that point, and he'd surely have been just as wet without the rainsuit! If this sort of weather blew in on a multiday trip, and bailout was not an option, it would simply come down to "hike in wet stuff, sleep in dry stuff."

Lessons learnt: In retrospect, it was a bit foolhardy to start off the trip with the forecast as bad as it was - heavy sleet and freezing rain is classic hypothermia weather. But there was something of a challenge met, and on an extended trip, you don't get to pick your weather.

Jon's a good guy. Thanks again for retriving the camera! Note to self: Put the thing on a locking 'biner!

Next time, try wearing a windshirt under the midlayer as a vapor barrier. A wet synthetic baselayer is nearly as warm as a dry one, and keeping condensation out of the fleece would be a good thing.

Postscript: Kevin went to EMS on Monday to buy a screw-gate carabiner, and mentioned to the guy behind the counter that he needed it to better attach his camera to his pack. He bitched a little about the weather, and found that guy-behind-the-counter was in the party that was coming down Panther as Jon's group was heading up! Small world.