Tuesday, December 23, 2014

2014-12-21 Blackhead Mountain

On Sunday, 21 December 2014, I went with Jon (a fairly regular hiking partner) and his friend Chris (whom I've been out with once before) to Blackhead Mountain (3,960 feet/1,207 m) in the Catskills. With this being the first day of Winter by the calendar, this trip counts for a winter ascent toward the Catskill 3500 Club membership.

Note that all pictures this time (except for the map) are Jon's. I was acutely conscious of being tail-end Charlie with two faster hikers, and for the most part tried not to slow things down farther with photography.

Jon started the day wanting to do the three Blackhead Range peaks, so we spotted Chris's car over at the Barnum Road trailhead. We then proceeded to stuff the back of my Forester thoroughly with mountaineering gear for the short drive over to Big Hollow and the start of the hike. The equipment for three guys on a trip like this makes quite a formidable heap!

The Big Hollow trailhead doesn't get snow plowing in the winter, so we parked up on the county road. There was a long row of parked cars. The mountain was busy today. We must have encountered fifty other hikers - and it seemed as if one hiker in every party was getting in the last climb for the 3500 Club. We snowshoed up the last unplowed section to the trailhead.

The initial ascent up the Batavia Kill is gradual. The trail was pretty badly postholed. I still stuck to it for the most part, but there were a number of spots where Jon and Chris found it easier to break trail than to walk over all the lumps and bumps. Jon was afraid of bending a snowshoe by coming down flat-footed spanning two of the lumps, and at one point I lacerated my shin by falling forward when the whole front half of my snowshoe sank into a cluster of holes.

After the trail junction for the lean-to, the trail gets much steeper and starts climbing up to the ridge west of Blackhead over a series of switchbacks.

About at that point, the trees started to show a beautiful coating of rime.

There's a piped spring above the first switchback. It was running well. Its outlet grew ice crystals in fanciful shapes.

While Jon tanked up at the spring, I had to sit down and adjust my sock liners. That can get to be quite the project when you have to undo snowshoe bindings, gaiters, boots, oversocks and plastic bags to get to them!
Alas, the adjustments didn't keep me from discovering a blister when I got home. (Memo to self: Don't forget the rubber bands when using newspaper bags as a vapor barrier, because they will mess things up if they slide down and bunch!)
At least there's one picture I took!
The switchbacks get trickier, with some icy ledges to negotiate.

Chris waiting patiently for me to catch up

Chris is the fastest hiker of the three of us. We caught up as he was waiting in Lockwood Gap, wondering what was keeping us. Jon stopped in the col to switch to full crampons. I was finding that ascent showshoes were gripping the slope well, so just flipped the heel lifts up and kept plodding along with snowshoes and poles.

In nice weather there would be spectacular views of Black Dome and Thomas Cole Mountain from the exposed ridge as we go up. This, time, though, we were completely socked in, and the clouds allowed us no views on the entire trip. (We did enjoy looking at the sparkling rime on all the trees.)

Chris on the ridge

I love Chris's "you have got to be kidding" expression!

And we continue on up the ridge...

... with me bringing up the rear as usual.

Finally, we got over the last big step. At that point, the grade moderates to a pleasant walk through balsam forest. We all got snow and rime down the backs of our necks, as we had to push our way through branches that were hanging down into the trail from the weight of ice and snow.

Chris was exuberant about reaching the summit. It was his first winter climb in the Catskills.
Up there, the trail signs are wrapped in hardware cloth in hopes of deterring the porcupines from eating them. Legibility suffers a bit.

A passing hiker was kind enough to get a group shot of the three of us.

Chris readies an ice axe before starting his slide.
And then it was time to grab a quick bite to eat, turn around and start the trip down. Jon was all for continuing on over Black Dome and Thomas Cole (finishing up, perforce, by headlamp), but I decided that I wouldn't be safe doing so, and I was really uncomfortable about even hiking out solo. After some discussion, we decided to take the prudent, if disappointing, path, and hike out the way we came. To save time (and have some fun!) we did an ice axe glissade down the ridge, with Chris getting some instruction in self-arrest before we started. I was a little proud of myself when, despite being decades out of practice, I finished up at the bottom by rolling into a self-arrest rather than heel braking, and heard Jon say, "Like that, Chris!" Apparently I haven't forgotten it all.

The trip past the switchbacks was uneventful, but I was continuing to flag. Having had only about four hours of sleep the night before wasn't helping much!

It wasn't until we were on the nearly level stuff on the approach trail that I really became glad that I'd talked the guys into walking me out. I fell over with a horrible leg cramp - I couldn't put weight on that side at all - and had to spend ten minutes there writhing in the snow [1] and trying to stretch before I could even stand up. I'd probably have had quite a panic attack had I been alone.

Upon regaining my feet, I continued to trudge shakily to the car, making it just as the last rays of twilight were fading.

I drove Jon and Chris back to the other car, and we parted ways with Jon shaking my hand and saying, "Until next time!" I think his patience is admirable when he is willing to say that there will be a next time!

What went right?  Ascent snowshoes performed admirably, and I managed to get in a small amount of ice axe practice. A lot of winter technique that hadn't been exercised in years came back to me. And now the four winter peaks for the Catskill 3500 Club are behind me. I have just a handful of ascents to finish up.

What went wrong? I was ill-prepared physically for an ascent in full-on winter. I'm writing this at home, still hurting some from the lacerated shin, the heel blister, and the muscle soreness from all the unaccustomed muscle uses: lifting heavy snowshoes repeatedly, rolling ankles and working calves to engage all the points on crampons, self-belaying on a ski pole, and so on. Then again, I don't know of any good way to prepare for something like this other than doing it. I just don't get the opportunity often enough!

Besides, if you don't come back battered from some of your trips, you aren't having enough fun!

Thanks to Jon and Chris for being so very patient with an old man!

[1] ^ Dear spelling checker: Please do not auto-correct 'writhing' to 'writing'. Writing in the snow is something that I do only when my bladder is full.