On a Roll
April 3, 2021 § Leave a comment
Having purchased my own snowshoes from REI, I was ready for a more challenging adventure. I had already been to High Point 3 times, the first written about here, and then two more follow up trips, the weekend prior where I introduced the activity to Robert Risberg and his family. Robert had actually mentioned that he and his family were taking some time up outside of New Paltz, NY and asked whether I would be interested in a snowshoe hike in the Catskills. I was very interested, however when I checked in with him, he no longer had the time in his schedule, so I looked to Mike to see if he wanted to give the Catskills a go. Now keep in mind, getting to High Point takes about 90 minutes, maybe less when there is no traffic, however getting to the Catskills is 3 hours, so if plans aren’t made to spend the night up there, and they weren’t, then that is 3 hours up, hike all day, and then a 3 hour drive home. Six hours driving in one day is lot for anyone. Add the efforts of a snowshoe hike, and chances are high, I would get a good nights sleep when it was all over.
The first question was, where to go? I had been looking at The Escarpment, however there is access from up within a park that actually takes 3 and half hours to drive to, and there was another point of access down low that would mean climbing to gain purchase on the escarpment. Not three and a half hours, but still more than three. I started searching other trails on All Trails, and found mention of Fir and Big Indian, which were 3500+ peaks that are accessible in the Southwestern corner of the park. Google maps said less than three hours for the drive up and closer to three for the return. Both peaks don’t have a direct trail, but are common bushwhacks, and this All Trails description was all about the bushwhack, so that is what we set our sights upon. We needed an early start to get there, because the google street view avatar I dropped onto the road near the parking area revealed a fairly small parking area, and I wanted to get a spot in that area, and not park along the road.
The forecast for the the next day was partial clouds, and very cold. Single digits in point of fact, so I took extreme care to insure that I had plenty of layers to regulate my temperature. That included a shell layer over and above what I had been snowshoeing in, but everything else I stayed with. Mike pretty much brought everything he had to wear, which was good for him, because he does tend to get cold on these adventures. I have a fire that burns within me, and that heat keeps me pretty warm, so I can get away with fewer layers once I get my core up to temp. All the other things I packed before, I packed again, and did my best to get some sleep. It would be a long day.
We agreed to meet at the parking area by 8am, so with a nearly 3 hour drive, that means hitting the road at 5am, which means arising at 4:30 am. So, not really a good nights sleep, but who gets a good nights sleep anyway? I always have to get up at least once for personal business so there is that. Up I rose, dressed I got, loaded the car I did, and did my best to give myself a chance to take care of the ultimate business before I left, because really, who wants to have to do any of that in the woods? I will, but I don’t WANT to. However, my desires were thwarted by the reality that I simply didn’t have to go, so into the car I went, and off I drove. It’s Saturday morning, 5 am. How many people do you think are out on the road? Exactly! I had the road to myself, and with no traffic, I was pulling off the Garden State Parkway onto Route 17 before I knew it, and stopped right there to get a cup of coffee. I decided that if the woods was where I would take care of business, then that was that. I needed a cup of Joe, and so I got one, and jumped back on the road. There were a few more cars and trucks out and about, but still my way was basically unencumbered.
Into NY, and then onto the thruway until the intersection with Route 6 where Route 17 diverges to the West and North. Both routes to the trailhead were about the same time, but I chose the SW approach, and Mike chose the Thruway approach. I failed to encounter any issues, and as expected, every turn off of one road to another was a further reduction in size until eventually I had no service and neared my destination. I passed the huge complex known as Frost Valley YMCA camp. I had heard about this place, but never seen it. The place is huge. Just beyond that was the parking area, and people were arriving. I was luck to get there when I did, early and I could back in and grab a spot next to a van but up against the back of the lot. Mike was not there yet, and others kept arriving. Soon all the spots were taken, but fortunately I could just have Mike park me in, which is just what we did when he did finally show. Mike left extra early, but unlike me, he had to stop twice to “Take care of some business”, so he arrived a little late.
As expected it was pretty cold at 8 degrees on the Fahrenheit scale. While I was awaiting on Mike I was paying attention to what all the others were a doing, and what they were a doing was this: If they had snowshoes, they strapped them to their knapsacks, and donned their micro spikes and headed for the trail. FYI the trail was right across the street from the parking lot. If they were planning on wearing the shoes, they wouldn’t have strapped them to their knapsacks, so that told me, the beginning of this hike was okay in spikes. None of the people who set off approached my size, so I was cognizant of this, and I certainly don’t want to be weenie that post-holes up the trail, so I figure, I will micro spike it until the purchase of my foot tells me I need the shoes. Sure I am here to snowshoe, but let’s be realistic. I am here to hike, and when we hike, we hike efficiently, and when it is more efficient to hike in spikes, well, we hike the fuck in spikes until it becomes more efficient to hike in the damn snowshoes. When Mike arrived, I explained this to him, and he bought in, and so with our shoes strapped to our packs, and our spikes snuggly fitted to our shoes, we set off.
First things first, we had to sign the register. It’s a common formality, and a necessary one. So far I have never needed anyone to find me because I didn’t come out of the woods, but let’s not make it more difficult than it needs to be. One thing that is clear from the start, a LOT of people have been up this trail, and the snowshoe trench was like a sidewalk. As long as you stayed within the trench, the spikes were fine. Atop the granular frozen surface, the spikes gave solid purchase against the snow, and forward we moved. The group that started ahead of us had decided on wearing their snowshoes. Now, it could be that spikes were not in their inventory, so it was either bare shoes, or snowshoes, and with that choice, they are spot on, but that comes with a cost, and we caught them pretty quickly to stamp paid on their receipt, and we moved right on by them and moved quickly on to tackle the next group. We could see them off in the distance, but they were moving pretty slow, and they were spike equipped, but they just didn’t move very fast. Just as we were about to pounce, Mike asked to take a breather, and we rested and caught our collective breath. We climbed up in an initial saddle, and the wind was in our face, and pretty brutal, so we didn’t linger too long. There was a shelter about 2.2 miles in, and we caught the second group just shy of it. I had thought maybe we would utilize the shelter, but we were making good time, and I wanted to stay ahead of the people we had passed, so we continued on. Our branch point was just past the shelter, and when we reached it, it was clear as day. “Is that it?” Mike queried. “That is the way” and off that way we went. Now, we are still in our spikes, and technically we are bushwhacking, but since the bushwhack way is such a known way, because so many before us have worn their snowshoes, and because it is only 8 degrees Fahrenheit, it is like sidewalk. Perhaps, it is fair to say, that occasionally a foot steps too close to the edge of the trench and compresses an extra inch or two, but nothing like a posthole. So we kept the spikes, fully prepared to stop and change when change was needed.
Since I am telling an honest tale, I will tell you that in the initial half mile of the bushwhack, there are open viewports showing a rocky hilltop kind of in our direct path, and not being familiar with the trail, and not looking at the map on my phone, I thought that was our ultimate destination, however, when we branched off, we branched after a stream, and that stream was still between us and the peak I was looking at, and the bank down to the stream kept getting steeper, and so we kept hiking in a Northerly direction, which I thought would take us around the stream eventually, but what eventually happened, was we never saw those rocks again, and we kept going Northerly. Ha! I got out the map, triggered the compass feature, and sure enough the summit we sought, lay in a basic Northerly direction, and were on a gently rising spine that had a few not so gentle elevation profile bumps. All those bumps took us up 50-100 feet at a time, until there were only two more 50′ grade lines and we were there. As we approached the summit, we crossed paths with a group that was up and backing it. Our plan was to bushwhack the saddle connecting Fir to Big Indian, but more on that later. Soon the 3″ plastic pipe register container was in front of us, and soon our names were written in that register, and 3500+’ Fir was in the bag.
Now, about that trench. We hiked spikes all the way to the top, and the trench was well defined all that way, however, that trench immediately ceased at the register. There were indicators that there had been a trench, and there were indicators there had been prints, but they were filled in with drift. Enough to fill, but not enough to completely hide. To continue, we needed our snowshoes, and so the swap was made. Mike questioned what the deal was, and I told him, that we would have to descend a slight bit, but that we would hit a saddle that is written in the map as the Catskill Divide. What is the Catskill Divide you ask? Well, it is a watershed divide between Hudson River and Delaware River waters. Pretty cool. In the saddle, snow to our right drains to the Hudson, and snow to our left drains to the Delaware. I like shit like that. So, back to the bushwhack. In general the existing trench could be seen, and we followed it easily. There were times when it disappeared, but I could see the general direction we needed to go, and soon we picked up the trench again. This played out all the way to the saddle, and we were just starting to climb out of the saddle and up to Big Indian when the trench disappeared completely. I looked around and just could not discern where it was, however we were on a gentle spine that ascends all the way to Big Indian, and all we needed to do was stay clearly on the spine. I have an app for that, and was high enough to download lo-res versions of the topo maps needed to guide us. I also had the avenza app maps, but I like my other app better for this type of navigation. The compass feature and the map are so much easier to read and follow. I set the route, and broke trail through a lot of snow, some pretty deep, and some not so deep. Really it wasn’t that hard, because the spine wasn’t that large. One hundred yards max from left to right, and then it fell off quite steeply. We just needed to keep going up, and never go down. Sounds pretty easy right? It was. As is my usual MO, I keep going, and going, and at some point I take a break to make sure I see Mike’s red coat behind me. Well I guess I kept going for a while, and it was a while I was waiting for Mike, when something extraordinary happened. Some ladies bushwhacked down from Big Indian, and though they weren’t lost, they were relieved to see me, and find that I/we had come from Fir. Now they had a path to follow, and we had a path to follow, however before we went our separate ways they did warn us that at one point their path was a circuitous one, and not so obvious. I told them, “thanks” and “their path would be clear to Fir”, and we said our good byes.
We had a path to follow. Mike had stopped for some snacks, which is why I had been waiting so long for him, but he was refreshed and ready to hike again. Their path was pretty straight forward until we came to a fork in the road. There were tracks left, and tracks right. Now, I won’t say it was getting late, but I will say that I didn’t want to spend a lot of time going the wrong direction only to find out we were wrong, We were on a spine, so it seemed to me that rather than left or right, if I went straight and broke trail for a bit, I would hit their trail again in 1 or 2 hundred yards, and so I split the fork, and soon found there was a price to pay.
Let’s talk about snowshoes and how they work. It’s all about the surface area, and the weight per area. Big dudes like me need more surface area than smaller dudes like Mike, however both my snowshoes and Mike’s come in at 30″, the main difference being the support webbing on Mike’s Tubbs Advernturers looked to be wrapped around the frame and riveted, whereas the Yukon Charlies used straps that wrapped around the frame and attached to the webbing. From an engineering standpoint the stress at the rivets in Mike’s Adventurers is more distributed, and in mine each attachment is on its own. Now the support principle works when walking because the force is applied vertically, perpendicular to the plane of the snow. The snow compacts, and at some point cannot be compacted any more, and the supported snowshoer moves to the next step. Step, compact, step compact, etc. I walked like this, breaking trail, and to avoid some low hanging deciduous stuff, I diverted between some coniferous stuff, and that is where the basic principle broke down. See, the snow had drifted pretty high here, covering lower branches that were still attached to the tree. One of these branches was just below the surface of the snow, and caused my left shoe to angle forward at about 25 degrees, limiting it’s ability to compact snow, and instead of compacting, it sliced into the drift, and before I knew it I was up to my waist in snow. My right foot was behind my left foot, and my left foot was 3-4 feet down. I tried to move a little, and I slid another foot deeper. Now the snow is halfway up my chest. A little more movement, and 6 inches more deep was I. I stopped moving.
I don’t want to languish here in the story, but I will summarize that I had to remove my pack, and camera, handing those off to Mike. Then with both hands I could just get to the back of the right shoe, and loosen the binding, and pull that shoe out. Then I spent 20 minutes scooping snow out of the hole, digging my way down to my other shoe. Fortunately the snow was light, and it was still cold and the snow was dry. I wasn’t getting wet. That was maybe a key point. Anyway, eventually I could see my shoe, and I was able to grab the back of it with one hand, and while hold a tree with the other, I was able to pull my shoe clear. Then with both hands on the tree, I was able to pull myself out of the hole, and roll and gain footing on the one shoe. I donned the other shoe, brushed off, put my pack back on, and we retraced our steps out of there, and followed the ladies trail to the top of Big Indian, and signed the register. Disaster averted. I appreciate NOT hiking alone.
We didn’t linger long on Big Indian, and we followed the obvious bushwhack off and back to the real trail. That trail was only 100′ off the top to the west of the top, and get this. No one walked further along that trail, than the bushwhack to Big Indian in this snow. Since Big Indian, and Fir are 35ers, that is all people come to do in the winter. So, back in the trench, and in our shoes, we proceeded in the direction of the cars, which at this point were about 4.2 miles away. We would hike back to the shelter and have a snack, and then we would hike out to the cars.
The hike out told me something. It told me that we chose the right direction for the day. For us, there was no climb that could be called steep. It was a gentle climbing all the way to the top of both summits. I cannot say the same for the established trail we were on. When we started to descend, we descended quite steeply at times, and for a very long time. I would not have wanted to climb that in snowshoes, and likely might not have enjoyed it all that much in spikes. In snowshoes, it was precarious at times going down, and it was going down that I started to realize that my snowshoes were failing. Yukon Charlie was not a good brand, or maybe more to the point this model wasn’t up to the challenge. The attachments between the frame and the webbing were failing. 3 broken on the left foot, and four on the right. I was annoyed more than anything else, but I knew right there, my return trip would include a stop at the REI in Paramus to return them.
We had two miles to the shelter, and most of the time the main creek was on our left, and since it needed to be on our right, we knew that we wouldn’t reach the shelter until we at least crossed the creek. Fortunately that happened not too much further in the future, and once across the creek we soon crossed our branch point for Fir, and then there was the path to the shelter. I was hungry, and so was Mike, and we elected to take the time hike down to it. The only issue we found was that Chris, had gotten there first, and set his tent up inside the shelter. Chris was a nurse from Queens. This was his first backpacking trip ever, and thought it would be okay to setup inside the shelter. Generally, I would say that is not okay, but it’s winter, and the likelihood that another over-nighter would come along was probably pretty low. This is exactly the kind of shelter my friend Kal loves for his weekend sleeping when he is instructing at Hunter Mountain. A shelter that is only 1-2 miles from the road. Anyway, Chris was there, and Mike and I found some seats to rest, relax, and grab some grub, and gab a little with Chris. As mentioned we found out that this was his first ever backpacking trip, so we questioned him about how he made that decision. It’s one thing to invest in backpacking gear, but it is another to invest in Winter backpacking gear. His friends and colleagues all thought he was crazy, and maybe he was. With only the internet to guide him, he overpacked and carried more food than he needed, thus prompting him to stash a bag of extras off the trail somewhere between his car and the shelter. Now, let me remind the reader that I mentioned earlier that the shelter was only 2 miles from the trail. He must have really been suffering to not make it two miles with his original choices. He was already setup in the tent, so there was no way for us to evaluate the obvious reasons for his discomfort. Maybe he didn’t have his pack adjusted correctly, and had more weight bearing on his shoulders, than his hips. I didn’t see any snowshoes, so maybe he had post holing issues with his combined weight, but I don’t think that was it, because he looked to be only about 165 pounds himself, and therefore with his pack he was still lighter than me, and I didn’t posthole any part of that section.
Chris didn’t have any real plans other than to spend one or two nights out. He had just gotten in and setup camp, and wasn’t sure what his next move would be. When you are by yourself, it’s easy to forego a fire, as you have to collect all the wood yourself, and when there is two to three feet of snow on the ground, finding dry wood above that in the vicinity of a shelter is a tough task. Especially if you don’t have snowshoes! There are no compacted trenches out into the woods to wood sources. So, maybe he was simply planning on what his meal would be, and then it would be an early retirement into his sleeping bag. I think he was planning on moving his camp the next day, but I advised him to leave it, and simply day hike. This was the best camp that we saw. Also, without snowshoes, he wasn’t going to get much further than Big Indian.
We departed Chris and his shelter, and made our way back to the cars. A little less than an hour and we were there, arriving at about the same time as a couple of young men, who we had also met between Fir and Big Indian, after the ladies of course, who were on a 3 35er day. The one dude lived in Glen Ridge, and his buddy lived in Brooklyn, and they navigated the whole way with only one of them in snowshoes. The dog was a young Lab, and was happy to be back at the car, and eating a bowl of food, and getting some water. We chatted as we both changed from our hiking clothes into our driving clothes, and soon it was time to leave. We didn’t exchange names, however, later, when I got home, and after uploading my Strava tracks, I used the “flybys” feature of Strava to see if anyone else had tracked the day, and there was only one: Another Eric. So I “follow requested” that Eric, and wrote a comment on his feed.
Mike moved his car, and let me out first, and I led him out the way I had come in, and we each went at our own pace once we had gotten back to the main highway. As I said earlier, my plan was to hit the REI on Route 4 in Paramus to return my Yukon Charlie snowshoes. Anyone who knows Route 4, knows that I must have been crazy to knowingly put myself into that traffic nightmare, but that is what I did. I am not sure I will ever do that again, as that entire experience was awful. The REI experience itself was fine, they expressed shock at the failure of my Yukon Charlies, and they refunded me my full investment and sent me on my way. It was just the experience of how complex the navigation was through the maze of shopping center lots, and getting back onto 4 and then off again at the Parkway, that I set a goal then and there to use any other REI than this one in the future. Or even go back to my old Campmor further North on 17.
By the time I got home, I didn’t want to cook, and so I dialed up Ilianos, across the street, and ordered a medium tomato, fresh garlic, and artichoke heart pie. “No mediums? Well, then make it a large. Please.” Fifteen minutes later I was through my second slice when I fell asleep with the TV on. When I awoke, my neck hurt, some other program was on, and two hours had passed, so I put everything away, grabbed a drink of water, and retreated to my bed to resume my recovery. The Catskills are a really long day trip, but in the words of my friend Jed Potter, “It’s worth it”.