“You don’t have spikes?” The middle-aged man had planted himself in the center of the trail, hands clenched around his hiking poles at stomach level like he was really excited to be asking Morgan this.
“Nah…” Morgan was not wearing spikes, the hiking boot attachment that gives one traction in the snow, and in fact was not wearing hiking boots at all. What he WAS wearing were threadbare sneakers that had become increasingly damp during our 1,600-foot ascent up Balsam Mountain.
The man was thunderstruck at Morgan’s lack of hiking gear, and he began a long description of the qualities of his particular brand of spikes.
I was 20 feet down the trail, preoccupied with panting, and there I stayed, because I also wasn’t wearing spikes, which I’ve found always bamboozles other snow hikers and they start hectoring you.
I mean yes, it’s unwise to snow hike without spikes, but it feels more challenging this way, and I always avoid spikes because this would just be — giving up? Less ‘badass,’ anyway, which is the same thing as saying ‘more dangerous.’
We had set off from Kingston at 11 a.m., steaming up Route 28 past an idiosyncratic myriad of Catskill motels and grilles. The world of chain businesses has never entered the Catskills, perhaps because the mountains’ tourism heyday was in the 1950s, a time before Best Westerns and Applebees, and the big boys know it makes no sense to invest now.
We pulled into the icy DEC lot at the end of Rider Hollow Road about an hour later. There were six other cars in the lot, and Morgan noted that three of them were Priuses. The Prius closest to us still had a “Bernie Sanders 2016” sticker fastened to the center of its bumper, something I still see a lot. Whenever any other presidential candidate has lost, especially a primary candidate, campaign bumper stickers are gone by the next day, as though the supporters all snuck to their driveways that night and furtively scraped them off with butter knives. But a lot of Bernie supporters felt he should have won, so the stickers stay.
The trail to Balsam Mountain, one of the 35 peaks in the Catskill above 3500 feet, is a five-mile lollipop approaching the peak from the north. Catskill Mountaineer suggested the hike would take three-and-a-quarter hours in the summer, five in the snow. We had about four-and-a-half hours of daylight left when we started off, spikeless shoes crunching the light snowpack.
I’m a year-round hiker, but I admit winter hiking doesn’t hold a candle to a summer hike. Everything’s in stasis, and there is far less nature to gawk at. The attraction of winter hikes is their challenge; hiking through snow is WAY more strenuous and dangerous (especially if you chose not to wear spikes) than hiking on bare ground, and you’re spurred along by the thought that, if you DO slip and break an ankle, there’s a possibility you’re going to freeze to death.
This realization struck me on my last solo winter hike, and this time I brought an emergency blanket, headlamps and extra winter wear. Plus Morgan was there, so he could always go for help. Unless of course, in the frenzied downhill rush to the parking lot, he also injured himself. Then we’d both be fucked.
The initial trail from the DEC lot, the stick of the lollipop, is marked with red blazes and crisscrosses a brook. We crossed it once on a footbridge, but the other crossings consisted of hopping from icy rock to icy rock.
After taking a left onto the yellow-blazed Mine Hollow Trail at the first juncture, the path shoots up a steep ravine unencumbered by switchbacks. This section took about 20 minutes and left me sucking air, which was annoying, because Morgan was directly behind me NOT sucking air, even though he often smokes cigarettes while hiking.
The trail is less strenuous after the ravine, but my legs felt like a couple sticks of string cheese, and I continued to pant. The grade lessens after the next juncture, then kicks up to another steep section, this one coated with a wavy layer of opaque cyan ice, where, yeah, it wouldn’t been easier with spikes.
I took five distinct falls in this section, each one probably hilarious in its own unique way to the outside observer. There was the chest-plant; the slow loss of balance accompanied by cursing and flailing ending in an awkward half-fall; and the two times the falls shot my canteen out of my backpack’s exterior pocket and sent it skittering back to the beginning of the climb.
Morgan, for his part, did not fall once in this section. As I reached the top, I saw him cupping a hand around his Bic to light a Marlboro.
To add insult to injury, Morgan fell behind me and kept commenting on the surroundings in between lusty puffs, comments I could not respond to because of my dangerously low blood-oxygen levels. I would try.
Me: Yee….yeah. Fuckin…de…deeper.
Me: It’s…DEEPER MORGAN….DEEPER.
Towards the peak, the half-dozen sets of footprints we’d been following suddenly split, the greater number of prints leading off the marked trail.
“Maybe it goes to an overlook,” I posited hopefully.
“Isn’t this what always happens?” Morgan said, concerned, due to overwhelming past evidence, that we would become lost.
We followed the footprints about 50 feet off the trail and came to what I thought looked like an altar. Morgan, ever the optimist, thought it was a grave.
The strange thing about the formation was it was in no way visible from the trail, so the people whose footprints we’d followed knew of its existence and location and specifically veered off the trail to see it. I don’t know what the monument symbolized or why the group made their pilgrimage, but the footprints turned around at the monolith and headed back to the trailhead. The site had been the group’s destination.
The temperature dropped and a gelid breeze drifted through the short pine at the top of Balsam Mountain. Morgan’s feet were beginning to crystallize with the cold as the trail skirted along the mountainside, then opened to the view.
We were able to see down the valley cut through the central Catskills by the Esopus Creek and into the mountains of Big Indian Wilderness. The very tip of Slide Mountain, gleaming white with snow and sun, peeked at us from the distance.
It was a bit too cold to stick at the overlook for long, and Morgan suggested his toes were developing frostbite, so we headed back.
I only fell twice on the way down, but this was not enough for me to put on my spikes, which had been resting in my backpack the entire time.
Because, how much fun would that be?