Oh, the joy of crampons. It’s nice to muster a decent pace with a good, long stride on the Catskills trails and I’m talking about the sort of stride that confirms the saying “to stretch the legs”, which British people call going for a walk. The only way you can do that in is in the winter on long stretches of iced mud, wearing crampons or “spikes”. Most Catskills trails are rocky, and I understand when I hear about hikers who go barefoot in good weather, because it’s easy to lose your footing if it’s wet or mossy. In the autumn, when the trail is covered with leaves, it’s too easy to slip between rocks and turn an ankle, especially when you’re on your descent and tired. Crampons are inadvisable other than when it’s icy or snowing because otherwise you’ll punch up the trail. They and snowshoes both make winter hiking rather special. Hillsound make a fabulous set for a reasonable price and I wore a pair yesterday for the very first time. Hillsound had sent us two pairs to try out for free and I love them.
Another hiker expressed annoyance at spikes, saying that they feel like they have razor blades on their feet, but I solved this problem by wear snowboarding boots with them. The thicker sole seems to help. The first time I hiked Giant Ledge in the winter, I was woefully unprepared, not wearing crampons and wrote about it here.
To join the Catskills 3500 Club you’re required to do four of the requisite peaks over 3500ft in winter between the dates of December 21 and March 21. On Monday, I did Balsam and yesterday I did Panther, which I’ve done before in the summer and wrote about it here.
Yesterday’s Panther Mountain hike was clearly divisible into two parts: pre-Giant Ledge and post-Giant Ledge. The 1.5 miles to Giant Ledge was rocky, but the gaps were filled in with snow, making the ascent easier in the winter with crampons than at any other time.
The first mile after the second bridge crossing was quite icy on our morning ascent, but was even more icy on our afternoon descent when I went off-trail for about a hundred yards to avoid ascending hikers in shoes who were slipping around on the ice and unable to gain traction. Going off trail on the home stretch was a glorious but brief respite with soft, matted bushes and branches breaking the footfall: a welcome cushion and relief for the knees and ankles.
It’s possible to run up the trail with crampons such is your firm grip on the snow. It’s a lot of fun, but don’t forget that winter hiking can get dangerous very quickly. Always leave much earlier in the morning than you would in the summer, because you might find the trail iced over by the afternoon in low temperatures and the sun goes down earlier; have a hearty breakfast; don’t wear cotton; take plenty of water, spare undergarments and a gadget to make water out of snow because your water canteen might freeze unexpectedly. Temperatures are much lower on north facing ascents, and peaks. If in doubt, you can always turn around. The weather conditions can very suddenly become squally, and if you’re tired, hungry or cold their effects are multiplied. Don’t push yourself in low temperatures. It’s simply not worth the trouble, especially if you’re alone.
The 1.85 miles from Giant Ledge to Panther Mountain summit was a magical winter wonderland with stands of evergreens laden with snow and two or three inches of fluffy snow underfoot. The views, of which there are plenty on the way to the summit of Panther Mountain, are spectacular and the reason this hike is so popular. When we finished at 2pm, there were 20-30 cars parked in the parking area and all the way down the road and many tourists and hikers were doing a weekend jaunt to the infamous Giant Ledge.