A couple of accidents on the peaks – Kaaterskill and Sherrill – this past week remind us how treacherous winter hiking can be. It’s not only the cold, icy terrain that’s a threat; if you’re tired or hungry, circumstances can quickly go from uncomfortable to dangerous. Once fatigue sets in, an ordinarily innocent stumble on a boulder can easily turn into a fall or disable a knee or ankle. In addition, if your under layers are soaked in sweat a rest break could allow them to freeze. These are potentially fatal conditions. Listen to your instinct when it says you’re really too tired to attempt to climb up that 50-feet-high vertical pile of jagged rocks. Except, I didn’t.
The hike to Cornell via the Wittenberg peak from Woodland Valley is one of the most difficult hikes in the Catskill 35. Right out of the gate it’s an uphill climb, even to the registration box.
Always sign in for hikes; it could save your life. From the Woodland Valley parking area, the elevation gain at the summit of Cornell is 2514ft. In stark contrast, Slide Mountain, which is the highest peak in the Catskills at 4,180ft high, is only a 1,749ft elevation gain from its parking area. Even Blackhead Mountain via Batavia Kill is only a 1,795ft elevation gain from the parking area. Indeed, Wittenberg-Cornell is like the Catskills’ cruelest, longest Stairmaster class. I almost gave up and didn’t even reach Cornell. After hiking uphill for 2.6 miles, I was hungry and by the time I reached the aforementioned 50ft vertical pile of rocks (pictured directly below), I had used all my energy.
Slick with solid ice and a top layer of powdery snow, the first part of this giant, vertiginous obstacle seemed too intimidating. Then, after climbing halfway up, we came to a rock ledge in the formation that even the dog refused to attempt, so we dithered in the cold. We watched hikers come and go, slipping up and sliding down, until I got too cold to remain still, and caught the attention of a descending hiker who convinced me that I could do it. “Give it a try,” she said. “It’s no worse than what you’ve just been through” and helped me push the dog up through a crack in the rocks. From his vantage point on top of the world, my dog looked down on me, wondering why we had hesitated. On the remaining half-mile to the summit the ice was accompanied by soft powdery snow. I only made it to Wittenberg on this hike, which is about 0.40 miles after the complicated rock formation, but I was reminded of the easy camaraderie of strangers that is always found on the trails and how, in this beautiful part of the world, if you need water, comfort, help or encouragement, you’ll find it here.