The trail to the summit of Bearpen is a long, gradual meander around a mountain, mostly on a part of a snowmobile trail that’s much longer than the walk to the summit and privately maintained. Unlike other trails to Catskills peaks over 3500ft, which are rocky, and perhaps because it’s so further afield than the others, the path is soft and grassy. There’s no tripping over boulders or sliding around on gravel. Most of all, there’s no clambering. If you like hauling yourself up over large boulders, this is not the hike for you. There are short lengths of the trail that are steeper, but they don’t last long. Bearpen is bearish, not bullish, if you like market metaphors. Yesterday, the trail was wet and that made the going very muddy with the boots sinking inches into thick banks of mud in some parts. There were long, round puddles that reflected another gorgeous winter day wearing the mantle of spring. On the ascent there are views through the trees during winter and at the summit, there are many breathtaking views. There’s also a large, rusting contraption that looks like an old ski-lift pulley converted from a car or truck, around which small trees have grown.
The Pecoy Notch trail must be magical in the summer because even in the winter, when it’s bare and cold, it’s charming in a way that other gaps and passes are not. The first 0.25 miles is a gentle incline and before you have time to be surprised at how quickly you arrived at it, you’re upon Dibble’s Quarry, a defunct quarry that runs down the side of the incline, on which someone has built a large stone stage and several over-sized stone chairs in which to relax. Behind the stone stage there’s a small room that looks like it’s on its way to becoming a small stone cabin equipped with stone picnic tables inside and out. Downhill, there are various lookout notches and seating built in the side of the hill from stone. The entire landmark is essentially a bluestone auditorium with a stunning view of Kaaterskill High Peak. Before you come to Pecoy Notch itself, which is a notch between Twin Mountain and Sugarloaf, you pass a frozen lake and then a frozen swamp, which adds an unexpected air of mystery. From the frozen swamp, you can clearly see the two mountains. The Notch from there to the next mile markers is a dense thicket of spruces with a soft forest floor covered in gnarly tree roots and fir needles. After the quarry, but well before the Notch, there’s a half-frozen, roaring waterfall that cascades across the trail and over the edge of the mountain. This stream is is a little tricky to cross, but shallow enough, and there are just enough boulders to help you pass.
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.
A return to the stunning Slide Mountain for the second time this year, ascending into the seductive clutches of a dense forest of snow-laden conifers, with a copy of John Burroughs’ In The Catskills. A commemorative plaque to Burroughs is affixed to a large rock at the summit under which the writer frequently camped. Slide is so named because of a landslide that occurred in the early nineteenth century on its north face where the scar is still apparent after having been refreshed by another landslide in 1992 and the entire area was thoroughly traversed by the writer.
Winter hiking in the Catskills is mostly magical, tranquil beauty but uncomfortable if you’re ill prepared and occasionally terrifying. I’ve been conveying my winter hiking experiences here under the Outdoors section on Upstate Dispatch. Or, rather, I’ve been writing about what could possibly go wrong should you decide to attempt a Catskills high peak when it’s 10˚F and weather conditions are a fickle master. True to my British nature, I seem to have created A Pessimist’s Guide to Winter Hiking or a Pessimist’s Guide to Conquering Winter Summits. Last year, I decided to attempt to hike all 35 Catskills peaks over 3500ft in order to join the Catskills 3500 Club and there are four extra peaks required in the winter. What I discovered after having hiked those four is that you can see a lot more of the landscape when it has lost most of its foliage. You literally get the lay of the land. So I’ve been continuing down the list instead of doing the sensible thing and waiting for the spring thaw. However, winter hiking is not for the uncertain.
There’s a part of the final metres of the ascent to Blackhead Mountain that is a vertical climb and one from which you should not look back down if you suffer the slightest vertigo or you will invite a case of the wobblies. It’s even worse now that it’s entombed in ice. My husband and dog hopped up it like mountain goats and I was left in the metaphorical dust, grappling with uncertainty, stabbing my spikes into the ice and, finally, hoisting myself up over the rocks with the roots of an aging birch tree. As I finally managed to haul myself over the top, I wondered if there was such a thing as hand crampons attached to a set of gloves because they would have made the job much easier.
Winter hiking can get dangerous pretty quickly. One minute you could be trotting along atop a magical winter wonderland and then the next minute, you might take your gloves off to take a picture and be left wondering if you’ll ever feel your hands again. Your water might freeze in your backpack at the summit of a mountain and if you’ve layered with cotton and start sweating on your ascent, you’ll stay wet for the duration of the hike. Winter hiking in the Catskills is only for the experienced or very prepared. At the very least, take spare socks, t-shirt, food and don’t wear cotton under- or base garments. Drink a liter of water before you set out and eat a hearty breakfast. Take a lighter, some pocket hand warmers and a gadget that turns snow into water. Or wait until Spring. Just stay at home and read, catch up on correspondence or binge watch quaint BBC period dramas because if I haven’t mentioned it, winter hiking in the Catskills can get serious suddenly and without warning.
Lisbeth Firmin works out of her warmly inviting art studio in Margaretville, in upstate New York. She was part of the Catskills Open Studio Art Tour last weekend in which she showed many strikingly gorgeous cityscapes in oil.
JN: How long have you lived in the Catskills?
LF: I moved from New York City in 2000, but I kept my apartment down there, so I went back and forth for a while.
What were you doing in the city?
I was a painter and I had a two-bedroomed apartment on Sullivan Street and I painted in one of the bedrooms. My career was just taking off and I needed a bigger space, so I bought a storefront in Franklin, upstate New York.
That sounds very Williamsburg. I remember, back in the day, artists used to buy storefronts and paint out of them. Those were the days.
Oh man, those days, Williamsburg. You can’t even go anywhere near the city these days. I’ve heard Newark is happening.
Jack Frost has cut his expert swathe across the mountains. A frozen, overcast landscape, 31F at 7am and every single bud, blade and branch coated in a thick, icy mantle. Icy granola stuck fast to the entire deck and sides of the house. Overnight thunder, lightning and hail set Spring back again. Update: 36F mid-afternoon with the ice being noisily blown off the branches by the wind.