It had been some time since we’d taken on a substantial backpacking trip, but Matt had managed to piece together four options for a Summer Solstice weekender in the Catskills. Ranging in difficulty from short to long, we had PDF maps numbered 1 through 4 respectively.
On the invite list were the usual suspects: Matt, Anton, Olga, Jeff, Erin, and yours truly. I started a new job last year after returning from my AT trip, and invited one of the guys on the IT team I’d gotten to know pretty well: Nick. Matt also invited a long-time friend, Mike, to join us.
As our trip deadline drew near, we’d thrown in several opinions for the trip via a Facebook event page that Matt had kindly set up, but the trail outlined on map #4 really stood out for most of us. It was by far the longest: starting at Woodland Valley Campground trail head we would continue up and over Wittenberg, Cornell, Slide, Table, and finally Peekamoose. This route would pass through The Burroughs and along the Slide-Peekamoose Trail.
Deciding to spend the night close to the trail head, the majority of our group made reservations to stay at Woodland Valley Campground on Friday night. On a whim and best guess, I picked out two sites: 30 and 32 as they looked relatively close to the creek. I booked 30 and Matt the other.
I’d taken Friday off from work and so had Nick, which meant we could get on the road pretty early. I arranged to pick him up on the way as he lives right off the I-87. Nick had told me that he was borrowing some gear from his dad and that it was “old and had seen some use”. When I pulled up to his house his dad’s external frame pack with tubular steel hip belts was leaning up against a car in his driveway. It was huge, and the tent and other accoutrements were placed on top, strapped on by one of those old bungees your folks used in the 70′s to fasten luggage. All in all, this thing came up to higher than my hips when standing on the ground. It was massive. Thank god I’d decided to bring some of my own gear: ULA Circuit, 20°F TQ and some other ultralight gear.
We set off at around 12:30pm and our scheduled eta was around 2:30pm. Hitting traffic about an hour in slowed our journey but we got to camp around 3:00pm. After checking in and driving to site 30 I realized that I’d made a very lucky choice: we were right on the creek! Amazing.
We unpacked and went through my gear for Nick to use – I think in total I helped shave about 20lbs off his base weight alone. I hung my hammock and Matt rolled in about an hour later. This was Matt’s first outing with his new hammock gear, so I was stoked for him. Matt’s always been a tent guy, and I think his tent/sleeping pad choices tallied in at a considerably larger weight.
We got some wood from the ranger station and set about building a fire and making dinner. Mike arrived shortly after Matt, and we got some hotdogs on the go right away. Anton and Olga had decided to arrive on Saturday morning as they both had to work on Friday, but Jeff and Erin were driving up that night.
Wine and hotdogs, what a combo. As night drew in I wanted to hit the sack hard. Plus I was just jonesing to have some hang time. I bade the boys a good night and slipped into my hammock, zippered the side and I was out like a light. Slowly rocking, hanging between two trees only feet away from the creek – sleep came fast.
Waking up at 3:00am needing a leak, I realized that my “nap” had turned into a full-on sleep fest – I spotted Jeff’s car parked and their tent pitched over on site 32. Cool, they’d made it. After doing my business I felt my body shake uncontrollably – it was freezing and there I was standing in only shorts and a t-shirt. I hurried back to my hammock and pulled my ZPacks quilt up and over me. I was laying there listening to the flow of the creek whilst peeking out at the stark white moonlight through the trees above me. I love this time of night, it’s so peaceful. It’s like the moon is shining just for me to see.
As usual I’m the first one up. I unzip my hammock and just lie there watching and listening to the water gurgle by without a care in the world.
First things first: where’s the coffee? I unlocked the car and start to unpack some of the breakfast stuffs and Nick pokes his head out of the tent – he decided to use my SMD Lunar Duo instead of the 6lb monster his dad had loaned him. He slept well which was good to hear.
Matt slipped out of his hammock shortly after and got his coffee grinder and espresso maker right to work. Anton and Olga arrived around 9:30am and it was good to see them again – haven’t had the chance to hang out since they got married a few weeks prior.
We needed to drop off a couple of cars at the end of the trail — southern trail head of Peekamoose — and Mike’s car off by Slide Mountain. He was just going to join us for a day hike while we kept going all the way for an overnight on Saturday.
Once back at Woodland Valley I insisted on the obligatory group shot – I like taking these as we always look so clean and refreshed, unlike the shots I take a day or two into these trips at the end, disheveled and filthy.
We set out quite late — 11:00am to be exact. We had a lot of ground to cover and some serious elevation change to handle – 11:00am was way too late for a hike this long.
Crossing the creek we started the ascent up Wittenberg. I’ve got quite a lot of experience climbing mountains on the east coast, but this first climb was up steep dirt/rocky trail and boulder/outcropping scrambling for close to ~3.5 miles. Straight up, and it kicked my arse.
For what seemed like an eternity, we summited Wittenberg and we all spread out along a smooth rocky outcropping that delivered 180° views over the Catskills before us; beautiful valleys and lush green rolling peaks – stunning. This was the payoff we’d all earned with our sweat equity.
A quick bite to eat (I opted for a spam single wrapped in a flour tortilla with a splash of Frank’s Red Hot, and we all took photos and cool panoramas. We were soon hoisting our packs and we headed down the mountain and onto the climb up Cornell.
The hike up Cornell wasn’t nearly as rough as Wittenberg, but it did offer its own fair share of bouldering/crag scrambling which littered the ascent.
No real view off Cornell, maybe a couple of lookouts, but most of us just kept going. Our biggest climb of the day was straight ahead: Slide Mountain.
Standing at 4,190′, Slide Mountain is the highest peak in the Catskills. From the side, Slide may look like a children’s playground slide: the steep climb on one side leading to the top, and then a long steady downhill the other side. From Cornell we were heading up the [very] steep side. This climb was brutal and far steeper than Wittenberg. Granted the distance needed to summit Slide was shorter, but the extra effort required to hoof ourselves up and over was exacerbated by the angle of ascent.
Holy effing moly.
If I stopped to catch my breath once, I did it ten times. And the weather had gotten warmer, too. Luckily we’d been graced with a lot of lower-level shade during the earlier part of the day, but as we neared these summits, we were more exposed to the sun – and it was hot.
Once at the top of Slide there were no real views again, not like Wittenberg, but there were several small spots you could walk out to – but nowhere we could all gather and drop our packs. At a few areas on the trail we could look back and see the summits of Cornell and Wittenberg in the distance, green and rolling, smooth almost: trust me, they were anything but “smooth”.
I’ve often thought that the energy needed to climb serious elevation was harder than the descents of similar elevation loss. That myth was busted during my descent from Mount Cammerer out of the Smokies. Descents are way harder: with 20-30lbs of added weight pushing down hard on your knees and other joints makes for a rough hike downhill.
We stopped for a short break to catch our breaths and chug water, then headed down the long rocky descent to camp. Four long knee-destroying miles down we went, single file for the most part as the going was rocky underfoot. I’d hiked behind Olga for a couple of miles and we caught up on life and sundries. When the trail is as rocky as this it’s hard to not look up at the surrounding beauty, fearful of rolling an ankle on that one bastard loose stone. My eyes affixed always a few feet ahead of me as I traverse this descent I see Olga’s left ankle roll – completely at 90°. Shit, she yelped and hobbled to the side of the trail. I know only too well how that feels – with all your weight pressing your ankle to its outer limits you’re treated to an electric jolt of pain that shoots all the way from your foot upwards through your entire body. Man does that suck.
She slowed her pace and took it easy for the remainder of the hike down Slide.
About two hours after rounding the summit of the largest mountain in the Catskills the trail started to level and we heard the welcome sound of a fast moving body of water. Were we at the river? Our campsite for the night was situated right next to East Branch Neversink River and the sound of water got the group excited. We picked up our pace a little as the trail flattened out and through a clearing the river came into view in all its glory. Finally, we were here.
Crossing a cool wooden bridge we followed the trail a little more and there were an abundance of campsites littered to our left and to our right. We spotted another bridge off to the left where the trail veered and, over that one, we found our own little paradise. Right on the creek’s banks, we’d found our home for the night. It was perfect.
Jeff and a couple of others had mentioned keeping going up Table and make camp 2.7 miles farther, making for an easier Sunday – the majority, including myself, were completely spent. It had been a long arduous day and the temps had been pretty high. Nothing could have dragged me away from that campsite – I was famished and tired, stinky and greasy.
We scurried like worker bees vying for spaces to pitch our shelters; Matt and I had the simple task of finding two trees to hang from: the others searching for flat ground, sweeping the forest floor with their boots checking for rocks and roots. I love my hammock, and this is the #1 reason I choose to hang instead of tenting. I’m completely free of the task of searching for flat ground.
Matt and I had our hammocks up pretty quickly, and the others were unfolding poles and clipping into brass grommets into tent corners. I helped Nick with the SMD Lunar Duo I’d loaned him for the trip, and I turned to see Jeff stripping. He looked like a lifeguard ripping off his clothing to save a drowning boy and, down to his pants, he sprinted for the river. I managed to start recording and catch it on video – good times. Hitting the frigid water he let out a cacophonous howl; the forest alive with his echoes and high pitched laughter.
We’d soon started a fire with much help from Jeff and Erin, and before long we were chowing down on various freeze dried accoutrements and instant mashed potatoes. A blazing fire centered within a circle of well-fed hikers, we laughed into the night telling stories and sipping on aged tequila.
My body hit hiker midnight (it had to be earlier than 8:30pm, and it was still light out) I and was the first to hang my hat for the night. Sliding into my Blackbird I was out like a light. Rocking to and fro as dusk turned to night, the evening sky and its myriad diamond-like stars peeking through the tree limbs above.
The next morning was pretty standard: baggy-eyed and hungry hikers climbing out of their shelters like zombies clawing their way out of graveyard crypts in the Thriller music video. I’d opted for a no-cook breakfast of frosted Pop Tarts again, choosing to only boil water for coffee.
Jeff and Anton headed over to where their food bag was hanging and yanked the cord. Somehow the cord managed to re-loop itself through the carabiner for a 2nd time – it was stuck, not coming down or going up so the stick could be removed (we PCT hang our bags on our backpacking trips). The bag wasn’t budging, and even with Anton climbing on Jeff’s shoulders, it wasn’t going anywhere.
Jeff wasn’t about to give up so easily.
He tried to shimmy the tree from which the bag was hanging but it was too thick to grab around its girth. I motioned to another tree next to it that was much skinnier. Jeff needed no further prompting and leapt into action. Shimmying the smaller tree he climbed to the height of the food bag and with some tugging he pulled it free. Applause abound, the food was freed.
Matt was still in his hammock. I’m sure he wondered what was going on with all the laughing and shouting. Erin helped him wake from his slumber by gently rocking the shit out of his hammock and yelling like a banshee. He wasn’t too pleased – good job they’re related.
We were all packed up by around 7:30am and, right after our obligatory group photo, we headed back onto into the trail headed for Table Mountain.
Off the bat we were treated to a ~1,500′ elevation gain to the summit of Table, some viewpoints but nothing like Wittenberg the day before. The pine forest on top of Table was beautiful to walk through. A flat and soft needle-cushioned trail that felt like we were wearing our favorite slippers, we made a good pace down the other side and back up again to summit Peekamoose. The descent and subsequent climb between these two was minimal. We stopped for a bite and a quick rest stop before summitting Peekamoose, knowing the downhill to the trail head was going to be long.
I hate the descents. Reminds me of Mt Cammarer in the Smokies: six miles straight down. This wasn’t quite six miles but it was close to it. We passed through the three distinct levels of foliage as we descended, and after a good two hours we reached the Peekamoose trail head. My feet and knees were shot, this was a rough downhill indeed.
Erin and Olga agreed to drive Nick and me back to my car at the Wittenberg trail head near Woodland Valley campground. My feet were barking and my knees swollen, and the ride through the winding mountain roads back to my car was very relaxing.
Great trip with great friends; my backpacking weekends with these guys become more enjoyable each time we hang out. I’m also very happy to be able to cross another five 35′ers off the list – nine down, 26 to go.<