By Ryne Pataki
New York State is home to five mountain ranges, but only two, the Adirondacks and Catskills, are the tallest and most mountain-like. Instead of being intricately folded, most rocks that constitute the Catskill range feature horizontal strata. (See Figure 2, attached) That is, the Catskills might be better described as “pseudo mountains” (Tarr). The Catskills got their start millions of years ago during the Devonian period, when the sea floor experienced dramatic sinking and was layered with deposits of sediment. Eventually, when the region increased in elevation, forming a plateau, the horizontal strata of sediment remained in tact. The process mainly responsible for the formation of actual peaks and topographic complexity is denudation, a form of gradual erosion. To this day, geologists and climbers alike have trouble categorizing the outer boundaries of the range because of the gradual change the rock formations exhibit from sharp peaks to smooth plateau. (Tarr)
The utilization of the Catskills landscape for pleasure activities like climbing has a long history. John Burroughs, a celebrated New York naturalist and writer during the 19th and 20th centuries, says in his essay “The Friendly Rocks”:
One of my favorite pastimes from boyhood up, when in my home country in the Catskills, has been to prowl about under the ledges of the dark gray shelving rocks that jut out from the sides of the hills and mountains, often forming a roof over one’s head many feet in extend, and now and then sheltering a cool, sweet spring, and more often sheltering the exquisite moss-covered nest of the phoebe- bird. (Burroughs)
A 1908 Health article titled “Walking in the Catskills”, dated five years prior to Burrough’s essay, offers several suggestions for impressive hiking and climbing locations. Having traveled moderately within the Catskills region, I would say that the author’s assessment of the region, describing land spread with twisting roads and well-dispersed villages, holds true to how it appears today. The author refers to Slide Mountain as “[o] ne of the finest single day’s walks” (Percival). It is the highest peak within the Catskills, topping 4,204 feet and is located in the southern region of the range. The Catskill 3500 Club confirms this data on its website and states that “[f] rom the summit of Slide, you can see 33 of the other 34 high peaks” (3500 Club). Slide Mountain is worth a look on account of its elevation, as well as its suitability for most individuals; According to the Club, the Slide trail is one of the easier Catskills climbs.
What does it take to become a member of the Catskill 3500 Club? According to the Club’s website, “[m] embership is open to anyone who has climbed on foot each of the 35 Catskill peaks above 3500 feet in elevation” (3500 Club). The club, founded in 1962, regularly organizes group hikes to all 35 peaks and exists as a testament to the landscape’s diversity and the accessibility of its climbing offerings to trekkers all experience levels. Establishment of the Club by Bill and Kay Spangenberger was subsequent to that of the Adirondack Forty-Sixers Club in 1948 by the same couple. Bill, former president of the Cornell Steamboat Company, and Kay, former editor at HarperCollins, held the Club’s first meeting at the Lake Mohonk Mountain House including a Vassar Outing Club member in attendance, Nancy Locke. By the 1970’s, winter climbing was becoming more popular, largely because of the Club’s efforts such as an official publication, the Catskill Canister, relations with the New York State Conservation Department and the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, and, of course, the operation of outings with knowledgeable leaders and all the proper safety equipment. Today, the club has a whopping 1,700 members who have met its eligibility requirements and paid their dues. (3500 Club)
Andrew Wallace’s 1985 article in the Chicago Tribune advises the book Guide to the Catskills, published by Walking News Inc., as a go-to handbook for Catskills outings. Published in 1975, “[t] he guidebook contains information about downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, snow-mobiling and snow-shoeing. Maybe we’ll try that” (Wallace 25). Besides his excitement for multi-season adventuring, Wallace is especially redolent of Wittenberg peak in the southern region of the Catskills range. He compares the peak to the “[h] ighlands of West Virgnia, the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia or the Appalachians of Pennsylvania” (Wallace 25). The 3500 Club states that the ascent of the peak is quite steep, though well worth the effort. It is also one of the more popular peaks, and crowds should be expected should one dare to grunt the climb, bound for the summit’s acclaimed vistas.
Closest to the Vassar campus lies the well-known Mohonk Mountain House and nearby Shawangunk Mountains, included in the Catskills designation. “Since 1963, perpetual open- space protection has been afforded 6,200 acres of adjoining land by the Mohonk Preserve, making it New York’s largest private nature sanctuary” (Hagan 62). The Gunks cover about 100 square miles and comprise what was formally the “Tannin Belt” that provided manufacturers with hemlock trees used in the animal hide tanning process. (Hagan 62-63) Patti Hagan details the slabrock overhangs and intricate rock scrambles that have made the area so popular in her 1995 article “Crags and Crum”. She mentions how Fritz Wiessner labeled the Shawangunks “the major climbing area east of the Rockies” when he visited in 1935. Evidently, rock climbing safety was becoming a concern to Mohonk reserve administrators in the mid-1990’s, since Hagan’s article notes ‘new’ disclaimer signs posted in all climbing areas open to the public.
There is an expedition outfitter, Alpine Endeavors, which currently operates directly out of the Shawangunks area in New Paltz. The company can be reached via its website, http://alpineendeavors.com. It advertises the availability of more than one thousand climbs in the Mohonk Preserve, Minnewaska State Park, and Sky Top areas. The company also caters to beginners with comprehensive introductory climbs.
Catskills visitors may be quick to assume that the region is not as conducive to climbing activities, specifically, throughout the winter months, but the truth is quite the contrary. “Winter High—ice climbing in New York” reports that the Catskills may offer shorter ice climbs than the more mountainous Adirondack range, but “…what they lack in height they make up for in sheer verticality” (Mecus 6). Mixed climbing is especially popular in the Catskills, involving both ice and rock elements that make for a particularly challenging climbing experience. (See Figure 1, attached) The article points out the Salmon River Falls Area in Oswego Country as a newer ice climbing spot in the Catskills waiting to entertain full utilization of its potential. Some of the safety equipment necessary for ice climbing is provided by the article’s author: “helmet, climbing boots, crampons, two ice axes, rope, climbing harness, an assortment of carabiners, ice screws and nylon slings” (Mecus 7).
Catskill Mountaineer (www.catskillmountaineer.com) publishes a listing of the best hikes in the Catskills region. For avid outdoor enthusiasts, the Blackhead, Black Dome, and Thomas Cole Mountains should be fulfilling. Rated “Difficult” to “Very Difficult” by Catskill Mountaineer, the loop requires a minimum 6.68 mile commitment. I have attempted the Blackhead climb in the winter months with the Vassar Outing Club, and was forced to abandon the endeavor on account of light snow. Therefor, even minimally obstructive conditions can make the steep 30-40 degree climb at the summit (Catskill Mountaineer) nearly impossible, and the climb should be attempted with caution. Other trip suggestions on the site include waterfall routes like Kaaterskill Falls and Poet’s Ledge. The Kaaterskill Falls hike was accomplished by my environmental studies field experiences class within two hours, though the Poet’s Ledge loop includes several stops and is slightly more difficult and more appropriate for a full day endeavor. Catskill Mountaineer suggests visiting the Poet’s Ledge loop in autumn when foliage is visible in its full spectrum of colors. Finally, many are familiar with the fire towers that dot many of the region’s rolling hills. Catskill Mountaineer rates the Hunter Mountain Loop as its top fire tower destination. The trip is of moderate difficult and covers over eight miles of trails.
For More Information on Hiking and Climbing the Catskills:
http://www.catskillmountaineer.com/index.html http://www.rockclimbing.com/routes/North_America/United_States/New_York/Catskills/ http://www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/77168.html
Alpine Endeavors. Alpine Endeavors. Web. 5 May 2013. <http://alpineendeavors.com/index.html>
Burroughs, John. “The Friendly Rocks.” Harpers Monthly Nov. 1913: 836-841. Web. 6 April 2013.
Catskill 3500 Club, Inc. Catskill 3500 Club. Catskill Website Design. Web. 5 May 2013.<http://www.catskill-3500-club.org>
Catskill Mountaineer. Catskill Mountaineer. Web. 5 May 2013. <http://www.catskillmountaineer.com/index.html>
Hagan, Patti. “Crags and Crumpets.” Sierra May 1995: 60-65, 88-89. Web. 6 April 2013 Mecus, Robert. “Winter High—ice climbing in New York.” NY Conversationalist 66.4 (2012) : 2-7. Web. 5 May 2013.
“John Burroughs Memorial Historic Site.” NYS Office of Parks, Recreation, & Historic Preservation. NYS Office Parks, etc. Web. 5. May 2013. <http://nysparks.com/historic-sites/3/details.aspx>
Percival, Gilbert C. “Walking in the Catksills.” Health 58.12 (1908) : 685-692. Web. 5 May 2013.
Tarr, Ralph S. “The Physical Geography of New York State. Part II. The Mountains of the State.” Jou Amer Geo Soc NY 29.1 (1897) : 16-40. Web. 6 April 2013.
Wallace, Andrew. “Catskills aren’t real mountains—until you try climbing them.” Chicago Tribune 24 Nov. 1985: H23-26. Web. 5 May 2013.