My definition of “fun” sure has changed over the years. A few years ago it would have include burgers off the grill, a nice cold beer, and some total inactivity… Today “fun” involves hopping in the car with some friends, driving several hours away, spending all day trail running mountain peaks, and than driving back home again. Ya know, fun.
This past weekend I had the privilege of tackling – along with two friends (Ron Heerkens, Jr. and Jamie Hobbs) – The Devil’s Path, an infamous trail that runs over the highest peaks in the Catskills in one fell swoop. 5-7 peaks (depending how you look at it) and 18,000-ish feet of elevation change packed into a sub-marathon distance (23-ish miles). The Devil’s Path is consistently ranked one of the hardest trails in the Country, and most in-shape hikers plan on 3 days and 2 nights to make the journey. We attempted to run it in under 12 hours.
I’d first learned about the trail a year or two ago from a friend and have been pretty much obsessed with the idea of running it “someday” ever since. Ron, Jamie (who grew up in the Catskills) and I were tossing around ideas late last year, one thing led to another, and it ended up on the calendar. This was my “last hurrah” as far as races go before the arrival of our baby this September, so I’ve been training for and looking forward to this for months. I love the mountains more than any other environment, and I do races only as training for these types of adventures. I’ve been putting in a lot more mileage this year, been running more and more trail, and have been regularly hitting the steepest, most technical trails I can find in our area. As it turns out, the steepest most technical trails our area has to offer were basically an easy section on Saturday’s run.
Devil’s Path has a reputation for being brutal. A recent trail ultra (Manitou’s Revenge) was run through the Catskills and included most of Devil’s as part of the race. Top-ranked trail runners from around the country came out for it. These are folks who’ve placed well in 100 mile races through the Rockies and other absolutely unforgiving mountain terrain. Pretty much to a man (and woman) they described The Devil’s Path as “absolutely atrocious” and “one of the hardest trails” they’d ever set foot on.
I probably shouldn’t have read those reviews on the ride down, because it thoroughly lived up to its reputation. I love climbing and hiking, having hit the highest peaks in the Northeast which can dish out their fair share of steeps and pain. And I grew up in rural Pennsylvania, so I’m used to rugged trails consisting mostly of steep shale and roots. So I knew it would be tough, and came expecting to get my butt kicked, but I have truly never, ever encountered anything like The Devil’s Path anywhere else. In terms of difficulty of terrain? It defies description. The White Mountains doesn’t come close. Adirondacks don’t come close. Khatadin doesn’t come close. It’s just ridiculous. It’s steep (we hit 70% grades and the descents took longer than the ascents), technical (basically scrambling over car-sized boulders grown over with big roots and then filled in with loose stone and mud/plants/fallen trees/streams/what-have-you up and down the sides of mountains), and sustained (multiple Empire State Building height climbs followed by similar descents. And repeat.). I still am having trouble understanding how those atrocious trails are tucked away in the beautiful, green, unassuming, rolling mountains of the Catskills. But they are. Forget about switchbacks. Basically, the shortest way to the top is how the trails run. Also, unlike other mountain traverses which involve a fair amount of ridge running once you’re up in the peaks, there are no ridges involved on Devil’s Path. You go up and down and then back up and then back down each peak in succession.
Perhaps what I love most about these types of adventures is that they’re real. It’s not a race. There’s no support crew, volunteers, or aid stations. DNF really isn’t an option (more on that later). And even if it was there’s no cell reception, so you’d still be stuck in the middle of nowhere. The only way out is to finish.
We left Ron’s jeep at the end point on Spruceton Road early Saturday morning having spent the night in Troy, NY, and then drove Jamie’s car to the trail head on Prediger Road. There were a good number of cars already in the lot as we got our 8am start; a bit later than we’d planned, but still early enough to finish before dark.
The trail started out “easy” enough. Lots of roots and rocks, but an easy uphill grade for the first mile or so and we set out at an easy 12:00/mile pace. We were all wearing a hydration vest/pack with about 2 liters of water and enough nutrition for the day. That, trail running shoes, a lighter and a space blanket in case something went really wrong rounded out our “gear.” As we overheard a group of European hikers say later on in the day as we passed, “wow, I thought WE were going fast and light, but they’re REALLY alpine style!!!”
The climb up Indian Head was long and steep and technical, but nothing I didn’t expect. A bit of scrambling at the top followed by gorgeous views of the valley below and the fog burning off in the morning sun. The sun felt so good given that it’s been raining an awful lot Upstate as of late. But it also made the woods feel like a steam room, so the humidity was definitely a factor for me given that I’m a cold-weather guy. The trails were also slick given all the rain so our pace definitely suffered having to take all the wet rocks with a bit more caution than we normally would have. Break a leg out here and there are no good rescue scenarios. You’ll probably be there overnight at least. Good luck finding water or a cell phone signal. And mind the bears.
From there it was our first descent and then on to the peaks of Twin, Sugarloaf ($&#^!!!), and Plateau before we’d hit the “half-way” point of Devil’s Tombstone/Stony Clove Notch on Route 214. The climbs got progressively steeper and longer and more technical as we went, as did the descents. But the views were incredible and the sense of accomplishment in “running” this terrain was pretty amazing. We overtook several groups of multi-day hikers with full gear and heavy packs who all had the same incredulous/confused response when hearing where we’d started from and where we were headed… in one day. I’m hoping we may have converted a few kids to ultra running. Or maybe they just thought we were off our rockers.
To give you a sense of the brutality of this trail I’ll compare it to two things that Rochester trail runners know well. Sehgahunda Trail Marathon? A brutal race in its own right. We covered ALL the elevation gain of that course before we even hit mile 5 on Devil’s. Muddy Sneaker 20k Trail Race – Conklin Gully climb at the end? Absolutely pales in comparison to Devil’s. So as we got closer to the half-way point my mind was in a million dark places. I was surrounded by utter beauty. Great views, amazing trails. But I was in a world of hurt. And I wasn’t sure if Jamie and Ron were or not because they were up ahead of me; which was a theme for the day (thank you guys, from the bottom of my heart, for your patience on Saturday). Jamie made this look way too easy, and Ron had just come off a top-20 finish at the TARC 50 Mile trail race out in New England so I knew he was tired. Coming down the descent from Plateau I was seriously thinking of how I could maybe pull out at Route 214, letting them go ahead and finish, and hoping they’d come back for me. I had enough in the tank to finish, but not at that pace on that terrain, and I was hurting really bad.
Coming into Stony Clove Notch, Ron’s legs were visibly shaking, and I’m sure I looked like a zombie. Jamie basically laid out our options for us which were to get to the end 12 miles away as originally planned, or get to the shorter end via a detour 6 miles away at which point he was willing to run the 3 miles on back roads and come get Ron and I with the Jeep. We opted for the shorter route. Again, this is where the “there’s no DNF option” thing comes into play. I’ve heard a lot of people express their interest in doing this trail, but what folks need to understand is that once you start you have to finish. If Ron and I hadn’t been fortunate enough to be with Jamie – who is clearly in ridiculous condition and knows the area really well – we would’ve been stumbling to the Jeep in the dark later that evening. You can’t just say, “I’m done.”. ‘Cause where are you gonna go? You’re in the middle of nowhere and there’s no one around. You can’t call anyone because you can’t get a cell signal. If you’re fortunate enough to be a few miles from an out trail to a back road than you can hike out. But then you’re still in the middle of nowhere with no cell service on a back road with no traffic. Best case scenario you hitchhike with some kind soul to a nearby town (population 30), but… who are you going to call? There are no cabs. Your options are incredibly limited. Basically, what I’m saying is, don’t even consider tackling this trail unless you’re absolutely sure you can finish it. Because none of the bail out options are good ones.
From Stony Clove Notch we headed up Mt. Hunter, which was a bear. Part of it was how wrecked I felt by that point, but it really is a long, steep climb at a mentally tough point in the day. I cranked my head off a tree climbing up through one of the rock sections; I was ok, but it really didn’t make things any better. What was worth noting about this point in the day was how wrecked I felt even though I’d been hydrating and fueling. My water, food, etc. was all right on point, but I felt out of my league. The fact that Manitou’s Revenge takes this all in as just a portion of that race blows my mind. I’m in really good shape. But I’m not in that kind of shape. At the top of Hunter we regrouped and Jamie walked us through the plan. Descend to Diamond Notch a couple miles away, hang out at the falls (yes, waterfalls and pools of cold water were awaiting us!), and then take the detour down while he ran ahead on the access road and grabbed the jeep. I owe Jamie an insane amount of beer for that. Growler? He easily had it in him to finish the whole trail at the pace we were pushing. But I didn’t. Ron didn’t. So we descended to the falls where I commenced to submerge my body in the freezing cold, take-your-breath-away mountain water. It felt so unbelievably good, as did the reaction of the family who was there taking photos at the time when they asked us how far we’d hiked (“Holy s***!!! You… wait, what?!?”). Because it put things in perspective. Technically we’d failed in our quest to knock out the entire trail in one shot, but sometimes failure is relative. We’d knocked off over 17 miles of unbelievably technical terrain, and all but one peak in somewhere around 13,000 feet of elevation change. In 8 hours. Which, in most people’s books, is an epic day in their wildest dreams. Most Devil’s hikers are happy to push that in two long days.
So I’m not disappointed, because I left it all on the trail. I didn’t have an ounce of unspent energy at the end. All you can do is give it your best shot, learn from the experience, and then come back harder next time. Which I’m looking forward to doing next year. I cannot wait to tackle Devil’s again. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever tackled and I’m content with the result. Ron and Jamie were great company for the weekend and it’s nice to have friends who you can experience such adventures with. You truly are putting your life in each other’s hands, because if someone breaks a leg they’re your only way out. Choose your adventure buddies wisely. I have good ones for which I’m thankful.
It’s funny, this morning’s trail run up through the local singletrack of Indian Hill – which is normally referred to as “somewhat technical” in these parts, was a breeze this morning. Could not believe how much my frame of reference has changed after Saturday’s experience. I’m now in “off season” with no races on the calendar until November’s 50k which I plan to use as a qualifier for the 2014 Escarpment 30k Trail Race. And Beast of Burden Winter 50 Miler is still aways away in January. So I have time to recoup a bit, let the body heal, enjoy our new baby, and then ramp up training for next year’s ultras (which will not include Manitou’s Revenge… that’s going to have to wait until 2015 now that I’m a bit wiser).
The Devil’s Path was an incredible experience. I never cease to be amazed by the wilderness and the mountains. It’s such a big, beautiful, unforgiving place. And it puts me in my place. Makes me thankful for how blessed my small little life is, despite all the material struggles. I live a truly blessed life. The great outdoors always puts things in perspective for me, which is why I’m fond of saying that the wilderness is the best church I’ve ever been to. I come back cleansed, refreshed, renewed. Thankful.