Back in December I found myself in the enviable predicament of heading to Albany, NY for the day on business with a meeting that ended around lunch time. Why is that enviable? Because it’s near the Catskill Mountains, and when you’re from Rochester (a 4 hour drive), you don’t get down to the Catskills often enough. Clearly this was an opportunity to squeeze in a winter climb before heading home.
My first significant time spent in the Catskills had actually been earlier last year, and I was blown away. Those “short” mountains pack a mean punch. Some of the gnarliest trails I have ever been on, hands-down. So I asked around for a few recommended winter routes to solo without getting into too much danger and was told that the Escarpment Trail up and over Windham High Peak (in East Windham, NY) was a good one. And, man, it was. Easy to find. Challenging terrain, but certainly not difficult, and absolutely beautiful in the winter. Snowshoe trail, not crampon/ice axe trail. So here’s a recap of my snowshoeing solo up Windham High Peak, along with a few pointers on directions, parking and gear.
My plan was to leave my meeting in downtown Albany around 12:30 and head on out to the Catskill, NY exit on the Thruway. Easier said than done with nearly a foot of fresh snow on the ground downtown and nowhere to put it. But I managed to get on the road to the Catskill exit (about :40 South of Albany) and head West on Route 23 in fairly decent time. The drive down was beautiful. Windchills in the single digits, but crisp blue skies with no storms blowing in. Perfect climbing weather. The northern trailhead for the 24-mile long Escarpment Trail (roughly another :30 of driving once you get on Route 23) was easy to find. It’s a fairly large lot out in the open situated where Cross Road meets Route 23.
The only problem, with over 2 feet of snow on the ground, was that it wasn’t plowed. And the 4 foot bank of snow at the entrance from the snow plows meant I was SOL on arrival. Really!!??!! I do understand. The Escarpment isn’t too heavily traveled in the winter months, but I hadn’t driven all that way to NOT climb. So I found a plowed off section of shoulder up the hill on Cross Rd and parked there. Hopefully my car could get back on the road when I was done… assuming it didn’t get hit by a plow.
I changed into my gear and headed for the trail about an hour behind when I’d wanted to start. But, on the trail nonetheless. I’m not normally a big fan of headlamping unfamiliar mountains solo in the dark in dangerous temps (actually, I’m pretty sure this is something they tell you to never do), but in this case it seemed a reasonable risk given the lack of storms, my previous experience, and fairly friendly terrain.
With the temps in the low teens (and the windchills towards the top down into the negative double digits), hypothermia and frostbite were a concern if not properly prepared. In addition to calories, 2 liters of water and some minimal emergency survival gear in my trail running pack, I wore 3 layers. Compression socks, compression shorts and compression LS Tee = Layer 1. Layer 2 consisted of tight-fitting OmniHeat. And an Outer Layer of fleece lined tights + fleece lined soft shell hoodie. That, plus double gloves, wool socks, knit hat, and a bandanna to protect the face rounded out my outfit. Shoes were Saucony Xodus trail running shoes, no gaiters. Snowshoes are Atlas 9 series and poles are collapsable Easton.
I signed in at the trailhead noting that no more than half a dozen people had been through this trail in the previous 2 weeks. Note to self: don’t get hurt. The Catskills are no different from any other backcountry area. You come and go on your own strength. Don’t get hurt, don’t count on others finding you, and don’t rely on a cell phone to get you out. Cell coverage can be spotty-to-non-existent on the best days out in the peaks. Per usual, I’d sent my full itinerary (along with a “you can freak out if you haven’t heard from me by this time” time) out to close friends and family previously, so there were folks looking out for me should anything go wrong.
Thankfully, nothing went wrong. In fact, it was a perfect trip. As I eased into the trail and the rhythm of snowshoeing, the trail began to climb gradually, but only gradually. Nothing terribly steep. Just steady up. And up. Somewhere around 3.5 miles up. Well marked (blue discs / blazes) and easy-to-follow. And beautiful. My late-afternoon start meant that the sun was beginning to set through the trees as I climbed, making for unbelievable colors and shadows through the trees and amazing scenery when I turned around to take in the view.
Climbing fast in snowshoes through feet of fresh powder is exhausting work, but I made good time climbing up considering the late start I’d gotten. I quickly overheated within a half mile from starting and began to shed layers. Hat off. Outer gloves off. Hood off. Jacket unzipped. Definitely helped. I knew that excessive sweat could spell disaster once I hit the winds up top and dark descended. The trail steepens towards the top as you near timberline, but nothing too crazy. Other than a few rock outcroppings, no real scrambling to speak of . Especially with the snowpack. Like many mountain trails in the Northeastern US, some trails are actually easier in the winter because you’re not dealing with constant roots and rocks.
As I neared the top my GPS was off a bit and couldn’t quite figure out how far I had to go until the summit. The sun was definitely setting by then, offering me absolutely jaw-dropping winter views South across the Blackhead Range. I ended up turning around no more than 0.10 miles from the summit. Not by design, but it was getting late, the windchill was in the negative double digits, I’d already gone past my scheduled turnaround time and I’d already gotten what I’d come for. Solitude. Beauty. Adventure. Views. Mountains. I have a wife and 4 beautiful kids at home who trust me to do these things safely, so I owed it to them to head back down. Even though I wasn’t technically at the summit, it was close enough; the peak would still be there next time waiting for me.
I paused before heading back down, took a few photos, listened to the wind, and took it all in. Headlamp on, took in some more nutrition and water (being mindful to always blow air back through my camelbak tube so it wouldn’t freeze solid), and putting all layers back on for the descent. The descent took a fraction of the climb, allowing myself to unwind the snowshoes and just let gravity do its job, it was definitely fun flying back down through the powder. I also enjoyed the rare experience of the sunset ahead and full moonrise behind. Absolutely amazing and beautiful. (And a bit haunting judging from the number of coyote prints throughout the woods.) I descended without incident, signed back out at the trailhead and got back to the car with 6.9 snowy mountain miles under my belt in under 3 hours.
For those who are new to the mountains in winter, I would HIGHLY recommend this climb. You’ll be out in the conditions and you’ll have to put in the work, but you’re not going to go tumbling off any cliffs. It’s also a great family-friendly trail for getting kids used to winter climbing.
Below are a few links to help you get there. Enjoy!
– Central New York Hiking – Escarpment Trail (map below, as posted to CNY)
All Photographs Copyright Ben Murphy, 2013. All Rights Reserved. Use without Permission is Forbidden.