Ah, the infamous Devil’s Path. An unassuming little foot path through the gently rolling green mountains of the Catskills in upstate New York. Don’t let those beautiful vistas fool you, though. Tucked underneath that pretty green tree canopy are some of the toughest trails in America outside of straight up mountaineering. The Devil’s Path packs a punch with well over 18,000’ of elevation change, traversing eight peaks, on incredibly steep and technical terrain, in less distance than a marathon. There’s a reason it’s repeatedly ranked as one of the toughest trails in not only North America but in the world. For experienced hikers it’s a strenuous, 3-day hike. Last weekend, Ron, Ryan and I tried to knock it out in one day. Because, trail running. (Image: view from Plateau Mountain, 5th peak of the day shortly before the 1/2 way point.)
Saturday’s attempt would be Round #2 for Ron and I. Last year’s attempt ended when we bailed at mile 18 with “only” one peak left, leaving Ron and I submerged in the ice cold mountain stream at Diamond Notch nursing our sore muscles and bruised egos, wondering what the hell had just hit us. We were so beat that Jamie had to run ahead from the junction down the access road and come back for us with the Jeep. This trail is no joke. It was, and still is the single hardest athletic attempt I’ve ever taken on (and that statement takes 50 mile races into account). 3 day hike? Nope. One day run. More individuals have summitted Everest than have knocked out Devil’s in one straight daylight shot.
I picked Ron up after I finished at the office on Friday (no Jamie this year, you were missed!) and we commenced the 4 hour drive down to the Catskills to meet our friend Ryan (the only other soul stupid enough willing to join us) at Devil’s Tombstone Campground, a small sliver of flat terrain in the woods containing a handful of campsites operated by New York State, tucked in between two mountains beside a narrow road at Stony Clove Notch, the half-way point of the trail. We pitched our tents, shuttled Ryan’s car to the end on Spruceton Road, came back, prepped all our gear for the morning, ate some dinner by the campfire and hit the sack to unseasonably cool mountain temps and no clouds making for a crystal clear, star-filled sky. I’ve never fallen asleep to the hooting of owls at night, but that was pretty cool. (Image: view from the road of Stony Clove Notch, the halfway point of the trail. Fairly obvious just how ludicrously steep the terrain is. Switchbacks? Haha! Nope.)
We were up at stupid o’clock early Saturday, wolfed down some breakfast, hopped in my car and headed out to the trailhead on Prediger Road in time for our planned 6am start. There was no rain in sight and the temps were nice and cool, promising to be a perfect weather day for our attempt. Which is good because this trail is treacherous enough in the best of conditions. As an aside, it should be clarified that “run” is a term that is used loosely here. Yes, you run the flats and some of the downhills, but a lot of mountain running involves power hiking the steep stuff and then scrambling down the drops as quickly as prudence will allow. If you’re not used to this type of pursuit, your muscles will inform you very quickly that trail running and mountain “running” are two very different activities. (Image: the commemorative ‘tombstone’ centennial marker at the entrance to Devil’s Tombstone Campground.)
We set out at a leisurely pace, but knew that we’d each split up and push our own pace before long. None of us were contenders for a FKT (Fastest Known Time) on the Devil’s (which stands at an astonishing 5 hours and 7 minutes set by Josh Burns earlier this year), but we were each trying to push ourselves to the max and finish in under 10 hours. Ron, who was gunning for a sub-8 hour finish, dropped us fairly quickly as I wanted to hold back my pace a bit, knowing what knew from last year’s experience. That, and I’d just raced the Escarpment Trail Run three weeks prior and then undergone a vasectomy shortly after that followed by 12 days of no running. So… I wasn’t quite sure how my body would respond. I knew it would be a roll of the dice. As it turns out the surgery was great forced recovery from Escarpment and my body responded beautifully after I coaxed it through the first hour of climbing. Ryan opted to stay with me for the front half of the run until he had a better sense of what level of stupidity he’d gotten himself into. The company was definitely welcome. (Image: Group selfie at the trailhead. LtoR: Ryan VerColen, Ben Murphy, Ron Heerkens Jr. Credit: Heerkens.)
We kept an easy pace for the first few miles up Indian Head, the cliff scrambles getting steeper the further up we went and we made the top in just over an hour, which was the goal. Took some photos of the amazing sunrise from Sherman’s Ledge and then kept hammering the flats until we got to the first descent. Like all good mountains, almost all the descents on the Devil’s Path are so steep that they actually take longer than the climbs. But, unlike most mountain range traverses, there is no ridge running in between summits on the Devil’s Path. You get to enjoy each and every peak with multiple Empire State Building height climbs and descents up and over every single summit. One has to exercise a good deal of caution to properly navigate the near vertical mix of rock ledges, roots, and scree that drop off each summit. None of it is terribly dangerous if you exercise caution, but it does become clear very quickly how someone could get injured out here. Which happens with some regularity as the trail claims at least one life each year with ‘falling off a cliff’ and ‘having a heart attack’ being the top two culprits. (Image: Sunrise fog burning off, view from Sherman’s Ledge part way up Indian.)
Ryan and I continued to make steady work of the front Eastern half of the trail knocking out the Twin Mountain summits followed by Sugarloaf and Plateau. Exchanged texts with Ron on the summits (there’s no cell reception in the valleys, another reason to not get hurt out there) to let each other know all was well, snapped a photo or two, and kept pushing with no breaks. We cleared Plateau pretty much on pace and came into the half-way point at Stony Clove Notch at about 5:45 from our start, checked in with Ron who had waited up for us, refilled our water bladders and then got going again on the climb up Hunter by the sixth hour of the run. (Image: sweeping view from… Indian? Twin? Can’t remember. Doesn’t matter, it’s amazing, and perfectly captures what an incredible trail this is.)
One would think that the back half of the run would be the easier with only 3 peaks, compared to the 5 on the front half. But the mountains get bigger and taller the further you go and so the back half doesn’t disappoint. The climb up Hunter is a beast. A few steep bands to scramble up in the bottom half followed by a trail that just doesn’t stop climbing. And climbing. And climbing. My plan had been to take the front half of the day at a fairly relaxed pace and then push through the back half of the trail as fast as possible. But my legs didn’t have much climb left when we hit Hunter and Ryan pulled ahead from me at this point. He must have dropped the hammer from there on out as he put a full hour on me from there to the end. I crested the trail on Hunter and made the descent fairly quickly. I’d force fed myself calories and water on the climb up (plus the oreos and beer stashed at the halfway point definitely helped) and they finally started kicking in as I actually ran most of the descent. I hit the stream at Diamond Notch and mercifully saw the sign I’d been looking for. “Spruceton Road, 6.99 miles.” I knew I had it at that point. Unfortunately, not having climbed West Kill before, I had no idea it would take me a full three hours to clear those 7 miles. Before heading up West Kill I took advantage of the stream, laying down and soaking my aching muscles in the ice cold water. It was incredibly rejuvinative and really helped me make that final push. (Image: the stream at Diamond Notch. Freezing cold. Felt amazing.)
The ascent up West Kill wasn’t that bad, just long. I lost track of false summits as I kept climbing up. They just kept coming. More up followed by more up. Just below the true summit I heard a grunt 50 feet to my right on the downward slope and looked up to see a large black bear meandering through the trees. All sorts of awesome and scary all rolled into one! I yelled and banged my poles together (something I don’t usually use, but I’d been nursing two minor tears in my thigh from Escarpment, and it was a good call to use them as the poles got me through all those descents without further damaging my quads). I yelled and made noise and the bear scampered off down the mountain. (Image: view from West Kill before descending.)
I finally crested West Kill, enjoyed the last view of the day at the cliffs, and then started the descent down to Spruceton Road. The 2,000′ descent in a bit over 4 miles seemed easy enough on paper, but I should have known better. More rocks and roots and overgrown nettles down steep pitches of trail. Plus, by that point in the day my brain was exhausted (hallucinations, anyone? Look! Blue beetles and apples! Oh, nevermind. They’re not real.) And, oh yeah, there’s another peak tacked onto the side of West Kill. I was both perplexed and livid as I realized that good ol’ St. Anne’s Peak would become my eighth peak of the day as I entered the 10th hour of running and was just ready to be done. And St. Anne’s isn’t a gradual climb, but a 300′ cliff/root scramble combination that slowed me to a snail’s pace. But once I crested, I was finally on the final descent. Down, down, down, down, down. More rocks. More roots. So tired. I was at that point in an ultra event where you want to just curl up in a ball and fall asleep from sheer exhaustion. (Image: one of the flat, easy sections of trail. Seriously.)
There was no run left in me at this point in the day. My 10 hour goal had come and gone. All I wanted at that point was to finish without getting hurt and without passing out (I was feeling a bit “off” shall we say? Not enough sugar in my system for my brain to focus properly). But I kept pushing. Hike/running as fast as I could until… could it be? Did I just hear cars? Up over the final rise, spotted the parking lot in the distance… Done! Finally! Twelve hours and thirteen minutes after an early morning start, I was finally done! Ron and Ryan hopped out of the car to congratulate me and it didn’t take long to realize that they were every bit as beat as I was. They’d also seen a bear waltzing through the woods while waiting for me, and we each exchanged war stories about our day. (Image: Pale Touch-Me-Nots (Impatiens Pallida). Beautiful, and one of my favorites. Lots of these along the trail.)
Nothing much to report after that. Drove out to the other trailhead to pick up my car, headed back to camp, hot shower, change of clothes, Chinese takeout, beer, campfire… great way to end an amazing day. I’m so proud to have knocked off Devil’s in one day. A bit slower than I would have liked, but I’m in one piece and my muscles aren’t totally shot, so I’ll take it. Got to share an incredible trail with great peeps (congrats on your first Ultra, Ryan! This definitely counts), what an amazing day! (Image: Post-Run Recovery, camp style.)
Driving back to the starting trailhead afterwards to get my car really put things in perspective as we saw the vista of how far we’d run (Image: ‘Ace Hardwear’ panorama above. We ran ALL of that, from one end to the other, plus two additional peaks not in the picture). It’s funny how my proudest running accomplishment now wasn’t even an event. It’s just a trail that’s been there forever. Waiting for anyone to tackle it. No starting gun, no finish line prizes, no aid stations or crowds to cheer you on. Just the trail. Just the mountains. And one’s own determination. So simple. The way trail running should be.
(Image: Elevation Profile of the Devil’s Path. Pretty much says it all. Credit: Heerkens.)