I’ve always wanted to get into winter hiking, but I never knew exactly how to go about it. Part of the problem was my lack of winter hiking partners. Finding people to accompany me on hikes is a bit of a challenge, and when it’s cold it’s an even bigger challenge. Another problem is that I had no idea how to prepare for hiking in the winter. Did I need snowshoes? Microspikes? How many layers should I wear? What if I got too cold, or if it started to snow?
Thanks to a friend who really enjoys winter hiking, I’ve started getting answers to these questions. A month or so ago we hiked Blackhead Mountain, a 3,940 foot peak in the Catskills. The trail was more icy than snowy, so I wore my Microspikes — a lightweight, plastic-and-metal traction control system that can be pulled on over your hiking boots. On any icy hike, Microspikes are invaluable. The spikes grip the ice, preventing falls, and we especially appreciated them on our descent, while navigating a steep ice formation that resembled a waterfall. Dangerous as this formation was, it was also quite beautiful, and I was glad we had ventured deep into the woods to see it. Overall, hiking felt terrific: I did get a little chilled near the summit, but I wasn’t nearly as tired and sweaty as I would have been on a hot summer day. When I got home, I took a warm shower, which made me feel even better.
My friend and I returned to the Catskills last weekend to hike Slide Mountain, the highest peak in the Catskills at 4,190 feet. (“The Mt. Everest of the Catskills,” my friend called it.) We weren’t sure what to expect, as it had snowed quite a bit since our last trip to the area. In fact, we had tried to get to the mountain one week earlier and encountered a snowstorm, as well as a slick, snow-covered mountain road that was too much for our little car. (We ended up turning around and going snowshoeing at the Ashokan Reservoir instead.) But this week it was much warmer and clearer, and our drive to the trailhead was uneventful.
There was still about a foot or so of snow, but the trail was well packed. We put on our snowshoes, and set off. The people in front of us had sleds tied to their backs, which made me curious: What were they going to do with them? Were they really going to sled down the mountain? I immediately envisioned a Calvin-and-Hobbes scenario, where the sleds ended up flying into the trees, and the people landed in the hospital with broken bones.
The ascent was lovely, with amazing views of the Catskills. The summit also seemed pretty nice — enclosed by trees, with some gaps — but there was a teenage hiking group gathered there, and we decided to descend to a quieter spot for lunch. The people with the sleds were eating nearby, and when we returned to the trail I saw them set off on their sleds, zipping down the trail. What they were doing was much safer than I would have expected: The trail, packed down by snowshoers, was deep and its banks were wide, which helped keep them from careening into the woods, and the snow was slick, but not too slick, so they never built up too much speed. Watching them, I was filled with jealousy: I wished I had a sled.
But I did have snowshoes, and the conditions were perfect for sliding down large chunks of the trail. My friend and I took off, and although we didn’t have sleds, we managed to zip along quite nicely. It was a lot of fun, though descending in this fashion caused a certain amount of pain to my ankles, calves and feet, as it took more effort to stay balanced, upright and in control. We also moved quite fast, making it back to the trailhead in about half the time it took us to reach the summit.
Enjoyable as it was to slide down a mountain on snowshoes, I’m still intrigued by the idea of sledding down the mountain. And if I figure out a good place to do it, I’ll let you know.
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