Not long after moving to the US I came across the Appalachian mountain club in my search for some backcountry skiing. After chatting with some fellow skiers they introduced me to the Catskills 3500 club. It's a group who wish to climb the highest 35 peaks in the state of New York. To "officially complete" the 35 peaks you have to repeat 4 specific ones in winter as well. Since spending more time with the guys and girls in the group many have finished their first round and are now well into multiple rounds. More on that later.
Every Saturday and Sunday throughout the year they have a selection of hikes. One free weekend earlier I got in touch with the groups leader. Not long later we got a reply saying we were all good to join them. These guys volunteer their personal time to take other folk up the mountains. There are of course safety briefings and waivers to be signed but none the less a cool experience just being able to rock up and meet someone who knows the mountains, surrounding areas and of course where to get some great food and drink afterwards.
First up was a couple of mountains called Vly and Bearpen. It was described as a bush wack. Sounding much more like an exploration through the Australian outback than some mountains in the north east of the USA. Which a bit like "mountains in Scotland" are not quite the alps but some brilliant playgrounds nonetheless.
Waking at the crack of dawn we made our way up north on what has become a standard weekend route. Coming across an ideally placed Starbucks on route for a coffee boost before the walk. This was also to become part of our Catskills hiking routine as long as we hadn't overslept the 5 or 5.30 am alarm on a Saturday or Sunday morning.
Rocking up we met up with a whole variety of people who had travelled from near and relatively far to hike these mountains. Unlike the vast majority of the UK version of 3000+ ft's these mountains turned out to be coated in a landscape of trees. Making it difficult to see or in some cases know when you have reached the summit.
We made our way up a muddy track past some go kart like off road vehicles making our way steadily up the mountain. The canopy of trees above us shading us from the increase heat of the sun as it began to rise above us. We soon reached the point where the "bushwack" began. A cross road and the saddle between the two peaks. Turning off the main path we wondered along what looked like a sheep track heading in a meandering fashion upwards. The odd tree marked with a blue splosh which turned out to indicate the boundary of a local land owner. The false summits came across even more bizarre as with all the trees in the way it was seriously challenging to work out whether the peak had been reached with no visual clues to go by. We passed a sign marking the crossing of 3500ft and the start of the no camping zone. Rounding the corner we came to a clearing with a can suspended high up on one of the trees. It turned out this small area marked the summit. Opening the can up we signed our names to show we had completed the hike to the top before turning back round and heading down to the saddle of the mountain. It was still mid morning as we reached the saddle. Being out in the hills in a new environment felt like an incredible experience and with it still being mid morning by the time we reached the saddle where we had cut off the main track very satisfying to think we had seized the day to get up here so early.
Vly down and on wards and up wards to Bear pen.
One of the cool aspects of these mountains is how visible the changes in flora are as the altitude and direction of the slope change. From dark and damp corners with lush vegetation dripping with droplets of water to the upper slopes covered in pines which look stunted in growth. We also witnessed areas on a number of summits showing what happens when the trees are cleared. Although revealing gorgeous views over the valley the irony is the scar left on this lookout point of a treeless, dry, bare patch of soil and rock on what otherwise from above looks like a pristine environment.
We meandered our way past a closed up cottage which made me think of the books I read on cabins in the far flung reaches of Canada and Alaska such as in call of the wild.
Heading up the hill we soon made it to the top. I was thinking it would be more like the alps with treeless summits and potentially the chance for some paragliding. Instead the narrow passages back down the mountain between trees Im sure would make for a daunting if not virtually impossible take off point. We came across another group who had a 70 and 80 year old in their group. I very much hope I'm still hiking up mountains at that age!! As we got chatting to the group it transpires one of them had once owned a now long gone ski slope that was once situated on the mountain. Some remnants of the lift we still evident on the hill side.
A quick bite to eat we headed back down the way we had come and out to the cars at the base of the hill. Our first two US 3500 footers. The day was still pretty early so we opted for searching out a good place to eat. We came across a place called the gunk house. Recommended in an awesome wee book called 36 hrs in New York and the east coast. Serving up wholesome German inspired food food overlooking mountains and apple orchards.
Now just 33 summits to complete....
Since then we have knocked off a few more and are almost half way at 23 to go.
If you are in the north east of the US check out:
http://catskill-3500-club.org/ - for the catskills 3500 club
http://www.outdoors.org/ - for the Appalachian mountain club
And for those in the UK why not set the challenge of the munros, corbetts or wainwrights