|Hike Name:||Balsam Mountain|
|Trip Date:||January 7, 2020|
|Duration:||9 hours, 13 minutes|
|Trail Conditions:||Fair to Good|
|Trip Temperature:||High: 21-30, Low: 11-20 degrees Fahrenheit|
|Trip Report:||On a little more aggressive challenge, I went out knowing I was going to knock out multiple peaks. My goal was to rehike Balsam and Panther for my winter 3500 qualifiers and add Slide to the roster. If you aren’t familiar with the 3500 challenge, there are 35 peaks in the Catskills above 3500. The Catskill mountain club requires 4 peaks to be climbed twice… one of those times being during the “winter season,” which is from December 21st to March 21st. These four peaks are Balsam, Panther, Slide, and Blackhead Mountain. I leave for Japan in about a month, so I wanted to ensure I knocked out the winter peaks so I could finish my challenge this summer. Balsam, Panther, and Slide are all relatively close to each other. All three of them are located within a few miles of each other on Olivera road. I did approach Balsam from Rider Hollow Road for a different experience, so I extended my drive time about a half hour, but I still had ample time to carry out my goal.
Balsam mountain was less “wintry” than my last post where I ascended in November. It was icy in some spots, but I wore my inov8 roclites for the first time, which have amazing traction and allowed me to flawlessly negotiate my steps for a smooth run to the peak. The “viewpoint” was less than impressive. It was a cloudy haze gray, just like the last time I climbed Balsam. I spoke with a hiker at the viewpoint for a short time before carrying on to complete the loop that would take me through the intersection of the Balsam and Eagle trails, but in the opposite direction of McKenly Hollow. I quickly made my way down the trail, though I experienced a bit more ice on the trails than I did on the other side of the loop. Dodging the slick spots, I stuck to the dry rocks and the leaves, and made my way safely to the car.
Cue the wardrobe change and drive to the next trailhead. The Panther Trailhead’s parking lot was PACKED, so I proceeded to the Slide Mountain parking lot and hoped for the best. You know, that whole adapt and overcome thing. The parking lot was packed there as well, but I found a spot to park without blocking in other hikers that seemed legit. The ground was covered in snow and hikers were coming down the trail in micro spikes, so I fastened my spikes. I finally got to use my spikes for the first time in the two years I owned them. I could notice a significant difference as I coasted up the first ascent and surpassed several hikers on the trail. The trail had a pretty steady incline straight to the top that had my glutes on fire by the time I reached the peak. I could feel the warmth of the sun on my face as it broke through the clouds just before I reached the summit, which gave me my last bit of motivation to push through the muscle fatigue and reward myself with some much needed rest.
I had the peak to myself before a father and his two teenagers approached about 10 minutes behind me. I dropped my pack and took some pictures while I waited for my MRE to warm up. It had been a long time since I experienced a sunny summit, so I welcomed some friendly conversation with a few more hikers and took my time eating my lunch. I finished my cheese tortellini and started to feel the cold consume my body, so I switched out my base layer and prepared for the hike down. I coasted straight to the bottom in what seemed like no time at all.
I reached the bottom feeling so happy it was as if I was weightless. I looked around the woods and admired the winter wonderland in all its beauty. After snapping a few shots, I went to the sign in roster to check out. A man questioned me about hiking alone, so I didn’t waste any time in the lot. I threw my poles and spikes in the backseat and drove towards the Great Ledge parking lot.
Luckily the lot had emptied out, and outside of a couple subarus and the REI van, there wasn’t much traffic. It was around 1:45 and I assumed most hikers were probably coming back from their treks or done for the day. I was proven wrong when two cars pulled up beside me, but they weren’t prepared for the hike. This time of year, I NEVER leave home without my spikes and poles, as extra traction and support is detriment to preventing unnecessary risk/injury on icy trails. They seemed to have learned their lesson, as they didn’t make it up the ledge. I was honestly very surprised to see how many people weren’t wearing appropriate footwear, didn’t have spikes, etc and still attempted to hike the trail. Luckily, I didn’t encounter any incidences, so I hope everyone turned around as needed and made it back to their cars safely. I rushed up over the great ledge because I had hiked it at that time of day a month ago and hoped to catch the sunset on the way back down. I was a little nervous I’d have to descend in the dark so I didn’t plan to stop when I was heading up. Thankfully, the ledge has a spring on the trail with a sign that indicates its direction. Had it not, I wouldn’t have realized I was out of water. I stopped at the sign, tried to recall if I had enough water, and took a sip to find that my camelbak was dry. I forgot to fill it before I left for the day, so it wasn’t full when I started my day. I left the iodine tablets in the car, but I decided that if I was going to get some GI illness from drinking the water, it wouldn’t happen til I was already home and it was better than suffering from dehydration in the moment. I laughed at myself while also shunning myself, but I couldn’t help but recall the time I got a GI illness over the summer in Kuwait and had a much longer walk to the bathroom in very hot weather. This wouldn’t be the death of me.
I found the spring and cupped the water in my hands. It was very cold and clear. I took a sip, it tasted crisp. I did not realize how thirsty I really was. It felt like it was some of the best tasting water I ever had. I waited impatiently as the slow flow filled my bladder to the 1 liter line and screwed the cap on to continue on my way. I bushwhacked up the side of the trail to catch up with the trail at the top of the ledge.
I hurried along the ledge, glancing to my right to catch a glimpse of the view as I passed each of the lookouts. I was hoping to catch the views on the way back at sunset, but time was of the essence.
The decent from the ledge to panther seemed much shorter this time around, though I was certainly putting all my effort into this hike. I hit the valley in no time and started pressing like Panther owed me money. I passed a couple on my way that looked at me with some uncertainty. Spoiler alert: I passed them again on my way back down. I had to talk myself through the last quarter of a mile as I forgot the last leg of the path and I was starting to get tired.
I finally made it to the summit and fought to catch my breath as I threw my fists up in celebration. I did it. There was still full sun on the mountains and I finished my challenge. My body was sore but my soul was on fire. It gave me the fire I needed to hit the small ascent from the valley to the ledge so that the rest of the trip was smooth sailing.
On the ledge I took my time to get a few pictures. I forgot that the trail is mostly east facing until you get below the treeline, so the views weren’t much better of the peaks, though still beautiful. I still got some breath taking shots of the woods on the way down. The contrast of the branches in the evening sky was priceless.
As I was leaving the ledge, I started doing tempo runs. I ran the smooth flat parts and speed walked the more slick and rocky parts. When I passed the couple, they were almost in shock as they asked “you made it all the way to Panther and back already?” I replied, “I know, I know! I’m crazy! I live for this shit.” I coasted all the way to the last quarter mile where I saw some of the individuals that showed up when I did. They chose not to summit due to unpreparedness. I was relieved for their decision and happy to see their smiling faces.
I beat the sunset and arrived to my car about 4:15. I was exhausted, but I felt like I was on top of the world. It was by far my longest Catskill hike and hike of the year in general.