Friday, February 10, 2017

Windham High Peak in Winter

As I write this, snow is falling hard and fast.  Deep powder covers everything.  But last week, brown grass was visible on half of our Albany yard.  I felt desperate to get outdoors, really get away for some exercise, someplace different but not too far away, and with beautiful white snow.  I mulled over possible options in the course of the day. Windham High Peak in the Northern Catskills came to mind.

(Linda begins the hike by crossing the pretty Windham Kill, in lightly falling snow.)

At 6 miles, and 1500 feet of elevation gain, Windham High Peak is a perfect B-level hike.  The mountain's total elevation of 3524 feet puts it at number 34 on the list of the 35 Catskill peaks over 3500 feet.  As such, Windham High Peak is considered the gateway to the other peaks -- a rewarding beginning that will entice hikers to do more.

(The sun came out as we continued on an old farm road.)

My friend, Linda, and I had set aside the day without having made formal plans.  She considered my idea with some hesitancy. Both of us had a variety of reasons for questioning our abilities on this day.  Still, a chance to get outside! Someplace beautiful!  Not far from home!  How could we be indecisive?

As the good friend she is, Linda gave in to my sense of desperation.  She picked me up just after 8:00 a.m., and we took off.

(The trail has excellent signage.)

At just over an hour, the drive to the trailhead is very manageable.  Not only that, route 32 is pretty, through rolling Albany County farmland.  We crossed into Greene County just before turning up route 23 into the Catskill Park. 

On the way, we passed Acra, a tiny village just beneath the Blackhead Range of mountains, where Bill and I lived for the first year that we were married.  Some nostalgia goes with this trip, and I tried not to inflict too much of it on Linda.

(A smaller but characteristic version of the famous Catskill escarpment.)

The forecast had indicated that the day would be cloudy, with snow showers in the late afternoon.  As we drove towards the trailhead, we hit a snow squall, a foreshadowing of the changeable conditions we would encounter throughout the day. 

(Mounds of white snow lead to a lean-to on the crest of the rock formation.)

We put on our backpacks, and chose microspikes for our boots. We guessed that the snow was only six inches deep, and wouldn't require snowshoes.  Nevertheless, we hung the snowshoes on the backs of our packs with cords, in case the snow deepened closer to the summit.  We knew to be extra cautious in winter.

Minutes into the woods, we encountered two young men jogging down the trail toward us.  By this time of only 9:45 a.m., they had already run to the summit and back!  Did we ever have the stamina for this kind of winter mountain run?  Not that we could remember....  These guys were the only people we met all day.

(Linda, at the southern summit overlook, in snow flurries and a cloud.)

Before long, the sun came out, making lovely shadows across the white snow.  From here on, the day fit the phrase attributed to Mark Twain: "if you don't like the weather, wait five minutes."

Catching glimpses of mountains through the hardwood forest, we stopped often to take a breath, or to take a picture.  The trail ascending Windham High Peak has switchbacks which offer relief on the upgrades, and it levels out between the steeper sections -- respites are conveniently built in.  We visited when the going was easy, and kept silent when we needed all of our breath for the trail.

(The Blackhead Range in a snow storm.)

Still, we took the last half-mile at a slow plod, in that meditative motion of putting one foot in the front of the other that often comes when the summit is within reach, but still requires effort to attain.

Snow showers swirled around us, and we reached the first overlook in windy gusts.  Linda had never been on this mountain, and I was disappointed not to be able to show her crisper views of the Blackhead Range to the south.

(Sun shines on this northern summit view.)

We continued to the next overlook, facing north.  Here the sun came and went.  We hadn't had to "wait five minutes" for the weather to change.  We just had to cross to the other side! Farms spread out for miles.  On really clear days, Albany is visible in the distance.

(Virginia finds a tree seat at the northern viewpoint.)

I hoped that the snow would have passed off the Blackhead Range's triad of Blackhead, Black Dome, and Thomas Cole mountains, when we returned to the southern overlook for lunch, but poor visibility persisted.  So it is in the mountains....  No matter, we ate our lunches with gusto, while our fingers started to chill. 

(Snowshoes are a necessary safety item in winter, even if you end up backpacking them.)

Linda began the descent at a brisk clip.  "I'm going to go fast so I can warm up," she said.  I stayed a short distance behind her, taking more pictures.

When we reached the spot where mountain views peeked through the trees, I called to her, "Look!  The view is in the sunshine!"  The mountains shone deep blue beyond.  We joked about hiking back up, which we did not consider doing, but knew clouds might come in again at any moment.

(The southern view comes into the sunshine now??)

On the trail, the sun felt great.  We stopped a few times to stand in its warmth and revel in the beauty all around us.

(I ran ahead of Linda to photograph her coming down the trail at the back of this woodland scene.)

And when we reached the parking lot and Linda's car, what was the weather doing?  You guessed it -- we started the drive back home in a snow shower!


As I contemplated Linda's and my ambivalence in taking on a hike that was easier than many we have done, but seemed like a challenge on this day, I remembered a poem that I associate with my grandfather.  Thinking, by Walter D. Wintle, was published in 1905.  It is old-fashioned and sexist, but has an appealing simplicity from a time when moral rhyme for the common man was popular.

If you think you are beaten, you are
If you think you dare not, you don't,
If you like to win, but you think you can't
It is almost certain you won't.

If you think you'll lose, you're lost
For out of the world we find,
Success begins with a fellow's will
It's all in the state of mind.

If you think you are outclassed, you are
You've got to think high to rise,
You've got to be sure of yourself before
You can ever win a prize.

Life's battles don't always go
To the stronger or faster man,
But soon or late the man who wins