Part I: The Three Faces of Plateau
Things come in threes. That’s what my mother always said: “Things come in threes.” She never really elaborated on what type of things – I’m not sure it mattered. Of course, if you believe Mom, you start to bracket off sets of three, counting as if keeping time to a waltz. Looking back on 2009, I can say that on-the-trail injuries came in a collection of three this year.
I finished the Catskill 35 on 12/30/08. 2009 was the beginning of hiking “listless” for Flammeus and me, for the first time in about 18 months. List hiking was fun; it was monomaniacal. I hiked places I wasn’t especially interested in, and hiked in conditions unfit for getting the mail, much less trudging through miles of beech whips, balsam eye-pokers, or screaming fields full of nettles and blackberries. Concocting routes to see how many peaks we could bag in a day, or trading war stories when we’d bump into fellow nutjobs (I mean, list hikers) at a trailhead, we hiked with a purpose and we pushed hard to get ‘em done.
And then they were done, and we could just hike – when we wanted, where we wanted. It didn’t matter if we’d already done that one, or if it wasn’t even a 35. It was all just for fun. On a warm sunny day in mid-February (Catskill warm – I think it hit 30) we joined a crew hiking up Silver Hollow to celebrate Joanne’s completion of the Catskill Hundred Highest. After raising a glass with Joanne and the gang, and finishing a short (again, by Catskill standards – approx 3 miles) snowshoe hike to the top of the hill, Flammeus and I took off, eager to check out the new trail up the south side of Plateau.
We’d been up Plateau twice before. Both times were memorable (heh heh – this means terrifying and dangerous, if you hadn’t picked that up yet). Plateau is huge; it is a behemoth. Its summit is over a mile long (hence the name). It is traversed by the Devil’s Path (apt moniker). First time out, we hiked up the west approach in a mid-June thunderstorm. Pouring rain turned the trail into a river. We were drenched, as if hiking under a showerhead, in a matter of minutes. Undeterred (= insane), we continued up one of the steepest ascents in the Catskills, thunder rumbling way too close and the dog squinting at me in disbelief. At the top, we checked out some pointless viewpoints. No views in the pouring rain – who knew? But viewpoints mean two things: 1) you’re up high, and 2) you’re exposed. The wind picked up, and, soaked to the skin I was instantly in danger of hypothermia. “Get me off this mountain” became my mantra. My fingers were icy, my arms numb up to my elbows before we’d even started back down. The ridiculously steep trail was the only option, and the mud and loose stone made it ridiculously slippery. Back at the car, and home to the hot tub, effort number one at “doing Plateau” came to a close.
Attempt number two also involved invoking a mantra – not surprisingly, it was the same one. That day, in late July, we left one car at a trailhead near good old Plateau, and started the day a few peaks east of there, heading up Indian Head. We planned a nice Devil’s Path day hike, traversing Indian Head, Twin (yup, it has two summits), Sugarloaf, and Plateau. Did I mention that the Devil’s path is aptly named? Although it was a beautiful day everywhere else in the Hudson Valley, thunderstorms dogged us throughout the hike. It was hot on Indian Head, cold on Sugarloaf, slippery and misty on Twin… etc. A typical day on the Devil’s Path, as I have come to know, but that was my first experience of that section of that satanic trail.
The scenery is breathtaking. At the lookout spot on Sugarloaf, we gazed out at the valley and distant Catskill peaks, watching lightning bolts touch down in the forest below us. Danger and beauty. I held my breath, and held my partner’s hand and felt alive. Atop Twin, Flammeus and I knew – this was the wedding mountain. Four months later we returned with a judge and a camera, and signed the papers leaning against a rock on Twin’s eastern (false) summit. It rained that day too.
The miles and tough conditions were starting to add up by the time we reached the trail junction and bail out point. We could just head down to the car and call it a day, or we could add one more peak – Plateau – and be done with that bastard for the goddamn list. We were exhausted and wet, having been caught in the downpours that had been passing through on and off all day. I get the endurance prize – I can hike like the energizer bunny as long as I’m not cold or soaking wet. Another peak? No problem. But Flammeus was lagging behind, losing control of his legs, so empty he couldn’t keep up (he says I have a nasty habit of speeding up when conditions are difficult – I consider it a sensible strategy). He huffed and puffed and floundered his way up; I waited. By the time we made it to the top, I was drenched in sweat from the climb, but frozen from waiting around for my darling. He wanted to sit and rest on a lovely rock with a great view. I began to chant “get me off this mountain.” At least attempt number two involved actually completion of the climb and checking the bastard off the list. Back home and into the hot tub before even pouring a glass of wine.
Which brings us back to the beginning: the Silver Hollow day last February, when I suggested “Let’s check out the new trail up Plateau from Notch Inn Road. It’s supposed to be beautiful.” To recount: it was a warm February day, with lots of new deep snow – in places two-foot-deep loose drifts covered the trail. Flammeus wore his crappy little snowshoes, perfect for a hike with 7 or 8 other hikers, and lots of tramped down snow. Off on our own in the drifts, he couldn’t break trail.
So I did. Ultimately, about six miles of breaking trail through silent woods, atop cliffs, through steep rocky chutes, switchbacks in the beginning and endless dense balsam forests as we neared the top. Where the sun hit the trail, it had warmed to render the deep snow sticky and vacuum-like. Feet were sucked down and lifting legs involved fighting with the snow and slush. It was absolutely every bit as beautiful as we had been promised, and we hiked in the hush of awe and gratitude. We were in the postcard, walking through the National Geographic spread. The trail is well-designed, varied and stunning.
However, it is still Plat-fuckin’-teau. The behemoth. It took us much longer than we expected, and despite eating and drinking water, I was beginning to bonk on the way down. Nearing the car, I was getting irritable and impatient – I was cold and shaky and “not feeling right.” Flammeus was physically depleted enough that he needed to go much more slowly through the icy sections at the lower elevations, and at one point chose to sit down and take off his snowshoes to put on his crampons. Although I agreed that extra traction was a good idea, I could no longer stand still and wait for him – I was too cold to hold still.
Back at the car, I began to tremble. Yep, first stages of hypothermia: I couldn’t stop shaking. Some ice climbers approached us: their car had a dead battery; could we help? Flammeus did not have jumper cables with him, but he did have a great idea. He pushed the car, trying to get the driver to “pop start” it. No go. We left them at the crest of the hill, and headed down to Chichester to call 911 and get them some real help. At Amy’s TakeAway, we made the call, and Amy gave me some tea. I was shaking so violently I couldn’t hold the cup. Once again, back home and into the hot tub. It took a good 24 hours before I felt anything close to normal.
A set of three mishaps, shall we say, on Plateau. The last of which makes the first of the next set of three: the three injuries of 2009. I’ll have to ask Mom if it’s kosher to allow elements of one set to also function as elements of another set.