3 a.m. is, in my book, last night. 3 a.m. is reachable by staying up late. It belongs to the night. 4 a.m., however, is this morning. It’s a respectable time to get up and start your day, if you’re some sort of pre-dawn psychopath or have a plane to catch. To hike the Devil in a Day, I got up at 3 a.m., and was in the car, driving across two counties, to meet a stranger named Dave, to hike the most challenging trail in the Catskills in its entirety, in one day, by 4 a.m.
The Devil’s Path is often backpacked over 2 or 3 days. It’s renowned as one of the most challenging hiking trails in the Catskills if not the northeast. It’s long (we’ll discuss the mileage below) and strenuous (rock scrambles, and a metric ton of elevation change, or in layman’s terms – you walk way up and way down a bunch of mountains). The other 2 most challenging day hikes in the Catskills are the Escarpment trail (also roughly 24 miles long with plenty of up and down) and The Nine – a combined bushwack and trailed hike that is in that 20+ mile range… as long as you don’t get lost. Having completed the Escarpment trail, solo, and done The Nine in style (see The Twelve), I have been jonesing to complete the trifecta and hike the Devil in a Day. Finally, it sure looked like my day had come.
What sort of hiker does this? A surprising number give it a shot; an even more surprising number complete it. Why? I can only guess at others’ motivations and aspirations, but for me it is a healthy dollop of vanity and bragging rights, along with sheer curiosity: am I really up to it? Being female and fifty-three years old, battling hot flashes and gerd by night and working as a farmhand by day, I don’t exactly have a hardcore athlete’s lifestyle. I don’t “train” for efforts like these; I just live a rather rough and tumble lifestyle and hope that my innate fitness, willingness to undergo pain for no good reason, and sheer ill temperedness are sufficient to get me over the humps… literally and figuratively.
I did some preparing, once we set the date. I loaded my already heavy Search and Rescue pack with dumbbells, and walked the dogs every day wearing that pack for 2 weeks. I “prehydrated” as best I could the day before. I dropped off 3.5 gallons of water in a secret spot under a bridge along our route (and then giggled delightedly about “water under the bridge” for the rest of the day). I reread my notes from The Twelve and prepped my food accordingly. I bought energy gels, shot bloks, and builder’s bars. I was as ready as possible.
Let’s be utterly frank here: it’s not exactly fun. Exhilarating, yes. Thrilling, in a way. But it’s all a little too uncomfortable and takes too long to feel much like fun to me. I know the trail well and have hiked every step of it previously – but in small, manageable chunks. I knew exactly what I was signing up for. One of the dominant emotions I experienced for much of the day was dread. Type 2 fun, for sure.
Dave turned out to be a perfect companion. Perfect is high praise coming from me, but he really was perfect in almost every way. His one downfall? He didn’t curse, which made me very nervous. I tried valiantly to censor the f bombs that kept trying to explode out of my mouth. The second half of the hike probably singed his ears less than the first. And full confession: he is not a complete stranger. We met briefly at a CPAC meeting a month or so ago. Our connection is via a close friend of mine: Dave is her Lieutenant. Hiking with a NYSDEC ranger, albeit off duty, gave me a dose of confidence – I was definitely with an experienced and capable hiker. Dave is a true aficionado of Type 2 fun, doing long hikes like these regularly. He is also over 6 feet tall and I think 5.5 ft of that is legs. I worried that I would drive him bananas with my 5’2” pace.
The worry ended up being unwarranted. We kept pace beautifully, and I think despite my banal chatter interspersed with expletives, I think we got along famously. Dave is kind and patient and prefers IPAs. I’ll hike with him any time.
For those of you detail-oriented readers:
The Devil’s Path is an historic hiking trail that starts at the Prediger Road trail head in the town of Hunter, NY and winds its way up and over 4 Catskill High Peaks in its eastern half. It crosses Route 214 at Notch Lake and then continues past the Devil’s Acre lean to, Geiger Point and Diamond Notch Falls before heading up and over West Kill and St. Ann’s Mountains. The walk out is along a gorgeous stream that separates St. Ann’s from the dauntingly impressive east face of North Dome.
Total mileage? Depends who you ask. Internet resources state anywhere from 22 and change to 26 miles. I think it was a bit more, but my phone died at the summit of St. Ann’s, indicating 25 miles at that point. Elevation gain is also a moving target with estimates from 7 to 14 thousand feet offered as the definitive statistic. I tend to glaze over at numbers like these but after finishing I can’t help but wonder what I did at a granular level.
Based on my info, Dave and I maintained a steady 2 mph pace for the whole shebang. We really never flagged. I almost lost it ascending Plateau and needed to stop and rest for a couple of minutes (felt dangerously close to puking – was it the energy gel or just pushing too hard?), and Dave was a little slower than me ascending from Notch Lake to the Devil’s Acre lean to. But overall, we had no trouble staying together and staying with what felt like a quick pace to me. Despite that, we took 14 hours to complete the hike.
I drank one liter of water with a Nuun tablet, and about 3 or 4 liters of plain water. I ate one peanut butter and raspberry jam sandwich, one plain old clif bar, one builder’s bar, and 2 energy gels. And I did partake in Dave’s caramel M&Ms.
Because we were hiking right through my buddy’s area (she is the ranger for the whole Devil’s Path), we arranged to meet up at the midway point. Our plan fell through, so my husband took up those reins. He waited for Dave and me in the Notch Lake Parking Area with Ben and Jerry’s slices (yes, the peanut butter ones!). I was able to get a text to him in time to request that he also bring me my hiking poles, as I’d forgotten them at home. Tom worried that I might be tired or feeling low after the descent of Plateau (definitely my least favorite part of the journey) so he brought Peeka (my favorite dog) along for the ride. Seeing Peeka in the car definitely cheered me, although Tom’s kindness, support, and generosity cheered me just as much.
What I learned from finally bagging this elusive addition to my Catskills list:
- Every ascent is hard. They don’t really get any easier or less sweaty no matter how many you do in a day.
- Every descent is hard. Hiking poles are totally worth it for the descents. I’ll bet my knees would hate me less today if I used poles for the whole hike.
- Strong quads make the toe jamming on descents less of an issue. The prep by hiking with the extra heavy pack achieved that.
- The walk out after the last peak is always interminable, no matter how far it is or how long your hike. The combination of nettles encroaching upon the trail and the sudden appearance of mosquitoes made my final mile a triathlon of walking, yelling, and slapping. Not a fan.
- Despite moving quickly, I reveled in the glory of being atop some of my favorite Catskill peaks. The scent of the balsams is intoxicating. The views jaw-dropping. The sun-dappled trail and the tiny birds (Bicknell’s thrushes? Who knows!) so charming, I almost forgot the task at hand several times, immersed in the beauty.
And now it’s done. We did it. Box checked off. I’m grateful to Dave for offering to do this hike with me, when Christine mentioned my interest in it to him. I’m equally grateful to Chris for putting it out there. And I’m grateful to Tom, my 3 a.m. coffee and toast partner, ice cream and doggo hero of the day. Tom asked me what’s next and I told him I was all set. This was the goal and it’s done. Once he caught his breath after laughing his head off at that, I admitted, well, I might do some of the other hikes again, after my knees forgive me.