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The battle of Balsam Mountain.

It was five years ago in April on Balsam Cap Mountain in Ulster County. The peak of twisted rock and mangled growth has left me wet and cold this dismal day.

"Aruughhh!," I scream. These balsam trees which give the peak its name are inhospitality itself. It's one obtrusive wire brush that steals my hat, yanks my jacket, tears the tripod from my arms on every step I take through the fray. There is no trail here in no-man's land. There is no orange box marking the top as the other unblazed, high peaks of the Catskill Mountains have had.

And with the cloud bank that has settled on me, I'm unsure if I have even reached the top at all. It's supposed to be fun, climbing these alps higher than 3,500 feet. And it has been, up until this point. But today I begin to see this Catskill barrier for its true self; a massive stretch of the Appalachian wall that held up America's westward expansion for 200 years.

Funny, when I started the climb this morning in West Shokan the day had been short-sleeve weather; not a cloud in the sky. The cloud bank settled in as I climbed Hanover Mountain in the lead up to Balsam Cap -- cold, gray and depriving me of visual bearings. Hanover Mountain is a 60-degree incline for 1,000 feet, incessant over loose shale. The initial peak flattens, then heaves upward slowly in a one-mile walk on a crescent ridge.

It arrives on an open, stone-surfaced plateau where I ate green beans and strawberries. Birch trees marched over the ridge like lemmings. Sitting there, I thought this must be Balsam Cap. Not all that bad of a climb, really. The walk beyond did drop off slightly. I thought I'd better check farther. Sure enough, up again the land mass rose until it came to a WALL of rock, straight up.

There were handholds. I scaled them right into the wire brush where I thrashed and crashed, cursed and nursed the wounds of pride. How trees can grow out of rocks I'll never know. Searching every inch of that surface, finding no more "goes uppa" but no orange box either, I resolved this must be the top.

The cloud bank settled in low that day, then rose about 100 feet an hour. It was just enough that as I began to descend, the peak of the adjacent Friday Mountain was revealed. Having not yet found the box, I figured that must be Balsam Cap. Thus began what, at the outset, seemed but a simple one-mile walk over and back. It became drudgery in a jut of rock and splintered trees.

The trip on Friday Mountain became every bit as unwieldy, particularly when walls of rock, ice and trees made for no motion forward and no way to go back. That I would ever see the warmth of my car seemed everything short of reality Night was not far off and it was still four miles away.

I kicked to the front of the range, stopped at a break in the trees and crept on hands and knees on moss and ice. Here was a cliff falling half the height of the mountain. I clung to a balsam, not daring to venture within six feet of the ledge. Below me the Ashokan Reservoir stretched for milles to the east.

Shivering overcame me, partly from non-movement in soaked apparel, partly in fright of my insignificance atop one of the oldest mountain ranges on Earth. Time to move on. I'd thought perhaps I could descend this apron of mountain between the two peaks to the more complacent forest below. No such luck. The intensity of the drop prevented that. It was a whittled concave of rock three football fields to the bottom.

Eventually I returned to the Hanover plateau. Looking back, the two peaks, no longer shrouded, left no question that certainly I had climbed them both. But it was late. I ran back most of the way across Hanover in the dusk and slid down the loose rock in darkness. Near the bottom, the skies were pitch black. A beam of light from a single home became my beacon.

These Catskill Mountains are wondrous. But in this modern age, don't underestimate them.
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Title Annotation:Catskill Mountains trip
Author:Wilson, K.O.
Publication:New York State Conservationist
Date:Apr 1, 1997
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