Monday, January 14, 2013

Slide Mountain in Winter

The hike to the top of Slide Mountain in the Catskills from the trailhead near Winisook often gets knocked as a boring slog through the woods with limited views from the summit. That's debatable at best and untrue in winter. As I learned on 3 January 2013, the summit of Slide, at 4,180’, is a great destination for winter camping in a surreal landscape shrouded in snow.  

My son Max and I loaded up our overnight gear, strapped on our snowshoes, and set off in the late afternoon from the parking lot on Slide Mountain Road.  We followed the yellow-blazed Phoenicia-East Branch Trail to the red-blazed Wittenberg-Cornell-Slide Trail to the summit. While there were a few short and steep sections at the start, most of the ascent was long, gradual climb of about two miles with great views of the late afternoon sun on the forests. 

We started later than I wanted, around 3:30, but by sunset--around 5 pm--we were well into the balsam forest that covers the top part of the mountain. To preserve the ecosystem, overnight camping on Slide is prohibited above 3,500’ from March 22 to December 29. We were happy to take advantage of the winter interlude to sleep on the summit.

The well-packed trail was easy to follow, so we snowshoed until we found a good campsite: off the trail and surrounded by trees to break the wind, but not so wooded that we feared for snow-laden trees dropping their burdens on us in the middle of the night. 

We dropped our packs, gulped some water, and munched granola bars to restore our energy. (The need to eat regularly to maintain body warmth and energy makes winter backpacking a moveable feast.) Then we pitched our tent, a sturdy MSR design pictured here, at our mountaintop campsite. To keep us secure in any winds, we tied our guy lines to snowshoes and ski poles buried in the snow.  For all our precautions, it was a quiet night.

We cooked supper on a butane stove by the light of our headlamps, their beams glistening off sparkling snowflakes and cutting through the steam that rose from our cooking pot. The cold weather made our butane stove predictably slow to boil water, but all worked out fine.    Warmed by a meal of macaroni and cheese, mixed vegetables, and double strength hot chocolate, we soon felt warm and refreshed.

For our evening's entertainment we walked few hundred yards down the trail to the actual summit. The deep snows muffled our every sound.  The trees around us were so covered in snow that their shapes were fantastic—by turns round, bulging and pointy.

From the top of Slide we took in wintry views of the Catskills, then returned to our snug tent and warm sleeping bags for more chocolate.  With zero degree bags and double foam pads, we were comfortable.  

We slept late and ate a breakfast of oatmeal and hot chocolate. As we packed our tent, a passing snowshoer arriving on the summit told us that overnight the temperature had gone down to 0. 

We descended without incident and drove down the mountain. Our only dispute was a generational disagreement on the proper musical accompaniment for our triumphant trip home. We eventually settled on the Grateful Dead and went home happily. 

Slide in the winter is a serious trip. We took the easy route up (compared to the ascent over Wittenberg) and brought good winter gear, including insulated boots, mittens, warm hats, and lots of layers of clothing. Don’t attempt a winter campout on Slide unless you have appropriate gear and a solid knowledge of winter camping. But if you have all of these, it’s a great trip.

Photo by Max Snyder.