The Devil's Path is a long path in the Catskill mountains of southern New York. It ranks as one of the most difficult hikes in the eastern US, gaining 9000'+ feet over 25 miles. Surprisingly, the trails in the Catskills are steep and quite treacherous: it is possible to get an incredible hiking experience even in these mountains that don't even have a tree line! The steepness of these mountains makes it amenable to ice climbing: there are extensive high quality ice climbing routes, all within a two-and-a-half drive of New York City.
a sunny Sunday in January..
Eastern Half of DP: endurance ice climbing
We spotted a few cars at Platte Clove road, the ending point of our hike and drove to the start of our hike on the northern side of Mink Hollow road. Immediately upon stepping out of the cars we donned microspikes. The conditions were absolutely perfect for ice formation. We hiked along a woods road up to a shelter and intersection with the Devil's Path. From the intersection it was a steep one mile hike that gains over 1300' to Plateau Mountain. Even with microspikes, we needed to be very careful: the trail was a mixture of exposed rock, snow and ultra slick ice. The summit of Plateau mountain doesn't have a view or a summit marker for that matter: we could only guess that we had reached the summit. At the summit a few us wisely decided to don our crampons. I wore the same boots and crampons that took me up Rainier (and here I was wearing them in the Catskills??).
At this point half the group had crampons and the rest had microspikes. Those of us with crampons raced down Plateau mountain; the hikers who wore microspikes had the opportunity to learn some downhill ice skating. Back at the lean-to we passed earlier, it was time to proceed up the next peak, Sugarloaf mountain (it seems every state that has mountains has a Sugarloaf mountain!). The ascent up Sugarloaf was, I would say, one of the epic hikes in the northeast.
From the lean-to to Sugarloaf Mountain was roughly one mile of low-angle ice climbing bliss (or one mile of torture if you had left your crampons at home). I cannot describe the pleasure of digging the front points of my crampons in the plastic ice. It was what us ice climbers call "hero ice". It was endurance ice climbing at its best! Occasionally we had to tie rope to trees to haul our microspike-wearing friends up 20 foot sections of ice. The whole trail was covered in shimmering plastic ice-it was absolute bliss. The walls were covered with ice so thin it looked like someone had spray-painted a thin layer of plastic on. The icicles glimmered in the sun. This is what winter hiking is all about! The top of Sugarloaf has some gorgeous views of the peaks to the south.
We proceeded eastward towards Twin Mountain. The descent down Sugarloaf is about a mile of slippery rocks, ice and snow, requiring the use of hands and the occasional butt-slide. The ascent up Twin mountain is a bit shorter and easier than Sugarloaf, but not any less interesting. Near the summit is a cave where we paused for a quick lunch. After lunch, the summit and more gorgeous views to the south, another slippery treacherous descent, and yet another ascent, this time quite short, up Indian Head mountain. The trail got progressively less challenging, though still requiring crampons. We paused for more stunning views, including one of the Hudson river to the east. The descent off of Indian Head is long. We finished the 12 mile / 4200' hike by about 4pm, me wearing crampons almost all the way to the car.
A few weeks later..
Western Half of the DP: Snowshoes: nah, we don't need em!
We met at the Spruceton parking lot and waited for the rest of the group. By 8:30am no one else had arrived, so we proceeded to drive two of three cars to the trail start at Devil's Tombstone campground on route 214. We started our Devil's Path hike by signing in at the register and immediately began the intense 2 mile ascent up Hunter mountain. The trail mercifully winds its way up via a series of switchbacks. Within minutes we were out of earshot of cars passing on the road below us. It was quite warm and I was wishing I had brought sunglasses and sunscreen. We made good time up to the Hunter mountain lean-to some 2.5 miles from the parking lot. From the lean-to it is a few hundred yards to the entrance of the Southwest Hunter unmarked trail. In the summer the "trail" entrance is marked by a cairn, which of course, was buried by 2 feet of snow. Fortunately we ran into a fellow hiker, who appeared to know his way around and we followed him up to Southwest Hunter. In the winter, the leaves are out so you actually have a view! Southwest Hunter is actually a trail-less peak (normally those require bushwhacking through pine trees so thick you can barely squeeze between them), but one with a semi-trail leading up to the summit. The snow was fairly deep, so it took some effort to make it to the summit. We retraced our steps back to the Devil's Path.
From there, it was mostly downhill on a fairly well broken path to Diamond Notch falls. The descent was thoroughly enjoyable as there were no annoying rocks and tree branches to worry about.. just a fun run downhill. I raced down as fast as I could: my stomach said it was lunch time! After lunch, it was time to make the (painfully) long 2000' ascent up to West Kill mountain. Fortunately, the path was groomed by countless snowshoe tracks. We, however, did not bring our snowshoes. I assumed that since the eastern DP hike required crampons, therefore so would the western DP. For the time being, it was quite easy to walk up without snowshoes. My companions went ahead as I paused to tie my shoe laces, put on microspikes and drink some water. By the time I started hiking, they were no longer within sight. By the time I got up to the ridge where I could see through to the other side, I still had over 1.5 miles to go to the summit of West Kill. I pressed on, hoping my companions wouldn't head off to Spruceton without me. I arrived at the Buck Head lookout where my companions were waiting. The view from there was stunning: we could see practically all Catskill peaks. West Kill peak was maybe one tenth of a mile beyond. So we thought we were home free at this point: only 4.5 miles to go mostly downhill .. piece of cake.. 2 hours max!
And this is where things got interesting. Earlier in the morning at Spruceton parking lot, we saw several cars, so naturally we assumed the hikers had broken trail for us up to West Kill peak. How wrong we were! The trail after West Kill was 4.5 miles of brutal unbroken crusty snow. The pace was exceedingly slow.. every step took a lot of effort. Every once in a while we stopped to sip some water and admire the sun slowly sinking behind purplish clouds casting its rays on the tranquil forest.
As we proceeded westwards over the small bump of St. Anne's peak, the sun had gone to sleep and light snow started falling. We covered the steep mile down to the bend in the Devil's Path fairly quickly. Shortly after the bend, we had a mere 1.5 miles to go and we lost daylight. Out came the headlamps as we searched for the illuminated trail markers. At one point we lost the trail (some trees had come down during Hurricane Irene, obscuring the trail). We decided that with roughly a mile to go we could afford to bushwack if necessary. Fortunately, we saw some snowshoe tracks (finally!) and trail markers. Apparently the snowshoe hikers who were supposed to break trail for us had only gone at most a mile in and turned around (some day hike!). We got back to our cars just before 7pm. It had taken us 9 and a half hours to cover 14 miles and 5500' vertical.