My co-worker Steve and I set out this past weekend to conquer the Devil’s Path in the Catskills. Known as the toughest day hike in the northeast, the trail stretches 24.4 miles from east to west and boasts 9,000 ft of elevation gain over 5 peaks. Steve and I hoped slay this beast in 2 days. Instead, a stupid mistake forced us to walk away with our tails between our legs after just 4 miles…
Steve and I left work early on Friday and made the 3 and a half hour drive up to Tannersville, NY. Because the Devil’s Path was a point to point trail, a taxi service followed us to the west end of the trail (where we dropped off the car) and then drove us to the east end to begin our hike. The taxi service cost $90 including tip and a headache because the driver smelled like he shit himself several hours ago. Seriously.
By the time we set out on the trail with headlamps on, it was 8 pm and snow was falling. Temperatures were somewhere in the 20s. We hiked a quick 2 miles along the Devil’s Path to the Devil’s Kitchen Lean-to where we would be staying the night. Given the condition of the trail at the lower elevations (extremely wet with little streams flowing in many places and snow accumulation in the woods to either side), I thought we might be in some trouble towards the higher elevations.
When we arrived at the shelter close to 9 pm, I set up my new 4-season, waterproof bivy (the Outdoor Research Alpine Bivy) in the shelter to test it out since I would be bringing it on my Mt. Shasta trip in early May. While the bivy is definitely not for people with any modicum of claustrophobia, I liked it. It definitely adds a few degrees to my sleeping system (just like a tent with the fly on), and it successfully repelled all the snow and wind that was profusely blowing into the shelter. Though the bivy comes with a pole to keep the fabric off my face, I found that I didn’t use it and still thought the bivy was worth it. After some food and a beer, Steve and I went to sleep – we had a challenging day ahead of us.
We woke up to a bitterly cold morning under a partly cloudy sky. After some breakfast and a beer (I had no intention of drinking this, but the beer betrayed me and exploded in my pack – my only other “option” was dumping it out), Steve and I set off for the first of 5 peaks: Indead Head Mountain. Only a mile into our hike, it quickly became apparent that we should have brought microspikes – hard packed snow and ice was rapidly becoming more prevalent as we gained altitude. Every step was precarious as we did our best to avoid the iciest patches of trail.
As we passed Sherman’s Lookout, which was connected to the summit of Indian Head Mountain via a saddle, the condition of the trail continued to worsen. Finally, the last steep incline separating us from the summit was covered in ice – it forced us to stop and we realized how dangerous and foolish it would be to continue. It wasn’t necessarily walking up that concerned us, but the steep descents that we knew were coming.
So, to recap, both Steve and I made the stupid mistake to underestimate the weather in the Catskills. While we knew the weather was cold, we didn’t bother to investigate the conditions of the trail at all. Having been accustomed to warmer spring weather for close to a month now in South Jersey, we simply didn’t think and assumed the trail would be just fine. Consequently, we didn’t have microspikes, which would have made the icy trail very doable.
Now, standing beneath the first precariously steep, icy ascent, we were faced with a decision: go all in or fold and cut our losses. Going all in, while potentially possible, would have simply been asinine. One slip down a steep descent and a fracture would have been the least of our worries. Folding meant a 4 mile walk of shame back to the trail head and swallowing an additional $90 cab ride of shame back to the car. That’s assuming we had cell service at the trail head, of course. If not, we would have to walk back towards town until we got a signal.
Despite how clearly obvious which of the above was the correct decision, it’s incredible how difficult that decision is in the moment. Steve and I must have stood there for 10 minutes while we talked it out and wrestled with the shame, embarrassment and cost of turning back. In the end, we folded and started hiking back toward the trail head.
Any doubt we had about turning around quickly evaporated as we realized how difficult the downhill was on a slippery surface. I mean we weren’t even descending anything remotely steep and both of us completely wiped out on multiple occasions. We made it back to the trail head, called the cab (thankfully, this time it was a nice old man that did not smell like diarrhea) and started driving home. A delicious breakfast sandwich from a hole-in-the-wall diner helped assuage our dejected feelings.
Anyway, the underlying point of this story is that preparation on an outdoor trip, no matter the scale or difficulty) is everything. Simply googling trail conditions before leaving or just assuming the worst and throwing a pair of microspikes in my pack could have made for an enjoyable and satisfying accomplishment. I’ve hiked in those conditions many times and I should have known better. The second point of this story is how important it is to recognize when you’re beaten and need to turn around. In the moment, everything in my body wanted to go for it. Steve had the same mindset. But we stopped, clearly articulated our options and realized what a massive mistake going forward would have been. So, while this is personally my first defeat to the outdoors, I could probably count it as a win. We made the right call.
Going forward, there is one certainty: I will be back and I will slay the Devil’s Path.