By Pamela Chergotis Look, said Tom. Another crazy bastard got here before us.
We generally prefer to find trailhead parking lots empty. Its not so much that we mind our fellow hikers (okay, we do) as hanker after the feeling, utterly sublime, of climbing into the lap of a mountain we have all to ourselves. But on this morning at the foot of Balsalm Lake Mountain, were glad to find someones gone ahead. The snow is deep, and even with snowshoes, a broken trail makes the difference between joy and drudgery.
Our hero signed the register as Matt Smith of Chatham. The indefatigable Mr. Smith plowed through the untamed snowpack alone. As we picked our way up the mountain in his footsteps, our admiration grew. Matt wore snowshoes instead of posthole-making boots, which drives us nuts. When he had to piss he walked six feet off trail and then kicked some snow over. (Pay attention, gentlemen!) We would have liked to thank Matt, but hoped we wouldnt catch up with him in case he was inclined to have us share the work.
We prefer to hike Balsalm Lake Mountain in winter. At 3,720 feet, the mountain is among the tallest in the Catskills but has the easiest way to the top. Its usually too short for a full day hike, but snow slows things down just enough. Its in an especially remote section of the Catskills, and has a true backcountry feel. When the leaves are down, views of Graham and Doubletop mountains float over your right shoulder as you climb.
Theres no view on the summit unless you ascend a steel fire tower slick with ice and rocked by wind. If you succeed, youll be rewarded with the most sweeping panorama in the Catskills. But you dont have to climb all the way to the top to get a little something, a small, thrilling look over the treetops. As you rise through a spiky ring of pointed firs and distant peaks, the temptation to continue up is intense. Maybe when spring comes.
As on most Catskill peaks, Balsalm fir dominates past the 3,500-foot marker. But this mountain is more thickly blanketed than any peak I can think of, other than maybe Slide. In the last half mile before the summit, the trail passes through a glorious colonnade of snow-covered fir that slowed my steps in wonder.
Sneak Peak The hike: Quaker Clearing, at end of Beaverkill Road, Ulster County
Directions: Take Route 17 to Livingston Manor and follow signs for Lew Beach
Route: Follow Dry Brook Ridge Trail (blue blazes) north