My moment of doubt came the Tuesday before we headed out. As I stared at the weather report, it said something on the order of a 50-60% chance of rain on Saturday, with highs in the 30s and winds up as high as 60 mph on Hunter Mountain. Flashback to Iceland. I wrote a nervous e-mail explaining the fine points of layering, and started checking the weather at likely points further south. I was not entirely sure I wanted to lead a group of nine into perfect hypothermia conditions on the Devils Path.
But the weather improved, gradually, through the week, and by Friday, mid-morning, we had a motley and impressive crew gathered at Grosvenor: Brandon, Upasana, Marc, Katie, George, Mimi, and myself. The long intricate drive up to the Catskills followed, and soon enough we joined Unicorn Dust and Green Lantern (who had already set up the shuttle) at the fabled Gypsy Wolf in Woodstock, NY. The Tex-Mex was really pretty good (Katie and I, both Texans, agreed). I snapped some photos for Shamrock out in Salt Lake, and she sent ominous warnings, speaking of her scars from this trail. Brandon asked the DC UL veterans to rate my leadership abilities. I said that was the first time that had happened [i]before [/i]a trip! Somehow, I said that I had no idea how tomorrow was going to go. I could tell the conversation was freaking people out, just a little. ;)
Fortified with food and after saying goodbye to the tap, we headed to Prediger Road and the eastern trailhead. Temps fells quickly to just below freezing. Headlamps on, we wandered along the first flat mile or so of the DP to the Devils Kitchen Shelter. Two other backpackers were there, planning a two-day yo-yo of the trail (packing to the east trailhead on Saturday, then home again on Sunday (they didn't make it, as we didn't see them Sunday)). We tented where we could, or took some space in the shelter. The night was quiet, calm, and not so cold. The moon came out late in the night, shining through my cuben veil.
Saturday morning, we hit the trail at 7:20am, eager to make the most of the light, which came slanting in through the orange foliage. At first the day was so beautiful that it almost seemed like we'd enjoy perfect conditions. But the devil was playing a trick on us. As we got higher, the wind rose and became blustery, making the temps feel much colder than the 30-40s. I got some notion that Green Lantern was behind us and so got to climb Indian Head 1.5 times.
Everyone enjoyed the diabolical difficulty of the trail as Indian Head, Twin, Sugarloaf fell before our determined assault that morning. Marc, Upasana, and Katie practiced their photographic abilities on the various steep, scrambling sections. We pulled into the Mink Hollow Shelter for lunch, where Marc brewed tea. After that, Plateau Mountain (a much harder 0.4 mile climb than I remembered from the summer), the look outs, and the long, treacherous descent to NY-214, where we regrouped.
There, we found that the pumps weren't working, so we filled up with pond water. Most of our party wanted to press on to Diamond Notch, but the night fell (a beautiful, bloody sunset with clouds of ominous grey) upon us on the long switch-backed climb up from the road. Just before reaching camp, I surprised a porcupine on the trail, and stood and watched as the fellow clambered for the tree. I wished my camera was to hand, though I think Marc spotted him later.
When I reached Devil's Acre Lean-to, it was plain that would be the sensible place for us to spend this night. Though the winds howled above us like a freight-train, this position was fairly sheltered. We had water, the shelter, and plenty of tent sites. A few specks of snow fell upon us as people trickled into camp. A short but convivial campfire followed, with Brandon (now Honey Bun) testing our his WFR skills on Green Lantern. A yam was slow-cooked in a rather phallic-shaped tin-foil arrangement.
But we were early to bed, as we knew we had plenty of hiking to do. Again, at sunrise, the drivers were off to complete the shuttle, while the riders took it a little easier. The slips and stumbles of the descent to Diamond Notch, then the long slog back to the summit of West Kill. There, we paused for photos before pressing on. We cried ritualistically at the last obstacle of St. Anne's ("Fuck you, Devils Path!") then bee-lined for the cars on footing that was never as easy as you wanted it to be. At one point, I am told that someone might have said, "I would give every cent I have to be at the trailhead right now!"
But the five drivers were there by noon. We reversed the shuttle, got some beer, and met the riders just as they all finished.
The celebration ensued, and then we moved off to the Catskill Mountain Pizza Joint, where we toasted our success. From there, it was a long ride home. I took the NJ turnpike. Katie kept me awake with her caffeine-fueled chatter. I arrived home at about 11pm. Just in time to watch the last few minutes of the Packers beating the Vikings. And I slept like a baby ... till 5:30am.
Sum total, I believe we recorded about 23 miles of backpacking, but of course about 18,000 feet of change. I was eager to come back and *backpack* this trail, because I wasn't sure that the *day hike* in July was enough. Which was harder? I'm not sure: both were plenty hard. You could argue either way. I did have the somewhat demented idea to yo-yo the trail, John Callahan-style. Hard to say if I will find the time in the near future.
Thanks to this great crew for making this adventure happen, and for sticking together when things got tough. It never ceases to amaze me how quickly esprit de corps can develop in a group. Special recognitoin goes out to Marc, Mimi, Brandon, and Upashana, who debuted with DC UL on a really tough trail and in fine style. Also, Katie, George, and Green Lantern hiked with great verve. And extra thanks to Unicorn Dust, who helped me lead the thing. What a great group! Hope to see you all on the trail very soon!
PS Here, BTW, is the link to that ultra-warm fleece I had. Miles turned me on to it.
PPS I hope to see more pictures!