A Day in the Life of a Trail Patroller: Post-holing Winter Maintenance Hike

Rodger's Icy Ramp

Rodger’s Icy Ramp

Saturday I went out with our trails overseer and his friend to check on the conditions of a 7 mile section of trail and clean up the blowdowns we could while documenting those we’d have sawyers come back for. It was not at all what I was expecting.

I knew there might be some snow up there. There was certainly when we were in the Shawangunks the previous weekend. I thought there might be 2-3 inches of snow in spots, and these elevations were lower than those in the Gunks so it might have even been less. But I brought my spikes as I knew I would at least potentially need those. Snowshoes would have been a better choice!

We had left a car at the north end and headed down to the start, where the snow on the trail was at least 5 inches deep. It appeared to have been walked recently, but there was only a single set of footsteps. From the start, we were using this hiker’s footholes in the snow, as the top layer of snow was crusty and icy. And so using these footholes made it easier to get through. Of course at this part of the hike the trail rises 800 ft in about 1/4 mile, up through a large crack in a boulder known as Rodger’s Ramp. It was up up up and we took a few photos because the ramp looked even more daunting with 4″ of snow in it. We crested the ridge with some nice views west and south. One thing I do like about hiking in this season is the long views through the trees you don’t usually have when it’s the green tunnel.

Following deep icy footholes

Following deep icy footholes

It was another 3/4 of a mile of following deep footsteps to the shelter side trail. Here we inspected the bear box, fallen trees near campsites, replaced the shelter log, and checked the privy. There was one hiker there who had set up his tent in the shelter as he did not expect the deep snow either. As there was no one else there trying to use the shelter we didn’t give him a hard time. Plus it was his birthday and he just wanted to spend it in the woods. Don’t blame him one bit.

We had a snack and then headed out. As he had confirmed he was the one to make the footsteps last night, this meant the next 6 miles we would be taking turns postholing and breaking the trail. We didn’t really look forward to that. Or at the very least, I didn’t. I knew it would be a struggle, and that it was.

Trail? What Trail?

Trail? What Trail?

I certainly hadn’t brought gaiters on this hike so in short order my shoes filled with snow and ice from making new deep steps in the snow. It wasn’t quite mid-day so this also meant it was barely into the 40’s and my water and snow filled shoes began to get colder and colder with each step. While not completely numbing because it was above freezing and the walking helped keep my feet warm, it was quite uncomfortable and I had to stop and wiggle my toes every once in a while.

Trudging along

Trudging along

We were cutting down every small blowdown that we encountered, which also meant dragging large branches deeper into the woods off trail. So even if the trail had been beaten down by a desired imaginary boy scout troop ahead of us, we were still walking into deep snow off trail many times.

At some point along this stretch, the top of one of my cork trekking pole handles snapped off at the fabric loop attachment. In all my years of hiking and backpacking I’ve never seen that happen. But I have put a lot of years and wear on those poles, and I guess they’d had enough. It’s hard to imagine that would have happened with plastic or rubber poles, so as much as I like the cork, the pair I replaced them with at REI yesterday had plastic handles. I went to REI to ask if they had a warranty on their products like other manuafacturers who will replace a product that fails in normal use.

Bear Mtn, CT from Mt. Easter

Bear Mtn, CT from Mt. Easter

The manager however thought I was just trying to take advantage of them like others have, which is why they changed their return policy to one year or newer. That wasn’t really my question though and I just called it a loss and used my 20% coupon to get a new pair. I like REI and use my membership regularly there so it will come back to me in a dividend. This was really the first time I was disappointed there. Really  I just felt they should have their own manufacturer warranty as they were REI poles. But they give money to our AMC chapter every year and volunteer with us so they’re still good with me.

Jim cutting a blowdown

Jim cutting a blowdown

As we reached the halfway point, something else unpleasant happened. My left thigh tightened up on me significantly, making it very difficult to lift that leg and adding strain to an angry muscle with every step. And there were miles to go. It was incredibly painful and I had to stop helping with the tree removal as the main goal for me was to walk out on my own without assistance. This was obviously the result of stepping in uneven depths of snow over and over and suddenly breaking through here and there. Not to mention a lot of strange angles I was moving them in.  We were following old snowshoe tracks now and once in a while the snow was packed down by those heels but half the time we still broke through.

As a result of the thigh issues, my knee and ankle acted up next, feeling more and more sore with each step. This was not my day. I didn’t bring my knee compression sleeves so I had to tough it out. A lot of things working against me at once. To complete the assault of painful ailments, I began to get chaffing as a result of the unusual step/sink pattern that made my pants and compression underwear not function the way they should and not protecting those nether regions adequately. The already steep ups and downs on this hike became even more difficult with all these injuries.

We did take a break at Hang glider view to enjoy the long views to the Taconics and beyond. The snow here was also deep however so break really meant just standing still for a bit and having a snack. Since we were so slow going in the deep snow conditions we were focused on reaching the other end in good time so we never really had a sit down break since the shelter.

The Taconics and Lime Rock Racetrack from Hang Glider view

The Taconics and Lime Rock Racetrack from Hang Glider view

From reading trail journals and watching youtube channels I realize many thru hikers were facing these same conditions and managing to keep going, though many have already dropped out because of the multiple snow storms and harsh winter conditions that are also happening in the south. I am an experienced hiker and backpacker for sure, and have done many winter hikes. But I was not at all expecting such a difficult day. I can’t tell you how happy I was to reach the road and limp to the car.  It took us 6 hrs to cover the 7+ miles. And all of us could normally do that in half the time. Granted, we did spend a good amount of time stopping to cut and clear blowdowns. And one positive was as the day warmed, the water in my shoes did too and my feet were at least no longer cold. We only saw one other hiker the whole day. I am well aware these days happen, as did with my Labor Day ridgerunning hike last fall. There are really bad days. As with that experience, I am proud that I got myself through it and out of danger. The good days are worth the bad ones. And they’re always a learning experience.

Linus getting silly at Hang Glider view

Linus getting silly at Hang Glider view

Fielden Stream and I were supposed to go do a section hike with a possible overnight next weekend in northern Massachusetts in our quest to finish the state this spring. In light of these conditions at much lower elevations and farther south, we are postponing a month. We go backpacking together for fun. While we embrace the challenge and occasional unexpected suck that can occur on the trail, there’s no reason to purposefully go into lousy conditions. Deep snow, ice, slush or wet muddy trail is no fun, and as in this case can cause injury which could leave you in trouble when deep in the woods. My leg is mostly back to normal now. My ankle however is still a little sore from all the wacky angles I put it in and sinking into deep icy snow again and again, so that cinches it.

Already tough without the snow

Already tough without the snow

As section hikers we have the luxury to pick when we go. Hopefully a month from now the trail will be in better shape and we can continue our march north to the VT line. We will be doing two sections in May, and its possible we could finish it with those two if the conditions are good and we have big energy! Otherwise it will get completed soon enough!

Miles: 7.4

– Linus

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Back to the Shawangunks and Minnewaska-Winter hike

Getting ready to hit the trail

Getting ready to hit the trail

As planned we headed back to the Hudson valley for our anniversary weekend so we could finally visit Hyde Park on Hudson and do more hiking in Minnewaska State Park. We visited here back in January, right when the Government shut down went into effect and effectively shut down our visit to the home of President Franklin Roosevelt. We are big history buffs, and also fans of the wonderful things his New Deal created such as the Civil Conservation Corps. Not only did the CCC help stabilize the economy after the great depression by providing thousands of jobs, but it also created some of our favorite state and national park buildings and roads. The more parks I visit, the more I see their handiwork and am grateful!

At the trail junction

At the trail junction

We had a great visit to the home on Friday and very much enjoyed our tour. These guides have a passion for their subject; I think I would love a job like that! We enjoyed a great lunch and dinner in Poughkeepsie as part of Hudson Valley restaurant week, and hope to get back in the fall to visit Eleanor’s house, Valkill, a few miles east of the main house.

The next morning we went back to New Paltz on our way to hike. We called Mohonk preserve from the hotel before we left as we were going to try and hike there but they said they only had snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, and no hiking. By that I deduced they just meant guided outings. This is a place where the very wealthy play and are pampered so I imagine this type of guided activity is the norm for their guests. I later realized as we passed one of their gates while entering Minnewaska S.P. that you can hike their trails if you so desire, you just won’t have a guide. No problem. No guide needed. That parking area had lots of outdoorsy folk getting out into the snowy wonderland and no sign of a guard station or entrance fee.

Fielden Stream

Fielden Stream

We stopped into the outfitter in New Paltz called Rock and Snow to look at maps of the rest of Minnewaska S.P. and see if they had any idea on the trail conditions. Given all the recent snow, we didn’t want to be postholing and didn’t have deep snow gear. We did have our microspikes (I recently picked up a used pair for Fielden Stream on a used hiking gear forum) and so as long as the trails were not knee deep in snow we wouldn’t need more than those. They didn’t have a lot of information on trail conditions and I found the map a little too minimal, so I checked my trusty AllTrails app and found many short loop options. As we drove west to the park, we could see that most of the mountainsides were snowless give or take a few spots. Of course this doesn’t always mean there’s not snow on top or on the trails. But it didn’t look too foreboding.

High Peter's Kill /SRT

High Peter’s Kill /SRT

We picked a loop in the Peter’s Kill (the Dutch word for a river) area that circled the rocky craggs of Compass Rock and then followed Peter’s Kill back to the park office. I didn’t realize this area had a park office/ranger’s station until we got there so while we did have to pay a $10 parking fee, I am always fine with giving my money to support these parks. Plus, they had information, detailed maps of the area’s trails, a nature exhibit, bathrooms, and snowshoe rentals should we have needed them. The ranger was also able to tell us the trail conditions and that spikes were fine for the conditions. We saw many people out there with no spikes who said ‘we should get those’ when they saw ours, but they all managed without. We like the extra security knowing we wouldn’t slip on icy spots and had traction in the snow on the climbs and descents.

Classic Gunks rocks

Classic Gunks rocks

We got our spikes on and headed up the Bullwheel trail to start our loop. The climb from here was easy and not much of a grade. To the east, several rock climbing and bouldering trails branched off the main trail but you need permits for those and no one was out rock climbing considering the snow was 3-4 inches deep everywhere. These were indicated by blue/yellow blazes, though I didn’t figure that out till later.

Linus playing beneath the boulders

Linus playing beneath the boulders

We reached an old concrete foundation which we learned from the ranger was part of an old ski resort up the side of this hill back in the day. There were several runs, one of which we hiked up at the end of the loop. This was likely the support for the lift tower. At this point we were skirting the eastern edge of the rocky summit, and in better weather with a bouldering permit you can scramble up to the top. I was enticed for a second but without a permit, I don’t really believe in breaking rules. Especially when I ask others to follow and respect these kinds of rules as a ridge runner. I also wouldn’t want to have my wife deal with a fall! I will come back later when its dry and warm and with a permit.

Incredible view of the Catskills

Incredible view of the Catskills

The trail intersected here with the High Peter’s Kill trail. It is part of the longer Shawangunk Ridge Trail which follows the ridge lines for the length of the park. The trail continued east to the Mohonk Preserve but we continued west on the High Peter’s Kill portion around the summit of Compass rock. There were amazing views from its western slope to the high peaks of the Catskills just to the west. It descended sometimes steeply for a snowy trail to the banks of Peter’s Kill, a beautiful river nestled between the two mountains. It was wide and deep and had watering holes and a nice waterfall we passed. In the summer this would be an ideal place to cool off.

After following the river for a bit we opted for the shorter (but we would learn steeper) route up the red trail back to the parking area. This took us up the side of an old ski slope to where it met the Bullwheel trail we climbed earlier. A family with young kids was descending this trail and slipping all over the place because it was steep. So we were again glad to have our traction devices. We got a nice workout climbing up the hill and then enjoyed the gentle decline back to the trailhead.

Peter's Kill

Peter’s Kill

It was a short loop but very scenic, with all the typical flora and rocky crags you expect in the Gunks. With the snow, it was much more of a workout than in normal conditions. It wasn’t too cold and we had a great time. We then made our way to our friends’ beautiful home in nearby Cragsmoor, where we enjoyed a roaring campfire before a great dinner together. One day we will live that mountain and country life full time. For now, it’s always a pleasure to be in the mountains and the woods

More Shawangunk Ridges

More Shawangunk Ridges

Tomorrow I will be joining our overseer of trails with my Connecticut AMC chapter to inspect a section of our portion of the Appalachian trail and report back to the crews what work needed to be done. We will cut small blowdowns and clear what we can but we have larger work parties to do the heavy lifting, as well as sawyers to cut the big trees. It will be good to see the condition of the trail in Northern Connecticut as Fielden Stream and I will be out doing a section hike in Northern Massachusetts in 2 weeks and I was a bit anxious of the snow depths having just had our fourth Nor’Easter in a row. Last I read someone had to be assisted off the A.T. in that area of the Berkshires due to deep snow he wasn’t prepared for. Temperatures look like they will be in the 40s-50s until then so I’m hoping we will need nothing more than spikes. I will also check before we go with my contacts that maintain the Massachusetts section as they will know better than anyone.

We were planning to overnight it on that trip but it depends on if there’s snow up there as we don’t have much overnight winter gear. I know many thru’s are making the trek in deep snow in the Smokies right now with not much more than normal hiking gear, but there are shelters there. This section would only have a primitive campsite. If there’s a bunch of snow up there we will do it as a day hike, and this hike in Minnewaska was a good intro for Fielden to using her microspikes should we need them. I will do an entry on tomorrow’s trail maintenance hike as soon as I am able.

Miles: 2

– Linus