Don't underestimate these hills

Photo of snow on a Stamford hillside by Flickr user McGahee. Posted in the Watershed Post Flickr pool.

Michael Frank, writing for the online-only Adventure Magazine this week, has a special Valentine's message for the Catskills: he's sorry he ever thought they were "Ho-hum."

Frank spent Valentine's weekend backpacking on a 4,000-foot Catskills peak, and his essay describes how our relatively gentle East Coast terrain can be every bit as dangerous as any sky-high mountain out in the west:

Even now, having lived in the Northeast more than half my life, when my native-born friends point at the “mountains,” I only see hills. I grew up around far taller, nastier terrain. I’ve climbed and hiked in the Rockies, in the Cascades. You could climb a peak on that side of the country and know that you’d beaten back nature. Or so it would seem.

But I’ve been scared white as a ghost on the sharp end of more than one climb on this side of the Mississippi, having come close enough to know full well that a 50-foot whipper will kill you just as dead in Keene Valley as it will in Yosemite. And so, with time, my respect for what adventure the East can dish out has grown — and never more so than today, after a long weekend winter backpacking in the Catskills at a mighty 3,200-4,200 feet.

The essay gets downright poetical about the harsh beauty of the terrain:

Tumbledown stone walls course in every direction across the forest floor. Our route cut through 1800s farmland. The grid of bluestone walls was made by fierce folk who chopped down the forests and cleared the rock from the land, attempting with every strained tendon to eke a crop. Today there’s proof that no amount of will was enough. Their offspring saw some less painful form of existence and fled. The forests grew back, leaving the walls behind.

Frank goes on to describe how he and a group of friends suffered through a weekend that never got warmer than temps in the teens all weekend. One of his friends almost froze his toes off, literally:

At some point on the hike up on Friday Matt’s socks got wet with sweat and his feet never sent the “hey, it’s cold” signal up to his brain ... A few of Matt’s toes turned blue-black by Saturday evening, but it might have been worse.

Frank fares better than his friend does, but not by much. (Read the essay to the end to see the last practical joke the Catskills pulled on him as he was trying to leave on Sunday.)