It was a cold Saturday morning in February, 1950. Elaine and I had a sixth floor apartment in Elmhurst, Queens. Queens County is one of New York City’s five boroughs, but if you were a New Yorker the “city,” with its prominent skyscrapers, was really the island of Manhattan. We’d been married on March 25th, 1949, the date being fixed after we’d found our small rental just a block from a subway line convenient for commuting to the big city.
We’d set our alarms for 5:00 a.m., eaten breakfast and washed up, and were awaiting the arrival of Bill Graves, a childhood friend. Bill had moved to Colorado after he was discharged from the navy, but on this occasion had come back East to visit his parents. We were both familiar with the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York and had agreed to climb together on this day.
The doorbell rang promptly at 5:30 a.m., and soon the three of us were trudging along the corridor towards the elevator. Elaine and I had purchased U.S. Army surplus winter gear, and the cleats on our boots resounded reassuringly on the terrazzo flooring.
We clambered into Bill’s three-seat roadster and were soon on our way, Elaine sitting between Bill and me. Our objective was Slide Mountain which, at 4200 feet, was the highest peak in the Catskill Mountains. This wouldn’t be a challenge for Bill, who already sported a citation from the Governor of Colorado for climbing every peak in Colorado over 14000 feet—although not in winter.
It was dark and cold this early morning. There was little traffic on the road, and Bill soon turned on the car radio. I objected vehemently to his selection of Country music, but Elaine enjoyed it and hummed gaily in her seat between Bill and me. I was out-numbered.
We caught the temperature when the station broadcast its weather report: zero degrees, and not expected to get much higher during the day. However, the sky would be clear and there was little chance of precipitation. We had budgeted three hours to reach the base of the trail and actually got there a half hour early, at 8:00 a.m. The snow at the bottom was about three feet deep.
The trail was well marked with metallic discs nailed into the trunks of trees to serve as a guide. We were all in good physical condition and stimulated by the cold air that tingled our cheeks. At first, the climb was restful. We made steady progress at a slow, measured pace to avoid perspiring, which would have been uncomfortable in the cold weather. We had all day.
We discovered one problem along the way. We had to carefully avoid stepping on small trees buried under deep snow. The snow became deeper as we ascended, and whenever one of us stepped on a small evergreen at the edge of the trail, it was difficult to climb out of the hole in the drifted snow.
The last part of the terrain leveled out and took us along a plateau to reach a fire tower and a cabin that was occupied by a forest ranger during summer months. The climbing part was over but the top of the mountain was very icy. In order to avoid falling through the ice-crusted snow, we distributed our weight by crawling on our hands and knees. We snacked on trail mix and chocolate bars and climbed the icy fire tower for pictures.
The descent was uneventful and when we got back to the base of the trail we stopped at a small country store to celebrate with ice cream cones, even though it was only two degrees Fahrenheit. It was exhilarating to realize that three people with different levels of climbing skill (and different tastes in music) could come together to accomplish a common goal: climbing the Catskills’ tallest mountain in the dead of winter.
© Gene Landriau, 2011
Slide Mountain: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slide_Mountain_%28New_York%29
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