It was 7:00am on January 29th 2017 when we arrived at the lot on Rt 47 for Slide Mountain in New Yorks Catskill Mountains. We had an uneventful drive up from Philly with zero signs of snow until we hit some light snow fall on route 28 in Saugerties. When we got to the parking area there was fresh snow on the cars in the lot and it was lightly snowing. In addition to the snow it was a bit colder than forecasted with temps in the upper 20s at the base. We geared up and started up, my first warning sign should have been Mikes refusal to drop a few layers before starting up. At the time Mike and I had only been on a handful of short backpacking trips together, but almost all of them involved steep ascents and mountain conditions. However, Mike had never hiked in the winter or had any experience with Snowshoes, Crampons, or winter sleep systems. This likely should have been my second warning sign but I had a good amount of winter experience and was comfortable with the terrain. My thought process was that if we had the right gear (which we did) and took it easy we would have no serious issues. Turns out I was wrong.
Slide Mountain at 4180 feet towers over New York’s Catskill Mountains and is one of two peaks that extend over 4000 feet in elevation putting both summits on the Northeast 115 high peaks list. Slide is a popular warm weather hike but seems to be lightly traveled in the winter months. In terms of difficulty, the popular Catskill High Peaks guide site Catskillmountaineer.com lists the hike as moderate with a total elevation gain of 1749 feet. Our last Catskill backpacking trip involved around the same gain and I had previously had days of over 6000 before. This led me to thinking that this would be a decent first winter summit for Mike. However heavy packs and fresh snow meant slow going up the long gradual slopes. In addition Mike had never walked in Snowshoes or crampons before which added to our growing list of red flags. Mike was cold immediately after stepping out of the Jeep and really loaded up on layers. In particular he had a thick beanie type hat and large Marmot Ama Dablam jacket on. Both are great for camp or breaks but not great for hiking uphill. This goes against my general rule of starting out cold and then warming up as I start moving uphill. My thought process was that once he warms up he will shed a layer. As we made our way up I asked a few times if he was warm enough to remove the heavy down jacket, each time he replied that he was still cold. In hindsight this should have been a redflag turn back sign as I was only hiking in a long-sleeved Tech shirt and thin gloves. However I figured that because we were moving slower that maybe Mike was actually cold? I had him switch to my lighter more aggressive MSR snowshoes to increase our speed. However this did not do much to help as we still ended up taking frequent breaks and getting cold. Shortly after this Mike asked if I had a warmer pair of gloves. He had been hiking in a pretty warm pair of OR gloves but they had gotten wet (likely sweat). Yep another red flag, we were planning on a cold camping night and his gloves were already wet. I gave him my Black Diamond guide gloves that I had brought to sleep in and we pushed on.
Shortly after a steep section I noticed that the back of Mikes down puffy was looking wet near his neck area. I stopped and asked him if he was warm and he said no he was still cold. I called out that he was starting to sweat through his jacket and he replied that he had not even noticed. R E D F L A G! He ended up taking off the jacket and pushing on until we got about a half mile from the summit and he decided that he had to put it back on as he was really cold. I figured there was no harm in pushing to the summit as we could always turn around and head back to the car. However when we reached the summit Mike had warmed up and he was noticeably in a better mood and wanted to push on. Our plan was to descend down the back of the mountain to a col between Slide Mountain and Cornell Mountain that was known to be a solid camping area. Spirits were now high and we pushed down past the summit. The terrain was mellow at first until the trail narrowed and became really steep and covered with deep snow. At this point the wind was blowing snow off the tight trees and on to us. I stopped before a short but very steep slope to check on Mike and offer him the rope that I had hauled up for a rappel. The terrain was steep but not run out or overly dangerous, a slip would mean sliding 10 feet down the snowy slope to a flat area. I offered to set up a rappel but Mike was confident that he could easily get down. In hindsight he was likely starting to get cold and did not want to take the time to rappel or short rope down the slope. Another red flag that I should have identified and forced him to lower down the rope. At this point Mike was wearing really nice MSR snowshoes with a solid crampon bottom, which should have allowed for him to easily descend the slope. However, fatigue and inexperience led to a slip and fall about half way down. This did not result in any injuries but did cover Mike in wet snow.
He got up brushed off the best he could and we pushed on. However, the fall, cold temps, and increasing wind severely depleted moral and I could tell Mike was ready to stop. At this point I started to throw out the option of bailing and turning back to the car. However, Mike was adversely against going back up the steep sections and inclines again today. He had slowed down a bunch in the last few minutes and was now saying that his toes were cold. I knew we had to make camp as soon as possible but I wanted to get lower on the mountain, we were still around 3000 feet. However, I feared that Mike would not be able to make it out if we descended any further down the slope. I decided that I would keep pushing down until I found a sheltered spot for camp. A few minutes later I found a great spot that was protected by thick pines and a large hillside and opted to set up camp as fast as possible and get Mike to warm up.
Stayed tuned for Part 2 to see if we make it :).