There are 35 high peaks in the Catskill Mountains that are above 3500ft elevation. People that summit all 35, plus 4 of them in winter, can become “Catskill 35ers“. For most people that is enough. I am not one of those people.
Around 9:40 am on July 31, 2011 I ran across the summit of Windham High Peak. It was my 164th Catskill peak. As an avid hiker, that in itself wasn’t anything special, what was interesting though is it was my first Catskill ascent in summer. I was running the Escarpment Trail Race and would soon cross over Blackhead Mtn. on my way to a 6th place finish in the 18.6 mile race. It was soon after this day that I decided to focus on completing “the grid”.
My first hike in the Catskills was in early June 1997. A friend of mine, Jody Barton, had suggested going for a hike. We did Twin and Indian Head. The following week we did the Blackhead range. Her mother who was an Adirondack 46er and Catskill 35er suggested that I record the dates of the ascents. Prior to this I was unaware that these hiking lists or clubs even existed so I jotted down the dates and mountain names on a piece of paper and put it into the bag with my newly acquired maps. Over the next 10 years I didn’t do very much hiking as I had devoted most of my time to rock climbing. But with college friends Brian Titone, Scott Kapeller, Jon Curran, and others I had casually racked up a grand total of 15 summits.
In February 2006 I got a call from a rock climbing friend Dave Leahy asking if I wanted to go snowshoeing in the Adirondacks. We went up Algonquin and Wrights peak in full on winter, white-out conditions. It was my first time on snowshoes in the mountains and I had a blast. By late 2006 I was looking for something to do in the winter (besides ice climbing which I didn’t care for) once rock climbing season was over. I decided to attempt to hike the remaining 20 Catskill peaks during the winter and finish the requirements to join the 3500 club.
I did nine peaks that winter and the remaining 11 the following year finishing my 35 with my dog Chewbacca in January 2008 on Rocky Mountain. I was really starting to enjoy exploring the mountains of the Catskills, seeing places that not many people go, particularly on the “off trail” peaks. Since I now had 20 peaks done in winter the next logical step was to hike the remaining 15 in winter. I finished my first “winter round” in January 2009 on Big Indian Mountain with Andrew Zalewski.
In the meantime, I began hiking in the Adirondacks as well. A couple of rock climbing injuries had become troublesome and I needed something else to do with myself year round. Over the summers of 2008 and 2009 I hiked most of the Adirondack 46 eventually finishing on Whiteface Mountain in November 2009. I then had a very intense winter hiking 41 of the Adirondack high peaks in that season finishing the winter 46 on Iroquois in March 2010.
I was continuing to hike in the Catskills, finishing my second, then third complete rounds of the 35. My wife Tara and dog Chewbacca had become 35ers, Tara doing a winter round as well. I began making different lists to try and complete. Like doing all the peaks in one calendar year, then all the peaks in one winter season. I hiked all the peaks solo too.
During the summer of 2010, I began to do a lot of trail running in the Shawangunks so that I could complete a marathon. This would qualify me for the Escarpment race. I also started running the trails in the Catskills for training, which allowed me to do longer days, up to 25 miles, and get a lot of peaks done quickly. I’m not sure exactly when I heard that doing the grid was a thing but only after my first Escarpment race did I consider it.
The “grid” is the name given to the feat of summitting all 35 Catskill peaks in all 12 months of the year cumulatively over a lifetime. The name likely comes from the appearance of the chart or spreadsheet used to track the ascents. There are various kinds of grids, like seasonal, weekly, and even daily, but the monthly grid seems to be the standard. In the Catskills 35 x 12 = 420 summits. On paper it is the easiest grid in the Northeast. The Adirondack grid is 46 x 12 for 552 summits and the White Mountain grid is 48 x 12 for a total of 576. However, anyone that has hiked in the Catskills, particularly in summer, knows how thick the woods can be off trail. 13 of the 35 peaks do not have maintained paths to their summits. 10 of them are true bushwhacks requiring careful navigation to not get lost. Even though the hikes are shorter and the peaks are lower, the Catskills present their own set of special challenges.
By the summer of 2011, I had all but stopped rock climbing. My time was entirely devoted to running and hiking. That year I made 54 ascents of Catskill summits and began to make a concerted effort to fill in the blanks on my grid. 2012 was the first year I hiked all the Catskill peaks at least twice with 91 total summits. Two knee surgeries in 2013 limited me to 77 summits. After rehab, 2014 became, and is still by far, my most prolific year of hiking with 106 summits, all peaks at least twice, 10 of them at least four times. I slowed a little in 2015 “only” summitting 89 peaks. Along the way, there have been many repeats in the same month. For example, I have done Windham and Blackhead in July at least five times apiece during the Escarpment Race. I have also done Blackhead, Indian Head, Twin, Sugarloaf, and Plateau at least three times in June during the Manitou’s Revenge Ultramarathon.
At the beginning of 2016, I had 404 of the required 420 peaks. Six of the remaining 14 summits were two of my least favorite mountains, North Dome and Sherrill, in May, July and August (It’s worth mentioning that as I’m writing this my computer has auto corrected North Dome to North “dumb”). These two are just tough, they’re off trail, extremely thick, and during the summer stinging nettles grow about 4 feet high, plus the hobblebush is brutal. I needed to wear nylon rain pants on a couple of hot, humid days so I did not get stung and scratched by prickers. I did my final 8 peaks in August, finally completing the grid on Wednesday, August 24, 2016 on the summit of Balsam Lake Mountain. I chose this peak for my finish because the fire tower there gives some of the nicest views anywhere in the park, and it isn’t a particularly hard hike.
All in all, it took me 606 summits over 19 years (475 in the past 5.5 years) to get the 420 in the correct months. The mountain I have summitted the most is Blackhead with 27, the least is Fir with just 12. I would pick Halcott as my least favorite and probably Rocky as my most favorite due to its remoteness. My favorite long day is doing the “Catskill 9” and my favorite view is probably on Wittenberg, although the abundant litter up there detracts from the experience.
What now? I will definitely continue to hike, run, and ski in the Catskills but now I don’t have to do any peaks that I don’t want to. There are a number of lists that I haven’t completed yet. I am attempting to run and ski all the peaks, and to bushwhack all of the mountains that DO have trails.I am casually working on the Catskill hundred highest, the New York State fire towers, and some other lists. I’ll stay busy.
Thanks to everyone I’ve ever hiked or ran with, you are far too numerous to list, but it was always a blast! Because I hike and run alone so often, I cherish the time I’m out there with other people.
Happy trails. Mike