The “9” is a classic, 20 mile, tough loop hike in the Catskill Mountains of NY that traverses 9 high peaks above 3500ft. with almost 6000 feet of elevation gain. It should be called the 11 because you have to re-summit 2 of the peaks on out-and-back sections. It is obvious enough on a map, there is a big crescent of trails that covers Table and Peekamoose mountains to the south and The Wittenberg, Cornell, and Slide to the north. The catch is, to connect these sections of trail you have to bushwhack the other peaks, Lone, Rocky, Balsam Cap, and Friday, as they are trailless. Each of these four summits has a canister maintained by the Catskill 3500 club, that you can sign to show that you were there. This trailless section is extremely thick woods in places requiring experience with map, compass and/or GPS navigation, all the while trying to move quickly.
I have done the 9 a few times and have become familiar (as possible) with the off trail section. In April of 2012 I posted an FKT of 6:07, then 2 years later lowered it to 5:33. I thought that was about as good as I could do. My friends Brian and Kali did the 9 last weekend and inviting me to join but i was too tired from running the day before, but it got me thinking about the route again. Could I go faster? How? Better navigation was the obvious answer as I don’t feel my leg speed on trail is what it was and I’m coming off a winter of limited training.
With the weather forecast rainy on Sunday, today was the obvious choice. I arrived at the Denning parking lot around 10:30, I slept in a bit and I was hoping the woods would have dried from the overnight rain. They didn’t. I contemplated not even going as I wasn’t sure if I felt like being soaked for 5 or 6 hours, but I figured I’d give it a shot, I could always turn back if it got too nasty.
I knew if I had any chance of beating my old time I couldn’t fall behind early, so I headed up the Phoenicia East Branch and Table-Peekamoose trails to Table with a goal, faster than 54 min. I felt pretty good but it’s tough that early into a big day to gauge your pace. This is not just a 20 mile run. If I fatigue too much, I may make mistakes later on that will cost valuable time. I was pleased when I summited in around 51 min, and I quickly hung my pack on a tree for the out and back to Table. Keeping my 3 minute lead was top priority and I was good to Peekamoose but as soon as I got back to Table and began the bushwhack I lost the herd path and found myself in super thick, super wet Balsam trees. Did I mention there was snow up there? Not a lot, but yeah, snow. Needless to say I was now soaked and cold. I got back on track but promptly lost the herd path again. Before I go any further, let me define herd path. Usually they are a few inches wide where enough people have gone that some branches have been broken and maybe you see some muddy footprints. They are NOT easy to follow paths, they are not marked in any way. I was on and off my desired route enough that when I got to Lone I was only 1 min up on my old time. Crap, I lost 2 minutes.
Lone is a trailless peak, therefore it has a canister to register your ascent. As I was signing in I thought to myself, I can save a few minutes by not signing in today. I’ll just take a picture at each canister as evidence I was there, much faster. With the decision made I rocketed off towards Rocky. This traverse gets a bad rap for its “hell”forest. Basically there are millions of balsam trees growing inches apart from each other. Through trial and plenty of error, I have noticed if you lose some extra elevation and stay a bit to the north, the trees are not quite as bad. They’re still bad but manageable. This went very well as when I reached the canister and I had gained a few minutes back. I was now 7 minutes ahead. Sweet! The descent off Rocky can be tough if you don’t know where you are going. There are 40′ high cliffs and it gets thick! I managed them well and before I knew it I was heading up Balsam Cap.
I’m pretty sure there is no “good” way through this section so I just put my head down and pushed. It gets very steep as you are now climbing up cliffs, over dead slippery trees, and up muddy slopes. I reached the canister in good shape extending my lead to 14 minutes. From here there is a solid herd path that allows for some light jogging. Easy to follow but it’s steep and windy. At the col there are options. Following the solid path requires more elevation loss and while I’m tempted, I always think I can outsmart the woods and take a more direct line up the ridge. I’m always wrong. Mostly the plan works today, but soon I find myself climbing through blowdown and scrambling up a few super steep, muddy gullies that all have tough exit moves. One even had a length of parachute cord hanging down it. Normally I drag that stuff out of the woods but I wasn’t stopping to untie anything today. Reaching the summit of Friday, you get a decent view of the Ashokan Valley, which I enjoyed for 1 second, and then back into the woods I went. I was determined to preserve my now 20 minute cushion.
This section has often been called the thickest part of the Catskills. I tend to agree. You need to pass by a 3500 ft. non-high peak bump called “The Dink”. It has a bit of elevation gain, and every time I’ve tried to go around I’ve been treated with nasty, thick side hilling. So straight over I went. I won’t say I followed a great herd path but for the most part I had a relatively good line. I just followed a NE bearing and before I knew it I was back on trail! A couple minutes of hiking brought me to the Cornell summit. I know had 34 min advantage. Going straight over Dink has bought me 14 minutes. I dropped my pack again for the out and back to The Wittenberg along the “bruins causeway” where I enjoyed showing off my (how to throw yourself down the Cornell crack) skills to a pair of backpackers.
I was in preservation mode now. Get down to the Slide col in one piece, climb up well then 5 miles of down. As I was calculating what my finish time might be, I rolled my ankle. It is uncanny how when you lose focus even for a second, the mountains will bring you back to reality. It wasn’t too bad so after a minute of limping I was back running downhill. Up to this point I had only seen about 8 people all day. The closer I got to Slide the busier it got. I passed a group of around 8 on the way down, making the typical comment, “you look like you’ve done this before”. There was a much larger group of 20 near the saddle and another group of 4 on the way up. On both of my previous FKT attempts I stopped at the spring on Slide for water but due to the cool temps today I had plenty left. Not stopping saved another couple of minutes. The climbing went well although I was starting to feel worn out. The Borroughs plaque near the top of Slide may be an eyesore to some but it is a relief when you are coming up that side. I summited at 4:02, 40 minutes ahead.
When I ran this in 2014, the next 5 miles were tough. I tried to run hard but the trails were very wet and slippery. Today was much better. I headed down and almost immediately got a breathing cramp under my right ribs. I think I had climbed a bit too hard, so I slowed it down. I was so happy that I could break 5 hours, I just needed to be steady. I turned onto the Curtis-Ormsbee trail and was on cruise control. The descent went well and I was back on the Phoenicia East Branch trail before long. I opened up the best I could fighting loose cobble from the old road, downed trees, and my cramp. The last 3 miles went at 8:49, 8:07, and 7:18 pace. Not bad for 41 year old bum knees. I reached the yellow gate where I had started my watch 4:49:52 ago. This was 43 minutes better than my previous attempt. The cool temps and better lines though the bushwhacks were the key.
This is one of my favorite areas in the Catskill Mountains. It is a bit ironic that I keep trying to spend less time there though. I wore HOKA ONE ONE Speedgoats, a pair of (bomber) old EMS merino socks, and my Ultimate Direction Jurek Ultra Vest 2.0, in which I carried 2 liters (drank 1.5) of raspberry and green tea Tailwind. I only ate 1 GU and one snack pack of kids apple sauce. I managed to thrash my favorite pair of SmartWool arm warmers, my tights, and added a few more holes and pulls to my shirt. Surprisingly, I only have a few small scrapes on my elbows and shins. Aside from some minor navigational errors, I feel like I hit this well today. There is still a bit of room on the time for me but it will take a perfect day. Maybe I’ll go back? 🙂