Friday, December 28, 2012

Balsam Cap & Friday Mountain - Snowshoeing In The Bushwhack Range

The Devils Path peaks from Balsam Cap
The Bushwhack Range! The name alone evokes thoughts of adventure, and maybe also of difficulty and a little apprehension. I had thoughts of all three running through my head as I pulled into the parking area on Moonhaw Road, much later than I should have the day after a significant storm had moved through the region. There were some low clouds lingering on my peaks of choice and nowhere else, of course, but it seemed likely they would dissipate. This unofficially named subrange of the Catskills contains four of the fourteen trail-less peaks required for the Catskill 3500 list, and they are among the most difficult ones.  Even though I do a lot of off-trail hiking at home, I have unintentionally, or perhaps subconsciously, left most of the trail-less Adirondack 46ers (8 of 9 remaining) and Catskill 3500 peaks for last in my quest to complete those two peakbagging goals. Of the twenty peaks on that particular Catskill list I had done so far, sixteen have been trailed and two more have unmaintained trails. With still twelve trail-less peaks to go and only three trailed ones, I figured I had better get cracking on the former. Deciding I may as well do the hard ones first, I came here.

There are many ways to get these four peaks. One very challenging hike I would love to try sometime in the future would be a big 17 mile loop from Neversink Valley, up the trail to Table Mountain, then traversing across the four trail-less peaks to Cornell, to complete the loop on the Wittenberg-Cornell-Slide, Curtis-Ormsbee, and East Branch trails. This would be an AWESOME seven peak day. If things were going well, it would be great to also add side trips to Peekamoose and, especially, Wittenberg for a twenty miler that might rival doing the Devils Path in a day, even though it would be fewer miles and less elevation gain. But I was not arrogant enough to think I could do this in the snow during the short days of Winter, solo, and with no familiarity of the off-trail sections. Actually, I was probably pushing things a little by starting the hike up Balsam Cap and Friday at noon, but that was the earliest I could get here and it was the last day I had with a good weather forecast. Besides, the round trip is only around seven miles - how hard could it be? Harder than anticipated, that’s how hard. I knew it would be steep, partly trail-less and thick, have nearly 3,000’ of cumulative elevation gain, route-finding issues, and snow to deal with. But I’m a reasonably strong and experienced hiker - surely I could do it in five hours, right? Wrong.

Given my late start, I had kind of hoped that there would be a group ahead of me to break trail, but no such luck. There was about a foot of fresh, untracked snow on the ground as I started up the steep woods road that eventually gains Friday’s eastern ridge. At first, it seemed quite powdery and easy, but after gaining a couple hundred feet in elevation it became obvious that I needed to stop and put on snowshoes. Things had just gotten slower. I was unfamiliar with the route, but a couple of times it seemed like the old road was going the wrong way, or too far out of the way, and I would simply head straight uphill and soon hit it or another road again. Eventually I wearied of sidehilling and guessing whether to stay on the road or not, so I just beelined it for the ridge crest and another road which I followed most of the way to the hunting cabin before I skirted left of the private inholding.  Once around the cabin property and back on the ridgeline, I continued my upward tromp, eventually encountering vertical ledges. At this point, I started angling off the ridge and sidehilling upward toward the Balsam Cap-Friday col, at times on what appeared to be a path - though it was very indistinct and hard to be sure of since it was buried under 18-24” of untrammeled snow. At times, both on this sidehill traverse, and on steep slopes higher up on Friday, the firm snow would fracture several feet away from me as I stepped on it, letting out an audible “whoomf” and sliding down the hillside several feet or yards, occasionally taking me with it for a couple of feet. If I had been on an open slope, I think I might have even been a little worried about causing an avalanche. Here though, the trees pretty quickly stopped it. Regardless, in places I was essentially wallowing as drifted snow kept sliding out from under me. Progress slowed again.

Just beneath the col, I wandered back and forth a bit before finally finding a reasonable, though still not easy way through more ledges. No doubt I missed the preferred route, if there is one. I was happy to finally reach this gentle saddle and have most of the climbing behind me. But it had taken far longer than 2 ½ miles normally should. That was o.k. because I would surely make up for it now as I headed for Balsam Cap. Wrong again.

Now I got to deal with the thick balsams that these peaks are known for. While I didn’t think they were hideous, certainly nowhere nearly as bad as the worst I’ve been in, they were indeed dense and with their fair share of downfall to negotiate. I found no sign of a herd path as I forced a sinuous route southward. Several times on these two peaks my showshoes caught branches under the snow and tripped me up. Also, the spruce were plastered with snow and it was nearly impossible to get through them without knocking it off the low hanging boughs and dumping it on myself. It didn’t take long to get quite wet, especially since I didn’t want to shred my rain gear on the sharp branches and was only wearing a polypro top. While I had plenty of extra clothing, putting it on while in the spruce would have only gotten it wet too. This meant I needed to keep moving to stay warm.  More slow going and some growing concern about the rapidly advancing time had another undesirable effect as well. It meant I couldn’t spare a lot of time searching for the canisters on the summits.

Ticeteneyck Mountain and Ashokan Reservoir from Balsam Cap
The great view northeast from Balsam Cap.
A snowy Cornell and Wittenberg from Balsam Cap
A couple hundred yards northwest of the summit, I found the viewpoint, or at least a viewpoint. Though limited in scope, it was quite nice and I was impressed by the great view of the eastern Devils Path peaks, as well as the ridge of my ascent, Ashokan Reservoir, and the Hudson Valley. I also thought the view of Ticeteneyck, which I had climbed a few days earlier, was pretty interesting. Lingering longer would have been great, but I restrained myself to enjoying the spot for a few minutes then pushed on to the summit. After milling around a few minutes I found the canister, signed it, and headed for Friday Mountain with 3 p.m. fast approaching.

Canister on Balsam Cap
 Back across the col and starting up Friday Mountain, I realized I had lost a snowshoe. This required backtracking a couple hundred yards to find it, and more time lost. I was unsure of the best way up Friday, but I knew it had cliff bands to contend with. No doubt, my route left a lot to be desired and was not the best way. After gaining perhaps 200’ of elevation above the col, I hit the base of some pretty high overhanging rock faces covered with ice. Unsure of the best way to go, I headed east, being forced to lose a little elevation in the process and losing more time to boot. After a few hundred feet I found a spot where it looked like it might be possible to get up a gully through the cliffs. It was very steep and there were a couple of somewhat exposed ledges, made a little sketchier by the sliding snow I encountered once again, but there were also just enough trees to be helpful and my route did, in fact work to get me above the cliffs. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to the descent though.

Formidable cliffs on Friday Mountain
 It was getting uncomfortably close to 4 p.m. as I topped out on the summit plateau. I had already accepted the fact that I would be finishing in the dark, but I wanted very badly to have the cliffs, spruce, and the col behind me before darkness fell. I had an old waypoint for the canister location, which was not the true summit. I seemed to remember having read somewhere that it had been moved to the actual summit but I decided to quickly visit the old site first. I hit the high ground there but didn’t see any sign of the canister, so I headed for the 3,694’ spot elevation in the center of the highest contour on the topo map. There was an obvious rock a few yards north of this spot that appeared higher, so I touched that and didn’t see anything that looked higher nearby. I didn’t see the canister though, so I did a little semi-circle around the spot elevation and touched any spot that seemed like a contender for the summit. I feel I had to have come within yards, if not steps, of the canister, but judgement overcame desire and I turned around and headed down at about 4:15 p.m. - with sunset  approaching and at least an hour later than I would have liked.

The descent from Friday was actually pretty easy excepting for one or two spots, and I was able to sort of glissade off several small ledges and steep sections with the snowshoes adding both flotation and braking. Escaping the col was even easier, and I made it across the sidehill traverse back to the east ridge in rapidly fading light. Following my own tracks, routefinding was no longer an issue, at least not until it got darker. I had stubbornly resisted stopping to get my headlamp out, but eventually my tracks became very difficult to see and I started worrying about getting a branch in the face or worse. I turned on the light about a mile from the end and suddenly my tracks were glaringly obvious, even more so than they had been while it was still light. I think I was able to actually go faster and made it back to the trailhead from the summit of Friday in just over 1 ½ hours compared to the 3 hours and 10 minutes it had taken me to get to Balsam Cap. The day hadn’t gone quite the way I would have liked it to have, but I was still pretty satisfied with it and the feeling that most of the remaining peaks for the Catskill 3500 will probably be easier - unless I try that big loop to get Lone and Rocky.

The route of my hike (not necessarily the best route) to Balsam Cap and Friday Mountain. To see a larger map click here.

Hike Stats:
7.4 miles
2,800' cumulative elevation gain

Balsam Cap & Friday Mountain, NY
Pictures from this hike


gpx files and topos
Balsam Cap - Catskill 3500 Club
Friday Mountain - Catskill 3500 Club 
Catskill Hiker
Catskill Mountaineer

Trailhead Coordinates:

Google map for trailhead 

Scan QR code to navigate to trailheads with Google Maps on your smartphone


  1. Hi Rickey,

    Wow. You've got a lot excellent detail here. I added your blog to - trying to link to every trip report in the northeast. Hope we send some hikers your way look for Catskill info. See:

    FYI. Your "My Blog List" is stuffed into a skinny column. That's an easy fix. In Blogger, choose the Layout tab. Then drag the "My Blog List" up into the wider column area.


  2. Thanks for the compliment and adding my link to your site. I will reciprocate. Actually, I already had your site bookmarked and have been on it several times in the past, but I haven't gotten around to really doing a good job on all my links to other sites on here.

    One question - is there an easy way I'm missing to see older reports from your maps? They only show those from this year.

    As to my narrow Blog list, I was aware of it. I'm torn because while I don't think it looks great, I like having the Labels list right beside it because i think it makes it easier for people to find stuff. I will give it some more thought though, and may reconsider.