Trip Report: Solo Hiking Black Head Mountain Loop In Sub-Zero Conditions

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Looking out onto Black Dome and Thomas Cole

Last Saturday I ventured back into the Catskills to knock out the winter ascent of Black Head Mountain off my 3500 hundred list. I was excited as this mountain range is one of my favorites and has some of the best views as you move along the ridge line.  As I approached the Catskills winter conditions is definitely what I found. Starting on the drive up to the mountain I was getting nervous because there was a consistent snow fall coming down and little visibility in the upper elevations. By the time I got to the trail head the temperature was 4 degrees. I was starting my trip at the Big Hollow Road Trail Head. Hikers take note that the end section of road leading up to this trail head is closed in winter. You can still drive all the way up to the parking area but it is not plowed so do not plan this route unless you have four wheel drive. It seems to be frequented even in snowy conditions so I found the road with tire tracks already packed out which made it easy for me in my Jeep Cherokee.

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Snowy road to the parking area

For this trip, knowing the conditions were going to be pretty extreme, I wore my mountaineering boots and had packed my step-in crampons as well as my ice axe. I also had my micro spikes for the flatter spots. Reports were that the trails were already broken out and packed down well so I didn’t bring my snow shoes. The first mile and half of this hike starts out with a lower angle approach that leads to essentially the base of the mountain. This section is still a nice hike where you follow a stream the entire way as well as going by a nice lean-to. I used this lean-to to adjust layers and have a water/snack break before the trail got steep. I bare booted this section with no problem with the main trail being packed down well. Conditions even allowed for bare booting all the way up until about the last .9 miles where there is an icy/snow packed scramble to the summit. Given that I was by myself and sections of this last approach goes off to steep ravines if one falls and slides I stopped and put my crampons on and keep my ice axe in hand. I felt much more secure after this and made for a much more efficient final push to the summit. It should also be noted that mountaineering boots have rigid soles which make edging in the snow much easier and kicking toe steps so if you were in regular hiking boots you would probably need to change to micro spikes earlier on in this hike.

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Happy after switching into rampons
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This was when I decided to make the switch. This terrain is very common in the Catskills.

The one mistake I made by being over confident in my mountaineering boots and crampons was that I was moving to fast for what layers I was wearing. I should of taken my fleece off that I had under my shell to keep from sweating. It was so cold at the upper parts of the mountain I never felt truly warm so I didn’t notice when I started sweating. I sweat through my hat and gator so when I got to the top I put on my spares that I brought. My top half was still uncomfortable because I could tell I was wet but I didn’t feel cold as long as I kept moving so I didn’t bother with changing anything. This is one of the reasons I LOVE my Patagonia R1 quarter zip fleece. I wear it for literally all of my outdoor adventures as it is very forgiving. It drys quick under a shell or in the sun on its own and still keeps you very warm even when wet. I brought an extra long underwear top but obviously when it is below zero at the summit I didn’t feel like changing unless I absolutely had to. I was bummed out I let myself get that wet though because this whole season I had been really happy with how well I have gotten with layering and moisture management in this extreme weather. But in the big picture I was still plenty prepared as I had that extra top if I needed it, two puffy coats, and another pair of super warm gloves. None of these I ended up needing but I certainly was happy to know I had them.

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The trail leading back down into the valley.

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Frosted Trees

The down climb back into the valley between Black Head and Black Dome Mountain made for absolutely breath taking views. The sun was trying to shine through the clouds and the snow had lightened enough to where you could see Black Dome and Thomas Cole which were completely frosted over. It made the cold slog that day totally worth it and was a huge moral booster. It was also neat because the trail was completely wind blown which made for zero foot prints except my own. However, this was when I was super happy to have my crampons on because I would of been out of control in just micro spikes. It was last year when I learned I needed full crampons and an ice axe when down climbing Plateau Mountain in similar conditions made for some terrifying experiences as I was out of control in some spots. I am happy to report that my system worked perfectly this time. After making the .6 mile descent to the trail junction between the two mountains I took off my crampons and bare booted the 1.7 miles back to the trail head. This whole section was beautiful with great views.  It was exciting to see that as I came down the same trail that leads back to the trailhead that it was still only my boot prints and that I had that whole mountain to myself.

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My track from the day

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