33 icy peaks in the Catskills climbed in 3 days and 10 hours – a winter record


On December 21, before the sun rose over the icy peaks of the Catskill Mountains, Phil Vondra, 53, from New Paltz (via the UK), took the snowy trail from Denning Road to Claryville where he would begin his ascent of Table Mountain. For most people, deciding to go out on a winter’s day and trek a 3,825-foot peak would be a tall order. For Vondra, a peak was just the beginning.

What Vondra aimed to do was hike all 33 Catskill peaks that measure 3,500+ feet, in winter, and in less than four days – a feat that had never been done before. (There are 35 Catskill peaks at 3,500 feet and above, but two are on private land that is now closed to the public. Climbers now only have access to the 33 highest.)

To that end, Vondra, who is part of the Catskill 3500 Club, which challenges members to climb all 33 peaks – at least four per season of the year – to earn their badge and boast, decided to launch his bid. for the fastest known time. (FKT) at the base of what Catskill enthusiasts have dubbed “The 9”.

“These are nine peaks in Catskill that include many of the toughest hikes and include about 20 miles of hiking,” Vondra said, listing the legendary names of those peaks, including Table, Peekamoose, Balsam Cap, Cornell, Wittenberg, Friday, Lone, Rocky and Slide Mountain.

“I thought if I was going to have a chance to do this [the Winter 33 FKT] I should do all the major climbs early. The full route, up and down each peak, was 104 miles – a third of which required going off-trail – and included 32,000 feet of elevation in total.

“It’s breathtaking,” said Yana Levchinsky-Grimmond, editor of the Catskill 3500 Club newsletter, via email. Even if two of the original 35 peaks, Graham and Doubletop, were open, they wouldn’t have added much more time to Vondra’s record-breaking winter climb, she noted. “It is not only a difficult sporting feat, but also a mental feat, to travel from one starting point to another, for four days in a row, in cold and changeable weather, and to navigate in the dark Winter FKTs are rare for a reason.

A love of the Catskills and records

Seeing the sunrise over West Kill Mountain was the most memorable moment of Vondra’s ascent. “The sun came up, with light bursting through the evergreen forest, with those reds and oranges that were crazy. It was absolutely stunning.

Phil Vondra

Vondra is not your average hiker. On several occasions, he held a United States age group record in every ultra-running track distance, including the 50 km, 50 mile, 100 km, and 100 mile record.

“I still hold the 50K record, I think,” Vondra said in a British accent. After moving from his hometown of London to the United States and eventually to New Paltz in 2007, where he and his family now live, he immersed himself in trail running.

“I had been a rock climber and rower in college and when I came to the States I did road running and marathons, triathlons, but when I came to New Paltz, I’m really entered the trail scene,” he said. .

It was within this group of endurance athletes that Vondra met and befriended Mike Siudy, a Catskills enthusiast, hiker and ultra-trail runner himself. . (Siudy holds the FKT record for climbing the highest peaks in the Catskills during the regular season, a feat he completed in 2 days and just over 9 hours, when there were 35 peaks to climb. )

It was Siudy who introduced Vondra to the magic of the Catskills. “All I knew of the Catskills was where they were,” Vondra said. “Mike would ask me to go to the Cats for a hike or a run and I really enjoyed it, had a great time. Mike knows the Catskills inside and out and thanks to him I got to know names of peaks and trails, parking lots, roads, towns and history and I got more and more interested in that.

While hiking or running, he said he would be amazed by the balsam fir trees, the stone walls that seem to loop endlessly through the mountains, the wildlife, the views, the ancient bogs and come across old plane and bus wrecks. “You’re like, how did they get here?”

Vondra ran the 18.6-mile Escarpment Trail as well as the Manitous Revenge Marathon in the Catskills, one of the oldest courses on the East Coast and what Vondra describes as “mega-difficult.”

But there was something about the Catskills in winter that appealed to him. “You can see a lot more mountains in the winter,” he said. “Seeing the snow on the balsam fir trees and the view from the Hunter Fire Tower and just the harshness of the conditions. It’s a winter wonderland, but you have to be prepared for it. Snow can make hiking on some of these rough trails easier because it kind of cushions them, but at the same time makes it harder to see the trails.

Although the Winter 33 FKT was something he and Siudy had planned to do together, “Mike worked through a hamstring issue and we kept pushing it back.”

Vondra, after taking part in a 100 mile race in September and training for an even longer trail race in the UK, wanted to “use my fitness for something and I thought it was the perfect time to try and do the Winter 33, and there was a good window, but I needed Mike’s blessing.

Suidy not only gave Vondra her blessing, he also helped him plot the route, plan and strategize, and offered to go out and hike with him on several of the peaks with d other “mountain goats” and workout buddies, Mindy Gallo, Tom Kaplan and Piers Constable.

“They were all available to help me, which made all the difference,” said Vondra, who said he wanted to go fast, but also wanted to “have fun, enjoy the company and enjoy of the beauty of the mountains”.

Prepare for the worst

"To us mere mortals," said Yana Levchinsky-Grimmond, editor of the Catskill 3500 Club, "doing just one of his multiple hiking combos he did every day would be enough to lie on a couch the next day, but he got out and walked and walked, despite the ice storms and the cold and freezing conditions."

“For us mere mortals,” said Yana Levchinsky-Grimmond, editor of the Catskill 3500 Club, “doing just one of his multiple hiking combos he did every day would be enough to lie on a couch the next day, but he got out and walked and hiked, despite the ice storms and the cold and freezing conditions.”

Phil Vondra

Hiking in the Catskills in the winter is no easy task, and there are many things that can go wrong. Although it requires physical strength, it also requires essential equipment, navigation skills, weather forecasts, experience and a lot of preparation.

“Fortunately, I didn’t have to use snowshoes because making a trail with snowshoes is not an easy task,” he said, noting that he used crampons.

Vonda dressed each day, depending on the weather forecast, but also carried a down jacket in her backpack as well as “overtrousers, a windbreaker, extra clothes, maps, a compass, a headlamp and hand warmers”. He said he packed just in case something went wrong, “if I twisted my ankle or injured myself and couldn’t move easily or quickly.”

Luckily that didn’t happen, but it got brutally cold in some places, -10 degrees Fahrenheit, with winds over 50 mph. He was “happy to have these hand warmers. You’d be surprised how different a hike can be if your hands are warm.

When asked what the hardest part of Winter ’33 was, he said, “The Devil’s Way. There was a lot of very hard ice under a light dusting of snow. I put on a brand new pair of crampons for this hike. I was also nervous walking into Balsam, Eagle and Big Indian. There was a lot of ice, wind and cold and it can disrupt your navigation, but I managed to navigate well.

He particularly remembers going up to West Kill at 5am, when it was cold, he was tired, and his water bottles were frozen. As he arrived at Buck Ridge, “the sun came up, with light bursting through the evergreen forest, with those reds and oranges that were crazy. It was absolutely breathtaking.

The view was just behind his last peak, High Peak, with Suidy. They were looking out over the Hudson Valley and when they got to the top there was this “epic inversion with a thick blanket of clouds below us and it was awesome”. He completed his quest at 5 p.m. on December 24, crowning a new FKT, in 3 days, 10 hours and 30 minutes – almost half the time of the last record of 6.5 days.

Noting how humble Vondra is, Levchinsky-Grimmond said that even when he posted his hike in the Catskill Trail Conditions Facebook group, he didn’t brag about setting an FKT.

“It’s such a great feeling when records like winter FKTs are set by local hikers,” she said, “and especially those who give back to the mountains and the community and love really the mountain.”

Vondra is a proud member of the volunteer Catskills Trail Maintenance Team and says that “reducing trails and clearing blowdowns [fallen trees] That’s one hell of a workout!”

As for what’s next, he said he plans to hike the Long Path, a trail that runs from 175th Street in New York all the way to Albany. “I help maintain a section of it in the Cats,” he said.

The ultramarathoner will also travel to Georgia in May for one of the East Coast’s most grueling trail races, aptly named “Cruel Jewel,” a 106-mile run with 33,000 feet of elevation gain.

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