White-out on Balsam Lake Mountain

IMG_4278 With every step, I wasn’t sure if the white quicksand was going to swallow me whole. A voracious blizzard bit at my heels, gnawed at my knee caps and occasionally gobbled me up to my hips. Foolish for me not to wear snowshoes but I don’t own my own. I usually borrow a pair from a friend who is out of town this week.

Instead I relied on a flimsy pair of Kahtoola MICROspikes over a pair of minimalist Montrail sneakers to do the trick. But the six mile round trip to the top of Balsam Lake Mountain wasn’t hampered with ice. Rather, the remote terrain was blanketed with several feet of hypnotizing snow with heavy drifts weighing down evergreen branches.


Balsam Lake Mountain is one of four Catskill mountains that peakbaggers need to conquer twice, once in the winter, to earn their 3500 Club membership and badge. I’ve been wanting to reach this goal for years. At the summit is the state’s very first look out tower listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.

The visibility lessened the closer I drove to the Arkville trailhead parking lot. That’s always discouraging because the views are why most people climb. The winds howled and not a single voice stirred but the one in my head. I signed in at the register mindful of the risks but confident that the summit was only a couple hours away.

Following an old truck road for the first two and a quarter miles I still had to take several leg rests. If I didn’t stay locked into a narrow snowshoe trail, many times imperceptible with drifting snow, I’d sink like a stone. The last stretch, I stumbled through an impenetrable tangle of downed balsam limbs, beautiful to see but precarious to duck under. Heavy chunks tumbled down on my head like soft bricks.


At the summit, the batteries in my cell phone died and my left foot had gone numb with a wet chill. There would be no photos of the frozen fire tower. Picnic tables were buried too deep to use so I fumbled for the my backpack lunch standing up. I re-hydrated on slices of oranges and a quick bites of a sandwich to the sounds of birds chirping in the distance – an encouraging cadence.

20 minutes into the descent the sun broke through and buoyed my spirits. Nearing the finish line the soft snow, now coated with precipitation, clung like annoying little ice cubes to my MICROspikes. Useless, I finally tossed them in my backpack.

When I heard the faint sounds of a snowmobile in the distance I let out a sigh of relief. I had survived a vigorous solo ascent to 3720′ without frostbite or dehydration and would be back again this Spring to do it again.