A Catskill Catalog: August 20, 2008
What’s the highest mountain in the Catskills? How many Catskill peaks exceed 3,500 feet? How many people have climbed them all?
The answers to these questions are tied up with the Catskill 3,500 Club, the leading hiking organization devoted specifically to climbing our mountains. Founded in 1962, the Catskill 3,500 Club is open to anyone who meets the club’s strenuous requirements of outdoor accomplishment.
An aspirant for membership must reach the summit of all 35 Catskill peaks over 3,500 feet in elevation and must make a second winter climb of four mountains: Balsam, Panther, Blackhead, and 4,180-foot Slide Mountain, the highest peak in the Catskills. At last report there are 1,700 members.
The club actually grew out of concern not for hiking and mountain climbing but bird-watching. In the early ’60s, Dan Smiley, scion of the family that founded the Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, was studying the Bicknell’s thrush, a bird difficult to find because of its choice of summer habitat: balsam fir at elevations over 3,500 feet. To locate specimens of the thrush, Smiley and his fellow birders compiled a list of peaks over 3,500 feet.
Now, it is not as easy as it might seem to determine which mountains meet that 3,500 foot standard. Multiple peaks in close proximity might be considered one mountain or several. Smiley’s bird-watching list contained 32 Catskill Mountains determined to meet the standard. The list was published in a nature journal.
It was then that hikers saw their opportunity. Bill Spangenberger, president of the Cornell Steamboat Company, and his wife, Kay, a New York editor, had first broached the idea of forming a Catskill Mountain climbing club as early as 1948. They wanted to do something similar to the Adirondack Forty-Sixers, a club organized that year for hikers who had climbed all 46 Adirondack peaks over 4,000 feet. The smaller Catskills would require a 500-foot reduction in elevation.
The Spangenbergers climbed all the peaks they could find, but were unable to develop any sustained interest from others. In 1962, Bill climbed Doubletop Mountain with Brad Whiting, chair of the Mid-Hudson Chapter of the Adirondack Mountain Club. Inspired by the Smiley bird-watching list, Whiting suggested the formation of a high peak climbing club. The Catskill 3,500 Club was born.
The list of eligible peaks was refined through the adoption of criteria established by the Adirondack group. To qualify as a separate summit, a mountain must be either one-half-mile from a neighboring summit or must have a 250 foot drop between peaks. Using this standard, the club identified 34 Catskill Mountains over 3,500 feet. In 1990, the previously unnamed Southwest Hunter Mountain was added to the list by membership vote, bringing the total to 35.
Wanting to encourage winter hiking, the founders of the club added a wrinkle that is unique among Northeastern climbing clubs: the winter climb requirement. Aspirants for membership must climb the four above named peaks between December 21 and March 21 for a total of 39 climbs. Canisters are hung in trees at the summits of several mountains so climbers can sign-in to prove their accomplishment.
To get the club off the ground, the founders offered charter membership to anyone who made the required climbs before the end of 1965. There are 27 charter members including Father Ray Donahue, former pastor of the Downsville and Margaretville Episcopal churches, who brought attention to the club to many climbers in the central Catskills.
The Catskill high peaks are divided up into three regions: northern peaks, central peaks, and southern peaks. Hunter Mountain at 4,040 feet is the highest of the 15 northern peaks, with 3,980-foot Black Dome, 3,940-foot Thomas Cole, and 3,890-foot Blackhead Mountain not far behind.
Among the central high peaks, 3,868-foot Graham Mountain and 3,860-foot Doubletop are the highest of a group of 11 mountains that includes Panther Mountain, Balsam Mountain, Big Indian Mountain and Halcott Mountain.
In the southern Catskills, Slide, Cornell, and Wittenberg Mountains are contiguous and Peekamoose and Table Mountains are nearby. All exceed 3,750 feet.
Fourteen of the 35 high peaks are trail-less, meaning climbers must bushwhack through the brush to find the summit. Members are prohibited from marking their way up, in order to allow the next climber to make a trail-less climb.
Want to become an aspirant for Catskill 3,500 Club membership? You can download an Aspirant Registration Form at www.catskill-3500-club.org. Subscribe to their quarterly newsletter “The Canister” for $10 and reduce your eventual membership registration to $5 when you complete your 39 hikes.
An annual membership dinner is held every April. There, new members receive a card, certificate and blue and yellow hiker’s patch reflective of their climbing accomplishment. Interested?