The Catskills aren’t the tallest mountains on our planet, or even in the Northeast US. But with 35 of them exceeding 3,500 feet at the summit and two, Slide and Hunter, topping out above 4,000, they present enough of a challenge to keep avid hikers busy for much of a lifetime.
If you want to become a member of the Catskill 3500 Club, a social circle of the region’s most elite and determined hiker/climbers, here’s all you have to do: Demonstrate that you’ve made it to the top, on foot, of all 35. In addition – just to make your task a little more interesting – you have to climb four specified peaks a second time in winter conditions, between December 21 and March 21: Slide, Blackhead, Panther and Balsam.
In the early years of the 3500 Club, you had to prove your worthiness by signing a notebook stored in a canister near the summit of each of the qualifying mountains. The presence of the canisters – originally coffee cans painted orange – eventually became controversial as visually intrusive, given the organization’s emphasis on a Leave No Trace wilderness ethic. The only Canister officially endorsed by the group anymore is the newsletter by that name that it publishes online on a quarterly basis, giving updates on club activities and the schedule for upcoming hikes.
Nowadays the qualification test is less stringent: Aspiring members print out a tally sheet that they take with them on their forays, logging in the dates of their ascents of each peak along with notes on the day’s weather conditions, observations, other hikers encountered and so on. When this list is complete, it’s signed and submitted to club officers, along with a nominal $5 application fee. For $10 per year you can become an “Aspirant” or provisional member and subscribe to the newsletter while working on making your 35 + 4.
Arguably, you could cheat to get in; but your fellow members would quickly spot a greenhorn at any of their gatherings. Much of the organization’s energy is expended on educating hikers that the Catskills are not to be taken lightly. It promulgates a long list of safety standards, urging the summit-bound to prepare carefully for all expeditions, including wearing appropriate layered clothing and carrying gear that will help you survive an overnight in the woods if you get stuck. Weather conditions at high altitudes can change rapidly and unpredictably, with death by hypothermia a genuine threat in the Catskills even during the non-winter months – especially if your clothing gets wet. Hiking with a buddy, letting someone else know where you’ve gone and when you should be back, packing ample water, trail food and a first aid kit are all strongly recommended.
Only the truly committed make it to the top of all 35 of the highest Catskills. For ten of them, “on foot” is the only way of getting there short of a helicopter drop, as they don’t even have trails. In fact, part of the 3500 Club’s mission is to advocate that some of these mountains remain trailless wilderness permanently. Topographical maps are a must in bushwhacking your way to tick off these ten toughest checkboxes. And even if you have a good GPS (plus spare batteries), it’s advisable to carry a compass as well, and to know how to use it. The art of orienteering is one of the skillsets that a seasoned Catskills hiker is supposed to learn.
The late Bill and Kay Spangenberger, the hardy outdoorspeople who conceived of the club (both lived to be centenarians), were already well on their way to qualifying when they came up with the idea in 1949, inspired by the Adirondack Forty-Sixers Club. Brad Whiting, then chair of the local chapter of the Adirondack Mountain Club, got a similar brainwave in 1962, spurring the Spangenbergers to bring their dream to reality. Dan Smiley offered to host the club’s first meeting in November 1962 at the Mohonk Mountain House. Dorothy Whiting, the Vassar College Outing Club’s Nancy Locke and IBMer Gunter Hauptman were also among the founders. In his field studies of the Bicknell’s thrush and its habitat – balsam fir found above 3,500 feet – Smiley had already compiled a list of peaks to serve as the group’s Holy Grail.
“Charter member” status was offered to anyone who made all the required summits by 1965, and 27 people qualified, Elinore and Bill Leavitt becoming the first two in April 1963. The club was legally chartered on January 1, 1966.
It was also in the late ’60s that the club took on the responsibility of maintaining a section of the Long Path in the Catskills over Peekamoose and Table Mountains. All members are encouraged to participate in volunteer trail stewardship, and many visit Albany for an annual lobbying day in support of the Catskill Park.
Now that it has a website – http://catskill-3500-club.org – the Catskill 3500 Club serves as a useful resource for anyone interested in hiking these mountains, even if you’re not a compulsive peak-bagger. There you can find listings of upcoming outings organized and led by club members, of which there’s usually at least one per weekend year-round, and often more. You’re not required to be a member or Aspirant to go on one of these hikes, though you’ll be expected to preregister with trip leaders and be adequately prepared for the terrain and conditions.