On Saturday, I went up to Breakneck Ridge, near Cold Spring, to go hiking. It’s a very fun trail that goes over rocky terrain and through the forest, with some pretty challenging climbing (you need to use your hands on the initial climb) and some fabulous views of the Hudson Valley. It’s one of those great trails that feels really challenging and yet doesn’t contain anything that’s insurmountable for an average hiker, provided that hiker doesn’t do anything really stupid.
Which I did. So I ended up having a little bit of an adventure.
Most of the mistakes I made were first time mistakes, the kind you make when you haven’t hiked a particular trail before. I love hiking but I don’t really know anyone in New York who likes to do it. Consequently, my information about this trail came from the Internet and a set of trail maps I bought last week. I didn’t know anyone who had actually hiked there before who could give me the inside scoop. I had also read on the Internet that the trail was only 2.5 miles long and would take only 3 hours to hike. I don’t know what route the Internet was talking about—walking from one end of the Breakneck Ridge Trail to the other took me about eight and a half hours.
Leaving in the morning, I didn’t know whether I would want to take the train back that night from the Breakneck Station or from Beacon, NY, so I wrote down both schedules and didn’t buy a return ticket. But when I got off the train at Breakneck, I was surprised to see that we were just being let off by the side of the track and there wasn’t really a station there! I knew what times the train was coming back that afternoon but there was nowhere to buy a ticket except on the train, which is expensive. Oh well, I decided, I’ll just hike to Beacon.
I was getting off the train with a group of other hikers. One particular group’s plans for the day seemed to involve taking a bunch of ecstasy and running around in the woods. They kept raving (pardon the pun) about how AMAZING everything was. It actually took a while to get off the train because I was behind them and they spent quite a bit of time telling the conductor how great he was and how much they loved them. I was not looking forward to walking to the trailhead with these guys, so when I saw another path across from the train, and a quick check of my map showed that it linked up with the Breakneck Ridge Trail, I decided to take a short cut and set off on my own. I climbed up a rather steep, rocky path at about nine in the morning and made it onto the main trail at about quarter to ten.
While I was sitting at the junction taking a rest, debating whether I should go right towards the trailhead and see what I’d missed or just turn left and head for Beacon, I saw two hikers walking up from the trailhead. They informed me that the initial climb from the trailhead was the whole point of going to Breakneck Ridge and shouldn’t be missed. I figured, I came all the way here, what’s an extra hour or so, so I started to back track. The path became a very steep downhill climb and another group of hikers advised me that it got worse and I should take a side trail that would loop around to the trailhead. I found it on my map and off I went. It turned out to be a beautiful, winding downhill trail through the forest at the base of a cliff, as you might guess from its name, Undercliff Trail.
It was a bit longer than I expected and I didn’t get to the trailhead until noon. Then I started the trail from the beginning and the initial ascent in the first twenty minutes of the hike turned out to indeed be unmissable. It was steep, tough climb over gigantic boulders. You needed to use your hands to pull yourself up and be very clever about choosing your route. The trail markings weren’t at all clear here—just the occasional white paint splotch on the rocks. And there was such an amazing view to reward you at the top. Even though I’ve never done any actual rock climbing I felt like a mountain man compared to a lot of the people on the trail. I was making good time and even heard a few people comment on how quick I was as I passed them.
It wasn’t until I reached the top that I started to get an inkling of the other mistake I had made. I had finished nearly half of the water in my canteen and was technically still at the very beginning of the hike. I’d planned to fill up at the trailhead but there wasn’t a tap or a hand pump there. I wasn’t too worried because it wasn’t supposed to be that long, but I decided to eat my wet food (vegetables, an apple) and save the dry food (peanuts, whole wheat bagels) for the end. I started hiking, covering a lot more hilly, rocky terrain, chomping my apple as I went, taking in a few fantastic views including one of a ruined castle on an island that made me happy to have brought my telescope. To tell the truth, I lost track of time a bit and when I got back to the original junction where I’d decided to backtrack to the trailhead, it was about 2:30 in the afternoon.
That’s when I realized something was really wrong. I’d been hiking two and a half hours since the trailhead. I should nearly be done with the trail, but my map showed I was less than a third of the way to Beacon. Checking the scale of the map for the first time, I realized that the information I’d gotten on the Net was wrong, and the trail was probably closer to seven miles than two and a half. Four or five miles to go didn’t sound that serious, but I had only a third of my water and the map showed that I had to climb up two small peaks on the way (1,300 and 1,550 feet, respectively). I’d decided I better start walking and rest as little as possible—no point sitting around sweating when I could be walking.
At this point, the hike got considerably less fun! For the next stretch the trail was only a little bit hilly but it was very stony. There were so many medium-sized stones in the trail that I couldn’t step between them, and had to step on top of them instead. By the time I had climbed up the first peak and was on my way down my feet were killing me and my legs were feeling quite rubbery from the descent. I was also exceedingly hungry and rather thirsty, but I only had enough water for a couple sips every mile, since I was hoping to finish it around the time I reached the end of the Breakneck Trail, at which point only a 45-minute hike to Beacon would remain.
I was kind of bleary by the time I got to the bottom, and I could already see the next mountain ahead of me when I came across a mountain stream. It was clear, stony-bottomed and relatively fast moving, and there was a bit of moss growing on the stones so I knew there was nothing outright poisonous in it, like arsenic. These were all good signs but I knew there was no way to tell if there was any bacteria in the water that could make me sick. I didn’t have iodine or any way to boil it. I hesitated for a moment, reflecting on the fact that I had a big climb ahead of me and couldn’t spare any canteen water until I had scaled the peak and come back down. Not to mention that I didn’t really know how far I had to go, I was just guessing from the map. About the worst that could happen if I drank the water was dysentery, and I’d be back in the city long before it hit. At the moment, that didn’t seem like more than a risk than getting seriously dehydrated if the climb took longer than I thought. I cupped my hands, drank the water from a particularly deep, fast moving part, and it was delicious.
I started to climb the next peak. I was immediately glad I had had the water because I almost instantly began to feel woozy. It was almost as steep as the climb and the trailhead, a hands-and-feet scramble over large rocks, and I was stopping every I was stopping every dozen steps to rest (my body hadn’t processed the water yet). I cut my knee on a rock I was trying to get my foot on top of because my tired muscles didn’t lift my leg as high as I intended. The water from the stream kicked in a little closer to the top and I started to feel better. I reached to top utterly exhausted and was greeted by an absurdly gorgeous view of the Hudson and the treetops in the valley I had just climbed out of. There was an abandoned fire watch tower on the peak and I wish I could have climbed to the top of it but it was about a hundred rickety steps above the ground and I just couldn’t imagine climbing them all and coming back down, no matter how splendid the view would have been.
I started down from the peak and right at the bottom, sooner than I thought, I reached the Casino Trail to Beacon. I drank the last three gulps of water in my canteen and started down. It was about a forty-five minute hike down and the trail was covered with small sliding stones that forced me to make the walk in very small steps. Just moving had gotten kind of agonizing. Whenever I got onto a rare stretch of dirt path without too many rocks I started running, just to get it over with faster. I barely spared a glance for the burnt-out old brick casino, though it was very picturesque. Finally, I reached Beacon, where I went immediately to the nearest convenience store. I chugged the biggest bottle of water I could buy, ate a candy bar and my two bagels. Fifteen minutes later, I had a bad case of dry-mouth again—all that water I’d bought, probably twice what I’d had in the last eight hours of hiking, had barely put a dent in my dehydration!
Despite the miserable last couple of hours, it was a magnificent hike that I would highly recommend. Now that I’ve done it and I know the trails, I feel like I could enjoy it in a lot more comfort by picking a more realistic route and, of course, packing a whole lot more water. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in a great hike. Just don’t believe what you read on the Internet about the distance, whatever you do!