Hudson Gorge Panorama: Hiking Breakneck Ridge

(Here’s an expanded version of “Hudson Gorge Panorama: Hiking Breakneck Ridge,” the cover story for the July/August 2011 issue of Adirondac, published by the Adirondack Mountain Club.)

Twenty years ago, when I lived on East 47th Street in a six story brick building surrounded by steel and glass high-rises, my favorite description of Manhattan was as a densely inhabited island off the coast of the United States. People lived differently in the City, no way around it. The refrigerator might hold nothing more than a water jug, proof that every meal was eaten out, even coffee. Dog walkers carried plastic bags left over from the pharmacy to slip over their hand like a mitten to pick up their pets’ specimens. Hailing a cab was a competitive sport, especially in the rain. And cars? Forget cars. My wife, born and raised in Manhattan, never learned how to drive. My license, rarely used, expired for months at a time. Trains and buses were my lifelines to the wilderness, or at least Harriman State Park or the Hudson Highlands, which were wilderness enough to me. On a weekend morning, I’d bus up to Tuxedo Park, wend my way out of the village onto the trail, and within an hour reach the high rocks of Claudius Smith’s Den, an outlaws’ hideout during the Revolution. From there, I’d choose one of half a dozen loop routes for the day before returning to the late afternoon bus, refreshed by the exercise and by the beauty of those hills with savanna-like clearings. On hot summer days, no air conditioning could match sitting on a rock to be washed by the wind cooling my sweat, while I gazed off at green ridgelines that seemed to roll on forever, as if this was Ecotopia, not Orange County. But for sheer adventure, drama, the kind of hike that took me back to my California college days in the High Sierras, I skipped Harriman. I took the train up to Breakneck Ridge.

This stony buttress rises 1200 feet above the Hudson River in little more than a mile, the most arresting feature in a river gorge lined with imposing mountains. Yet the slopes are rounded except for the southern cliffs on Breakneck Ridge, towering, fractured pillars and slabs that seem like ruins of an ancient cathedral for Pagans eight feet tall. Seen from the south on Route 9D or the train, they force you to look upwards for a vertiginous moment of thinking, “I’m going to climb that?” Then you shoot through the tunnels under the base of the ridge and come out on the northern side where the forested flank looks steep but manageable.

On a Sunday in early April I returned to my old proving grounds. It was the brown season between winter and budding. Since leaving midtown Manhattan for a Catskills log cabin in 1996, I’d rarely returned to Breakneck Ridge, driven instead to climb the Catskills, the Adirondacks, and now the Whites as an intermittent but proud peak bagger. In my absence the world had changed. Twenty years ago, my handful of hiking buddies and I had fancied ourselves pilgrims, meeting at the Port Authority or Grand Central to travel up to the trailheads, where we seemed to have the park lands almost to ourselves. Twenty years ago, in short, the world didn’t have I was astounded to find the roadside pullover filling with upwards of forty cars. Two dozen hikers stood milling about. Then another happy mob marched out from the railroad tracks. Apparently, three separate groups had ridden up on the train together. This, I noted to myself, has become the Adirondacks High Peaks parking lot experience on the Hudson.

So be it. Breakneck Ridge was never a pristine wilderness. There’s graffiti on the lower rocks. There’s a flagpole on the first buttress hump overlooking the river with both the Stars and Stripes and a black POW-MIA flag signifying what I’m no longer sure. There’s a feeling that the area has long been claimed by daredevil beer drinkers as well as by hikers. Nor am I sure I’d want it any other way. Breakneck Ridge deserves to be rough and tumble. (According to legend, it was merely a bull chased over from the neighboring Bull Hill that broke its neck here, not an outlaw or Revolutionary war hero.) Once I started scrambling up the well trod gully trail anchored with rocks I felt like a boy again too young to care about trail etiquette, simply driven to get to the top. But so doing so amid two dozen others was a healthy reminder of how exposed this trail can feel. One poor woman felt so intimidated at the bottom of a V-notched slab that she turned around for the day, not ten minutes from the start. “She’s hugging the rock rather than walking on it,” someone observed someone from above. Everyone else scampered successfully upwards, many in sneakers and jeans, but not without nervous banter flying back and forth. It’s one thing to jungle gym over the rocks. Another to glimpse the Hudson under your armpit surprisingly far below. “It’s all mental,” reassured one young fellow. “Famous last words,” his friend shot back. But the best line belonged to one of the young bucks in ball caps and bright sneakers who were skipping the slow moving crowd in the gully rocks by winging outwards to scamper up the bare slabs beyond the safety of trees. Even I got the jitters from watching them go. But after they came bounding over the final rise I overheard one joke, “That last step I had my leg over my shoulder.”

The rewards, of course, are the breathtaking views from the buttress humps. Storm King Mountain stands across the river, a massive stony mound with a roadway gash like a tight lipped frown. Together with Breakneck Ridge, it forms the northern gateway of the gorge. To the northwest, lies a broad valley with scatterings of Newburgh and in the farther distance the Shawangunks and the Catskills. Looking down the gorge brings you to West Point. The river itself appears wrinkled and sometimes flecked with whitecaps. Train tracks line both banks, the near side for passengers, the far side for freight, both shrunken like model trains until they yank on their whistles, louder than any toys. South of Breakneck Ridge across a wooded valley stands Bull Hill like a sister ridge. Twenty years ago, I’d get off the train in Cold Spring to climb Bull Hill in the morning, cross the valley which has the intriguing stone ruins of an estate-like farm and finish by descending Breakneck Ridge into the lowering sun. Even the clouds looked more dramatic than anywhere else, splitting sunlight into spokes over the darkening mountains. Seen in museum paintings I’d consider that effect overly religious. Seen from Breakneck Ridge it looked entirely real.

There are three major humps up the buttress, followed by the final climb to the top. For me the moment of truth comes after the first, when the trail swings out to a balcony-like view of the southern vertical cliffs not thirty feet away, a distance that would be your death should you slip down the gap between. These are Edgar Allan Poe cliffs, largely charred black with a copper sheen exposed on the highest slab. Almost at eye level under a cliff roof the dark rock sports a large white oval of bird shit. Vultures frequently soar low on the thermals over Breakneck Ridge. This is an appropriate spot to consider them. I stepped toward the dirt balcony edge until the tingle in my groin started like a rattlesnake’s tail warning me to step back for my safety and sanity.

Past that, I’m relaxed enough to enjoy the rest of the climb. The panoramic views keep coming, growing more expansive, though losing the intimacy down closer to the river. Between humps the trail crosses wooded saddles that offer hiking rather than gully scrambling, a preview of the enjoyable ridgetop walking you’ll find for the rest of the day, should you continue toward Beacon Mountain or loop back below Breakneck Ridge on a yellow marked trail that hits the lower summit of Sugarloaf Mountain, a bald with wonderful views of its own.

The third hump requires a slab ascent from under several pines at the base up across smooth rock with airy views. Here’s where Breakneck Ridge shifts from being the Hudson Highlands’ most thrilling climb into sacred ground for me. In the spring of 1989 my mother suffered debilitating strokes that would ultimately leave her crippled in a nursing home for a decade. I was probably more distraught than I realized for I also had a writing assignment that was falling apart. To get away for a day, I took the train up to Cold Spring to hike Bull Hill and Breakneck Ridge. All that exercise proved to be the right tonic for my grief. On my way down I found a bench on this slab to sit for a water break with a great view and for what turned out to be one of the most profound half hours of my life. Seated on that slab, which came to feel like my mountain throne, I realized that my mother would never again step outdoors into the green kingdom that looked so majestic from this perch overlooking the river and mountains. She’d been the nature buff in our suburban family, the one who hung bird feeders on the patio and kept binoculars on the kitchen counter, the one who gardened tomatoes and grew mint like weeds for our ice tea, the one who loaded up our station wagon for family camping trips to Maine, where I’d seen my first moose, caught my first fish, and met my first lumber-jacks. Those early adventures had led me to Boy Scouts, then to backpacking the High Sierras in college. Now that my mother would never step outside again I felt it incumbent upon me to experience the natural world in her honor and mine. During my eight years in Hoboken I’d grown distant from the outdoors I’d loved through college. Now on that slab, feeling the airy exposure of mountain views, I had what I’d later describe as my born again nature conversion. In the ensuing years I’d find a job at an environmental magazine, then leave City life for a log cabin. I’d get to know the Catskills and the Adirondacks. But Breakneck Ridge would remain the place that made me a hiker for life. Ten years later, when my mother died of further strokes, I returned to that spot on a gray day in January, when the trail held pockets of ice but little snow, to scatter ashes from my cabin stove in her memory. Off the trail I tied a strip of red plaid from a dress of hers to a juniper tree. I made that spot the shrine for my nature worship.

More than a decade has passed since her death. On this busy April Sunday a small line waited to scramble up the slab, so I slipped off discretely to the side to visit my tree. I angled upwards across the grass patches and smaller slabs crunchy with lichen, feeling a bit guilty at not sticking to the trail, and reached the lone juniper standing sentinel on the open hillside, not much taller than a Christmas tree but tougher and prickly. I saw no remains of red plaid knotted to a branch, nor should I have expected to, I suppose, not with birds and rodents to put that red wool to good use in building a nest. But I also saw two other junipers down by the bottom of the clearing and wondered if I’d chosen the right tree. Maybe that was the blessing for the day, that such an intense experience of loss could be partly forgotten with time. Instead of scrambling down to check the other trees, I continued up to the hump to rejoin the trail and the living. Soon I was eavesdropping on a conversation about Jack Russell terriers, handsome little dogs that turn out to be murder among cats. The same could be said for sentimental memories, cute but potentially deadly.

But the time I reached the summit of Breakneck Ridge I finally had the mountain to myself. Not that I’m a fast walker. But hiking groups proceed like inch worms, spreading out, bunching up, slowing themselves down. Back at the first hump I’d overheard a chubby young woman, who’d had her thrills for the day and was ready to find an easier route down, offer some folklore that made me smile. “I’m pretty sure there’s an eagle’s nest at the top,” she’d said. “You can’t go near them.” In truth, the top may be the least exciting part of Breakneck Ridge. Yet, as I started into the woods I spotted a small pool thick with marsh reeds that had always struck me as an anomaly, a pocket wetland at the summit. Twenty years ago, I’d discovered some-thing more amazing than an eagle’s nest. It was late winter with a lingering blanket of snow. I was about to descend the ridge before sunset. Coming up towards the summit from the woods, I heard an incredible noise, a jingling racket, a sound that almost scared me. Could there possibly be an engine up here? A plane flying that close? It turned out to be nothing, a musical roar rising out of this black pool still frozen in spots with ice. I was a resident of Manhattan, an island off the coast of the United States. I was sophisticated, worldly. What did I know about spring peepers? All I knew was that Breakneck Ridge held wonders beyond my imagining.

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