The Birth of a Hiking Club
From Catskill Peak Experiences: Mountaineering Tales of Endurance, Survival, Exploration & Adventure from the Catskill 3500 Club, edited by Carol Stone White, published and copyrighted © Black Dome Press.
This book excerpt is used with kind permission from Black Dome Press.
Bill and Kay Spangenberger had been hiking the same Catskill Mountains repeatedly and thought it would be fun to try something new. In 1949 an idea came to them: let’s climb all the mountains in the Catskills that are 3500 feet or higher. In the next three years they climbed them all and shared their idea of establishing a Catskill hiking club with others, but were unable to motivate any real interest. The subject remained dormant for another decade. They hiked in New Hampshire’s White Mountains and in the Adirondacks and knew about the Adirondack Forty-Sixers Club, established in 1948, whose members climbed all forty-six Adirondack peaks over 4000 feet.
“Kay and I are both 99 years old,” Bill told my husband David and me during a lively and extensive talk on a beautiful autumn day in 2005. For their seventieth wedding anniversary they were planning a “small gathering.” Their 100 years of working and playing hard must be a recipe for health, for both Bill and Kay are in robust health. “One icy day last winter I walked out to get the mail and when I came back in the house, I slipped on a rug and broke my hip!” he told us, somewhat amused.
Born in 1905 in Rondout, New York, Bill Spangenberger worked for the Ulster and Delaware Railroad during high school and spent a summer as station agent at one of the Catskills great hotels, the Laurel House, near the Catskill Mountain House. He was president of the Cornell Steamboat Company after the death of Edward Coykendall, who with his brother Frederick, had headed the 127-year-old company. Kay Spangenberger was an editor for HarperCollins in New York, after graduating summa cum laude from college. “Kay proposed to me three times,” Bill joked. He proposed to her in 1934 at North Lake near the Catskill Mountain House when the 750-room hotel was still thriving. Their hiking gear was a pack basket with a knapsack attached to it.
The couple lived in Greenwich Village in New York City, moved to 45 Fifth Avenue, and then to Ardsley-on-Hudson before finally settling in Woodstock, New York. In their mid-nineties they moved to Rhinebeck where they still maintain a beautiful garden. They were always active. Kay swam across the Hudson River from Rhinecliff to Kingston Point. Sometimes they rode their bicycles one hundred miles a day, after which they stripped and threw buckets of water on each other. They played tennis, and he played basketball. Bill credited splitting wood and hiking with keeping him strong enough to play tennis twice a week at age eighty-four. Bill hiked Overlook Mountain near their home hundreds of times. A reporter caught up with him at age eighty-four on the 1,500-foot climb, when the 2.5-mile hike took him just 58 minutes. “I used to summit in twenty-seven minutes,” he said. The couple traveled widely, scaling Uluru (Ayres Rock) in Australia, hiking New Zealand and Scotland, and exploring the American West.
Brad Whiting was chairman of the Mid-Hudson Chapter of the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) in 1962. One day, while descending Doubletop Mountain, he said to Bill, “Wouldn’t it be interesting to organize a club to hike all the Catskill peaks 3500 feet and over?” Spangenberger replied, “An excellent thought, but not a new one!” This was the beginning of what is now the Catskill 3500 Club. Together with the Brad Whitings, the Spangenbergers organized a first meeting at the beautiful Lake Mohonk Mountain House to form a hiking club. Nancy Locke, then a member of the Vassar College Outing Club, and Dan Smiley also attended; founding member Gunter Hauptman of IBM was unable to be there.
Dan Smiley had studied the Bicknell’s thrush and its habitat, balsam fir found above 3,500 feet, and had compiled a list of peaks over 3,500 feet. Because there are multiple peaks in close proximity, a definition of what is a separate mountain had to be determined. Borrowing principles established by the Adirondack Forty-Sixers and reducing figures proportionately, the following rule was established: to be considered a separate summit there must be at least a 250-foot drop between peaks or a peak must be at least one-half mile away from others. After studying the United States Geological Survey topographic sheets and county sheets, they determined that thirty-four peaks must be hiked to qualify for membership in the Catskill 3500 Club. (In 1990, Southwest Hunter was added, making thirty-five.)
In addition, Slide, Panther, Blackhead, and Balsam mountains must be climbed when snow conditions prevail between December 21 and March 21. This winter requirement is unique among Northeast hiking clubs and is highly valued because it introduces people to winter mountain hiking. Many people discover to their delight that winter is one of the most beautiful and interesting times to be out in the wild. Peter Fish, charter member and long-time forest ranger in the Adirondack High Peaks, suggested that other winter mountains might have more rewarding views than the designated Balsam and Panther. The Executive Committee took the idea under advisement, but the required peaks have not changed.
In November 1962, The Catskill 3500 Club was born, headed by Bill Spangenberger. Virginia Smiley was put in charge of designing an insignia—an attractive oval in blue and green, outlined in gold, containing the skyline of Twin and Indian Head mountains. Nancy Locke mailed lists of required peaks and membership rules to ADK Chapters, college outing clubs and other hiking clubs, and publicized the new group in ADK’s magazine, Adirondac. To encourage early participation in the club, charter memberships were offered through 1965, and twenty-seven people are charter members. After completing the required peaks, candidates submit a tally sheet to the club’s membership chairman (visit www.catskill-3500-club.org). The new member receives a card, letter, and patch and is assigned a hiker number that is printed on a certificate presented at the annual dinner. Unlike the Adirondack 46ers, the Catskill 3500 Club issues a separate number to those members who have climbed the thirty-five mountains in calendar winter, December 21 to March 21.
The required peaks were slightly different from those the Spangenbergers had climbed more than a decade earlier, so the following spring the couple climbed the new qualifying peaks, Sherrill and Friday, after returning from a trip. (The United States Board on Geographic Names was petitioned to make official the names “Friday” and “Sherrill” for these two 3,500-foot peaks added to the required list.) While the Spangenbergers were away, their friends Elinore and Bill Leavitt became the first two charter members on April 13, 1963. John MacPherson was the last charter member.¹ After serving as treasurer, Elinore Leavitt was the club’s membership chairman from 1969 to 1990, with the coveted job of handing proud new climbers a patch and membership scroll, which in the early years was homemade and hand colored. There was an initial $3.00 membership fee, and active members active members paid $1.00 dues annually. Elinore was the associate editor of the Catskill Canister through 1987, typing and mimeographing the final copy on an old hand-fed machine owned by Franklin Clark, the publication’s long-time editor. Before the days of word processing, each letter and each space on each line had to be counted carefully. Clark says there’s one “error” in all those Canisters: he had asked Bill Spangenberger to write an article for the spring 1968 issue about the founding of the club, and Elinore changed his word “thought” to the word “idea,” to save space! Elinore also helped organize the annual dinners, trail cleanups on her beloved Wittenberg Mountain, and cooked huge meals for the executive committee when they met at the Leavitt camp. “For many years there was a special hike that was led by my mom,” Elinore’s and Bill’s daughter, Ann Clapper, writes: “It was a joint hike with the 3500 Club and some ADK chapters on New Year’s Eve, and starting after midnight she led the hike down Slide Mountain. We’d start in the early evening on snowshoes with overnight packs, as we had to keep warm at the top; we had down suits and sleeping bags. We also carried one bottle of champagne along with our midnight lunch. We hiked with carbide lamps, often tricky as a stiff wind would blow out the flame and you had to fuss around to get it started again; the lamps worked with carbide and water, so you had to be sure that your water did not freeze. Memories of the views from the top on a cold winter night, the church bells ringing in the New Year in the valley at midnight ... priceless. Surprisingly, there was always a good turnout of hearty folks.”
The club was chartered on January 1, 1966. The Finger Lakes Trail Conference asked for a list of the Catskill peaks over 3500 feet that the club wished to remain trail less. After careful consideration, it was decided that the club should work to preserve the following peaks in their trail less state: Balsam Cap, Big Indian, Doubletop, Fir, Friday, Halcott, Lone, North Dome, Rocky, Rusk, Sherrill, Vly, and West Kill. The New York State Conservation Department and the Trail Conference agreed to cooperate with the club to keep these peaks trail less. Soon, however, orange paint blazes were reported on Lone Mountain. Elinore Leavitt suggested that the club draw up a creed to encourage good stewardship of the wilderness by aspiring 3500ers. LEAVE NOTHING BUT FOOTPRINTS, REMOVE ALL LITTER FROM TRAILS, ALWAYS TAKE TRASH HOME. CLEAN WOODLANDS ARE YOUR RESPONSIBILITY was written in the second issue of the Catskill Canister. Illegal trail blazing has always been discouraged. The club supports state acquisition of land for public use, and legislation toward this end. From its inception, the motivating force behind the club’s activities has been the preservation of the Catskill Forest Preserve in its wilderness state. The Reverend Ray Donahue served as the club’s chair of conservation through 1994.
Forty-eight people attended the first annual dinner on March 26, 1966 at the Governor Clinton Hotel in Kingston. Edward West, New York State Conservation Department’s Superintendent of Land Acquisition, spoke about reviving old trails in the 10,000-acre North Lake complex that were so popular during the era of the great hotels: the Catskill Mountain House, Laurel House, and Hotel Kaaterskill. Brad Whiting was elected president of the club, but soon moved west. Bill Hentschel next assumed the presidency and started club-sponsored hikes, beginning with a hike up Panther Mountain in September 1966. Hentschel also promoted winter hiking. A mountaineer throughout New York State and New England, Hentschel organized a group to climb the steep slide on the north face of 4,180-foot Slide Mountain in winter, but an avalanche ended that area as one of the winter requirements! Thus began the Catskill 3500 Club-sponsored outings that encourage winter climbing and introduce thousands of people safely to the wilderness. Walter Gregory was chairman of Winter Weekend through 1988. The club progressively expanded its hiking schedule and now leads hikes every Saturday and Sunday throughout the year, except during big-game hunting season.
In 1968 the Catskill Canister, the club’s official publication, was launched. The Canister is a quarterly newsletter and hike schedule that is one source of the stories in this book. The Adirondack Forty-Sixers Club preserved an invaluable treasure trove of hiking literature by asking hikers to write up their adventures and send them to their club historian, Grace Hudowalski. The Catskill 3500 Club has preserved Catskill hiking literature through the Canister. All club members received the Canister, and nonmembers paid an annual subscription fee of $1.00!
In response to a request from the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, the club began maintaining a section of the Long Path in the Catskills from County Route 42 over 3,843-foot Peekamoose and 3,847-foot Table mountains to the East Branch of the Neversink River. John MacPherson’s high school outing club, the Red Hook Mountaineers, began Long Path maintenance in the Peekamoose-Table mountain area. In October 1970, Peter Fish proposed rerouting the Long Path up Peekamoose somewhat west of Buttermilk Falls. This was approved by the New York State Conservation Department and accomplished by 1973.
The first Winter Weekend was held in January 1969 in Oliverea, near Big Indian. At the annual meeting that year, membership was sixty-five and dues were increased to $2.00. Elinore Leavitt reported a new type of member coming into the club—#1-D, Smokey Spangenberger, canine. No dues would be extracted from this class of member; however, neither are such members entitled to receive the Canister,” hold office, or vote. Two years later, three of “man’s best friends” had earned the “dog patch.” There were four marriages involving members, two of which were performed in the mountains with clergymen club members officiating.
Franklin Clark was one of the earliest members of the 3500 Club and edited the Catskill Canister from its first issue in winter 1968 through autumn 1987. Franklin and his wife, Winifred, met on an ADK trip to Norway in 1966 and married in 1969. Winifred was a member of ADK’s New York City Chapter. Franklin is the only person to have served as president of the Catskill 3500 Club and as president of ADK. He is an Adirondack 46er, and he reclimbed all qualifying Catskill peaks when he was past age seventy.
He was also a longtime hike leader. Once, Franklin was scheduled to lead a 12.4-mile hike from North Lake over 3,940-foot Blackhead Mountain and down to Big Hollow Road near Maplecrest. The week before the big hike, he sprained his ankle on a descent from Slide Mountain. He remembered what a friend who had grown up in a circus family had once told him: circus performers had to go to work the next day, regardless, so they would put a sprained foot in the hottest water possible—which anesthetized it—and then walk and exercise the foot without a bandage. This did the job!
Bill Leavitt, a truly marathon hiker, was in charge of placing all the original canisters on the trail less peaks. Because he and his daughter, Ann, affixed the cans—literally coffee cans—to a summit tree in the winter, by summer it was noted the cans were too high for folks to reach. They had been standing on four or five feet of snow! The original canisters consisted of a one-pound coffee tin inside a two-pound coffee tin. Kay Spangenberger, the first woman to climb all the peaks by 1952—unofficially—took charge of painting the two-pound tins orange. Bill Spangenberger described these canisters to the New York State Conservation Department and asked officials to approve placement of canisters on trail less peaks, then including Table and West Kill,² and in September 1965, the department approved placement of canisters on the trail less summits. In May 1966, Peter Fish became chairman of the Canister Committee to service the cans and develop a more substantial canister— porcupines were eating the coffee cans! In December 1966, Bill Hentschel was asked to design a new bronze prototype to be put on Doubletop. A year later Pete Fish developed a porcupine-proof, non-condensing can, which was placed first on Rusk.
Bearpen, Graham, and Kaaterskill High Peak have informal paths or old roads to their summits, and therefore have no canisters. Thirteen of the thirty-five Catskill Mountains that exceed 3,500 feet still have canisters affixed to a summit tree. Inside these canisters are notebooks for hikers to sign. The logbooks are replaced annually by the canister maintainer, who files a report with the Department of Environmental Conservation documenting the volume of traffic on the peaks of the wilderness areas. The books are then forwarded to the 3500 Club’s membership chair.
These mountains are truly trail less, many without any beaten path to the summit. “Herd paths” developed in the Adirondack High Peaks after canisters were placed on those trail less summits, starting in 1950 on Emmons Peak in the Seward Range east of Tupper Lake. Twenty-one canisters in the Adirondack High Peaks were removed in 2001. Herd paths may develop on some Catskill high peaks over time, but for now the hiker is offered a genuine wilderness route-finding experience. One club member recently said, “I hope that you never take these canisters down. They really set the 3500 Club apart from the crowd.”
Today there are over 1,700 members of the club, many of whom lead hikes on weekends all year round. A weekend outing of winter climbing is offered in late January. The club meets annually in early spring, when new members receive their certificates at a dinner and program. The club is active in conservation and environmental matters. Club members maintain the Long Path over Peekamoose and Table mountains, and participate in Adopt-a-Highway litter patrol on Route 214 in Stony Clove. The club educates its members in outdoor recreational skills through its hikes and periodic workshops, and encourages responsible recreational use of the region’s natural resources. Service awards are given to those who participate in activities to benefit the club and the Catskill Forest Preserve.
In Catskill Peak Experiences, ardent hikers of the Catskills write in loving and often heart-pounding detail about journeying into an unexpectedly wild world. They attempt to explain why, in spite of myriad challenges, they keep coming back for more. Many write about “being hooked” during a special day in the wilderness or by a region that has charmed people since the early nineteenth century. The Catskills, once the playground of the rich and famous, has been rediscovered in recent decades as still-primeval forest—vast areas of wilderness accessible to all who are willing to explore new territory and seek new adventure on this journey of life.
Many writers in Catskill Peak Experiences love to bushwhack the wild and trackless regions. One writes: “I look for secret places. Lovely, hidden spots perhaps known only to me, where I can hang my hammock and relax for an hour or even a day, enjoying a special tranquility while absorbing the sensory gifts the forest offers.” Others love a good, rugged day trip followed by a hot shower and fine food. Some writers backpack long trails in the Catskill Forest Preserve, and one sums it up: “Just pick up your things and go. Life won’t wait.”
Venturing into the wilderness, however, is an endeavor that requires serious preparation. Catskill Peak Experiences is a book of true stories, not a guidebook, and these tales have been written by some of the most experienced hikers in the Northeast. Yet they get lost, miscalculate the time required to hike difficult terrain, get injured, go out in dangerous weather, minimize the equipment and sustenance necessary to survive should the unforeseen occur, and as novices they got into trouble by not knowing that the mountains can be treacherous while the valleys are warm and benign, or how fast the weather can change. References listed in this book offer some essential tips.³ Hiking clubs such as the Catskill 3500 Club, chapters of the Adirondack Mountain Club, Rip Van Winkle Hikers, the Sierra Club, the Appalachian Mountain Club, and the Catskill Mountain Club provide knowledge about hiking and the safety of numbers in group hiking.
The following tips from John Lounsbury’s tale in Catskill Peak Experiences, “Lessons Learned in the Wild,” provide some general guidelines:
(1) Always set a turnaround time with a safety margin. The safety margin should include allowances for differences in terrain and conditions for the rest of the day, and allowances for the tiring factor.
(2) Refer to your compass continuously. If you take too few readings, very serious complications can arise.
(3) When hiking in unfamiliar terrain, be conservative.
(4) Never start a day in the woods without gear you would need if you had to spend the night.
(5) Don’t start a hike without a plan. Don’t change the plan without considering contingencies if the unexpected were to arise.
And please remember that clean woodlands are your responsibility. Leave nothing but your footprints.
¹ 3500 Club Charter Members (with winter numbers where relevant):
William H. Leavitt
Elinore G. Leavitt
C. W. (Bill) Spangenberger
Dr. Lee H. Bowker
C. Peter Fish (2)
Ann L.Clapper (21)
Rudolph Strobel (5)
William Hentschel (9)
Arthur G. Beach
Walter L. Gregory (8)
Arthur H. Pass
Will D. Merritt, Jr.
Rev. Ray L.Donahue (1)
John C. MacPherson (3)
² The Devil’s Path was extended in 1973-74 from the Devil’s Acre lean-to, to Diamond Notch Falls and over West Kill Mountain.
³ Catskill Trails, 4th Edition, Vol. 6, Adirondack Mountain Club’s Forest Preserve Series, 2013; reprint 2015. Comprehensive guide to all trails in the Catskill Forest Preserve. Editors David and Carol White measured all trails with a surveying wheel from 2001 to 2003. Catskill Day Hikes for All Seasons, by Carol and David White, Adirondack Mountain Club, 2002, reprint with revisions, 2015. Sixty favorite day hikes with extensive information about equipment, clothing, and hiking safety in all seasons.