Wittenberg Mountain

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Scenery: 5 cameras out of 5

Difficulty: 10 out of 10 (long climb up a big fat mountain with some very steep sections and light rock scrambling toward the top)

Highlights: Beautiful trails, light rock scrambling, amazing view at the top (if you called it the best view in the Catskills, it’s unlikely anyone would argue too much)

Distance: 7.2 miles, up-and-back

Approximate roundtrip time: 6 hours

Total ascent: 2,645 ft

Max elevation: 3,780 ft above sea level

This hike is for you if: You want to see one of the best views in the Catskills, and you’re prepared to climb a big fat honking mountain to see it.

Super-cool Google Earth flyover of hike route:

Google Terrain Map of hike route:

Cheapskate alert!  The day-use fee at Woodland Valley Campground (where you’ll park to tackle this hike) is $6 per car as of this writing in 2015, during camping season only (mid-May through mid-October). Money well spent.

Background you can feel free to skip:  As I descended Wittenberg Mountain over a decade ago, stumbling down the seemingly endless trail, my legs wobbly from the exertion of the day, I remember laughing to myself and thinking, “I’m SOOOOO glad Kara didn’t come with me.”

Kara was my girlfriend at the time, and she might not be my wife today if she’d joined me to climb Wittenberg back then. She enjoys a good casual day hike, but the word “casual” should never be applied to a climb of Wittenberg, unless you’re discussing the dress code. (And even then, it should probably be something more like “casual synthetic chic” or “wilderness casual.”)

I also had only a hazy memory of the gorgeous view from the top of Wittenberg, and any pictures I’d taken that day were on film, which means they were lost to the winds years ago. I won’t lose the pics we took on our most recent visit back to Wittenberg, though, when my buddy Jeff and I decided we wanted to tackle a serious hike. Dude. What a spot.

The summit of Wittenberg might not have the best view in the Catskills, but then again, it might. The stair-step ledge at the top gives a vantage point that’s tough to beat, too – it’s like nature’s own stadium seating. Here’s a nine-shot panorama (the photo in the banner image above is also a stitch of nine photos, so the perspective is a wee skewed):

Wittenberg_0233 - Wittenberg_0242-Edit-2 This is a popular hike, and it deserves to be – if you visit on a nice weekend, expect a crowd at the summit. We burned a day of vacation to come on a Friday in July, and we hit the trail at 7am (long story, we had no choice). We had the summit to ourselves and didn’t see another soul until the descent. From what I understand, this was a rare treat.

A popular add-on to this hike (in case climbing 2,600 feet over 7+ miles and bagging one of the 3500’ Catskill Peaks isn’t enough for you) is to continue past the summit of Wittenberg to bag Cornell Mountain as well. You’ll traverse the saddle between Wittenberg and Cornell along the Bruins Causeway to shimmy up the infamous Cornell Crack. There’s a decent view from Cornell (from what I’ve seen online), but not nearly as awesome as Wittenberg. We didn’t have time to do Cornell on our visit, but CatskillMountaineer.com has a very nice trail guide if you’re interested in adding another 1.5 roundtrip miles or so to climb Cornell Mountain as well.

My guess is that the name “Bruins Causeway” didn’t happen by accident. CatskillMountaineer.com lists this hike as low-risk for bears, but this is bear country, so you should bone up on how to handle a bear encounter as good practice, anyway.

Note to dog people: My fifty-pound pooch loved this hike, but I did have to hoist her up some steep spots on six occasions during the ascent. On the way back down, I had to carry her down steep spots twice (and she made some precarious leaps to handle some of the others on her own). If you bring your dog, expect the area near the summit to make all of your lives interesting.

If you extend your trip to include Cornell with your pooch as well, please read this snip from this very nice blog post: “We quickly hiked the narrow ridge connecting Wittenberg to Cornell, and caught up to the other climbing party at Cornell Crack. Their progress was stymied by the inability of the dog in their party to get up the scramble.  After securing a rope to the dog’s harness and pushing the dog up a seam in the scramble, they finally got her to the top of the formation.”

Sounds like a very dicey proposition to bring a dog beyond Wittenberg’s summit (and even getting that far can be tricky) – I don’t think I’d try it.

Continuing notes for humans: My GPS clocked this hike at 7.2 miles, and CatskillMountaineer.com also called it at 7.2. We are both in disagreement with the sign at the trailhead (and also just about every other trail guide out there), which all give 7.8 miles as the official distance. 7.2 feels right to me, and it’s the distance I listed at the top of this guide, but if I were you, I’d trust the sign over me, too.

Also, some trail guides refer to this hike as “The Wittenberg” rather than “Wittenberg Mountain” or “Wittenberg.” Just wanted you to be in the loop on that one. It’s kind of like how Californians say “the 405” for no good reason. If you want to sound cool by throwing the gratuitous article in there, though, feel free to try to pull it off.

Whatever you call it, if you’re in the market for a strenuous hike with a big fat payoff, you’ll have a hard time finding a better one than this. Also, if you drag a significant other along who doesn’t like hiking as much as you do, be prepared to end the day as a single person.


Trail guide:

1.  From the parking area, after you’ve settled your debts (see “Directions to the trailhead” below), turn to face the road. Exit the parking lot to your left (back toward civilization, away from the campground), and turn left onto Woodland Valley Road.

2. Immediately on your right, you’ll see your first red blaze, accompanied by an arrow pointing to the right, toward a paved road and some campsites. Turn right to follow this arrow.

3. Briefly join the paved campsite road, heading to your left at the T and the peninsula of trees surrounded by asphalt (you may also notice a red-blazed arrow hiding in the trees here).

4. When the road curves sharply to the right just past those trees, you’ll continue straight ahead into the woods, just to the right of campsite #46 (marked on a post on your left, to the left of the picnic table). A large, flat rock (“Hey, I’m a boulder!”) sits in the center of the path you want to be on.

5. Once you enter the woods, find a burbling (or rushing, depending on the conditions when you visit) stream to your right. Nice spot, right? The trail hops over that stream on a picturesque wooden bridge.

From the bridge, it’s a mere 2,600 vertical feet and 3.55 (or so) miles to the top of Wittenberg. You’re, like, halfway there! Or you will be, in an hour or two.

It’s also 2.3 miles from our next trail junction, where the yellow-blazed trail to Terrace Mountain splits off to the left, and we’ll turn right to continue climbing Wittenberg. It took us an hour and eight minutes to reach that junction from the bridge.

For those who would like a break from my blathering, you really just need to follow the Red Trail all the way to the top from here. Feel free to put me back in your pocket and concentrate on the thousands of calories you’re about to burn.

6. You’re still reading? Why? I mean, awesome! Let’s do this thing! Immediately after the bridge, the trail gets serious about climbing. Those 2,600 vertical feet have to start somewhere, right? In about five minutes, arrive at the trail register and sign in.

7. Going up!

While I was expecting a relentless slog all the way up Wittenberg, this section of trail actually has some merciful interludes where you can catch your breath and amble along, gradually gaining altitude.

About 35 minutes past the bridge, we came to a beautiful spot where the ground drops away to your left, and you can get a hint of a view through the trees.

Careful here – the trail turns sharply to your right to head uphill, but it’s easy to get bucked off the trail if you keep heading straight while checking out the (obstructed) view.

8. Less than ten minutes after that sharp right turn, you’ll cross a small stream with a little (probably seasonal) cascade up to your right.

At that cascade, you’re 1.5 miles and 1,117 vertical feet into this hike, at an elevation of 2,371’. It’s another mile (but only 350 vertical feet) to the next (very well-marked) junction with the yellow-blazed trail to Terrace Mountain. It took us about 25 minutes to get there from the cascade. See you there!

9. When the trail Ts into a well-marked junction with the yellow-blazed trail to Terrace Mountain, turn right to continue following the red blazes. Whoof! Time for a water break.

From here, it’s 1.15 miles and 1,100 vertical feet to the top. That might sound like a lot of remaining vertical feet if you weren’t so hard core, right? Good thing you are, which will come in especially handy quite soon.

10. Less than ten minutes after the Terrace Mountain junction, right after some nice stone-stepping trail work that takes you through a boggy section, you may notice a blue-blazed trail marked “Lane St.” splitting off to the left. Just ignore this junction and keep following the red blazes straight ahead. (My buddy Jeff wasn’t paying attention and briefly took the Lane St. trail, so stay on your toes unless you want to wind up on Lane St. in Phoenicia, several miles away. Not a bad outcome, really, but probably not the one you’re intending.)

11. You may notice some green Long Path markers (which you can ignore) in this next section. Even if you don’t notice them, I bet you will notice that you’re gaining some serious altitude now. My ears started popping here, and it felt like my aorta might pop, too.

You’ll also notice that your arms don’t get to just dangle there anymore. Time to put them to work!

As long as the terrain is going to be steep, it’s a nice bonus that it happens to be beautiful, too.

If you have a four-legged companion with you, she’ll appreciate your assistance in some of these spots.

The next landmark arrived, for us, a hard-earned .5 miles and 652 vertical feet from the Lane St. junction (took us about 25 minutes), when you come into a small clearing with a relatively permanent-looking (unless it’s not there anymore, of course) fire pit. The trail curls left here to continue climbing.

12. From the fire pit, it’s less than .5 miles (and about 375 vertical feet) to the summit. In this next section, we found several unmarked trails lacing across the red-blazed path, and there were a couple of spots where it wasn’t crystal clear which way to go, but the multiple paths always seemed to converge again shortly. Keep playing a game of “find the next trail marker” to make sure you stick to the trail as best you can.

13. It took us seventeen minutes from the fire pit to reach the summit, which all of a sudden jumps out at you and says, “SURPRISE!!!”

14. And what a nice surprise it is.

Take a nice, long break. And plenty of pictures, too.  In the distance, the Ashokan Reservoir smiles back at you.

If there’s a nicer place to hang out, I’m not immediately thinking of it.

Before you go, if applicable, don’t forget to tell your pooch what a good girl she is.  Yes, you’re a good girl.  Yes you are.

15. From the summit, once you’re done soaking your eyeballs in the fruits of your labor, simply retrace your (millions of) steps back to your car, following those red blazes the whole way. If you’re interested in continuing your trek to Cornell Mountain from the summit of (The!) Wittenberg, you’ll need to consult a trail guide from someone who’s actually done it. We didn’t have time to tackle the extra mileage on our visit, and I have a sneaking suspicion that it would have felt like overkill if we had. Maybe someday. Good luck and enjoy if you give it a whirl!

For everyone else, let’s head for home. From the top, it took us 50 minutes to get back to the Terrace Mountain junction (where we turned left to stay on the Red Trail), then another 75 minutes to get to the parking lot. Voila!

Happy trekking back down the mountain!  Bet you’ll be glad when you see that bridge again.

When you get back to your car, feel free to locate a park ranger and give him/her a high-five.  Then give one to yourself, too.  Hope you enjoyed the adventure today!  If someone puts a large pizza in front of you, you’ve earned the right to snarf the whole thing by yourself.  Which might work out well, if your significant other is no longer talking to you.


 

Directions to the trailhead: From Kingston, head west on Route 28 for 26 miles. Just past the town of Phoenicia, turn left onto Woodland Valley Road. Follow Woodland Valley Road for 5.5 miles until you arrive at the well-marked parking lot on your right.

If you’re visiting when the campsites are open (mid-May through mid-October), you’ll need to proceed on foot from the parking lot for a couple hundred yards down Woodland Valley Road, to the ranger station on your left, where you’ll deposit your moolah (see the “Cheapskate alert!” at the top of this guide) for your parking pass. (And if you’re concerned about adding extraneous yardage to your day, yes, you could drive down to the ranger station instead, lazy bones.)

Note for early birds: On the day I visited, we had to hit the trail at 7am, but the ranger station didn’t open until 8am. We stuffed an envelope with the money in the crack of the door at the ranger station, then left a note on our dashboard.

That did the trick – didn’t have a problem. Other people have also vouched for the coolness of the rangers here, with one guy telling me you can leave a note and pay when you get back. I’m sure these aren’t officially sanctioned payment methods, but anecdotally, you shouldn’t have any issues as long as you figure out a way to pay.

You can also get directions by checking out the Wittenberg Mountain entry on the HiketheHudsonValley.com Google map.

Sorta nearby address for your GPS: The address of the Woodland Valley Campground is:

1319 Woodland Valley Road
Phoenicia, NY

GPS coordinates of parking area: 42.03634, -74.35782 (Clicking will open in Google Maps or the Apple Maps app, depending on your browser/device.)


 

Related resources: If you’re looking for actual facts and/or useful information, visit these resources:

More Wittenberg Mountain pictures from the hike’s Flickr album:

Was this trail guide useful to you? Please leave a comment!



20 thoughts on “Wittenberg Mountain

  1. Please do not encourage hikers to take dogs into the wilderness. I want to throw the dog people off a cliff when I see them. It drives off all the wildlife and I have to avoid piles of steaming crap. Take your dog to an urban park please, that’s where they belong.

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    • Hello there, John! I’m inclined to assume some level of hyperbole in your comment, but just in case, it’s worth mentioning that throwing your fellow nature lovers off of cliffs is highly frowned upon in the Hudson Valley 🙂

      My guess is that everyone here is in agreement that dog owners are absolutely responsible for cleaning up after their animals, and for following local regulations on keeping them under control. This Wittenberg hike happens to be located in the Catskills, which is one of the few local places where dogs are allowed to be off-leash (except in campgrounds), a privilege that I find to be absolutely wonderful (when exercised responsibly, of course).

      Venturing into the woods around here with my dog has produced some of the best moments of my life (and of hers, I imagine). I know many other people who can say the same. On the flip side, dog lovers will do well to remember that not everyone shares their enthusiasm for canines, and that we should take special care not to diminish anyone else’s experiences in the outdoors. Your comment is a good reminder of that fact, John. Thanks for stopping by, and happy trails to you.

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  2. Just finished the hike. It was a beautiful day for it. I’ve been looking forward to this hike for a long time. The rangers are great. The view is stunning. Absolutely stunning. A little buggy but expected. Also saw 2 snakes. I love the detail description for all of these hikes. They’re so easy to follow. Thanks for them!! And the drive there was a bonus too. The trail has very clear mile markers.. and yes. My legs were defs jelly by the end. Haha

    Thanks again!

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    • Thanks so much the nice comments and the beautiful picture, Gabrielle! Looks like you picked a perfect day to do it.

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  3. Did the Wittenberg out and back in about 4 hours with the pooch this weekend. The whole summit was cloud-socked in though so I literally couldn’t see past the trees below the ledge. Sucked but that will motivate me to do it again when it’s clearer out. Although I did push my pooch up on that scramble you pictured between the “you’ll” and “as” lines i noticed there is a way around it to the right. We took it when we came back down as he gave me the “we’re gonna have to go another way Dad” look. Awesome hike though. Went up the Devil’s Path to Plateau in the Indian Head Wilderness the following day and got ridiculous views.

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  4. We did this hike yesterday, I did see a few people hiking up in skateboarding shoes and I had to really wonder how many times they twisted an ankle! I also saw a couple elderly gents in khakis and tennis shoes without hiking poles who were having a really rough time of it. That being said, I think this trail is best done with a pair of sturdy shoes/boots and hiking poles if you aren’t in the fittest shape or you have iffy knees, especially for the way down. Bring plenty of water. It was challenging but very satisfying. I would agree with the timing on the way down, we were about 10 minutes quicker but it was me and two teens, one who lives in CO and hikes routinely. I thought that pace was a little grueling, I’d have preferred a slightly slower descent!!!
    On the flat part with the obstructed view, it is cool to check out the multiple trees with lightening strike. You can even see where the bolt entered the ground.
    Great review! Super helpful, especially on the tricker parts of the trail where the markers aren’t as plentiful!

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    • I’m always amazed at people I pass on difficult hikes like this. At the summit of Wittenberg there were 2 girls probably about 20 years old in super short shorts and spaghetti string tops. they had just 1 of those long Poland Spring bottles from what I could see. They were in amazing shape though probably why they made it.

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  5. Mike, I’m thinking about camping at the top of Wittenberg, is there any experience you can share? Are there any bears or other threats in the area?

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    • I actually just did this hike on August 15th. The Catskills does have the highest proportion of bears in NY State but we didn’t see any. There were a number of rock formation bear dens but still didn’t see any. We went on a Monday and at the summit there was 7 people including 2 of us. And we passed another 7 people on the trail. It’s a busy trail especially on the weekends. With all the foot traffic Wittenberg gets I searched around the net and didn’t find any bear incidents there. Here is a great blog about camping at Wittenberg. http://escapebrooklyn.com/camping-catskills/

      PS….This write up really helped us on the hike. Thanks much Mike!!!

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    • Hi Adam! I don’t have any experience with camping up there – we just banged out a quick day hike and returned to civilization immediately thereafter. The summit of Wittenberg is above the 3,500′ limit for camping in the Catskills, so it is not allowed. Anywhere below 3,500′ and more than 150′ from the trail should be fair game, though, so you could camp pretty close.

      You can find a complete list of regulations here: http://www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/7872.html

      As for bears, CatskillMountaineer lists them as a common animal in the area, but also rates it as “low risk” for bears. You can find some great bear resources (and other back country camping info) here: http://www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/41282.html

      Hope this helps!

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  6. I have hiked Wittenberg twice now when we camped at Woodland Valley Campground. A great but very punishing hike with most of the hike assending. Very little relief in going up the mountain. But the view from the summit is spectacular and makes the hike well worth the effort. One of the tougher hikes that I have done in the Catskills. Would like to hike from Wittenberg to Cornell to Slide one of these days as Slide is the highest peak in the Catskills. Just have to work out logistics.

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  7. Decided to take on Wittenberg today for my first hike in the past 6-7 weeks, and man did I choose the wrong hike to “Get back into it”… This isn’t to say that Wittenberg isn’t an amazing hike, the views were just awe inspiring, but… wow, it was definitely a 10 of 10.

    The hike is steep except for about a 1 mile stretch in the middle where you begin to think “Man, that first part was hard, but at least it’s pretty flat now.” That was not a lasting feeling.

    As mike says, right away you get slammed with a steep climb, literally before you hit the registration box. From there it’s about 1-1.5 miles of pretty solid increases in altitude, followed by that lull that I mentioned above. Once I hit the sign that shows you only have 1.3 miles left, I smiled, until I read that over that mile you’ll gain another 1,000+ ft. That additional altitude does not come at a small price.

    I love scrambles, and the top portion of this hike had several pretty cool spots to scramble up, which was awesome. Unfortunately today there was still a good amount of Ice left in the majority of the trail, and I did not have micro-spikes or Crampons, so it was a bit intimidating at times, and very slippery at others.

    When I was finally ready to say “screw it” and head back, finally the opening in front of me showed an absolutely amazing view of the reservoir, the Catskills and beyond. I was able to sit down for a good 20 minutes or so, but unfortunately there wasn’t much silence since 3 other couples were summiting at the same time.

    The trek down, which usually I’m a bit faster than Mike on (I realize a lot of the time, he has a toddler in tow) was almost spot on with his “50 minutes to the sign, another 75 to the car.” estimate. — Do not under estimate the way down. Remember, when you’re going up, you’re pushing yourself up the mountain, which is hard… with this descent, being as steep as it is, you’re catching and stopping your entire weight, and trying to make sure the step you take isn’t fully ice.

    If I was in mid-season form, I still think this hike would have been tough, but well worth it. Today, I feel like my hiking eyes were larger than my legs.

    With that being said, the view from the top, and a nice sunny beautiful last day of Winter made it all worth it.

    Thanks again for the great guide Mike!

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    • Hi Steve — The New York-New Jersey Trail Conference has a great page with current conditions in the Catskills: http://www.nynjtc.org/content/catskill-trails-updates

      That’s your best bet for information on winter hiking there (looks like it’s all clear but snowy on the summits there now). According to that page, as of January 7, all trails are open, and parking areas are clear. (Woodland Valley campground is closed – but I *think* the parking lot should still be accessible, since it’s just outside the campground entrance.)

      Hope that helps!

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  8. Hi Mike,
    I was thinking about taking on Wittenberg on Sunday. I’m a “kid carrier” so I’m inquiring if this trail is manageable with my lil guy on my back? Any advice is appreciated! Thanks in advance!

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    • Hey, Nick! The blanket advice I would give for carrying a kid on this hike is: It’s too tough. Don’t try it. That said, I mean, it wouldn’t be impossible, but you’d need to be in beastly good shape. This is a long slog with many steep spots, including some where you’ll need to use your hands to climb up/down. If you look at Step 11 above, you can see what is probably the trickiest spot — it’d probably be safest to pass the pack up (and then down) to a fellow hiker here. I’ve done some tough hikes with a kid on my back, but this one would give me pause. At the very least, if you’re going to try it, I would strongly recommend using trekking poles — they’re very useful for avoiding faceplant-type situations.

      Hope that helps – best wishes if you give it a go!

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      • Thanks for the advice. There’s so many great spots that I want the lil guy to see but I’m gonna err on the side of caution! This one looks like it might be worth the chance though!! Lol

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  9. Just did this hike yesterday! There were another half dozen hikers on the trail, more than I expected for a mid-week wilderness trail, but all great people! I added Cornell too, because why not. If you don’t care about peak bagging, its not really a destination in itself because it’s overgrown and there is not much to really see besides a peak at Wittenburg. Definitely among the most difficult dayhikes I’ve done in the area, but Wittenburg is worth it and the views are amazing. It’s pretty relentless though, even on the way back. I got a later start, so I was constantly keeping track of my pace with a GPS. Turns out the my pace on the way down was almost exactly the same as the way up, so don’t necessarily count on that as being quicker if you’re short on time (I ran into some hikers at the top debating this very topic).

    I’m not normally quite as anal about timing, but I only point this out because a roundtip to Cornell is on the longer end of day-trips and this would be a dangerous trail to hike by headlamp; sometimes it was tough in daylight. This time of year, the trail was covered in leaves leaving it obscured and slippery. There are also many missing markers/spaced too far apart, and half of the markers present fade into the foliage (the markers also tend to be higher up than normal… thinking this is for winter hiking). It’s very easy to get off-trail in places. The Catskill Mountaineer’s webpage points out a particular spot on this route, and I can confirm, it’s pretty confusing. Turns out I followed a whole off-trail section on the way up that by shear luck ran back into the trail (I didn’t realize this until coming down). I did notice a lot of vertical scratches on rocks, which I presume are from crampons in the winter — not that those people weren’t off-trail either, but it’s something to look for if you’re in doubt.

    Cornell is only 0.7 miles after Wittenburg. The elevation dips a little, before adding another 80′ on top of Wittenburg and finishes with an ascent up the “Cornell Crack.” I was pretty tired after getting to Wittenburg but didn’t want to stop yet, so Cornell took me longer than I anticipated; that sucked up over an hour to go the extra 1.4 miles roundtrip. Did the whole thing in 6.5hours, including a short lunch and many standing breaks on the way up; 9.4mi roundtrip including Cornell. I have an AMC book that lists it as 7 hours, so that’s pretty accurate if you took a longer lunch (I knew if I sat too long it’d be harder to get moving again!) My hiking speed is generally somewhere around a mosey.

    I brought my 40lb dog wearing a Ruffwear Web Master harness. I think some sort of harness is a must here, otherwise you (and the woof) are gonna have a bad time. I used it a few times on the final 1.5mi approach to Wittenburg, and it was *definitely* needed (along with some rope….) for Cornell at the “Cornell Crack”. There is no way I would have gotten her down without it (aside from bushwhacking way around it).

    All in all a great hike in the wilderness, but I’d only recommend it to the more…. committed… hikers out there.

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