On Wednesday, we went skiing at Belleayre Mountain once again.

As my friend Rich and I crossed over the hill on Route 28 below Andes, we looked at the mountains in the distance. There wasn't a drop of snow to be seen. Rich made the comment, "Maybe we should have brought our hiking boots instead of our skis."

As we passed by Margaretville, we discussed doing a hike up one of the Catskill peaks in the near future. After all, with no leaves on the trees, we would be able to get some decent views that are lacking in most of the Catskills during the regular hiking season.

Before long, we were riding up the Super Chief lift and skiing down the snow-covered trails. After one of the runs, a fellow joined us on the lift. He said he had hiked Balsam Mountain the day before since it was such a beautiful, spring-like day.

A friend of his had climbed Balsam Lake Mountain recently and had a wonderful time. The trail was open and relatively easy until reaching higher elevations. Above 3,500 feet, there was a lot of hard pack and ice. He slipped several times, wishing he had taken crampons with him on the trip.

Basically, if you like to hike, this is a perfect time to do it. It's not often we have winters such as this.

A couple of weeks ago, my friend Lee Ferrara _ a teacher and coach at Oneonta High _ climbed three of the Adirondack High Peaks _ Saddleback, Pyramid and Gothics.

The nice thing about the Adirondacks is the magnificent views from the many bald summits.

Lee had climbed Algonquin _ the Adirondacks' second highest peak _ at 2 in the morning last summer to see the sunrise, but winter climbing is a different game altogether. Usually you have to contend with high winds, brutal snow, ice and the freezing cold, but not this year.

The Adirondacks boast of 46 summits above 4,000 feet. All three that they climbed that day were better than 4,500 feet. There was even snow at lower elevations, but they were prepared with snowshoes.

It had rained the day before and thick ice coated the trees once they reached around 3,500 feet. The trees hung down into the trail and the frozen branches snapped as they pushed them out of the way. The higher Lee and his buddy climbed, the deeper the snow was in the trail. With the icy crust, however, they were able to walk on top of the snow instead of sinking into it. His ice axe was definitely helpful on some of the steeper sections of the trail.

Because Lee uses the very aggressive MRS Ascent Snowshoe, regular crampons were not necessary. The heavy steel teeth beneath your foot and the jagged metal edges performed very well on the icy trail, allowing them to go anywhere with exceptional grip.

Once on top, they could see for miles. The snowy summits of the High Peaks reached high into the sky and were highlighted by the many rocky slides that left wide, white streaks of snow and ice down through the dark Adirondack forest. It certainly made the strenuous climb worthwhile.

Winter hiking and climbing can be very rewarding, but you have to be prepared for the worse. Weather often changes very rapidly in the mountains. Make sure you carry extra clothing, plenty of food and water, and everything you need in case you get stranded. It happens more times than you think.

Rick Brockway writes a weekly outdoors column for The Daily Star. Email him at robrockway@hotmail.com.

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