Saturday, November 27, 2010

Winter's Arrival - Hazel River Area

When we got up this morning, the thermometer said 33 degrees.  Two weeks ago, when we were last out hiking, the leaves had still been on many of the trees and it was warm enough to hike in short sleeve shirts.  What a difference two weeks can make.  No leaves remain on the trees in Shenandoah and all of the underbrush has died away for the winter.  In spite of the cold, winter is a very pleasant time to visit the park if one is prepared for the weather.  There are few tourists and more views since the leaves are off the trees. 

We hiked up the Hazel River Trail from county road 600 with a vague plan for the day.  Soon after we started, we met a large church group, one of just two groups we saw the entire day.  We crossed the Hazel River several times before turning sharply uphill on the steep White Rocks Trail.  As we climbed, we could hear the wind howling above us.  Once in a while a gust would catch us, blasting us with cold air.  At the top of the ridge, we were pretty much constantly in gusts of wind of varying strength.  In a shady part of the trail, we saw our first frost flowers of the season.  We hiked the quarter of a mile down to White Rocks Falls and found a sunny lunch spot that was sheltered from the wind.  There was far more water in the falls than there was when we hiked there in the summer.  The first icicles of the season hung on a small branch over the creek below the falls. 

From there, we returned to the White Rocks Trail, which climbs slowly to the Catlett Spur Trail.  We turned onto the Catlett Spur Trail and hiked the mile to the Hannah Run Trail.  The Hannah Run Trail climbs steeply to the Pinnacles Overlook on Skyline Drive.  Normally, Pinnacles is a fairly busy overlook, but today it was empty.  With nothing to block the wind, it was also freezing cold, so we snapped a couple of pictures and returned the way we came.  At the junction of the Catlett Spur and Catlett Mountain Trails, we went east on Catlett Mountain Trail.  We made our way back to the car via Hazel Mountain Trail and a steep descent down Sam's Ridge Trail.  Sam's Ridge Trail was covered in leaves, making what is already a challenging descent even more exciting.

Winter has definitely arrived in the mountains.

Pictures (click to enlarge):

A small waterfall on the lower Hazel River

White Rocks Falls

Another view of White Rocks Falls.

Icicles over the stream.

Long shadows at 1:30 p.m. on the moss.

Frost flowers.

Old Rag from Pinnacles Overlook.

Pinnacles Overlook empty.  Quite a difference from the way the drive looked a month ago at another overlook.

Looking northeast towards Sperryville.

An interesting spider on Sam's Ridge Trail.  I don't know anything about spiders, so if anyone knows what kind it is, let me know.  She was about 1.5 inches across (including legs).

Monday, November 15, 2010

Old Rag Mountain Stewards: Weekend on the Ropes

This weekend was the last scheduled weekend of the year for Old Rag Mountain Stewards (ORMS).  Once the leaves and the temperatures drop, visitation to the mountain usually drops off precipitously.  This weekend, however, the temperatures were in the high 50s to low 60s, so the crowds did not get the memo that the busy season is nearly over. 

We arrived Saturday morning at 9:30 and the parking lot was already nearly full.  There were lots of big groups and several parties with dogs (no dogs are allowed on Old Rag).  Several of us were scheduled to work and we had two new volunteers join us.  By the time we had gear and people organized, it was almost 11 a.m.  The new volunteers headed up the Ridge Trail with a more experienced Steward.  The rest of us got a ride to Post Office Junction to set up camp for that night and to return the rescue gear to the first aid cache after the previous weekend's carry-out.  Once we had pitched tents and hung bear bags, we loaded the rescue litter with gear and began pushing it up the Saddle Trail to the cache.  It is only two miles from PO Junction to the cache, but we were all ready to be done by the time we got there. 

After dropping off the gear, we proceeded to the summit, where we met up with the rest of the group.  We spent the rest of the afternoon setting anchors and practicing rappelling and ascending.  It was a good review.  We finished just as the sun went down.  Old Rag Patrols generously brought steaks and portabellos for the group for dinner.  We spent the evening at the Old Rag Shelter eating a fantastic dinner and enjoying a warm fire in the fire pit.  It was a little chilly camping that night at Post Office Junction, but nothing like what it could be in the second week of November. 

Sunday morning, several more Stewards met us at camp.  We headed up the mountain to one of the many climbing spots where two of the lead stewards had a challenge in store for all of us.  They had set fixed ropes on three pitches for us to ascend.  The first part was tough.  The rock was partly covered in pine needles, which made it tough to get good footing.  My calves burned when I had to stand for a long time at certain angles while trying to figure out the next move. After that, though, it got easier for a while.  I was able to walk and push the prussiks ahead of me.  At the first anchor, I moved my prussiks above it and waited for the next person so I could explain what to do before I continued.

The next few stretches were pretty straightforward except for some aggressive mountain laurel.  Then I reached a section that was vertical.  Another rope with knots had been hung there, but I had trouble getting up off of the rock I was standing on.  After a while, I realized I could tie knots in the second rope and use it as a step to push off.  After doing that a couple of times, I managed to get a foothold and get over the lip of rock.  The rest of the ascent went smoothly.  One we reached a relatively level slab of rock, we were able to unclip and eat some lunch while we waited for a rope to be set for rappelling. 

While we were waiting, a few falcons put on quite a show.  They soared above the valley next to us, diving down and landing in trees briefly before taking off again.  Every now and then they would fill the valley with their calls.  At one point, two of them drove a raven out of the valley, diving and darting at it while screeching.  Falcons are not common in Shenandoah, so it was a treat to see them.  In five years of hiking in the area, this is the first time we have ever seen them.

After we rappelled down into the ravine, we bushwhacked up to a climbers path that took us back to the Saddle Trail just below the summit.  It was slow going to get to the climbers path.  The entire valley seemed to be covered in blackberries and greenbriar.  By the time we reached the climbers path, it was nearly dark.  We made our way up to the Saddle Trail, pushing through one last section of mountain laurel, just as the light completely gave way to night.  We dropped our packs, put on our headlamps and went back down to the base of the climbers path to light the way for the others coming up.

At the summit, the wind had picked up and we could feel the weather system moving in.  No one else was up there, which is a rare, rare thing on Old Rag.  We stayed for a short while before making our way down. It was an incredible day.  There were some difficult spots, but it was an amazing way to go up the mountain.  The best part of the day was working together to solve the problems.  There is honestly no other group I would rather work with.

I want to thank Rudy's Pizza in Sperryville for staying open late so all of us could have dinner together before driving home.  It was a fantastic way to end the 2010 ORMS season.

Pictures (click to enlarge):
Sunset from a small wall at the summit.
A fire near Graves Mountain.

Saxifraga michauxii (Michaux's Saxifrage) turning red before it goes dormant for winter.

Sunset on Saturday.

The ropes on one of the slabs on Sunday.

Hanging from the rope taking pictures.  Weakley Hollow is in the background. 

 Robertson Mountain.

A falcon soaring above us (click to enlarge).

Two Stewards waiting for the rappelling rope to be brought up.

Rappelling down into the ravine.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Veterans Day Hike - Strickler's and Duncan Knobs

The Thursday holiday gave several of us the opportunity to hike mid-week, something we don't get to do very often.  It promised to be one of those rare, brilliantly sunny, perfect fall days and we were lucky enough not to be trapped in the office.  By the time we arrived at the trailhead, it was a little cool, but warm enough to start in short sleeves.  The Scotthorn Gap Trail climbs steeply up from Crisman Hollow road for almost a mile and a half before meeting the Mansanutten Trail.  We were surprised that there were still so many leaves on the trees.  Since I had not been hiking in two weeks, I expected most of them to have dropped.

Once on the Mansanutten Trail, we quickly reached the top of the ridge.  We took a short break and then looked for the semi-official trail to the top of Strickler's Knob.  There were no blazes at the junction of the footpath with the Mansanutten Trail, but the path was obvious enough.  Soon, pink or maroon blazes appeared on rocks along the path.  The path was really rocky and as we got closer to the end, it turned into a rock scramble.  Our friend's dog, Sammie, had to be helped over several of the spots, but otherwise handled it very well.  Strickler's Knob provided a perfect lunch spot with a great view.  Since it was bright and sunny, it was actually warm enough to sit, enjoy the good weather, and watch turkey vultures ride the thermals.

After lunch, we returned to the Mansanutten Trail and made our way downhill into Duncan Hollow.  The trail, after a few switchbacks, flattens out into a very gentle downhill.  We made good time to the junction with the Gap Run Trail.  The Gap Run Trail was the steepest section of the hike.  We climbed almost 900 feet in three-quarters of a mile.  One of the challenges in the Mansanutten area is that the trail is often covered in rocks sized perfectly for tripping or for rolling an ankle (on some trails, one would think the word, "Mansanutten" is an old Indian word for "really rocky trails").  The Gap Run Trail is no exception and with most of the leaves having fallen from the trees, there was the extra bonus of not being able to actually see the rocks.

The trail ends up at the top of Peach Orchard Gap, where a trail splits off leading to the top of Duncan Knob.  We took a quick break and headed up to the knob, which involved another rock scramble.  Sammie sat this one out.  The view from the top of the knob was incredible.  Although it was only 2:30 p.m., the sun was already low in the sky, which brought out the red leaves still on the trees in the valley.   We still had a ways to hike, so we didn't linger.  We rejoined Sammie and returned to the Gap Run Trail and headed downhill to the Scotthorn Gap Trail.

From there, it was an easy walk back to the junction with the Mansanutten Trail.  This time, we turned downhill, passing a small pond that none of us had noticed on the way up the hill, and returned to the car.  It was just starting to get cold as we ended the day. 

Pictures (click to enlarge):
Sammie looking out over the valley near Strickler's Knob.

The view south of Stickler's Knob.

A snakeskin on the Mansanutten Trail.  The pieces were over four feet long altogether.

Maple leaves.

The scramble up to the top of Duncan Knob.

 Bootshot from the top of Duncan Knob.

 The view west from Duncan Knob.

Aster sp. (Asters) on the Gap Run Trail.

The Scotthorn Gap Trail in the late afternoon sun.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Halloween with Old Rag Mountain Stewards

We worked with Old Rag Mountain Stewards (ORMS) both days this weekend.  The fall colors, while past their peak on the summit of the mountain, were at their peak anywhere they were sheltered from the strongest gusts of wind.  Saturday was a bit windy and chilly.  It was a busy day, but not excessively crowded for an October Saturday and six of us were out with ORMS.  Since it was Halloween weekend, several of us showed up with some costume elements to celebrate the occasion.

We headed up the Weakley Hollow Fire road.  Another volunteer drove around to Berry Hollow and also went up the Saddle Trail.  The rest of the volunteers hiked up the Ridge Trail.  The trees on the fire road were spectacular.  Bright yellow mixed with red maples and other trees to make a beautiful hike up to the Saddle Trail.  We made it up to the summit in record time without even trying.  At the summit, most of the leaves have been blown off of the trees already. It was windy and cool, even in the sun.  We took a look around the summit, which was crowded, and then spent some time in the sun chatting with people as they reached the top. 

After the other volunteers reached the top, we went down to Byrd's Nest shelter to do some training on the haul system for the litter.  The haul system is a set of ropes and rigging that allows us to safely move a patient over difficult terrain.  It can even be used to raise or lower a patient on a cliff.  By the time we were done with training, it was getting late, so we went back up to the summit to see if any hikers remained.  We were treated to a spectacular sunset on the way down the Ridge Trail.

Saturday night, we camped at one of the campsites along the fire road.  It was clear and cold, but not unpleasant.  We sat up for a little while with another volunteer, drinking tea and chatting before climbing into the tent.  We awoke to another, slightly warmer, bright clear morning.  By the time we walked down the road to the parking lot, crowds of hikers were on their way up the mountain.

There were just four of us on the mountain on Sunday, but the crowd was lighter, too. The weather was perfect, probably one of the best hiking days this fall.  We went up the Ridge Trail and looked at some of the routes down to some climbing areas.  At dusk, on the summit, the ravens were out, riding thermals and darting in and out of the cliffs.  All in all, it was a great weekend on the mountain.

Pictures (click to enlarge):

 Walking up the Weakley Hollow Fire Raod.

 The trees along the fire road.

The summit from the Saddle Trail.

 My costume for Halloween:  Sequined red horns.

Weakley Hollow from the summit of Old Rag.

 Sunset from the Ridge Trail.

 Looking out over Etlan from the Ridge Trail at sunset.

 The S-Curve where I almost always take a picture.

 Wild Grapes.

 Maple leaves.

Ravens darting around the cliffs at sunset.