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.

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