Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Don't Try This at Home, Kids: Ice and Snowshoeing on Old Rag

A cautionary note about this hike:  Hiking Old Rag this time of year is a serious undertaking.  There is currently a lot of ice on the mountain, making many areas of the rock scramble dangerous.  On Sunday, many of the areas in the rock scramble would have been impassable without traction devices.  The solitude of hiking in the winter, combined with the extra risk from the ice should not be taken lightly.  Getting hurt likely means spending the night out in the snow.

The hike:  My only regret from last year's snowstorms was that I did not get to snowshoe on Old Rag.  Somehow, we just didn't get around to it.  We received enough snow in last week's snowstorm that a friend and I decided to make an attempt at snowshoeing the mountain on Sunday.  We arrived just before 10 a.m. and the parking lot was a sight to see:  only three other cars.  I think that is the fewest number of cars I have ever seen in the parking lot.  The road to the trailhead was plowed, so we strapped the snowshoes to our packs and set off.  The snow on the ridge trail was pretty packed down, so I put on my microspikes, rather than my snowshoes for the hike up.

We made good time on the Ridge trail.  The snow was packed, but not icy and it was warm enough to hike without a coat for the first time in a few weeks.  One of the local dogs, a little border collie mix, ran between us and a group of guys in front of us trying to convince us to throw sticks for it.  We left that group behind just before the rock scramble.  We encountered our first serious ice at the beginning of the rock scramble, just below the first big overlook.  We made it over without too much difficulty, but it was a preview of what was to come.  We took a break for lunch and to enjoy the warm sun at the overlook.  The group of guys playing with the dog earlier passed us and then returned a short time later, having been turned back by ice.

The Gumball Drop is the first big drop on the rock scramble.  It involves lowering oneself down into an eight-foot deep crack.  There are good footholds, which I was happy to see did not have ice on them.  Then we turned the corner.  The two drops below that were entirely covered in ice.  We very, very carefully descended, sticking the points of our traction devices into the ice.  These are spots that do not normally even register as difficult when it is dry, but they were pretty hairy with half an inch of ice on them.  There were fewer tracks in the snow beyond that point, but we definitely were not the first people who had hiked to the summit since the snowstorm.

There were a few more icy spots along the way.  A lot of the handholds that one would usually use in the more difficult areas were iced over and completely useless.  We went really slow and made sure each step and handhold was secure in every area that was icy.  We avoided the ice wherever we could.  The last, most difficult spot, the Chute, required a team effort to ascend because the handholds were iced over.  After that, we reached the summit without much more difficulty.  There was about a foot of snow in the sheltered areas of the summit ridge, while the more windswept areas of the summit were bare.  We took a short break and enjoyed the sunshine and the view.  A very frozen White Oak Falls was visible in the distance.

For the hike down, I put on my snowshoes.  The snow deep enough for them until just above the high water bridges on the Weakley Hollow Fire Road.  We saw bear tracks along the road below the bridge over the Hughes River. 

It was a great trip, but not one to take lightly.  Traction devices of some kind are highly advisable.  The solitude of hiking Old Rag this time of year is a beautiful thing, but it also carries a lot of responsibility.  Once we left the Gumball Drop area, we did not see another person until we arrived at the upper parking lot on the way down. 

Pictures (click to enlarge):
The Ridge Trail

The first big overlook on the Ridge Trail.

Ice on the rock scramble.  This is normally an easy move, if a bit of a squeeze.  The rock I am standing on and the rock I am leaning on are both covered in ice. 

Ice covering rocks near the summit.

A snow drift near the summit.

The S-curve where I always take a picture.

Bootshot from the summit.

The summit from the Saddle Trail.

Mountain Laurel on the Saddle Trail.

A dried flower head on the Saddle Trail.

A bear track on the Weakley Hollow Fire Road.


  1. Awesome bear paw and great post. Got your note sorry I missed you. Your Mountain Laurel picture reminded me that it was fun hearing the snow dropping off the Mountain Laurel leaves in the warm afternoon sun. The rock scramble was the most technical/difficult to do of anytime I have done it. That ice was so clear, hard and smooth/slippery.

  2. That boot shot is just plain crazy!!!

  3. The boot shot isn't quite as crazy as it looks. I was sitting on dry rock and the camera angle makes it look quite a bit more exposed than it actually was.

  4. OMG we just went up there January 29th. I couldn't believe what we had gotten ourselves into. I'd definitely go again but I'd be more prepared than I was last time. I have some crazy pictures of the ice.