Saturday, November 24, 2012

2nd Annual Hike Off the Pie: Bushwhacking Skinner Ridge

For the second year in a row, we planned an epic hike for Black Friday.  Unlike last year, this year's hike wasn't an epic distance, just an epic challenge:  About five miles of bushwhacking.  Horizontal Tread, WanderMindfully, and another friend and I set out from the Buck Hollow trailhead on highway 211 at 9:30.  We crossed the Thornton River and immediately took a right, leaving the trail, to follow the river upstream.  There was a faint trail that we were able to follow for a while.  Then we lost it and had to make our way through the greenbrier, blackberries, rosebushes, and other plants making up the brambles bent on trapping and maiming us.  We paused a couple of times to take pictures of small cascades on the Thornton River.  The pattern repeated itself several times:  we would find a trail, perhaps a game trail, for a while, and then it would disappear and we would be left to fight through the underbrush.

We had a map with the route on it, but we didn't have any notes indicating a specific point at which to turn south, uphill, towards the top of Skinner Ridge.  At some point, we decided we had probably hiked far enough up the river that it was time to head uphill.  The nice thing about leaving the river bottom was that the number of thorny plants generally decreased.  We found an old homestead with one wall still standing and the roof still visible.  We paused for lunch and then began making our way generally to the southeast end of Skinner Ridge, climbing as we went.  All of a sudden, we came upon an old road bed, which made travel much easier for a while.  It is also likely that it was the intended route marked on the map, meaning we probably turned uphill a little early.  Either way, we were on the right path.

As we got higher, we hit mountain laurel got thicker and the roadbed less and less distinct.  Once on top of the ridge, there was just a narrow path, completely overgrown by mountain laurel, and lined with bear scat.  Apparently, we found the bruin superhighway on Skinner Ridge.  We followed it until we were about 100 yards from Skyline Drive.  Then the path ended, but the mountain laurel didn't.  Unfortunately, it is much harder to push through mountain laurel without at least a faint path.  We made it, but not without scratches, bruises, and much cursing.

On Skyline Drive, we walked north about a quarter mile to the tunnel at milepost 32.  Now, I have driven and ridden my bike through the tunnel many times and not once have I looked at the ridge over it and thought that I needed to hike up it.  That is just what we were going to do, though.  We walked up to the right side of the tunnel, took the little path which promptly died out in the rocks, and worked our way up to the midline of the ridge.  Then we took a left and climbed up to the Appalachian Trail.  It was probably only half a mile in total, but it was the steepest section of the hike and involved using saplings as handholds in places.  In short, it was the perfect end to our bushwhack.  We emerged onto the Appalachian Trail, much to the surprise of the hikers using it to get to Mary's Rock.  After not seeing anyone all day, it felt like we climbed into a crowd.  We walked up to Mary's Rock, took a long break and admired the view and the hiked south on the Appalachian Trail to the Meadow Spring Trail.  From there, we connected to the Buck Hollow Trail, which took us back to the car.

It was a beautiful, warm day, particularly for November.  The bushwhack, was tiring and difficult and spectacular and a great way to hike off the pie.

Note:  Please do not attempt this route unless you have a map, compass, and the skills to use them.  There is no trail on the first half of this route, so route-finding skills are an absolute necessity.

Pictures (click to enlarge):
 Small cascades on the Thornton River.
 Looking down the Thornton River.
 An old cabin above the Thornton River.
 A large vine twisted around a small tree.
One of the wider spots on the bear superhighway.  In other places, we had to push through dense mountain laurel.
Bear scat marked the way.  There were piles like this literally every few feet.
 Goldenrod seeds.
 Looking north on Skyline Drive.
 Looking south from the tunnel.  The ridge is Skinner Ridge, which we had just bushwacked along.
Centauria maculosa (Spotted Knapweed).  This is exotic species and it is, apparently, fairly tolerant of winter.
 Looking southwest from Mary's Rock.
 Bootshot from Mary's Rock.
Looking northwest towards Neighbor Mountain from Mary's Rock.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Hard Work on Old Rag

I am a couple of days late this week because I was on travel for work.  We spent the weekend volunteering with Old Rag Mountain Stewards (ORMS).  Saturday started out pretty normally for a fall weekend:  a crazy, crowded parking lot, large groups, and nice crisp weather.  Since this was the last weekend of the year on the mountain for ORMS, we planned to camp at Post Office Junction and have a big potluck dinner with other stewards.  Eight stewards were scheduled for Saturday:  the largest group on the mountain this year.  In the morning, that just seemed like a great chance to see a lot of people we hadn't seen in a while, but by the end of the day, the number of stewards would be critical.

We parked on the back side of the mountain, walked to Post Office Junction, and pitched our tent.  The rest of the group caught up with us and we all walked up to Byrd's Nest Shelter for Leave No Trace training.  We spent a pleasant afternoon talking about the principles of Leave No Trace and giving people directions to the privy further down the mountain.  Late in the afternoon, we walked up to the summit, mostly looking forward to a good dinner that night.  And then, about 30 minutes before sunset, the call came in.

The park called with a report of a non-ambulatory hiker.  Three stewards headed for the patient while the rest of us waited to see if more gear would be needed.  The stewards found the patient and confirmed the patient was, indeed, non-ambulatory...and had no extra clothes...nor did the other members of the party.  The rest of the night was spent hauling gear, addressing the patient's needs and transporting the patient.  The patient was in one of the more difficult locations on the trail for an evacuation, but the team worked together flawlessly to do it as safely and as efficiently as possible.  We finished up after midnight.  The three of us staying the night stumbled into camp, ate dinner and collapsed into bed, thankful that we didn't have to drive home.

Sunday was another beautiful day and, thankfully, it turned out to be a quiet day.  We had a great lunch at Byrd's Nest Shelter, did some training on knots and closed out the year without further incident.

I want to give a huge thank you to the four climbers who jumped in and helped with the rescue on Saturday.  Given the number of people we had, we could not have done it with out them.  We also owe a huge thank you to the members of the Virginia Tech fraternity who helped us carry gear.

Pictures (click to enlarge):
 The summit on Saturday afternoon.
One of the great things about Old Rag in the fall is the ravens.  They ride thermals up, over, and around the summit.  They can provide hours of entertainment. On Saturday afternoon, we watched a remarkable sight:  A couple of the ravens carried rocks in their claws.  They tossed them into the air, then they dove, rolling over on their backs just in time, and caught the rocks in the air.  They did this over and over until a hawk appeared.  The ravens scattered, regrouped and then harassed the hawk until it went away.
 Another raven flying near the summit.
 A raven taking off from one of the boulders.
 Transporting the patient.
 Lycopodium sp.  This is a club moss, but I'm not sure which one.
Sunday afternoon:  Stewards moving slow after a long night.
Knot training.
Sunset on the summit on the walk out on Sunday.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Winter in Dolly Sods

Dolly Sods Wilderness is an amazing place.  The higher portions of the wilderness are over 4,000 feet in elevation, which doesn't sound like much, especially to anyone who has spent time in the western U.S., but it has more in common with the White Mountains in many ways, than with the rest of the Mid-Atlantic.  The lack of elevation surrounding the plateau that makes up the wilderness makes the weather up there a force to be reckoned with.  It is windy in Dolly Sods in the best of weather, particularly on the ridges in the northern section.  In July, I described temperatures 25 degrees lower than in a town 10 miles away.  I have needed my down jacket in the middle of summer.

Winter, however, is a completely different ballgame. The weather can be completely different up there than it is in a town just a few miles away and it can change in the blink of an eye. Traveling in Dolly Sods this time of year is not to be taken lightly.  The wilderness gets slammed by every nasty weather system coming from the Great Lakes or moving up the coast, including one nor'easter hopped up on hurricane steroids. More than thirty inches of snow fell last week at White Grass, which sits in the valley below Dolly Sods to the west.

But as we discovered yesterday, winter can also be enchantingly beautiful.  A group of us had talked about a snowshoeing expedition into Dolly Sods for a couple of years and it just hadn't happened.  Finally, yesterday morning, everything worked out and we set out on snowshoes with Horizontal Tread, climbing a ski run towards the wilderness boundary.  The climb was a little easier than we expected and after 45 minutes, we were there.  We turned north, roughly following the Rocky Ridge trail, weaving our way in and out of snow-covered trees until we broke out onto the open highlands that Dolly Sods is famous for.  It was spectacular:  a frozen arctic plain under a brilliant, striking blue sky.  When we stopped, we could hear the hoar frost crackling on the trees.  After a break for lunch, we headed for the edge of the plateau, where we got a great view and got to experience some good, frigid Dolly Sods wind.  From there, we just followed the edge of the plateau north with no real destination in mind, until it was finally time to head back.

The return trip was mostly downhill, so, even though I didn't want to leave, we made much better time than on the way out.  In five hours of hiking, taking pictures, looking at the different snow formations, and generally meandering, I would estimate that we traveled around five miles.  Maybe.  The weather was as nice as we could have asked for:  high 30s, brilliantly sunny, and only mildly windy.

Pictures (click to enlarge):
The plateau that is Dolly Sods North.  This is looking east into the wilderness area.  I must have taken 20 pictures at this spot on the way in and on the way back out.  It was one of the most beautiful places on the hike.
 The sign near the wilderness boundary.
 Big Stonecoal Run.
 Michael brought his pulk sled along to test it in steeper terrain.
 Michael (L) and Horizontal Tread with hot mugs of hot chocolate.
 Heating up water for hot chocolate.
Headed up to the western edge of the wilderness area.
 Hoar frost.
 Massive hoar frost on a small, wind-beaten tree.  The frost is four or five inches across.
Animal (possibly bobcat) tracks in the snow.
 Looking west off of the edge of the plateau.  The wind blows hard enough that it had scoured the snow off of the rocks at the very edge.
 Interesting wrinkle patterns in the snow.
When we were on our way back, we came around a corner and the snow had a brilliant shine on its surface, probably from melting and re-freezing.
Snowshoe boot shot.