Monday, February 17, 2014

Old Rag: Deep Snow Edition

It snowed a lot here last Thursday. Even in the city, we had eight inches or so. I got a little snowshoeing in on Friday with some friends at Greenbelt Park, but with rumors of two feet out in the mountains, a little local snowshoeing wasn't going to suffice. We also had two boxes to check: 1) Michael had never snowshoed Old Rag; and 2) Until yesterday, Michael and I had hiked Old Rag every month of the year - except February. We realized that a few years ago, but there were always higher priority places to go (after all, we've been up there...oh...a lot). Two feet of snow changed the equation. We met four friends in the parking lot and promptly got our car stuck in a bit of deep snow. It really didn't look that deep and we parked next to a car with similar clearance (which might still be there). With a little push, we parked in a better spot and we were on our way up the road to the trailhead.

At the trailhead, more than a foot of crusty, heavy snow was on the ground. Enough people had hiked the Ridge Trail before us that there was a path, but it was too narrow for snowshoes. Where there was enough room, we broke a trail beside the path. As we climbed, the snow got softer and fluffier. We stopped at the first false summit for lunch before tackling the rock scramble. Just before the rock scramble, I stowed my snowshoes and put on microspikes since snowshoes aren't very maneuverable. When I snowshoed Old Rag three years ago, the first part of the scramble was the diciest: an inch of ice coating all of the rocks. This time, we were lucky as many of the crevices were filled with deep snow, the boulders were dry, and there was very little ice. The deep snow, while making the whole hike a lot more work (and more rewarding), actually made some of the areas on the rock scramble easier.

There were fewer tracks beyond that first drop. We did appreciate that someone else post-holed through drifts that came over my knees. There was easily two feet of snow on the ground and the drifts were a lot higher than that. By the time we reached another false summit, it had clouded over and we could see snow falling on mountains to the west and south. At the summit, snow fell steadily. Another first: That is the first time I've been on Old Rag when it was snowing. In spite of the weather, the ravens floated and played on the wind around the summit.

The descent down the Saddle Trail was fun. Soft, fluffy snow made for easy snowshoeing. The fire road, was another story. We were back to the beaten path that was too narrow for snowshoes and crusty snow that was exhausting to snowshoe on. We changed back to the microspikes and just walked down in the path. With better snow, we would definitely have enjoyed snowshoeing all the way down. We were also running out of daylight and we could walk in the path faster than we could punch through hard snow. We arrived back at the car at dusk. I couldn't have asked for a better day, be it crowds, weather, or conditions. We saw fewer than ten people on a mountain that can be completely overrun.

BTW, if you are headed up there in the next few weeks, traction devices are a must. As the snow that is up there now melts, it will get a lot icier.
 Old Rag from the road near Sharp Rock Vinyards. It started out as a perfect bluebird day.
 Making our way up the Ridge Trail.
The view from the first false summit, looking south. Clouds had started moving in, but it was still bright that direction.
A few minutes later, the view of Robertson to the west from the beginning of the rock scramble. We could see bands of snow falling to the west and south at this point.
 Scrambling up through deep snow.
Although there was less ice than I've seen in the past, that doesn't mean we avoided it entirely. This spot seems to ice over for most of the winter.
Climbing up through the Chute, which is usually the most challenging move in the rock scramble. When not filled with snow, this move involves hauling oneself up and over a large rock and then up into a steep crevice that appears to have no handholds (it does, but you have to look for them). Snow was packed into it, so it was a slippery walk up instead.
 A cool drift along one of the narrow ridges.
 The spot where I usually take a picture. This is the most snow I've ever seen on it.
 Looking down Weakley Hollow from the summit. Snow fell steadily at this point.
The summit from the Saddle Trail. If you click to enlarge, ravens are visible in the air just to the left of the summit.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Great Falls: Avoiding the Crowds

Sunday was beautiful, especially for the beginning of February. Since Michael and I were invited to a party for a particular football game that night, we decided to a local hike. After some deliberation, we landed on Great Falls. To be honest, we've avoided the Billy Goat Trail at Great Falls in Maryland like the plague. Michael and I hiked Loop A once, several years ago. We went on a Saturday afternoon in October during fall colors. Talk about a trail that has all of the challenges and problems of Old Rag (complete with a rock scramble), but compounded by the fact that it is ten minutes from the Beltway and half as long of a hike. I think we were out there with most of the rest of the city. The crowds were so overwhelming that we didn't even make it to Olmstead Island, but some recent posts on hiking forums about hiking there made me want to try again.

We picked up a friend and headed out early Sunday morning. To beat the crowds, we hiked Olmstead Island first, then Loop A of the Billy Goat Trail (the most popular), followed by Loops B and C, a total of about 10.5 miles. When we arrived, the fee station hadn't even opened. We saw a handful of people on the boardwalk on Olmstead Island. We probably encountered fewer than a dozen people each on Loops A, B, and C. We returned to the car via the C&O Towpath, which was fairly crowded by mid-afternoon, when we were on our way back. Given the warm weather on Sunday, we managed to avoid the crowds pretty successfully.
Great Falls of the Potomac River from Olmstead Island. The weather on Sunday couldn't have been better. By mid-afternoon, it was almost 60 degrees.
A smaller waterfall on Olmstead Island.
 Ice crystals in a boot track on the Billy Goat Trail Loop A.
A frozen pool along the trail. These little pools are important to amphibians in the area.
The Potomac River from Loop A.
Shells on Purple Horse Beach.
Rocks worn by the strong currents of the Potomac on Purple Horse Beach. I did a search to find out why the beach is so named. Unfortunately, the first page of google hits were for drownings at the beach (the current in the river is deceptively strong, even where it looks placid. The Washington Post did an excellent story last year on why the river is so dangerous around Great Falls).
 Ice and some wicked standing waves on the river.
On Loop B, we saw a lot of evidence of beaver activity. The teeth marks on this tree are pretty impressive.
 They are even more impressive when looking at the whole tree trunk.
 A Great Blue Heron on the C&O Canal.
The canal was frozen over in most places.
On our way back, a Red Shouldered Hawk (Thank you, Katrina! if anyone knows the species, please let me know) swooped low over us and landed in a Sycamore Tree across the canal. In this picture, it is watching a squirrel below it.
By afternoon, the skies were overcast, giving the frozen canal a steel blue color.
An island in the canal.