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.


  1. So beautiful. I think I actually prefer being on Old Rag in the winter!

  2. Just found your site by searching for wildflowers and Harpers Ferry. We're planning a trip in form April 5-13. Mind if I ask, what might be in bloom? Do you recommend any trails…we have a adventurous 3 year old…I'm a land steward, my spouse a botanist. We're also native plant growers. I appreciate your time and your lovely blog.

  3. Rachel, Thanks for the kind words! Harpers Ferry is a great place to visit. I would definitely recommend checking out Maryland Heights and walking along the C&O Towpath for both scenery and flowers. Loudon Heights is also nice, as is the Appalachian Trail south of Harpers Ferry. If you will have a car, Weverton Cliffs is also a nice hike. All of these can be done as out-and-backs, so when your little one gets tired, you can just turn back. More detailed descriptions of the hikes in the area can be found at and As to flowers, we've had a hard winter here, so I'm guessing in early April, you will see the earliest blooming spring flowers in the Harpers ferry area (e.g. Bloodroot, Spring Beauty, Cut-Leaf Toothwort, etc. Maybe some Skunk Cabbage down along the C&O canal). The Towpath is also a great place to see turtles sunning themselves in the spring and birds such as herons. Let me know if you have more questions.

  4. Awesome pics. The picture of you guys in the chute looks like you are at 15,000 plus on a world class alpine mountain. Almost Alpine. So good to see the four of you in the Old Rag parking lot.