Tuesday, January 5, 2016

New Year's Backpacking: A Windy Hike on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia

December got away from me and we were busy enough that we didn't get out for any hikes. New Years, however, was a three day weekend for us, so we took the opportunity to start the year with a backpacking trip. It was a great hike - 25 miles from Tye River to US 60. This is probably my favorite section of the Virginia Appalachian Trail of those that I've hiked. We had great company, too. We couldn't have asked for a better way to start 2016.

On New Year's Eve, we camped out with another couple on the Tye River, right by one of the access points to the Appalachian Trail in central Virginia. By the time we set up camp, it was pretty late, so we managed to stay up until midnight, just barely. In the morning, while we set up the car shuttle, the fifth member of our party arrived.

New Years Day (Day One):
All we talked about that morning was how difficult it was going to be to hike up the Priest - five miles and 3,000 feet of elevation gain. I've hiked down it twice coming through the area northbound, but I hadn't hiked up it. Once we were underway, however, it turned out to be a pretty reasonable climb. It was just long. We stopped for lunch about halfway up. A large hiking club shared the overlook with us and for a moment, we felt like we were on the summit of Old Rag with people everywhere. The summit of The Priest was cold and windy, so we didn't linger. We took a few photos and continued on our way since we still had six miles to go. We decided to skip Spy Rock because we were concerned (rightly, as it turned out) about the dwindling amount of daylight. We ended up hiking the last mile in the dark. There is something a little demoralizing about having to finish a hike in the dark when you don't plan to do so. It wasn't a crisis, but we all wanted to be done hiking for the day. By the time we arrived at Seeley-Woodworth Shelter, we were all pretty tired, hungry, and cold.

Michael started heating water for hot chocolate right away. Pretty soon, with a little food and hot drinks, all of us felt a lot better. Another party was already at the shelter, but they were staying in tents, so all five of us set up in the shelter. A third part arrived shortly after we did and one of them joined us in the shelter, making six. We tried to build a fire, but wet wood and high winds prevented that from getting very far.
A little stream on the flanks of the Priest.
 The overlook where we had lunch on the Priest.
Lunch crowd.
The trail on the summit of the Priest.
One of our friends on the summit of the Priest.

Day Two:
Our second day on trail started out with a little bit of unplanned excitement. As we were getting packed up, one of the guys who had been camping nearby came over and asked if anyone had any medical experience. His friend was having a medical scare and they needed help. We dropped what we were doing and headed over. His friend turned out to be very seriously cold and pretty dehydrated, so we set about addressing those issues. Since everyone in our party volunteer on Old Rag and have trained together, we all just jumped right into the work that needed to be done without anyone needing to be told what to do. We had the patient's friends get their sleeping pads and sleeping bags. Michael started heating water to make tea and hot water bottles (to warm the patient). One of our friends worked on getting a fire going. Another began taking patient history and I helped with that. With hot water bottles in his jacket, between his legs, and at his feet and hot tea, the patient started to improve. Pretty soon, he was chatting and asking for food. After about an hour, he was on his feet and they were headed for their car. We were all pretty relieved that everything turned out well and he was able to walk out on his own.

After all that, we still had 11 miles to hike, so we quickly packed up and got on our way. The second day's hike was truly spectacular. The first five miles gently wound around the ends of the ridges and past beautiful moss-lined creeks. We had lunch at Wolf Rocks in a sunny nook sheltered from the ever-present cold wind. After Salt Log Gap, the real climbing began, but the reward was worth it. We managed to find a sheltered spot on top of Tar Jacket Ridge for a break in the late afternoon sun where we had a great view of the mountains behind us, including the Priest. We all hiked down Tar Jacket Ridge thinking that it was pretty darn spectacular. The trail off of the ridge wound through old orchards with enormous, overgrown fruit trees. Cold Mountain lived up to its name. It was freezing up there. The wind was probably blowing around 50 mph. In spite of that, it was absolutely beautiful. From the large bald, we had a great view of the mountains all around us. The wind eventually drove us on, though, and after being out in the cold all day, were ready to get to Cow Camp Gap Shelter.

Cow Camp Gap Shelter is a full half mile down a side trail off of the Appalachian Trail. That might explain why we had it completely to ourselves. The wind was even stronger that evening than it was the previous. We were able to get a fire going, though, and we had a pleasant evening.
Packing up at Seeley-Woodworth Shelter
 Frost flowers along the trail. We saw a lot of these along the trail on the second day.
 More frost flowers.
 Looking south, through the woods at Wolf Rocks, towards Tar Jacket Ridge.
More frost flowers on Cold Mountain. I could have taken pictures of these all day because they are so interesting (but we never would have made it to the shelter).
The view to the northeast from Tar Jacket Ridge.
 Just below the summit of Tar Jacket Ridge.
The summit of Cold Mountain
 One of our friends hiking on Cold Mountain.
 Cold Mountain in the late evening light.
 One of the western overlooks below the Cold Mountain Summit at sunset.

Day Three:
By now, you've probably guessed that is was windy and cold. The wind did not abate overnight. It had actually gotten stronger. We used a lot of fuel making breakfast. Once we were back on the Appalachian Trail, we had a pretty uneventful hike up and over Bald Knob (it isn't bald). We were busy chatting away as we were walking when I turned my ankle fairly hard. That's what I get for not paying attention. After a few minutes, I was able to put weight on it and hike the last mile or so to the car.
Looking northwest from Bald Knob.

After retrieving all of the cars, we had a great post-hike dinner at Devil's Backbone Brewery, followed by a cider tasting at Bold Rock. Happy New Year!

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