Thursday, July 17

old and ragged (part I)

Editor's Note: This past weekend a group of friends and I climbed Old Rag out in Shenandoah National Park. The climb was relatively uneventful (other than 90-degree temperatures and suffocating humidity), but in the spirit of kicking things off, below I have included the first part of a trip report I wrote for Old Rag back in April.

Old Rag on the approach

Sitting atop a lone rock outcropping amid an otherwise tree-covered summit, I notice the remnants of white chalk, a sort of territorial marker for climbers. Glancing over the side of the nearly 60-foot drop in an attempt to find any leftover “bootie” (gear left behind by a climbing party), the only information I can discern is that climbers were here between now and the last time it rained. Otherwise I am alone on Robertson Mountain, a nondescript peak tucked into a small slice of Appalachia. Solitude is my only companion, as I have not seen a human since leaving the fire road an hour earlier and 1,700 feet closer to sea level. Returning my gaze towards Robinson River meandering slowly through the valley below me, I am amazed by how such sheer beauty and complete privacy may be found a mere 75 miles from Washington, D.C.

Shenandoah National Park (SNP) is Virginia’s most notable federally protected wilderness, if not one of the most popular national parks in the East (aside from Great Smoky Mountains National Park). Authorized in 1926, SNP owes its fame to the spectacular vistas seen along Skyline Drive. The 105-mile New Deal-built road stretches from the town of Front Royal in the north to Waynesboro in the south, snaking across ridges, overlooking canyons and vast expanses of farmland in the Shenandoah Valley. On any given summer weekend, Skyline Drive crawls with tourist-packed cars searching for the most scenic overlook, the largest cascading waterfall, or any other superlative-laden nature-inspired object. While the popular trails are easily accessible from the road and feature hemlock forests, crumbling frontier-era home sites and even former President Herbert Hoover’s summer home, Rapidan Camp, the trail traveled most frequently bags the summit of Old Rag Mountain.

As you approach the Old Rag trailhead from the east, the mountain looms at the vanguard of the Blue Ridge mountains, its boulder-strewn summit stands in rugged contrast to the smooth waves of green that characterize the Appalachians. The bald (exposed) summit and Northeastern ridge are Old Rag’s defining features. Covered in large granite boulders, Old Rag might belong in California’s Sierra Nevadas, if only Nature’s scythe had not reduced towering peaks and spires into a humble 3,291-foot mountain. On an unseasonably warm day in April, the well-worn Old Rag ridge trail is the first leg of my hike.

While an excellent trail in its own right, the similarities make Old Rag an adequate Eastern training ground for more advanced climbs in the West. The trail begins with a series of switchbacks through typical mid-Atlantic woodland. After a couple of miles, the forest slowly fades among boulders that make the final stretch of the ridge climb an exciting, and sometimes exposed, rock scramble. Several chutes with few solid holds add to the challenge, and the reward at the end. The biggest drawback to the scramble is made apparent when amateur hikers are bewildered by the moderate difficulty involved in navigating the boulders. It is not unusual to see a queue of hikers—up to twenty deep—waiting to move through some of the spicier spots.

This particular weekend, school buses full of hikers were swarming up the ridge trail (I wish this were an exaggeration, but there were actually several school buses in the parking lot). Throughout nearly a dozen summit hikes I have discovered alternative routes that avoid a majority of the crowds. Unfortunately, the last serious obstacle confounded me; a 15-foot chute interrupted by an enormous boulder wedged halfway up, forcing one to squeeze through a small gap with no obvious holds other than one rock to serve as a foothold. On busy days the chute never ceases to cause traffic jams. You would think people were waiting to climb the Hillary Step on Everest.
Summit, looking out over SNP

Growing increasingly frustrated by the seemingly endless sea of people ahead of me (at least thirty), I anxiously looked about, searching for a way to quickly bypass the chute. An older man, who appeared to be the leader of a Boy Scout troop, invited me to pass because I was a solo hiker. Gladly accepting his offer, I jumped ahead only to see a dozen people hardly moving in the middle of the chute, signaling an immediate stop to my ascent. I noticed a steep slab of granite to the left of the chute, offering a more direct route to the top, but also a 100-foot drop should I slip. Hoping my boots would stick on the very smooth, precipitous slab, I asked one of the Boy Scouts to give me a boost.

My left boot slipped an inch or two before I caught myself and quickly friction climbed to the top. It took approximately twenty seconds to pass the chute and the traffic jam, opening a clear trail to the summit. Upon reaching the summit, I dropped my pack for a short break; this was only my first summit of the day. After some Gatorade and a Clif Bar, I started down the trail towards the Old Rag fire road and the second leg of my hike, Robertson Mountain.