Shenandoah in Winter

March 12-15, 1999

After reading this one, check out Part II, the Return

Well, you’d think I’d learn by now that Spring Breaks are best spent at low altitude and latitude. But no… After last year’s spectacular rain/snow/fog-out in the Great Smokies, I resolved to hike closer to home to at least limit driving time. The plan was to do 115 miles of the AT (the section through Shenandoah NP) over the course of a week. A bit ambitious, but hiking alone 15 mile days aren’t that bad.

As they say in the medical field, there were Complications…

Car shuffling was going to be a problem on a trip this length. But fortunately, I found a quartet of people who were headed down to the Smokies and they dropped me at the southern end of Shenandoah (Rockfish Gap). As with any enterprise involving two or more people, we were soon behind schedule and I finally got on the trail at 9pm in the crystal clear, very cold, very dark mid-virginia winter. All in all, I can’t complain, however, since the trip down was quite entertaining and Eric, Tom, Crystal and Magritte had been so very accomodating and nice.

First night's bivy, hastily constructed in the middle of the trail in the lee of a rock, sort of.

First bivy, hastily constructed in the middle of the trail in the lee of a rock, sort of.

After finding the trail (no mean feat in the dark and snowy woods with no tracks and only irregular white blazes on trees to identify it) I set out to get out of sight and sound of I-64. The first shelter was seven miles north and there was no way I was going to make it that far. Perhaps half a mile in, I found a large boulder with a western inverted face and a levelish spot of ground to set up my bivy. Beautiful stars above and the jewel-like lights of Waynesboro off to the west. Simply gorgeous. Got cold enough that my zero-degree bag was not quite sufficient.

Day 2: Vaulted out of bed and got on the trail resolved to get moving, get warm and get breakfast in that order. After a mile, all systems were sufficiently go that breakfast was had. My stove does not behave well during the best of conditions being a creaky second hand Peak1 and in sub-freezing, windy weather after having been dropped a few times on its head, it’s even more recalcitrant. This would continue to be an issue for days to come; if anyone has suggestions for replacement stoves, I’d love to hear them…

The day turned lovely and sunny though the wind remained and it never got above freezing. Still, I strode along the AT as it passed over hill and dale and crossed Skyline Drive periodically. Normally quite busy, the Park was nearly deserted and quite pleasent. The shelters are typically 13 or so miles apart so I had either a short 7-mile hike ahead or a longer 20 miler. Trudge trudge trudge. Feeling that 55 pounds of pack (much of it food) were perhaps too many, I stopped for dinner at about mile 16 and finally descended into Blackrock Shelter at twilight. A roaring fire kindly provided by seven sober lads from the University of Wisconsin was especially welcome.

Blackrock, white snow.

Blackrock, white snow.

Day 3: The lads were still abed when I rose to the two-and-counting inches of fresh powder. Today was to be a shorter jaunt with a 7.3 mile leg to Loft Mountain campground and then a 5.8 mile leg to Pinefield, the next shelter. Marveling at the pretty snow, I headed out up to Blackrock, an impressive summit of large, angular of tallus strewn quite a ways down the slope. In the next few miles, the snow transitioned to pellets and then sleet. My pack cover and jacket were quickly encased in a quarter inch of ice and every step was a crunchy adventure. On the plus side, each step was nicely cushioned and easy on the soles. On the minus side, the fog had set in and visibility had dropped to practically nil. The snow depth had risen to about 6 inches by now.

By the time I reached Loft Mountain, I had resolved to give serious consideration to bailing on this trip. Macho stubbornness is one thing, but if it isn’t fun… I sought shelter in the breezeway of the deserted Camp Store/Shower House and cooked an exceptionally tasty and welcome batch of mac and cheese. Unfortunately or otherwise, the pay phone worked and I called my contact people and told them I would be returning home early.

By mid-afternoon, my spirits had improved a bit and I was beginning to feel ashamed of my moment of weakness. Whether this is a data point in favor or against cell phones in the wilderness, I don’t know. No cars were to be seen on Skyline Drive and it occurred to me that the road was most likely closed. I desperately wanted dry socks, unfrozen gear and a warm bed. So, teeth gritted against the weather, I punched through the last three miles or so to Pinefield Hut.

Pinefield Hut

Pinefield Hut

…which was occupied by 9 college students from Binghamton University (Chris, John, Greg, Sean, Abby, Amanda, Molly, Kendra and Jane) who were all even wetter and colder than I–but in high spirits none-the-less. Soon Aaron, another soloist from Indiana University, showed up and we eleven made a tight fit in the cramped but lovely hut. The weather report mentioned something about being warm and sunny on Tuesday through the rest of the week. It was very tempting to stay. But I had made the call and could think of no easy way to ‘un-bail’. Furthermore, all this snow would make for sloppy trails if the temps soared into the 60’s as had been vaguely promissed. Better to err on the side of caution. So Aaron and I resolved that the next day we would try to make it the remaining 8 miles to Swift Run Gap where US-33 crosses the Park.

Day 4: First thing in the morning, it became apparent that leaving might be a good idea. Another six inches of snow had fallen in the night and it looked far from over. Everyone’s clothing was frozen solid and I spent a good five minutes chiselling someone’s mittens from the picnic table. Raincoats hung overnight on nails could be thrown as javelins and socks doubled as hocky pucks. Watching everyone emerge from their coccoons provided sadistic enjoyment!

With a chipper wave, Aaron and I set out to hike the road as far as Swift Run Gap. We strode along in the snow and wind down the deserted, trackless waste that was Skyline Drive. Ice clung to every branch and snow blanketted every surface as far as the eye could see. Visibility had improved to as much as twenty yards occasionally. Still no signs of anything human except our parallel tracks into the distance. Striding through snow is tremendous exercise and does quite a number on your quads. Wasn’t there a Russian wrestler who trained that way? Small birds chirping and flitting about gave us hope that perhaps the storm was ending.

After perhaps three miles of companionable striding, around the corner without warning came one huge yellow snowplow after another. We waved and yelled and jumped around like arctic explorers trapped on an ice floe sighting a rescue ship. A pair of rangers followed in their wake and agreed to give us a lift back to the road. Though walking on the plowed road was suddenly much easier and even pleasent, we decided that enough was enough and we’d take the lift.

So our journey back to civilization began. On US-33 we were picked up by a young couple in a pickup truck after perhaps a quarter mile of hitching and taken to Elkton, VA. Aaron headed south to Waynesboro to start an unenviable Greyhound trek back to the Midwest. I started hitching north 50 miles to Front Royal where I had planned to end the hike before things went awry with the weather god. There must be something about a backpack and three days worth of beard because I was picked up by a quick succession of friendly locals all along the way. Hats off especially to fellow AT-hiker Skyline who, before I had even gotten out of town and stuck out a thumb, picked me up and brought me far out of his way all the way to my car. Really uncanny!

So here I sit in the warm melting sunshine feeling a bit chagrinned about the wintry defeat. But I will return sometime when there are leaves on the trees and finish that particular hike.

Total planned milage: 115 miles in 9 days.   As done: roughly 37 miles in 3 days.

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