Monday, January 24, 2011

Gerhard Shelter on Great North Mountain

Saturday 22, 2011
Tania's birthday

Tania asked a few days before the weekend if I was able to go backpacking this weekend, it was her birthday weekend and she wanted to get away. Jim worked, so it was just the two of us.

 The night before Tania Jim and I went to Medieval Times, and got to bed fairly late. I woke up at 7 something on Saturday to do some last minute planning and preparation, moving the refrigerated items to my pack, getting on some of my layers, moving everything down stairs. As I was up and moving, Jim and Tania came down and she began packing also. We drank some coffee, decided to take her car, and loaded up.

On our way out of the city we stopped for gas, and then headed west, stopping right off of 66 at a diner for some lunch (with a gluten-free menu). We continued west, Tania driving the entire way, down 66 to 81 S to 55 W up over a mountain, and then turning off right before Wardensville. We missed the faded blue blaze of the Tuscarora Trail and had to turn around for it, but we made it to the parking lot at around 1pm.

We climbed out of the car and suited up, we began walking up the fire road to where the trail cut off and ascended the mountain, we stopped briefly so Tania could shed a layer as the ascent began. The trail had very long switch backs up the mountain, making for a nice climb, but not killer strenuous. Views began opening behind us as we got up high enough. The leaves were deep and untrod in places, attesting to the solitude of the hike. Many of the blue blazes were faded to near obscurity, and some of the switch backs sneaked up on us. The trail, once higher, shared the path of old logging or forestry roads, being fairly level and wide. Patches of snow appeared, mainly in the trail, all pristine until we walked on them.
Leave Only Footprints

The views really opened up behind us allowing for very nice views up the undeveloped valley. In the summer the places to see would be greatly diminished because of the tree cover, but there were some rocky outcroppings and then at the end of the ridge walk, getting close to the shelter, a few mountain meadows claimed the peaks.

The ridge ended and we began to descend quickly from the narrow peak. Soon enough the empty shelter came into view. The red structure was a pleasure to see! We dropped our packs and began setting up camp, after looking at tent spots around the shelter and assuming the wind would be coming from the west, we decided to setup the tent inside the shelter for double protection. Her Coleman 2-person we were using is not free standing, but she had set it up before on a platform. She began that task and I started a fire and gathered fire wood.

For Tania to get the tent to stay up, she put a stick through the loop where the stakes typically go, then she used the sides of the building and several large rocks to hold it up. It turned out standing up just fine, and the double protection from the wind was definitely warranted. The wind hadn't been blowing all day and the temperature was in the teens to maybe around 20. As the sun went down the thermometer dipped down to nearly 10.

Just as the sun was setting I began putting together the hobo dinners. Halving the carrots, meat cubes, onions, green peppers, and potatoes drizzled with olive oil salt and pepper. While I was doing this Tania heated some water for coffee and hot chocolate. The temp dipped but the fire was warm, the rocks of the fire ring had a "winter extension" where some previous camper had moved a smaller ring from the main ring closer to the shelter. I built up rocks behind the pit to act as a heat reflector. The hobo meals, wrapped in foil and on a bed of coals, cooked for over 1/2 hour, I used two sticks to flip and turn and pull more coals down. After I finished my coffee I set the cup down and very quickly I noticed the residual liquid was frozen solid. My Platy hose was frozen, as I didn't take my own advice (or actually advise gotten from Ally the week before) to blow the remaining water back into the hydration bladder before closing it, Tania followed the advise, and it worked fine.We roasted our feet by the fire, and cracked open several hot-hands. I put one in my sleeping bag and two in my pockets.

The dinners were ready, I hoped. I pulled one out of the coals and opened the foil, it looked perfectly done and smelled awesome, the moisture billowing out laden with the scent of cooked vegis and beef. We ate quickly, while the food was still warm out of our respective food dishes. We both finished every last bit. After we were done I broke out the birthday cake and someone had left a candle in the shelter.

Not exactly an auspicious birthday cake, but appreciated all the same I hope! We sat and talked, passing the flasks back and forth, enjoying the warmth of the fire and waiting to be tired. We stood up occasionally and stepped away from the fire to enjoy the star lit sky, wondering which way the moon would rise. Both of us saw separate falling stars, and enjoyed the hints of the Milky Way. The moon rose to our east, cresting over the far mountain, across the dark valley, the valley to our west was developed and much more grand, stretching to the horizon and to the mountains closer to Dolly Sods. The hour finally got late enough that sleep would probably come, at some point clouds had quickly socked in, the stars and moon obscured. I banked the fire, with hopes the coals would be good for the morning. I had put a couple rocks by the fire and before bed, wrapped them in cotton handkerchief and each of us put one in the sleeping bags. My rock stayed warm long into the night, warming my feet, while the handwarmers added heat to my mid-section.

I slept well, falling quickly into dreamland. I did wake when the wind began stirring the tarp partially hung by the entrance of the shelter. I didn't know if it was an animal or the wind stirring it at first. Once I could tell it was just the wind, I fell back asleep - though I did contemplate getting out and taking it down, I just didn't want to get out of the cocoon of warmth.

Sunday 24

I awoke after dozing for awhile to Tania crawling out to go to the bathroom. I laid there for awhile, my own bladder full, not wanting to give up the warmth and face the chill. I heard her stirring the ashes of the fire and figured she was up and not getting back in the tent, so I should follow the example. I put my contacts back in, threw on the down vest and headed out. The sun was shining, and we double teamed the fire and got her blazing again. Neither of us in a hurry, we sat and enjoyed the fire, and then some coffee. Tania's hard boiled eggs had frozen overnight and she attempted to thaw them by the fire, first on the rocks and finally in her cook pot. She then warmed an Ensure over the stove, and unfortunately burnt some on the bottom. Note to self, burnt Ensure = unappetizing!! As we sat there it began to flurry and then snow, the far mountain and valley obscured. Very shortly it stopped snowing and the sun came back, some snow still blowing in the wind lit up like glitter, making for incredibly beautiful scenery.

We began packing slowly. Enjoying the sun and the fire between tasks. In short order we were packed up and ready to go, by around 11am. After looking at the directions, the second half of the loop trail would entail dropping off the mountain directly into the valley and using a series of unmarked trails and fire roads, between the chance for getting mixed up the mile road walk and the lack of view, we decided to go out the same way we came in, for the views and the knowledge of the trail. The first 1/4 mile of trail gaining the ridge top again got our blood flowing, the views gorgeous with the clouds giving the distant views a splotchy look.

As blood flowed back into Tania's feet she stopped to pull off her boot and look, as she said it felt like a burning ember or a stick stuck between her toes. There was nothing there, but ultra sensitive toes, awaking from having no feeling. The wind was coming from the west, sometimes blustery on the ridge. My face was numb from it, but my body warm from the layers of clothing. As we got off the ridge line and began descending into the valley the wind lost its bite, and the sun was quite warming. We made it back to the car in 2 hours. Making it 24 hours and not seeing another human besides each other. This is a very secluded hike, and so much closer than Seneca Creek or Dolly Sods or even Three Ridges. As we got back to the car we saw the the creek was marvelous looking, frozen as it was. We dropped our packs and went exploring. I only busted my ass once, which was totally expected. I only partially fell through the ice and didn't get wet, which was unexpected - I assumed I would've gotten soaked!

 Hard to see, that icy spike
is about 2ft above the water
 Ice skating Legolas
All in all it was a very good trip. We hiked right around 10 miles. Stayed out in very cold weather all night comfortably. And had great conversation and story telling with a wonderful friend around a blazing campfire. What more can anyone ask for?!

Triumphant Tania

Monday, January 17, 2011

Three Ridges Wilderness in VA

Friday 14

I signed up for this meetup group trip early last week. There had been 12 people including myself signed up for it. On Thursday Jim Newman had mentioned that he may have to bail and that I would have to over-see the trip, as I am an assistant organizer for the Washington Backpackers Meetup Group. Jim also talked to another guy on the trip, and he seemed ill prepared and not really wanting to be apart of the group mentality, so fortunately he didn't come.
All ten people going were to meet at the Centreville Virginia Park and Ride. I got there about 30 minutes early, talked to Jim a few times on the phone, and the others began trickling in. First Steve with Damien and Ally riding with him, then Melissa (rhymes with monster) and Ming, Darwin and his two malamut dogs, Vessie carrying a bunch of equipment Jim and meet with her earlier to loan to the group, and last Jasen and Gary.We hurriedly went through the massive amount of equipment Jim had sent, and after polling everyone for equipment everyone owned, it was apparently that all involved were adept at backpacking and had the correct gear. We ended up grabbing a small wire grill, a 4 person 4 season 12 lb tent, and a bow saw. We ended up putting everyone in 4 cars and caravaning down route 29 towards our destination for 3 hours.
Three Ridges is situated very close to Wintergreen Ski Resort. We wound up the mountain and parked beyond the resort close to the Blue Ridge Parkway. We headed out from the parking lot at 10:30pm. After a few minutes searching for the Appalachian Trail we headed up, the trail quickly ascending a ridge steeply. We made it to the top and by earlier consensus we decided to head off the ridge to the shelter campsite rather than stay on the ridge for the night. After 1.6 miles we arrived at an empty Maupin Field Shelter. All of us quickly throwing out our sleeping gear on the floor of the shelter, with only Melissa and Ming opting to set up their tent. We started a small campfire and talked for awhile. One by one heading to the sleeping bag after passing around a bottle of whiskey.
The night was chilly, probably down in to the teens. I neglected to change socks and my feet were chilled off and on all night. Other than that I slept decently.

Saturday 15

I woke up after most everyone else was already out of their bags. I hopped up and packed most of my gear. I ate cold oatmeal and grabbed a bit of coffee from Darwin. I pulled out my food for the day and put it in my pockets so it would unfreeze from my body heat. Melissa and Ming were the last two up and packed. All of us antsy to be off. We had decided the night before to head south on the AT to the Harpers Creek shelter with all our gear, rather than setting up a base camp, and making a loop coming back up the Mau Hurr blue blaze trail.
Steve, Ally, and Vessie were to share Jim's tent, but after feeling the weight they decided to leave it at the shelter and hope that the next shelter was also empty. Steve brought a bivy so he was good to go either way.

We started the journey, heading up a thousand feet to the apex of the Three Ridges, the elevation gain sneaking up on us. The views down into the valleys east and west opening up in front of us. When stopping the wind quickly chilled us, and got us motivated to keep moving, the hills giving us warmth. Gary began having some leg cramps and Vessie gave him some leg cramp medication that seemed to help for awhile, until the cramps moved to other parts of his body. The conversation was lively, much more so when going down hills. We ate while hiking so didn't stop for an extended lunch. My feet were very cold to begin with, but after a mile of hiking, intense pins and needles shot through them and the circulation and feeling returned.
After 8 miles, the last mile down 2000 feet, we arrived at Harpers Creek shelter. The shelter was full of Boy Scouts. Steve went and chatted with them and they lent a tent to the girls to use for the evening since they occupied the shelter.

We all went about setting up our tents. I brought the one-man Sprite. There was plenty of space to set up camp down a ways from the shelter, over the hill from the Scouts. We all broke out food and dined a late lunch that continued until we made dinner. Everyone was very generous with the food they brought, everyone shared chicken and vegetables and sausage and coffee and liquor and anything else we had. Camp life was good! Soon a blazing fire and a huge stack of firewood was situated. The light began to fade from the sky after pumping water and cooking and all the other camp chores. After dark we began passing around flasks and wine. Everything was quickly consumed and we sat around the fire chatting listening to some quiet music. At about 10 or 10:30 we all got sleepy and headed to the tents, full and happy.
The night was much warmer, I think a combination of warmer temperature from a slightly lower elevation, and being in a tent made for a much more comfortable evening. I slept fairly well, but woke up every time I needed to roll over, my hip hurting from sleeping on one side or the other.

Sunday 16

Everyone rolled out of their tents generally the same time. We cooked breakfast, Darwin relight the fire to make some coffee. We all packed quickly and continued conversations from the evening before. Gary had been very sore the previous evening and continued to be hurting. He was worried he wouldn't be able to make it back to the cars, so his exit strategy was to head to route 56 and have someone come and pick him up from the all down hill trail. I said that I would go with him so he would not be alone in case anything happened. 

We all saddled up and headed up a hill for a 1/2 mile to the intersection with the Mau Hurr Trail. At the top of the hill Gary decided to stay with the group, as the trail distance to 56 and back to the cars was similar, if one being up hill and the other being down. At the top of this first climb, my heart beating happily in my chest, the soreness of the night before vanished and the coffee coursing through me, I was absolutely giddy, I couldn't help but smile, I couldn't think of anything I'd rather be doing at that moment.

The trail wound down around the side of a ridge then climbed 500 feet up switch backs, a very difficult hike, all of us overheating and thankfully stopping for a few minutes. The trail continued up for a bit before dropping down to a creek with astounding waterfalls and a campsite. Following the creek was a very difficult climb, rock scrambling and just placing one foot in front of the other, we gained elevation quickly, headed back to the saddle where the Maupin shelter rested. Towards the top we came to a dead coyote, the skin and fur perfectly preserved, but the guts all missing. We speculated on causes of death, and why it was preserved as it was.
In a short time we crested the last of the steep hills and made our way back to the shelter. Jim's tent was still there, undisturbed. A large group of identical tents were setup close by, with no sign of the owners, apparently some group of Scouts had made this their base camp. The last 1.6 miles went quickly, a short uphill and a long down hill to the cars. We unloaded our gear, changed our clothes and headed to the brewery at the bottom of the hill for a late lunch and some more camaraderie. Melissa and Ming left after a brew with Vessie, the rest stayed for lunch. We all headed back towards Centreville and DC. I got home to Baltimore at 8pm.

The group was very good. Everyone was cool and got along. No one was ill prepared. Steve told expansive stories of the past and all his hobbies: pictures of trains, HAM radio, micro-brewing, he is an extremely smart guy and has a lot of good knowledge. Damien seems to be looking for something, he mentioned that the AT sounded very interesting to him, very nice guy and a strong hiker. Ally is very capable and explores the world a lot, every chance she gets, also she has nice eyes. Vessie is just getting over a divorce and is all about getting back into life and trying new things. Jasen and Gary are very good friends, Jasen is competent and is a strong hiker. Gary wants to get back into shape to hike Mount Rainer in the summer, he is very gregarious and I had lots of good conversation with him - he pushed through his cramping and did great on the trip. Mellisa and Ming kept to themselves, some, but when in the group were participated in great conversation, both are strong hikers and very kind people. Darwin brought his male and female malamut dogs, which are just the best behaved big fluffy dogs ever, the boy growls when he is getting pet in the right spot, Darwin is from Ecuador, a very nice guy. I really hope to hike with all these people again! The generosity and cohesiveness of the group made for good times.

Sour Patch Kid

Thanks to Gary for providing pictures, since I left my camera in Baltimore.