Damn Gravity: Oh Hell, This Mountain Hurts Me

Last Saturday, my friend C and I pushed ourselves harder and further physically than ever before.

I set off for my second hike of the spring with my good friend C. After my first hike of the season, Mary’s Rock (the week before last), I was pumped and full of excitement about experiencing some new trails this year, seeing some new scenery and taking some photos to document the adventure.  So, I did some research and came up with Big Run Loop, a trail in the South District of Shenandoah National Park on Brown Mountain. It was deemed an “easy to moderate” hike by the trails book, of approximately 5.8 miles set fairly deep in backcountry (read: bears).

view from the trailhead

I prepared in advance this time (and for that I give myself a huge pat on the back), making sure I had the first-aid kit, munchies, a hat and gloves, a water bladder and my fleece. When it was all said and done, I’d folded and smooshed about 10 to 15 pounds into my small Gregory pack. C and I hit the road a little later than anticipated, around 9:30 and set out for the Rockingham County entrance of the Park. By the time we reached mile 81.01 of the parkway, it was 11 o’ clock and we knew there were going to be serious thunderstorms rolling into the area in the afternoon, so we promised each other to huff it in hopes of missing the downpour (and forecasted lightning and thunder).  I handed C the trail map and we ventured into the forest.

We set off, goofing off and laughing, crossing a small stream at 1 mile. Then, later we came across a couple of (incredibly good looking – TWIN) backpackers coming the opposite direction, stomping up with the path with determined steps. After a few more steps, we heard a loud howl and happened upon the remaining backpackers making their way back to their car. They were sitting on rocks, sweating profusely, trying to catch their breath. We smiled and kept moving so as not to lose our momentum (or as I like to call it Hiking Mojo).

Right before we were about to reach what I knew was our two-mile marker (a larger stream that we had to cross), I asked C to break out the map. I knew we’d have to change trails and couldn’t remember what direction we were heading; that’s when I heard what no one wants to hear when they’re on a mountain with storms rolling in: “Oh, shit. I think I dropped the map.”  Evidently, our visual guide had slipped out of her pocket when we stopped to chat with the passing backpackers.  I decided that instead of panicking, it was smarter to try to recall what I’d read the evening prior about our trek.  We reached a cement trail head and looked for an arrow to point us in the direction of the remainder of our journey. When I looked up, all I could see was a nearly vertical climb. That’s when I started panicking. The guidebook had touted this route as  “easy to moderate”;  after beginning the ascent, I decided it was best to turn back and backtrack, easily making our hike a bit over four miles.

I’ll state now that this was the absolutely worst decision I’ve ever made.

We turned back, crossing the second stream and began our ascent. About five minutes later, a quick glance down at my heart rate monitor made exceedingly clear that I was indeed ascending. And my body was working really, really hard. For the next hour and a half, I pushed my body harder than I’ve ever pushed it before.

My heart rate stayed between 160 and 168 as I took each agonizing vertical step. At the beginning of our journey, it never felt like we were making a sharp descent, my steps were evenly paced and the ground felt like it was making a gradual and easy loll. Not this way; this way was pure hell. Here is a visual of the trail:

Big Run Loop: The Trail from Hell

See the first part of that trail, where the elevation drops from about 2900 ft. to about 1000 ft? That is the part that made me hurt.

Every step was a struggle. My calves burned, my hips ached and my knees throbbed . Sweat soaked my back (and stomach). I’ve done many different trails throughout Shenandoah National Park and never once have I ever uttered these words: I don’t think I can do this.

But this past Saturday? I said it. I sat down on a rock, panting, watching the numbers on my heart rate monitor blip backward, ever so slowly…168…167…166. And then, I said it. I wanted to throw my fifteen pound pack to the dirt, fall to the ground, curl up in a fetal position and pant until I could breathe regularly again.

But, I didn’t. I kept moving. Slowly but surely. I’d take fifteen to thirty steps, bend over panting and find a tree or a rock to lean on or sit, watch the numbers on my heart rate monitor blip down while my thudding heart banged loudly in my ears. I sat or leaned and waited for the thudding to fade, softer and softer. Then, I stood, gritted my teeth and put one leg in front of the other.  Incidentally, each of my legs felt like they weighed a good twenty million pounds at this point.

C and I kept up this pattern for an hour, bitching to one another about how unfit we both felt, how much we hated the mountain we were on, and how we felt like we wanted to throw up and faint at the same time.

Then, somehow, we did it. We reached a point in the trail where a clearing in the trees gave us a glimmer of hope: we could see the stone wall that bordered the parkway! We were almost there.

And then, I bit it. I tripped and down I went. I felt like I was falling in slow motion and the only visual that flashed through my mind was me rolling down that God forsaken mountain and making that climb again. Luckily, I didn’t roll downhill. I dug my shoes into the ground, shook my head, caught my breath and stood up looking forward to reaching flat ground again. At the backcountry sign, I stopped, breathing heavily wanting only to cry. The only thing that stopped my tears of frustration and physical pain was the fact that I’d have a large audience: the large group of backpackers we passed? They’d reached the top of the trail. So, C and I took deep breaths and put one foot in front of the other until we reached the top of the trail.  When we were asked if we’d had fun by the friendly backpackers I responded honestly, “That was fucking brutal.”  It got a good laugh.

I learned two very important things last Saturday:

1)      Always have two copies of the trail map. Keep one in my backpack.

2)      I’m physically and mentally stronger than I ever thought I was and now I know I can push through anything.

Despite the horrific physical strain that Brown Mountain put on us, I’ll continue hiking – though I’ll be sure to read every review that I can possibly find of a trail prior to venturing out.

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