Trudging Through (the Snow)

I thought it would be a really good idea to plan a hike with two friends a couple of weeks ago. I was itching to be out in the sun, plant my feet on the trail and take in some good vistas. With that being said, I’d like to point out that I live in northern Virginia…and it’s March. This part of the country gets unwieldy snow storms through the months that you think should be sunny and warm with high temps in the 60s and 70s. It just so happens that it has snowed every week here for the past three weeks. Three weeks of wearing layers, bundling up in winter coats and scraping the car free of snow has not made me a happy girl. Alas, when I decide that I want something, that’s what sticks in my brain until I do it, and therefore, this weekend it was decided that I would meet up with two good friends (and make a new friend, as one of my friends brought a new acquaintance with her) and we would hike Stony Man Mountain. I’d read about Stony Man before; the views were supposed to be stellar and (the big plus side of this trail since I hadn’t hiked in a while) it was rated as “easy”. I don’t know who rates these trails, but whoever it is a liar. This ended up being one of the more difficult trails I’ve done.

Now, remember I told you had it has snowed quite a bit recently? We’ve had a few warm-ish days recently and for whatever reason, the prospect of a snowy trail didn’t even register in my (what must be tiny) brain. I met up with Christina (long time friend with whom I’ve hiked before) at 7:30 a.m. to make the trek to Sperryville, VA to catch up with my good friend Kate and her new friend, Abby. It was a bright, sunny day and the temperate felt fairly moderate so I was excited to hit the trail for the first time since New Years Day. As we made the drive to the entrance of Skyline Drive, peeking out of the car window I noticed how the mountains were still draped in snow, and yet, the thought of trudging through a snowy trail didn’t pop into my head. We paid our fee and proceeded along the parkway to Skyland, a parking area between mileposts 41 and 42. After bundling up and consulting our map and directions, we proceeded to the trailhead and were met with a thick carpet of snow to either side of the crystalized-in-ice trail.

Stony Man Trailhead

Stony Man Trailhead

This made me nervous. The last time I hiked, I hiked on trails like this and was sore for literally days afterward because of the slow-going and tedious business of staying upright. We marched on, Abby and Christina taking the lead, Kate taking small steps and me bringing up the rear with baby steps in hopes of not face planting onto the icy trail.

Making their way through the snowy landscape...three hiking mamas.

Making their way through the snowy landscape…three hiking mamas.

I’m not what one would call sure footed at all; in fact, I have a small stride and plant my feet rather lightly – both of which put me at a disadvantage when it comes to making ground and staying vertical! I felt a bit better once Christina had found me a sturdy walking stick; note to all who want to hike in the snow: trekking poles or walking sticks are your friends.

We made the short (yet icy, and slippery) jaunt to Stony Man lookout without any incidents of bum or face plants and boy was it worth it!

Three Of the Hiking Mamas at the Summit Sign

Three Of the Hiking Mamas at the Summit Sign

Me Atop Stony Man Lookout

Me Atop Stony Man Lookout

The views atop this summit are incredible: 360 degree views with snow-capped mountains surrounding you and an amazing view of the valley below. The photo op here was too much for me to resist and I wound up taking picture after crystal clear picture of the snowy scene.

The View From Stony Man Summit.

The View From Stony Man Summit.

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After a little snack on the blustery lookout rocks, it was time to head back the way we came and figure out what way to go to end up at our next destination: Little Stony Man. Little Stony Man is touted as an east coast climber’s hangout; I can only assume that because of the ice and snow that there were no climbers today.

After lots of discussion, and a peek at our map and our directions, I discovered that only one out of the four of us were good with directions. Abby took the lead, blazing forward down the White Trail (the AT or Appalachian Trail). Trail conditions remained less than desirable for me, every step I made I worried that I’d end up in a split on the ground or with a broken leg or ankle. I think my trail name should be Sure Foot, don’t you? Alas, we made it to the next post with only one incident: Christina slipped and bit the dust after taking a slippery step on a rock. No blood, no foul…we kept moving on.

Once again consulting the directions and labeled post, we followed the way that read clearly “Skyland 1.4 miles”. Only this time, the trail didn’t feel right to me. We were gaining elevation and while we’d had a safe bit of distance between us and the edge of the cliff until this point, we were allotted that security no more. A few inches now separated me, (good ol’ Sure Foot) and my demise. With every step I planted my walking stick firmly, swallow in determination and try not to think of how easily it would be for me to make a stupid mistake and end up rolling down into a ravine. That right there shows how much confidence I have in my feet and balance. Needless to say, I was the next person to fall. And hard did I fall. Right on top of a rock; I landed right on my hind end while spouting an expletive I’ll keep to myself now. After getting back up, I proceeded to fall yet again. That’s right! Not once more, but twice more. The downward slope that we had come to was getting the best of me and I was none too pleased about it. But then we came to a rather steep upward slope that got the best of me.

We finally arrived at another post marker which put us on the yellow blazed trail, getting me off the blasted Passamaquoddy Trail. I cursed it and it’s ice and smiled as we hit our last 0.4 mile stretch of trail. I was thinking to myself, “this will be cake! Less than half a mile and I’m sure it’ll be relatively flat since we’re so close to the parking lot.” I was wrong. In fact, I’ve never been more wrong in my life. The trail description and directions state that there is a “slight incline” before coming to the parking lot. All I have to say to that is, “nu uh”. Slight my ass. I think what made this stretch even more challenging was that the snow was no were near as packed down to resemble an actual trail through this stretch as the previous miles we’d covered. This felt more like a walk through the woods in lightly trampled snow. Abby and Christina are total pros; they found their speed and stuck with it, stopping every now and again to make sure that I hadn’t thrown down my walking stick and sat down in the middle of the trail in protest of the cursed white stuff. This section of the trail was the worst for all of us; even good-natured Kate started asking where in the hell the parking lot was (after we heard several cars, I knew it couldn’t be far). After huffing and puffing, baby stepping, slipping and trudging along, I finally saw the blacktop of the parking lot! Once that blessed parking lot was sighted, I thanked God (and my lungs for helping me through that tough portion) and picked up my pace. We’d done it! First hike of “spring” done. Honestly, this hike may put me off hiking for a while…or at least until the snow melts and there is no more danger of a snowy forecast! Without the powerhouse that is Abby to lead the way, Christina helping me down slick downward slopes and Kate to keep pace with me, I don’t know that I could have made this hike today. The views were definitely a reward for the hard work we all put in, but I think the real prize is knowing your friends can help motivate you through the tough spots (in life and on the trail) and get you to your destination.

Hiking with the Girls

Hiking with the Girls

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.

Good for the Soul: On Top of the Mountain

This weekend, I found myself in my happy place: on top of a mountain. I’m fortunate enough to live in an area where the Blue Ridge Mountains are right outside my door.  Though our Blue Ridge range may not be as tall and majestic as the Rockies, but they’re a mountain range rich in history, color and soul.  My love affair with nature and hiking (that I’ll dive into further in a future post) began last year. When I’m on a mountain, my mind stops; the only sounds are of birds and wind and my only thoughts are of putting one foot in front of the other.

I haven’t been on a mountain since the end of last year, and I decided it was time to start pushing myself again. I find that at a gym I may push myself hard enough to break a sweat or be short of breath, but there is simply no substitute for putting yourself in the middle of nowhere with a definitive goal: reach it, no turning back. With that in mind, I arranged to hike with my friend Chris. She hadn’t been hiking in about seven years so I offered up a few links of trails that I’d been eyeing or had done and told her to pick. She chose Mary’s Rock once I showed her some photos of the view from the top. I’d done this trail in May of last year, my intro to hiking. The trail kicked my ass. Your elevation gain is about 1100 ft. in under a mile.  I warned Chris to be prepared: the trail is rocky, there is a lot of elevation gain in a short period and we may or may not have to climb over ginormous downed trees in the event that we happen upon these on the way to the top.
She responded in her typical “I can do anything” fashion (which is one of the reasons I love her) and it was decided. So, Saturday morning we set out early in the morning for the central district of Skyline Drive and entered through the Thornton Gap entrance, parking at Panorama Overlook.  Emerging from the car, I realized that I’d forgotten my fleece and profanity flowed forth like water from a swollen spring. I was freezing: it was windy and the temperature had dropped about 15 degrees from where I’d come.  I searched in my pig sty of a vehicle until I came across some gloves and then I patted myself on the back for never taking anything out of the car. Seriously, I wouldn’t be surprised if a homeless person popped up out of the rubble that is in the rear of my vehicle.

We set off toward the trail head with excited purpose of reaching the top of the mountain with glorious views of the Shenandoah Valley. Something that I’d forgotten since my last hike however was the huffing and puffing that is entailed in hiking. This particular trail is rocky; even though I’d done this climb before, I found myself staring down at the ground, jumping over large rocks, taking huge steps up and around others. My heart rate began to rise and breathing became labored. At some point, I recall saying, “Damnit, I’m out of shape.” Which isn’t completely true:  round is a shape.

Anyway, Chris and I stopped every few feet (catching our breath), taking pictures of the rolling landscape comprised of varying shades of greens, blues and browns. As we continued our climb, I realized there were no auditory sounds of civilization.  There was no hum of traffic and there weren’t any other people on the trail, so the only sounds shattering the quiet of nature were ours. The only sound heard during our periods of panting – I mean quiet reflection, was the wind. I think that’s one of the reasons I fell in love with hiking in the first place. The quiet. The only thoughts I have during a journey from a trail head to the top of a mountain or the edge of a fall is how to best go about putting one foot in front of the other *cue Zac Brown Band’s “Quiet Your Mind”*. Oh, and then there is the sense of accomplishment when you reach your end destination.

We finally reached a point during our accent where we were no longer on the edge of passing out. Our bodies had reached the surrender point: get used to it or lie down and give up. After about a half mile, Chris and I were so eager to see the cement post that we’d see at about mile 1.7 of our trek. It amazes me that a mile can feel like such a long distance when you’re no longer used to this kind of physical activity.

We finally reached our cement beacon. It was beautiful. It meant we had 0.7 miles until we hit the top. That last stretch is pure incline; at this point, I wished that I had a portable oxygen tank. Chris and I psyched ourselves us for the top and upon reaching it we both broke into  huge grins, dropped our packs off of our backs and slumped down onto the rocks of the cliff overlooking Rappahannock county.  We’d done it. I was elated. There are no words for the view that greeted us.

View from the Top

 

The sense of accomplishment and peace that I get when I reach my destination is overwhelming. All I wanted was to sit and stare into the distance. I didn’t care that I had a blister the size of Houston on the back of my right foot. I shed my boot, broke out the first aid kit and prepped it for the trek back down the mountain.

Once we reached the car, we were physically exhausted. It felt so, so good to be sore from physical exertion; sitting at a desk all day for work certainly makes you forget what mental happiness that feeling can bring about. I’m pleased with myself when I feel like that; I’ve done something good for my body and pushed myself beyond my comfort level.  Despite aches and pains and lack of skin on one of my extremities, I intend to continue to push myself in this manner. Being completely disconnected from the electronic trappings of modern society is exhilarating and therapeutic and I’m convinced, good for the soul.

in my happy place