Sunday, February 21, 2010

Saturday February 20, 2010 Sun and Snow

Saturday February 20, 2010 Sun and Snow
Addendum Writen Friday February 26, 2010
I will be taking a refresher CPR and Wilderness First Aid course this weekend so I will not be on the mountain. I suspect that with the relatively warm weather during the week the trail conditions have gotten easier during the week. Besides the great report in the comment to this post I have had some email traffic telling me that the Ridge Trail is packed all the way to the summit and the Saddle Trail is getting better. If you want to see a picture of a real snow sheter check out Shenandoah Breeze's latest post(see link to right side of page). Keep in mind how fast trail conditions can change even one day to the next when you are dealing with snow and ice. Be safe but have a great time out there this weekend. I wish I did not need to sit in a classroom all weekend but training must be done.


Great mostly sunny day. Did not arrive at the mountain until around 12:00.


Ridge Trail
Much easier to negotiate than last week. Enough folks had packed it down that I easily negotiated without snowshoes. Every once in awhile you would break through the snow packed trail but this was fairly rare. I only went up to the first false summit and back but I am told that while less packed down the trail was fairly good all the way up to the summit. Snow conditions can change very rapidly. The packed snow on the Ridge Trail still offers some traction for boots without some type of micro-traction devices but it is only going to be a matter of time before packed corn snow transitions to slippery ice . Even though you can now move pretty fast compared to the last couple of weeks when you were postholing into deep snow the trail still required slower and more deliberate foot placement. Plan on your hiking speed being faster than deep snow but still slower than snow less trails.

Fire Roads Up To Old Rag Shelter
The snow on the fire roads has melted and compressed down to around 8-12 inches and up to the Old Rag Shelter It has well beaten footpaths on it but they require very deliberate foot placement since the beaten footpaths are uneven and slippery. Assume that your hiking times on the fire roads will be much slower than when they are clear and flat. Unlike warm weather road walking there is a real chance of rolling an ankle on the uneven slippery packed snow you will be walking on.

Saddle Trail
I have not been on the Saddle Trail but everyone I have spoken to that has been on it told me that it had very deep snow and was not well broken in yet. The one group of three college aged males who had hike the whole circuit on this Saturday and had also hiked Old Rag on many prior occasions stumbled out at around 22:00 talking about how exhausted they were and how hard the circuit had been to do in the snowy conditions. They reported that negotiating the Saddle Trail was particularly difficult because they were often post-holing up to their knees or waist in snow. With more and more parties packing down the Saddle Trail and the weather doing its part to melt the snow I expect the Saddle Trail will soon be as packed down as the Ridge Trail. As of Saturday February 20, 2010 it was not.

I noticed that some folks had both shoveled a path into the lower lot as well as shoveled a few parking spaces for their vehicles. There were about four vehicles parked there when I drove by on my way to the upper lot. Unless we get a lot more snow I am assuming that between melting and individuals digging out one parking space at a time the availability of spaces in the lower lot will be expanding with each passing week. As of this weekend, once you can get in past the snow banks the snow on the ground is not terribly deep 8 inches to a foot and digging a space for your car should not be difficult. Since the snow is melting and refreezing daily assume you will need a shovel that is good for dense heavy icy snow.

There were a couple of fisherman leaving the upper lot just as I arrived. The space occupied by their vehicle was the perfect spot for others to turn around in so I decided I would still dig out a new space for my car. Just as I was about done digging out my parking space one of two folks who had skied up to Skyline Drive and back on the fire roads arrived in the lot.

When you park your car, park it with the front of your vehicle pointing out and hopefully downhill. That way if someone who parks in the coveted extremely tight lot after you does not think about how much space you need to turn out of your parking space you will not be faced with needing to back down a half mile of winding country road before you get to a space wide enough to turn your car forward.


Shortly after the skier came out, around 20 hikers who had done an out and back to Old Rag shelter arrived. So shortly after I was done creating my new space or 14:15 five cars left the upper lot. If you look at the picture of the upper lot you can see that rather than its summertime 15 cars it can only hold about seven at the present time.

I took the time to dig out in front of the porta-johns doors while I was hanging out in the upper lot.

The following photo is from the spot on Nethers Road near the winery that I try to take at least once a month in order to monitor the seasonal changes. Clicking on most the pictures will show higher resolutions.

Upper lot. Parts of the picture have been purposely blurred. Notice the cars parked such that if the other cars park incorrectly they are at risk of not being able to turnaround in order to leave the lot faced in a forward direction.
The next picture shows the first part of a large party of twenty hikers who had done an up and back to Old Rag Shelter. All of this picture has been purposely blurred.

The sun falling behind the ridge line of Old Rag late in the day.
Note: the sun already reaches about 40 degrees in our sky and is climbing higher every day. In addition sundown is around 18:00 and getting later by about a minute every day.

The next pictures are for the trail maintainers benefit:
Blow down one.

Blow down two.

Blow down 3

Blow down 5. See last weeks post for blow down 4 the largest of the five current blow downs.

A picture of the snow shelter I built.
It is whimsically only fifteen inches high and is placed at the corner of a Ridge Trail switchback. Except for the woodland wee folk's survival needs it is only good for warming the big folks spirits with a little mirth. I thought it would be neat to make a truly big one for others to have available as a potential safe haven but I did not have the hour or two that would take to make it. Check out Shendandoah Breezes post around this same time for a picture of a real snow shelter. A little ways up the trail I could not resist leaving my mark on a smoothly glistening snow bank that provided a great whiteboard like canvas to scratch a big four foot HI in the snow with my ski pole basket. Sorry about breaking Leave No Trace ethics, hopefully my snow graffiti will be more appreciated than despised. At least it will be gone after just a few warm days.

At R19 just below the first false summit is the spot with the slippery ramp or tight crack squeeze. Today this spot was easier to negotiate than in the warm weather because the crack was filled up with snow which provided a staircase of nice foot steps.

Looking up the Ridge Trail from the top of the first false summit and start of the rock scramble just after sunset.

When I got out at 20:15 the three college guys vehicle was still in the lot. Knowing they only planned on doing a day hike and that they said they had planned on doing the circuit I decided to wait to make sure they got out OK. After waiting in the lot for about forty minutes I decided I would amble up the fire road in search of them coming out. I ran into the first two about ten minutes up the trail. They told me that their friend was having a much harder time than them. They were afraid that if they stayed with him none of them would get out. They wanted to make sure that at least they got out in case they had to go for help. They said that when they left him he was still moving slowly and that while he kept saying he did not think he could make it they thought he would keep moving down the trail. They said that when they left him he was a little bit panicked because he was cold and exhausted and seemed sure in his mind he would not make it out. I agreed they should go out and warm up in the car and I would continue up until I met him. About another half mile up the fire road I heard a voice yelling, "Help! Anyone out there!". The last of the three college guys was slowly stumbling down the road. When I got up to him he said he was not sure he could make it any further. He had a faint LED light in one of his bare glove less hands and a flashing strobe in the other of his bare glove less hands. His hands were so cold he had to ask me to turn off his lights after I outfitted him with my spare headlamp. This gave him much better light for walking and the ability to draw his cold hands up inside the ends of his jacket arms to keep them warm. After determining he did not have any underlying medical issues except being very cold and extremely exhausted I told him we did not have far to go. I went on to say that it would be best if he just slowly kept walking out. I told him that it was only about a mile and that even with walking very slowly we would make it out fairly quickly and walking would keep him warmer. He was so exhausted he had lost some coordination. He was stumbling a little and could not move very fast. Other than that he seemed to be doing fine. A lot of what he was dealing with was his own mortal fear. In his mind he was horrified at the thought that he might not make it out and die in the snow filled woods. As we slowly headed down the trail his panic subsided and he turned out to be good conversationalist and a pleasant hiking companion. It took us about thirty or forty minutes to amble/shuffle out at 22:00. His friends had their vehicle all warmed up for his arrival. I knew they were all going to be fine when the conversation turned to them asking where they could find the nearest open food establishment. I got the sense that the fellow I walked out was about to give me a great big hug but my New England roots deflected that into a good firm handshake. If I had been feeling impish I am sure I could have gotten him to promise me that he would name his first born kid after me. I know that he thinks he owes me some huge amount of thanks but he really does not. Being able to help folks in need while on Old Rag is one of the most selfish, gratifying and meaningful things that I do.
Note: The stars and moon were gorgeous on this relatively warm evening. These young men had placed themselves at the edge of their abilities with probably too little safety reserve. A cascade of unlucky events would have placed them into a really bad circumstance. As it turned out it was only a very scary and tiring experience for them. Hopefully the day's adventure has made them a little wiser and better people for it.
Outward Bound Another Story Of My Life
Outward Bound History
During World War II when German U boats were sinking merchant ships in the North Sea the survival statistics of merchant marines forced off their sinking ships showed an interesting aberration. The older physically less hearty seamen were surviving at higher rates than the young seamen. When interviews were done it was found that many of the young men were paralyzed by fear or gave up. They became mentally overwhelmed by the unfamiliarity and difficulty of their situation. Further interviews with the survivors found that the older men said that they were sure that having experienced and survived difficult times earlier in their merchant marine lives had given them the confidence to stay calm and persist. A program was established to expose young merchant marines to survival tests in the harsh and tumultuous North Sea. These tests were designed to be as close to the reality of being shipwrecked in the North Sea as safety would permit. They were meant to provide the young merchant marines with experience based knowledge, skills, and the mental fortitude to survive in the event they were on a ship that was actually sunk. The survival rates for those who had attended the course went up dramatically. This program was so successful that after the war it was decided it merited continuation. This was the beginning of what evolved into today's Outward Bound program.
Some Background On My Dad And Why I Went To Outward Bound
My farther whom I love dearly, is a very conservative taciturn old New England type. To outsiders he would seemed dispassionate but given some time to get to know him you realize he has a huge heart. He believed that young men needed to be challenged and kept busy. That without positive challenges young men with too much idle time were not developing to their full potential and or worse might get into trouble. During the late spring of my seventeenth year my Dad told me that through a business associate he could arrange for a summer stevedore's job on the New York City docks along with a living situation with a trustworthy family whose members also worked on the docks. I was actually pretty excited about this idea but before the final arrangements could be made my Dad brought home an Outward Bound brochure and asked me to take a look at it and tell him what I thought. Once I read it I desperately wanted to go to Outward Bound Hurricane Island even though it would mean missing my summer on the docks as well as needing to finish off the last part of my summer doing typical local summer youth jobs (house painting, landscaping, farm handing).
With my Dad, not being actively busy either with a constructive learning experience or working was NOT an option. From the time I was around ten my Dad's clearly expressed and religiously followed rule was that I either had to take the initiative and have a plan in which I was fully engaged in a constructive learning experience or working or he would come up with a plan for me. His plan would always make sure that I had a good eight hours of healthy physical labor to keep me busy each day. Since my family was gutting and remodeling an old farm house and we also owned forty acres of land, my Dad always had a very long list of projects to be done. If nothing else, in honor of Robert Frost's Mending Wall poem, he could set me about to building a stone wall perimeter for our property. The good news was that his projects were never just make work jobs. That said, I am sure that many of the items on my father's list would never have been conceived without the potential availability of my labors. In the rare situations I did not fill my schedule on my own initiative, my father's tasks always left me with a sense of pride and accomplishment after I finished them. To this day much of my handiwork still surrounds my every step or field of vision when I return home for a visit.
For example, I love to walk among a grove of what are now forty foot pine trees that I planted as eighteen inch seedlings at the age of twelve. I think back to the cold spring day when I worked for several hours planting several hundred pine seedlings. I would swing the grub hoe into the ground and rotate and pull up a clump of sod still hinged to the earth on one side. With one hand remaining on the grub hoe I would hold the sod clump in the air while with the other hand I would grab a seedling out of bucket full of seedlings at the side of my leg and whip its roots down into the hole behind the clump of sod. After the seedling's roots had been whipped down into the hole I would extract the grub hoe in a way that it let the hinged piece of sod rotate back into its hole. Stepping down on the sod would compress it fully back into its hole with the seedlings roots buried deep down in the ground. I would then step forward grub hoe in one hand and bucket of seedlings in the other and repeat the process over and over for a couple hundred times on that chilly, damp and overcast early spring day. What a marvel that such puny scrawny seedlings so crudely planted would grow up to be such large, strong and majestic trees for me to wander among. Parents, teachers, coaches and other folks that work with young people have a metaphorically similar opportunity with young people.
Reputable Outdoor Adventure Programs Like Outward Bound
As it turned out I went to Outward Bound Hurricane Island that summer. I will always remember this month as one of the most rewarding, formative, and influential months of my life. Ever since that time I have been a huge fan of outdoor adventure being used as a mechanism to develop young people. Properly handled, outdoor adventures can remain relatively safe while placing young individuals in situations that are mentally and physically challenging. Ropes courses, rock climbing, sailing in a pulling boat on the open seas, initiative tests, community service, short inspirational readings each day and wilderness solos, all present great character building experiences.
The following is an exerpt from:
Hurricane Island 30: New Tool for a Timeless Program
Outward Bound launches designer Rodger Martin’s new take on the program’s wooden pulling boats.
"Shipyard News" from our October 5, 2007, CW ReckoningsOct 2, 2007 By Steve Callahan
"Kurt Hahn, the inspirational father of Outward Bound, points out that many intelligent, knowledgeable people have been among the world's most heinous characters. Knowledge was but a derivative goal of Hahn's educational approach. Building character that balances self-reliance with compassion is far more important, and character can be fostered through the physical challenges of an expedition, especially one shared. Like Victor Frankl, Holocaust survivor, Hahn understood that people's inherent need for meaning surpasses their need for entertainment, and that, ironically, meaning can more easily be found through wilderness adventures, where one is challenged and even suffers. "
If your child (or even an adult) ever show an interest in a reputable program similar to Outward Bound then encourage them in every way you can.


  1. Six of us (3 male and 3 female, ages from mid twenties to late fifties) hiked the circuit on Sunday Feb 21 in seven hours with microspikes. Most of the trail was well packed. The men would occasionally posthole, primarily on the way down from the summit to the fireroad. The rock scramble actually seemed easier in many places due to the presence of the snow and how it filled in a number of the crevices providing additional steps. All in all, a great hike.

  2. Bob Thanks for the Mtn Update and for staying to help the late arrivals...

  3. Bob - planning to do Old Rag this weekend, do you think it's possible to go without spikes or crampons yet?

  4. Michael,

    I have seen folks do it without traction assists even when it was all icy and they probably really needed them. With my ice assitance I am cruzing by them without even thinking about my footplacements while they are gingerly taking steps and falling down bruising themselves every once in awhile. Worse their chance of getting an injury hampering or preventing movement goes way up during weather conditions that will make this very uncomfortable if not life threatening.

    Ice and snow conditions can change day to day so it is hard to give you advice but here goes.

    Last week the biggest problem was dealing with snow. The trails where getting fairly packed so any postholing was getting greatly diminished. The bottom of the packed snow treads were slightly icy but leaned more towards small diameter corn snow than ice. This was slippery but the snow gave enough to provide a little bit of traction even without any kind of spikes. As the snow melts over the next several weeks a lot of it will convert to ICE. This is when ice traction devices become really useful. Even when you can get by without any kind of micro ice assistance your trip will be much more pleasent and safer and you will be able to walk faster with some type of ice assistance in these conditions. I recommend you get some kind of micro traction device. I like my Kathoola micro spikes but YakTrax Stabilizers and other types of products will work. If you like to hike during the winter months you will get lots of use out of these. Crampons would be an overkill and get in the way a little in my opinion. If crampons are all you have available I would throw them in your car and make the decision at the trail head.

  5. All I think I was not being cautious enough in my warnings about slippery conditions. One of the injuries that can easily happen in slippery conditions is that your feet slip out from under you such that you suddenly fall backwards. Even on level ground you can get into a situation where the momentum to your head builds up to such a speed that you can easily get a serious potentially life threatening concussion. On hiking trails with lots of rocks sticking up out off the ground the chance that a rapid slip on ice will result in your cracking your noggin goes way up. I played a lot of hockey in my youth and I had a friend who while agressively skating backward hit an air pocket in some outdoor ice. Even with a helmet he ended up in the hospital with a sever concussion. He started out with complete amnesia but eventually he ended up okay although he never regained his memories of the days just before the accident.

    Please try to be extra risk adverse and safe.