Monday, February 15, 2010

Sunday, February 14, 2010
Note1: Not the 10 to 15 feet some would consider deep but deep for Virginia.

Note2: Out of prudent safety concerns, the organizations I volunteer for have suspended my volunteer activities on Old Rag until conditions improve.

Until it is prudent for volunteer activities to resume, I may still be recreating on Old Rag on some days but I will not be patrolling. If you are going to be on Old Rag in these conditions assume that you will need to self-rescue if you get hurt. This does not mean that I or others will not help, just that it is best to plan for the possibility that there will be no help available.

From Peola Mills Road
If you might be someone looking for low angle rocks to practice third or fourth class slide climbing than comparing snow pictures with non-snow pictures may help.

Pictures show higher resolution if clicked on.

From Nethers Road

Contact Station In Snow

In the next picture notice that you can not get into the parking lot unless you want to shovel for a couple hours. Assume that you may need to shovel out the door of a porta pottie if you want to use it. The doors are fragile so do not try to force them to clear the snow but rather make sure you shovel enough so the door can swing freely.

The upper lot was plowed but only had room for around six cars. I helped chip ice off the road in order to create tire tracks so that a car in front of me could get up to the upper lot. The road had one lane plowed but the packed snow and ice from snow melt was causing their wheels to spin uselessly until we chipped tire tracks through the ice to the pavement. I also ended up helping another party shovel out a parking space so they would not be blocking anyone in. If you have a squared off steel spade, snow shovel or ice chipper it is good to bring them along as a precaution.

I included the next shot just because of the Westover Snowshoes. Forty years ago these snowshoes were considered the state-of-the-art for the eastern mountains but there are much better ones available today.

There were numerous blow downs across the trail. The next picture shows one of the largest ones.

The next image gives you a sense of the trail conditions low on the Ridge Trail. The higher you got on the mountain the less beaten down the trail was. Most folks were going up the Ridge Trail than turning around at some point and doing an out and back. Very few were doing the whole circuit. I heard that it looked like there were only two sets of foot steps seen on the Saddle Trail as of 2/14/2010. It would be my guess that around a quarter of the hikers where not even making it to the first false summit on the Ridge Trail, half of the hikers were doing up and backs to the first false summit, around a quarter were doing up and backs to the summit, and less than ten percent were doing the circuit on this day. Based on reports from a group I met that had done the circuit by going up the Ridge Trail and coming down the Saddle Trail and fire roads it appeared that there were only a couple of sets of tracks all going down on the Saddle Trail as of 2/14/2010.
I spent most my time widening and flattening out the Ridge Trail with my snowshoes. The work I did should help both future snowshoers and also those with regular footwear. I only groomed trail up to the No Camping Sign on the Ridge Trail and back.
Notice that the poles in the next picture are in about 24 inches of snow. The bottom of the beaten foot trail was about 10 to 14 inches below the snow surface and probably was 6 to 10 inches above the ground. About every 30 steps I would see a deeper footprint that plunged downward 20 to 24 inches.

A couple hikers low on the Ridge Trail going up. They did an up and back to the first false summit.

A couple hikers coming down in the middle of the switch backs. They had done an up and back to the summit.

A picture from my day's highpoint the near the No Camping Sign on the Ridge Trail.

Because I was spending a lot of time trying to groom the trail with my snow shoes I did not get out until around 20:00. I had met a couple of day hikers in the upper lot around 12:00 who told me they planned on doing the circuit as they headed up the Ridge Trail. Their car was still in the lot when I got out so I waited until they made it out around 21:00. They said that coming down the Saddle Trail had been very difficult. They estimated that they were only the second party to wade down through the snow on the Saddle Trail. They reported that there were some big drifts on it.
If you are post holing up past your knees or your waist, expect to measure your progress in hours per mile not miles per hour.
Plan Ahead, Research, Practice, Make Mistakes, Research Some More, Buy New Equipment, Repeat
Please be extra cautious. At least put yourself through a mental simulation of what you would do if you became non-ambulatory and had to survive in place for 12-24 hours. Then the next time you take a long break and start to chill down in cold windy conditions think through your mental survival simulation again and ask yourself if your plans are adequate.
There is lots of cold weather survival reading material to help with your research.
If you are not in a rush think about practicing your snow shelter building skills. For example try making a snow trench shelter. Snow is a fun and fascinating medium to work with. Snow from the same storm but found in different locations will behave very differently. Some snow is great for making trench shelters and some is hopeless. Experimenting is the best way to learn. Better to practice in your back yard or on a friendly day hike then to try it for the first time when it is critical that you have perfected this skill. In the right conditions I greatly prefer using a snow shelter over a tent. Try using a snow saw which are not very heavy or expensive.
If you have not packed the proper emergency equipment or mentally prepared yourself then hypothermia and frostbite are serious risks. In the event SAR folks are responding by foot they will be slowed by the conditions. There are going to be far fewer fellow hikers that might happen by who can help than in warm weather. Cell phone reception is sporadic at best. There is an emergency phone located on the outside of the Old Rag Contact Station. Ground based SAR responders might take as long as 10 hours to get to the summit of Old Rag from the time they are contacted. They will get there as fast as is safe for them to make it and may make it in less than 10 hours but I would not plan on it. If you decide to go on a trip during a blizzard assume responders may not be able to even get to the parking lot until either the storm blows over or they can arrange for a snowplow escort. In critical situations there may be a helicopter available but weather or maintenance can often prevent their use.


  1. Hey, are those YOUR westovers?? Thanks for the link to the old newspaper article, I learned something.

  2. Yes those are my Westovers. Last time I had occasion to use them was around thirty years ago. The neoprene webbing was is as good as new. The buckles were a little rusty but fine and the frame seems as strong as ever, knock on wood. All that said if I thought I would be doing a lot of snowshoeing I would probably be experimenting with the newer products especially for use on steep mountain trails.

  3. I just did overall run on sunday with two guys with snowshoes and I was wearing microspikes. We went all the way up to the top and then turned around and came back down. Luckily a group went up the day before a broke the trail. It was hard but doable. It took about 4 1/2 hours. Was thinking about doing old rag this Sunday. You post scared me a little. Do you know if anyone has done the whole loop yet up there in this snow?

  4. As of 2/14/2010 there were a number of parties who had gone up Ridger Trail to the No Camping sign and back down. There were a few more that had gone to the first false summit and back down. My guess is there may have been up to 10 people who had gone up the Ridge Trail and back down and perhaps four who had done the circuit. With each party the trail gets easier. If the first false summit was the end of the trail it would still be one of the park's favorite hikes. Depending on who is doing it K2 could be called hard but doable. I would guess that your experience with snow conditions on Overall Run is a good indication of what the Old Rag trail is like. As I moved up the trail I made a point of maximizing my grooming effect so at least to the No-Camping sign the trail would qualify as broken and partially packed. Conditions in winter change very quickly so I expect the trail to be much better for those using it next weekend but not something you can do in flip flops like a lot of the summer hikers do.