No Alp, but No Joke, Either
When you live in the Southeast and your closest mountain playground is the Blue Ridge, winter mountaineering, when it’s possible it all, usually means using trekking poles as you hike along a hard-packed trail through the woods to some open rock outcrop. It’s not the stuff of epic forays into the harshest of conditions with the threat of avalanches, unstable cornices, and steep, icy slopes. In fact, it’s downright tame. Pretty, but tame. Sure, the unprepared can easily pay dearly and the unexpected can get anybody, but we’re still not looking at anything truly alpine or even close to what our neighbors up in New England get.
There are, fortunately, a few Southeastern mountains that can be exceptions and which can provide a sense of adventure and challenge that, while still not much at all like a winter climb of a Cascade volcano, nevertheless leave one feeling that he did a little more than hike through some crunchy snow. With all the exposed rock along its best route, Old Rag is one of them. And just a few days ago, on my daughter’s first birthday, I finally acted on a desire I’d nursed for over ten years: to do a winter climb of Old Rag under true winter conditions, meaning with snow and ice.
Old Rag’s trail system sees more than 100,000 people a year, and as the mountain has become increasingly popular due to word of mouth and the burgeoning population of the nearby Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, people like me who seek solitude in the mountains just as much as they do beauty and adventure have stayed away from the mountain. My last climb of it before the one this trip report covers was in March of 1997. It has gotten to the point where bad-weather conditions and winter weekdays are about the only times to visit the mountain without the crowds.
My recent adoption and reworking of the abandoned Old Rag page, the interest in adding photos and sections about the climbing areas on the mountain, and a blast of cold air and snow all got me off my butt, into the car, and out to the mountain. I drove out after the NFC Championship Game ended and spent a cold but enjoyable night in my Xterra, watching a movie on my portable DVD player, drinking a few beers, and in general just relishing the mini-vacation from the kids. Dawn soon arrived, clear and bitterly cold, and it was time to meet the mountain.
Talk about being overprepared. Not knowing exactly what to expect, I hauled along my overnight backpack so I could stuff in my 0-degree mummy bag (something to allay my wife’s worries so that I’d have some kind of protection if I injured myself and had to spend several hours or a night alone on the mountain), crampons, ice axe, and a trekking pole, plus normal gear and provisions for day hiking. I never used any of that extra gear-- the crampons would have been useful in a few spots, but those spots were too short to be worth going through the hassle of continuously putting the crampons on and taking them off again-- and that large, heavy pack was a real hindrance when going through some of the tight and scrambling sections on the route, but on balance I guess it was smart to have all that gear considering I was alone in freezing weather and a father of two young children whose mother would be a little pissed to find herself a widow right now.
There isn’t some great story to tell here; I made the summit, checked out the access points to some of the climbing areas, took some interesting pictures of snow-adorned boulders and other objects, and didn’t hurt myself. But I did learn two important things:
• Old Rag, despite its familiarity and popularity, is still a great mountain, arguably the best in all the Blue Ridge, and I was wrong to boycott it for so long. I look forward to getting back, especially when the access routes to the climbing areas are snow-free and I can travel them safely.
• Old Rag is no joke in the winter and deserves respect. The trail itself, both in the woods and out, was often icy and became downright dangerous in a few of the steeper stretches. The scrambling sections, which are mostly Class 3 although a few feel closer to Class 4 but without the exposure often associated with Class 4 terrain, were sometimes tricky to get through due to snow and ice on and around the rocks. Even when my boots were on bare, dry granite, I was slipping due to the wetness on the soles from the snow I’d been hiking through. What in summer is a fun exercise in rock-hopping in winter becomes an endeavor that merits serious attention. It would be very easy to get badly hurt or killed, especially when the route skirts the edge of long cliffs where snow and ice are underfoot.
Conclusion: Old Rag in winter resembles a Canadian Rockies test piece about as much as a purring housecat resembles an angry cougar, but anyone who’s ever stroked a housecat too long or in the wrong spot knows what happens when claws meet skin-- you bleed.