Well I have been on Mount Rogers and the Lewis Fork Wilderness area numerous time before and decided to plan a trip for early January. There were four of us from God's Country Outfitters: Zach (Trail Ninja), Charlie, Josh and myself (Christian), the "GCO Boys". The last time I'd been to Mt Rogers we were turned around after the first night with terrible blizzard conditions that we were not prepared for. Needless to say we planned this trip hoping for the worst.
So we arrived at the Massie Gap parking area around 1:00 PM on Sunday, 1-07-07. Just after we left the car the rain came in. Our plan was to make the short trip up to Thomas Knob shelter just below the summit of Mt Rogers. The rain wasn't too awful but as usual when we got up onto Wilburn Ridge where there are fewer trees it became really driving. I don't think I've been into the Grayson Highlands when the wind wasn't terrible across those ridges but my trusty L.L Bean Gore-Tex jacket came through for me and kept me dry. It was still early in the day but we weren't sure we really wanted to go any further in the current conditions; i.e high winds and rain. In any case, we decided to stay at the Thomas Knob shelter in the upstairs. I must say this is one of the nicest shelters that I've seen.
We opted for the upstairs lodging where there was no wind but it was a trade-off because the rain and wind on the tin roof was really loud. The absolute worst part was that no one had thought to bring a deck of cards so we resorted to silly word games and napping throughout the rest of the afternoon. Incidentally, this made for a long, long night of tossing, turning and thinking Sasquatch(?) was trying to rip the roof off, the entire building was actually shaking from the wind. Thus went our first night on Mount Rogers.
Day 2 came none too soon as we were all pretty tired of lying in our sleeping bags waiting for dawn. We woke to a heavy dusting of sleet which, in our book, was a vast improvement over rain. So, we eagerly packed up and made our way to the summit. I must say, the hike from the A.T up to Mt Rogers is absolutely beautiful, especially with frozen precip. It is made so because the entire area around the summit is protected from camping and basically any activity aside from hiking so the forest is somewhat untouched. As always the summit of Mt Rogers is something of a let down from the awesome views along the ridges because it is surrounded by trees but it was a summit none the less.
After coming back from the summit we headed south on the A.T towards Elk Garden. As we started down the ridge the skies began to clear and we were treated to some breath taking views. Once we reached the grassy ridges leading up to Elk Garden the wind really picked up and it was a real challenge to walk in a straight line but again the views were unparalleled.
At Elk Garden we took St. Route 603 about a mile down to Grassy Branch Trail and followed it down to Grindstone Campground. This was an uneventful leg and we were treated to some wonderful streams and vistas.
We took a quick break at Grindstone and followed the Mt. Rogers Trail to what we thought was going to be another trail. Turns out the map I had was terribly inadequate and we ended up on 603 again. Fortune smiled on us though and a nice couple in a van gave us a lift down the road a couple of miles to the A.T. This was fortunate because if we had had to walk that far we would have ended up at camp after dark. From the parking area we made the short hike up to Old Orchard Shelter under crystal clear skies. This shelter has a horrible reputation for mice. In fact, I've stayed there and been entertained endlessly by the mice. However, this night yielded no mice. Perhaps it was too cold even for them.
When we woke up it was 28 deg. in the shelter according to my GPS and considering the number of frozen objects I'd say it was at least 28 degrees. After a quick breakfast and some discussion of just staying in our warm sleeping bags we headed out. The first twenty minutes went smooth enough and then it began to snow. At first we thought it was just left over snow blowing off the trees but it wasn't. The hike up the A.T was spectacular through the Balsam pines and moss covered rocks accented by the snow. At the top of Pine Mtn we turned onto the Pine Mountain Trail and really discovered how much it was snowing. On this trail we were in and out of the trees and out on the ridges the wind was ferocious and the snow was accumulating fast. As we approached Rhododendron Gap the going was getting tougher but even more wonderful. This is why we had come to Mt. Rogers after all. At Rhodo. Gap there was accumulation of about 3 or 4 inches with drifts of much more.
We turned back onto the A.T to take us back to Massie Gap and then we really got a taste of the wind and snow. As we crossed back over Wilburn Ridge it was all wind and snow, all but one water bottle was frozen between the four of us. Note: Camelbac tubes freeze fast in cold weather...duh!! We estimated that on a few of the passes the wind was a sustained 50 mph. Any exposed hair, i.e eyebrows, beards, etc. was covered in ice and all of the water that had been there from the rain was frozen. This was especially frustrating because it meant that the ice was covered in a layer of snow and concealed from view. Also, sometimes trail-finding can be a challenge in the snow because they paint blazes on rocks throughout the area. This is not always the case but something to watch out for especially if your face is turned down by the snow. By the time we reached Grayson Highlands my knees and ankles were screaming from bouncing around off rocks and trying to maintain balance on the hidden ice. Snow had also accumulated a bit more and there were some really deep drifts, near the parking lot I kept post holing up to my knees. We reached the car at about 1:30 PM and were frozen and ready for the Hardee's in Sparta. Three of us wore core layers top and bottom and Gore-Tex shells on top and various combinations of pants. While hiking this was perfect even in the wind and snow although a fleece layer would have made it better but we were just focused on hiking. Hoods are essential!!! Zach had no hood on his Apex thermal and probably could have used one, especially since his balaclava was inaccessible.
Conclusions and Gear notes
First off, this was a fabulous trip aside from the jaunts on the paved roads, so I wouldn't pick this particular route again. I love the Mount Rogers area, I've been there many times and will go back many more. The sign at the parking area warns of extreme weather changes and it is correct. Charlie had been there before and neither of us had ever been there in the winter without snow. So, if you like the challenge of winter hiking and camping in the Southeast, this is the place to go.
Second, I and my companions love snow and extreme conditions, if not it would have been terrible. Overall this was positively wonderful and the mountain threw everything it had at us; rain, sleet, snow and wind. With the proper preparation this can be a great winter experience. This was also a test run for alot of new gear so I will give a brief overview of some of the gear and it's performance.
Osprey Aether 70
: This was my first trip with this pack and it was fabulous. It wears like a little bit of heaven. With a bit more conservative packing it could hold enough for many more days.
The North Face Nebula
: This is 15 degree down sleeping bag with Hyvent shell. I never got cold and there was plenty of room for my 6'1" and clothes.
Vasque Breeze GTX
: I opted for these boots over my Alpine GTX's for this trip and could have used the Alpines but these kept my feet 100% dry the whole trip. With two pairs of socks the ole dogs didn't even get cold in the snow unless we stopped. Could have used a little better traction in the snow but they have outstanding wet traction in the rain. OR gaiters helped immensely and I never go anywhere without them.
: This cannister stove worked flawlessly even below freezing. I had never used a cannister stove and I love the simplicity; turn on and light!
MSR Pocket Rocket
: Trail Ninja carried this little blowtorch and it was amazing. Calling it a rocket is no joke
The North Face Apex Thermal Jacket
: Again Trail Ninja used this and stayed warm and dry up top.
Mountain Hardwear Canyon Pants
: Positively wonderful hiking pants. They do tend to freeze if they aren't dry when you take them off but with a pair of core pants they break the wind just enough to keep you warm in windy conditions and they dry fast when worn.
There is more but I think this will suffice for now. Thanks for reading and I hope this was informative. If you're in Albemarle, NC stop by and see us at God's Country Outfitters. Godspeed and good hiking.
I'll work on posting some pictures!