Massanutten 71-miler Death March: Blow-by-Blow: Trip Report

Posted by Michael Martin on

So much to write. As I was riding the bus into the city this morning, the sun hidden, wet snow blanketing the ground, all the sunshine and beauty of this weekend really did seem like an hallucination. Did we really do all that over the past weekend? Let me see if I can get it all down.

When all was said and done, we had a group of nine appear at the Signal Knob parking lot. There was me, Max, Andrew, Bryan, Dan, Shelby, Carrie, and Jen. MikeVW had called out due to a bad back, but made a last minute decision to go ahead and try to walk the trail. It sounded a little crazy to me, but I knew he had been itching to try this trail forever, so how could I say no. We made sure we had an escape plan, and went with it.

Before we had even reached the trailhead, Shelby had gotten a trail name. Her rage and frustration at the McDonalds at Exit 6, where there was a Shamrock Shake poster but no Shamrock Shakes to be had, means that she will forever more be known as "Shamrock." This was the only moment of negativity she displayed on the trail.

The nine of us started walking at about 8pm, just after the sun had set. We had a few miscues in the dark before we really got rolling, but soon we were climbing above Elizabeth Furnace by the light of an especially full moon. Shawls Gap, Shermans Gap flew by in the dark, and soon we were on the descent to Little Crease Shelter, where we would spend the night. Most slept in the shelter, but Booty-Less and I slept in the Trailstar nearby. We were asleep by about midnight or so--late for most of us, I think.

All in all we can't complain about the weather, but it was definitely shoulder season stuff. We essentially had spring in the day and winter at night. For me, personally, I was probably too eager to go to my 3-season gear--I missed my booties, and several of us complained of being cold on that first night. That was odd as I had taken my 20* bag down to about 10* before ... I think that not having much dinner before I got into the bag meant that I slept colder.

But no matter, Friday morning we awoke early and were on the trail at dawn, climbing to the ridgeline and then walking from gap to gap southwards. Milford Gap, Indian Grave, Habron, Jacks Notch. We climbed to the summit of Kennedy and enjoyed lunch under bluebird skies. Then there was the descent to Edith Gap, and water (at last!) at Duncan Hollow. We labored a bit on the long, slow slog up the muddy grade but came over the ridge of Strickler Knob and camped a few hundred yards off the MT on the Scothorn Gap Trail. Everyone made it in by sunset, and though we were all pretty tired, we enjoyed a campfire and good company before we retired.

Saturday was the crux of the trip, however. When we awoke, MikeVW stated that his back was bothering him and that he did not think he could continue. We were all sad to see one of our number depart, but we knew that he was taking a chance with a bad back, and it was easy for him to bow out at this point. I know he'll get this trail on his next try.

Michael Martin posted on

Eight now, we descended along the creek (Big Run) to where the Massanutten Connector Trail heads south. From there, it was Waterfall Mountain (easy enough on fresh legs), the stretch of ridge to Jawbone Gap, a descent then a climb to another rocky ridgeline and 8 miles to Edinburgh Gap. We tanked up with water on this stretch. Though the day was beautiful, the low point of the trip came, for me, on the ridge leading into Edinburgh Gap. I was worried that I hadn't seen Shuttle and Booty-Less for awhile (I had made an error in that they were sharing shelters and didn't have a whole shelter between them), and the fractured ground on this section was wearing me down.

Daniel, Shamrock, B~~~, and I all reached Edinburgh Gap about the same time (Yeti and Andrew were ahead). We took a break, discussed the situation, and decided that Shamrock and I would wait till Shuttle and Booty-Less arrived, give them a shelter and discuss their plans. Dan and B~~~ walked on to Woodstock Gap. Shamrock and I drowsed in the sun. I ate some Vitamin I.

Soon enough, Booty-Less and Shuttle came strolling in. They looked fine, but Shuttle's in-grown toenail was killing her, and we decided that they would bow out. We let them have a complete shelter and Shamrock took a bivvy (three different women slept in this one bivvy this weekend). Booty-Less and Shuttle hitched back to their cars and got a hotel in Front Royal.

With that, Shamrock and I--determined to catch up to the others and finish the trail--blasted off into the sunset. The evening was perfect up on the ridgeline, the footing less treacherous, and we sped through the eight miles in fine company, chatting as we went. Some of the best miles of the trip.

When we reached Woodstock Gap, we were in for a surprise. I had been told that we could have a nice campsite at the hang gliding spot at Woodstock Gap, but when Shamrock and I pulled in, everyone was spreading their stuff out on the trail! Turns out that the hand gliding spot was not such an ideal spot, sloped and rocky. Oh well, it's a truism that, the harder you push, the worse the campsites are. We all cowboy-camped on the trail, polished off some whisky, and one of my best memories will be falling asleep peering up at the nearly full moon so bright in the sky.

For this campsite, Andrew will be known, forever more, as Hang Glider! Dan declined two trail names, "Casserole" and "HGD," for "Heavy Glass Dish," which I think is rather a pity.

As we sped north from Woodstock Gap Sunday morning, there were just the six of us. Easy miles followed. Shamrock and I averaged about 4mph for a stretch, our packs empty. Water (at last!) in Little Passage Creek. We all reached Signal Knob more or less together, and strolled down the rocky descent to the cars, reaching them at noon. Shuttle and Booty-Less (the Do-Nut Angels) were waiting for us there. Off to Jalisco's for Tex-Mex, and a quick ride home ... and a lifetime of daydreaming about this trip.

Our splits, finally, were 9.25-22-25-15, for 71 miles in about 64 hours total elapsed time. I think we were all a little banged up by the end, but it felt good to be out testing my limits again. At Jalisco's we were all discussing little variations on the route for the future. I proposed starting at the Buzzard's Rocks trailhead; someone else mentioned the S. Masanutten trail, and we quickly concluded, "Hey! Why not backpack them together?" Maybe we will. I feel certain that MikeVW, Shuttle, and Booty-Less will be chafing at the bit to complete the north section. They each hiked extremely well, and proved exemplary in bowing out in a way that helped the group. Chapeau to each of them.

Special congratulations to Shamrock, who hiked her first 20-mile day on Friday, then woke up and hiked 25 miles the next day. Every once in awhile you just get blown away by what a new person does, and this was one of those times. I don't know that Shamrock couldn't have done another lap. She is the first DC UL woman to complete this loop, and so far as we know, the first woman backpacker.

Overall, this was a great test of our backpacking skills. The trail is challenging enough, but combining it with the scarcity of water and the lack of campsites in spots really makes it a worthy rite of passage, especially at this kind of speed.

Thanks to the nine people who made this such a great weekend--you were all fantastic. And thanks, also, to Evan, who established this route for us, and set the bar so high!


MikeVW posted on

Great trip report, as always! I'm proud for hiking 36 miles in 36 hours, and I feel like I learned a few things even with having to bow out early (I'm planning on 2lbs/day for food from now on for sure!) I may have to head back there in the fall to finish off the trail, and hope we can make this trail a regular feature of DC UL!

Michael Martin posted on

I certainly plan for it to be a regular spring feature. It would be great if we could plan to do it again in the fall. Not entirely sure who will lead it: my post-book hiking plans are unclear. But I am certain we will have interest.

I kinda want to lead the combined North and South Massanutten trip. ;)

MikeVW posted on

A 100 mile adventure, just an hour from DC! I'm thinking Columbus Day weekend for the 71 mile version, and I may lead it since I won't be training for Marine Corps this fall. Will have to scout out the water situation, but it would be a beautiful time to be out along the ridges!

Michael Martin posted on

Yes, Columbus Day weekend would be a good time, most likely.

You missed out on some of the post-hike conversation. In the future, we may want to cache some. I think no one would have complained if we had had a cache at Woodstock Gap--a few cases of beer (water, too) locked in a car would have been most welcome. With a cache, several camping areas look a lot more attractive.

Max N posted on

My pics:

Brian posted on

[quote][quote]Yes, Columbus Day weekend would be a good time, most likely.

You missed out on some of the post-hike conversation. In the future, we may want to cache some. I think no one would have complained if we had had a cache at Woodstock Gap--a few cases of beer (water, too) locked in a car would have been most welcome. With a cache, several camping areas look a lot more attractive.[/quote]

The guidebook mentions quite a few places to cache water along the trail. No idea why DC UL Backpacking trips have never taken this into account when planning to do the entire circuit...[/quote]

Probably because that seems a little like cheating, and we can be elitist purists at times? Plus, since Evan's done it without caching, there's some measuring up to do. [:D]

Regardless, I think caching is a great idea. Having a car or two spaced at other than just one place on the loop could resolve a lot of other issues as well, especially if folks have to get off the trail for some reason.

Evan Mc posted on

I've never been against caching, really. The only reason I think it never came up seriously before was the amount of time it would have taken to do the staging, and this took away from the beauty of the close proximity of the Signal Knob parking lot to DC. Since so many of us were squeezing these backpacking trips in to a packed work schedule, this was a cache deal breaker for me in the planning phase.

Travis posted on

Hi Guys,

How come only 18 pictures?? I want to see some more of the fun!