VAís Triple Crown: A Walk in the Clouds
Vince and I embarked on this adventure to see some of Virginiaís best views early on Saturday morning, under an inauspicious forecast. After some snack stops and traffic, we finally hit the trail a bit before 11 am. Then we found ourselves strangely back in the parking lot 45 minutes later. Having accidentally followed the ridge and gotten off of the AT, we hiked up a ridge, then intersected the AT as it zig-zagged across the ridge, and had more or less continued straight onto the AT, until it hair-pinned back the other wayÖ Warning signs were going off in my head and everything seemed wrong, but we were on the trail, and stuck in the clouds with maybe 60-100 ft of visibility at most.
Starting over again, we followed the blazes rather than the ridge-line and made good time on our way along the ridge, over many ladders crossing barbed wire, and through a few open grazing fields before reaching the base of the climb up to Dragonís Tooth. The climb up the tooth was slow and a bit treacherous, with all of the steep rocky terrain wet from cloud condensation. Eventually, we made it up to Dragonís tooth, to see the weird, but cool rock formations at the top, but no views at all. We could barely see the base of the cliff to the south. So much for greatest views in VA. We slowly picked our way back down the treacherous terrain, eventually realizing we had made a wrong turn (again!!) in the fog, continuing straight down a steep gully following a path tread by many mistaken hikers before us. Correcting for our mistake, we eventually made it down the hill, and took a break for food and re-evaluation. It would be dark shortly, and our intended campsite was about 5 miles away, mostly uphill along the North Mountain ridge.
We decided to give it a go, and after reaching the Dragonís Tooth parking lot, and fighting through brambles in the dark, we filled all of our water bottles for the next 15 miles, and started off along the road to find the Great North Mountain trail head. Thanks to a well-placed reflector among 4-foot weeds, we spotted the trail, and got moving up the hill. Footing was slippery in the wet, the temperature was dropping, and my headlamp batteries failing. Speaking of headlamps, in dense fog/clouds, they are really annoying, reflecting light off all of the water droplets directly in front of you, more or less blinding you and making seeing anything on the ground very difficult.
It became clear soon that as our pace diminished, it would be unreasonable to push for the good camp spot MikeVW used in the past, and we should find the best and soonest spot, and pitch there. Unsure of the sharpness of the ridge, we opted for a leveling before really hitting the top of the ridge line, and set up our shelters, made some food, and had a sip or two of whiskey. The temperatures seemed to hold in the high 40s or even low 50s thanks to the clouds, so we stayed up and chatted while trees dripped around us, and moonlight gently illuminated the cloud surrounding us.
We awoke a bit before dawn, and after a hot breakfast (and almost intolerably bad instant coffee for me), we were off on what was now a 25 mi day. We made good time along the ridge, and made it down into the valley and below the clouds for a nice lunch by a stream where we filled water for the remaining 15 miles. Passing day-hikers warned us of a bridge out ahead, but the stream crossing turned out to be cake, and neither of us even really got wet feet crossing. We attacked the next hill up to Tinker Cliffs slowly; I tried to give Vince some tips on how to efficiently walk up hills, but hauling a 30 lb pack up is tiring regardless. This really made me appreciate what Iíve learned from DCUL about lightening my load. Lighten up! Eventually, we made the cliffs, and what a spectacular view we found! We could just barely make out the first line of trees below the cliffs. Nevertheless the cliffs are a neat thing - they stretch for quite a ways, as the AT follows right along their edge. Iím sure on a clear day the views would be good, and the occasional sensation of exposure as the trail nears the precipice might elevate the heart rate of a few boy scouts.
Based on our timing at the cliffs, I knew we would again finish in the dark, but we kept moving anyway. As we ascended the gentle rise up to McAfee knob, we experienced our first and only 15 minutes of drizzle, which quickly subsided back to the gentle dripping of trees from the surrounding clouds. Daylight finally gave way just before we reached the peak, and we admired the cliffs and clouds at the top of McAfee knob in the dark before descending back toward the cars. On this descent I finally figured out that in the clouds/fog, itís a good idea to take your headlamp off and hold it like a flashlight, thus illuminating a patch of trail ahead without the blinding reflections so close to your eyes. I guess this is why fog lights work.
We gently picked our way back along the ridge, following the AT back to the McAfee parking lot. Finally, we made the car, and drove into Roanoke for celebratory Mexican food (and a Dos Equis for me - I donít always eat Mexican after a hike, but when I do, I drink a Dos Equis too). The long drive back home went smoothly, and before I managed to get sleepy, we were back at the Park & Ride in Gaithersburg. This trip probably should have been VMO, considering the short days and pace we needed to keep. That said, Vince pulled through admirably, a newly instated Veteran Member, forged in the fires of an unrelenting Beast Mode trip in the clouds.