LM: W1: Trout Run Valley Circumnavigation, West Virginia, 27 mi
As sometimes happens, I needed something to do the weekend of Jan. 25th. With a week to go and without looking at the weather, I presumed it’d be fairly warm as it typically has been in mid-Atlantic January the last couple of years. I pulled out the trip I did as my first Meetup backpacking trip: Trout Run Valley Circumnavigation. Little did I know we’d have some of the coldest weather I’ve experienced around these parts, and I’d be missing some rare and spectacular mid-Atlantic ice climbing! Shucks.
I managed to convince four silly people to come with me: Chris is a DCUL veteran from the Evan era, but I hadn’t been out with him, and he was only in town by chance as he lives in Missouri (pronounced: misery) now. Hua I had hiked with before, and has been going out with various groups every weekend for probably at least a year now, and I know she’s a tough cookie. This would be Mark’s first time with the group and it sounded like he had his gear together, so I figured the four of us would dispatch this trip easily and have plenty of fire-side chat time. What could possibly go wrong?
Looking at the weather, for starters, it was going to get cold. I saw predicted lows of 10* F and 11* F Friday and Saturday with highs not quite hitting freezing. This isn’t too far from what it felt like. After some bungles meeting up, and a bite to eat in Front Royal, we headed out to Wolf Gap. Not long after arriving, Hua had a fire blazing, and we scoured the surrounding area for scant, scrappy firewood and eventually all trundled off to bed in our scattered lightweight shelters, with Hua taking the UL shelter cake: she spent the 10* F night out on the picnic table!
We rose around 07:00 and Hua already had a fire nipping at a measly bunch of twigs. Everyone survived the cold. Then breakfast brought a series of stove mishaps. My “bomber” MSR Whisperlite bombed, and failed entirely to even output fuel, much less light. Then, after getting some boiling water from Hua’s now toasty fire, Mark’s stove suddenly sprang a leak. The Snow Peak canister tipped over in flames as Mark sprang back in surprise. In a controlled panic, we managed to right the stove and get it shut off and flames extinguished before the thing exploded.
After an exciting breakfast, we finally made it onto the trail around about 08:30. The trail was covered in 6-8 inches of snow, and was pristine and unbroken. Mark told us he hadn’t slept well, and didn’t relish the thought of another night of poor sleep and would just head with us to Big Schloss, then turn back and bag Tibbet Knob before calling it a day and heading home. We took our time on the climb up to Big Schloss, and took plenty of photos as the gaps in the clouds provided nice bits of sunshine on a day when we expected snow showers. We parted ways with Mark and continued our journey along the ridge, now a merry band of only three travelers.
The temperatures kept cool and the clouds crept in, robbing us of our sunshine. Travel was a bit slow, and we only gained the intersection with the Tuscarora trail around 13:00, where we lunched and ran into two day-hikers - the only people we would encounter on the loop. One of them recognized Hua - she’s truly unforgettable.
We plodded on, as it began to dawn on me that this might be a longer day than I anticipated. After all, the loop is 28 miles, and I knew well that the walk from my intended campsite back to Wolf Gap was about 8 miles. I’m not quite sure how I counted 17 to that point. No one ever claimed physicists were good at counting.
After a brief wrong turn on Bucktail Trail, we finally reached reached Trout Run. Then began a long, slow ascent which I very vividly do not remember even a little bit from my earlier trip around this valley. The trail kept going up! Misery had taken its toll on Chris, who started to slow. I lent him my trekking poles and we forged on. A little after 17:00, he caught up to me waiting at a crook in the trail, and we parted ways, with the notion that perhaps I’d have a lovely fire for him when he next caught up. Things didn’t quite work out that way.
Hua and I kept walking, and kept walking. Several times I convinced myself that we only had about a mile to go to my intended campsite, and several-1 times I was wrong. We kept pushing on, well past dark, hoping our footprints would be unambiguous clues for Chris to follow. The blazes were scant, but finally, a little after 19:00, we made it into the large clearing where I had intended to camp. Hua’s GPS read 20 miles for the day. So much for 16-17 miles and my nominal LM rating.
The campsite has a wonderful fire ring surrounded by lovely log benches. After a few minutes of gathering, we had plenty of wood to get a great fire going. I then learned Hua’s secret to getting hopping fires going so quickly: she makes a small pile of twigs… then puts an esbit block under it! And here I thought my wax paper was sneaky. We had a roaring fire going, and I was just eating dinner when it started to snow. Not just flurry, but blast in a full-on blizzard style with gusty winds that prompted me to put on my hard shell to keep dry. For literally the first time in my life, I actually wished it would stop snowing.
By 20:40, we still hadn’t seen any sign of Chris, and I began in earnest to worry. The blizzard subsided, revealing a clear night sky, and I took off, telling Hua to come looking for me if I hadn’t returned in an hour. After my overly-long day in not-exactly-ultra-light hard plastic mountaineering boots, putting more miles in at a trot didn’t feel particularly good on my feet. I plodded through the snow, shouting Chris’s name frivolously into the wind. The newly fallen snow made it difficult to really tell how many feet had passed through our tracks. After about half a mile, I became aware of what looked like trekking pole marks! Neither Hua nor I were using poles, so this was a sure sign of Chris, right? I followed them for a while, before deciding this was kind of silly, following tracks backward, and I retraced my steps. It seemed like he made it to a creek, but then everything was so wind and snow blown that I couldn’t tell. I was tired, cold, and getting really worried. I walked back to camp, hoping somehow that he had skipped around me in the dark, and would be waiting at camp. No luck. I went to bed, and told Hua that we needed to get up earlier, and start walking back to find Chris. If he was in trouble, he’d need all the gear we could lend, and if not, hopefully we’d just run into him before we made it very far.
The night had a few really intense gusts, shaking my shelter and me awake, but by about 03:00, everything seemed to blow through, and I slept soundly in the slightly warmer-than-anticipated temperatures. It felt like about 10F when I woke up, leading me to believe that it had probably reached single digits Friday night. Dallying by another morning campfire, Hua and I broke fast and hoped Chris would show up before we managed to break camp. We started retracing our steps by 07:45, but before long, I had to reconfigure my awful boots. As I sat and adjusted, I re-imagined all of the possible bad scenarios in my head. By now it had been 15 hours since I had seen Chris, and at the mercy of my imagination, he had already experienced multiple wild-cat maulings, head traumas, broken ankles, and had fallen in each of the streams we crossed to be hopelessly wet and cold. Fortunately, before my fancy fully took flight, I managed to get back on the trail, and who did I see before me on the trail but Chris and Hua!
Chris had lost our tracks at a creek crossing, and retraced his steps for a while as he was tired and unsure of his navigation (Chris took his bearings as the trail takes an odd hop west on an otherwise southbound leg). He backtracked probably a half mile from there and set up camp - likely about 400 yards from where I finally turned around. When we regained the ‘official’ camp, we stoked Hua’s fire and let Chris have some good hot water and breakfast before finally getting back on the trail around 10:00. From there it was uneventful. The first tracks we found were a few on Tibbet Knob and on the short trail back to Wolf Gap.
All in all, it was a good trip, and everyone made it through. But this is now the third trip in a row that I’ve probably underrated. The VA Triple Crown should have been VMO due to shortness of days and length of trail, The Catoctin Trail should have been a W1: VMO, and this trip probably should have been W2: MO. So, good work everyone for pulling through without anything more damaging than a strong appetite (well, I have some lovely blisters from my lovely boots).
Saturday temperature in DC was 9F at 8 am. so I may not be wrong saying that you where sneaking around 5 on Friday night, yeap, kind of chilly but really glad that every one get out in one piece, now last thing to do is count your finger and toes just to make sure you didn't let any back there.
WOW!! Joffrey, as much as I enjoyed the hike as reading your thorough report. Thanks and Nice job!!
Actually, Joffrey, I think we should develop a special "Beast Mode" rating for you! ;)