DC UL: 5th Annual Death March / Sufferfest ... Trip Report

Posted by Michael Martin on

I have a confession to make. As this week's events drew near, I was looking ahead to them with a feeling of trepidation. First of all, I had let Beast Mode talk me into doing this ultra long 112-mile affair. I had a series of nagging little health issues, including a sore throat in the days immediately before the trip. I even skipped my photography class to get some extra sleep. I just didn't feel myself. And then there was the weather! I had envisioned ripping off the big mileage with my GG Murmur, a bivy sack, maybe the MLD monk tarp, and my WM 32* bag, much the same gear that I used on the 4-state challenge. But the weather made that plan seem foolhardy. It snowed. Wednesday night looked really cold. Then it looked like hypothermia weather on the weekend. Where was spring? I loaded up my Exodus, but true to my history, I just didn't like how it felt when it was really full (I think it's perfect for up to 84 miles). I re-packed my ULA Epic, which has been my winter pack and my pack for Sweden and Iceland. It's a great pack, but way weighty for this sort of endeavor. This is my frame of mind as I picked up Covergirl at Vienna and headed to the trailhead Wednesday afternoon.

At Signal Knob parking lot, we met Red Rocket, a recent AT thru-hiker who had decided that he would debut with DC UL on this trip. (Think that over for a minute.) We got settled and started the walk in to Little Crease Shelter, headed CW on the Massanutten Trail. It was a beautiful evening. Cold. Blustery. Snow underfoot. But bluebird skies. We were treated to a magnificent sunset on the ridgeline, then we donned headlamps for the descent to the shelter. As we neared the end of these 9 miles, we smelled woodsmoke. Savage was already there, and had built a fire. Hang Glider pulled in a few minutes later. Beast Mode and Heavy D arrived sometime after we had burrowed into our bags.

It was 10* F when we woke up at 5am! Completely ridiculous for the end of March! I know that some were cold during the night. We were moving at 6am, planning to make it to Catherine Furnace in the S. Massanutten, about 35 miles away. We ascended to the ridgeline, snow underfoot the entire time and plowed our way along, reaching Kennedy Peak around 11-ish. The snow vanished at Edith Gap.

Somehow, Beast Mode, Red Rocket, Hang Glider, and I lost virtually all contact with Savage, Heavy D, and Covergirl. We were a little perplexed: we knew they'd be okay. I figured they would realize their pace wouldn't get them all the way south, and would pull up and join the main group. I felt bad about how this happened, as I probably should have encouraged Covergirl and Savage to do the "classic" 71-mile loop first. I'll let them tell their story.

Duncan Hollow followed. Wet and soggy. A skunk barred my passage, and the little fellow seemed more inclined to fight me than run off. I managed to get around him without being sprayed, and the four remaining sufferfesters gathered at the base of Waterfall around 3-ish, then at 211 around 4:30pm. We had some navigational issues, but were soon in the S. Massanutten, climbing Brown Hollow as the twilight came on.

I pulled us up short of Catherine Furnace, at exactly 30 miles for the day. The others were still fresh enough, but we were tired, and I didn't want us to dig so deep that it impaired our ability to finish the trip (I was also determined to get us back to Waterfall Friday night, as I did have a group I was worried about). We grabbed the last campsite before the climb to the Roaring Run trail.

Friday morning. Up at 5am. Trail 6am. We struck camp in the cold rain, climbed a dispiriting grade that seemed to go on forever (one of my low moments), then perked up as dawn came. We passed Catherine Furnace, and walked south on Cub Run Road. I re-lived our trip to the S. Massanutten in February 2012 with Evan. We discussed where we should turn north, as there were a few options. We knew we wouldn't get the full 112 miles, but thought we could get the second 30 mile day by turning at Morgans Hollow. I admit that the possibility of stopping in at Sonny's for a beer did factor into this decision.

So, we climbed Morgan's Hollow--a beautiful wet walk, a bit like Little Devils Stairs--then turned north on the S. Massanutten Trail. After noon, we took a break at the knob above New Market Gap, which is beautiful spot. It was here that I discovered that the "footsoreness" I was feeling was really two nasty blood blisters, in exactly the same spot on each foot. I suppose my Cascadias were breaking down. Leukotape and vitamin I kept me walking. We descended to 211 ... But Sonny's had closed for good! And Dan's didn't open till 4pm! So, instead of beers, we got ... a face full of traffic. Morale was at all time low, as we turned north on the Massanutten Connector Trail. Our pace, which was fast enough for a 30-mile day, dropped. We were going to run out of trail anyway.

We tanked up, climbed Waterfall, and reached the campsites up high well in advance of the main group. That was about 25 miles for the day. Beast Mode took care of everybody, building a fire and scoping out sites. Beaver Slayer, walking his own splits, came in first. I got reception and touched bases with Shuttle. We figured out what had happened to Covergirl, Heavy D, and Savage. Soon, the main group trickled in. The Look, Eeyore, Hans, MacGyver, UPS, C Backwards, Shuttle, B~~~, Karan, Miles. Sherpa had cracked a molar and decided to bow out, so he slept at the base of Waterfall.

Michael Martin posted on

At this point, Karan revealed that, as a feat of strength in high DC UL-style, he had carried 18 cans of beer about 35 miles along the MT! Morale lifted. From this point forward, Karan will be known as B.A. for "Beer Angel" or "Bad Ass." And anyone repeating his accomlpishment will receive the tag "B-# of beers [in Roman numerals]" for a feat of strength. A merry campfire followed, with Miles and I doing a dramatic re-telling of the BATONA epic. This was truly a wonderful gathering of UL backpackers.

Saturday morning, we were all up and moving north at 7am. Jawbone Gap, Edinburgh Gap passed by quickly. Beaver Slayer bowed out with an injury, and hitch-hiked home. A heavy drenching rain started and the stretch to Woodstock Gap--so glorious last year--was tedious and wet. I was sweeping with Miles, Shuttle, and UPS. We finally turned into the Little Fort Recreation Area, completely soaked. Dave Shook, Priya, Sophie, and Annie were there. A canopy, some hot food, and a beer or two enlivened the mood some, but it was a miserable, wet camp. Someone said it would be dry tomorrow.

Someone was wrong. The last few miles passed in rain at first, then snow. Dave and the others went with us (they were fast!). We summitted Signal Knob in a blowing snowstorm. Someone said it looked like we were on the Matterhorn. We descended the rocky path and the weather turned to rain as we reached the parking lot.

But the mood at Jalisco's was celebratory. Of the 12 who started the 71-mile loop, 10 finished, a record. Of the 7 who started the Sufferfest, 4 finished. Though we didn't do exactly what we had planned, the 101-mile loop was still a great accomplishment. Splits for the Death Marchers were about 9-25-24-15 (73 is right, I think, as we walked extra at Little Fort). Splits for the Sufferfesters were 9-30-24-24-15, or so. I'll check all that with the GPS data, but that's the drift. We had some of the most mutable weather I have ever seen in VA. The five who bowed out did so in perfect form, which is a real honor. I'm sure they'll be back.

Chapeau to everyone! This is a great event and tradition, and a real test of fitness and backpacking skill in our style!

You guys feel free to add your own stories!


Will posted on

Well done! You are all tough mothers. Karan slogged it out with a case of beer?! Damn! And even more snow!

To fill in some of the story for Thursday - after leaving Little Crease Shelter on the heals of U-Turn, Beast Mode and Red Rocket, I gradually fell behind on the climb. I was definitely sluggish from my second night in a row sans quality sleep, but wasn't terribly worried. I stopped after an hour for a snack to boost my energy, which is where Hanglider passed me. I stopped again around 11 concerned that Alison and Dan hadn't caught me up. I know they hadn't slept well either, so I took a good 30 minute brunch to wait. But eventually I started to cool off too much, and blazed ahead. Finally starting to feel better, and picked up the pace. After meeting up with Joffrey and Jason, it was good to hear I wasn't more than a few minutes behind everyone else. They continued on, I sat down for another food break and to wait for the others to catch up.

When they did, I learned Heavy D wasn't feeling so hot - but he was plugging along and I didn't think anything of it. Covergirl was tired, but hanging tough. The three of us carried on, more or less hiking together for the next 15 miles. Somewhere in here my nagging hip injury woke up.

Just shy of mile 30, we were really crawling. Dan confessed he was more or less totaled. We knew it would be midnight at our current pace to get to Cat Furnace. So we made dinner at a picnic area. Dan and I collapsed on picnic tables while Alison setup her tent nearby. (It would be heartbreaking to learn everyone else was less than a mile ahead of us).

In the morning , the indestructible Heavy D decided he would need to bow out. Alison had had enough too. Our heavy loads had really slayed us. I felt a lot better after a solid nights sleep, but decided to get them both home since my hip was popping like an 80 year old's.

We walked the mile down 211 where we had spied Mile's evac vehicle, and did a quick shuttle run to retrieve my car (Thanks Miles!!). We enjoyed a hearty breakfast at Uncle Buck's in Luray, tired, but in good spirits.

In retrospect, I wished I had continued since I really, REALLY hate quitting! But it didn't feel right ditching Heavy D and Covergirl, and I was glad to hang with them. We were extremely saddened to miss the reunion atop Waterfall.

Michael Martin posted on

You three did well. Sometimes, it just doesn't happen, and trying for those big days in winter conditions is a bit much.

I'd really like to see, on a map, where you camped. I am still a little confused on that topic.


Will posted on

Basically, on Sonny's doorstep! I'll try to pinpoint it on the map.

Michael Martin posted on

It's weird that I don't know where that picnic area is. We were a few miles in, up Brown Hollow.

Another point I wanted to make.

It's a note of our success that the 71-mile loop, which I think seemed very extreme and radical when Evan first walked it (I know back then I was thinking, "Wow!"), now, while certainly not easy, is attainable by backpackers who have come up in our style for just a few months. It's a challenge, but certainly do-able.

For future years, we're going to use the following nomenclature:

* Massanutten Classic: the 71-mile loop in three days, plus an evening, either CCW or CW.

* The Death March: the 71-mile loop in two days, plus an evening, either CCW or CW.

* The Sufferfest: any variant adding miles south of 211.

Jen posted on

Just to add the report from the 71 milers....

Massanutten – to paraphrase Eeyore’s comment – makes you earn the 71 miles. We started with sunny skies and ended with snow, wandered through fog, and had periods of rain. Everyone ended with smiles on their faces.

In a stroke of great timing, all of those who opted to head out early wound up arriving at the same time. A minivan let us know that Mike K. was ahead of us on the trail, and our crew (John, Mimi, Miles, Mike VW, Sharon, and I) got on our way just after 4 p.m. Having done this stretch last year in the dark, getting to see the views and sunset from the top of the first ridgeline was a welcome treat. Spirits were high at Little Crease as we settled in for the night, and the second half of our group (Brian, Karan, Hans, Upasana, and Darwin) arrived just before midnight.

Saturday morning, we established the plan – head to Waterfall Mountain and stop. It was a loose plan, and I cautioned everyone about the miserable camping conditions that were likely in store for us that night: No fire! Sleeping on the trail! And then we were off. People fell into their particular hiking rhythms, making their way along the rolling ridge that marks the first day. While it started out in fog, it wound up being a rather nice day for hiking.

The climb up Waterfall Mountain is an especially grueling one but we were well rewarded for our efforts – not only did the first group find a nice camping spot, they had a fire going. Oh – and Karan had carried 18 beers for the group. Yes. That’s at least 4.5 pounds of delicious beer that he carried for us. That night around the campfire – as you see from Michael’s description – was one of the nicest ones I’ve had in a long time.

Saturday is where Massanutten made me earn it. I had bailed last year at Edinburg Gap, and I was delighted to pass that mark this year. I was feeling great as I strolled past the gap and started the next climb, but it quickly wore on me. Only six miles left to camp, though, I thought. I can do six miles more. And I did, but they were slow miles in fog and rain. A huge thanks to Michael, Miles, and Upasana for keeping me in sight. I was happy to see Woodstock Tower, and even happier to see a huge bowl of a vegetable stew handed to me (thanks to Dave Shook and his fellow campers) as I sat down at the campsite. I polished that off, headed to the shelter, and then polished off the second half of dinner. With a full belly, I was cozy in my sleeping bag and settled in for the night.

Just 14 or so miles were between us and the end of Massanutten. The day started off nicely – another great ridge walk with nice views, and a pleasant stretch (seriously) on the fire road up to Signal Knob. It was snowing lightly as we made that final climb. I sent Upasana and Michael ahead since I wanted to take my time on the last rocky stretch – and then the snow started to fall faster and the wind began to whip past me. Somehow the forecast had turned from 50s and sunny to near-blizzard conditions (okay – a bit of an exaggeration but that’s what it felt like at ~68 miles). I just kept moving – albeit at a snail’s pace – and Mimi, Miles, and Brian quickly caught up to me.

I’m familiar with this stretch of trail, and when I saw the culvert, a slight smile crossed my face. I was dead last, my feet were throbbing, and my calves were aching. But I was about to finish Massanutten. That felt good.

To echo Michael, kudos to everyone who signed up for the trip. This is not an easy trail – it’s definitely tested me in a multitude ways – but we had quite an impressive group of backpackers on it this weekend. It's a good tradition for us, and I’m looking forward to seeing who tackles it next year.

Miles posted on

B.A. carried about 14.5 pounds of beers! (12 fl oz * 18 = 216 fl oz * 1.0425 oz/fl oz = 225.18 oz / 16 oz/pound ~= 14 pounds of beer. 18 cans * 0.5 oz/can = 9oz ~= 0.5 pounds of cans.)

Karan posted on

Didn't weigh it, but sounds about right..

Michael Martin posted on

Ack .... Math!