When the number of people stayed at 2 a week before the trip, I had to consider cancelling the trip. After shooting an email to Jeff, I heard back that he was a definite in. We exchanged a few emails regarding gear list - I was then comfortable that we could do the trip. What did the weather forecasts say you ask? Oh, just high of 14 degrees, low of 2 degrees on Sunday. Accompanied with a Wind Chill advisory for Sunday - predicting steady winds of 20 mph all day, gusts up to 40 mph. And there was a 50% chance of snow Saturday evening. This is how things looked like before the trip.
Friday night, Jeff and I met en route, then left my car at the parking lot next to where AT crosses Tye River. Mine was the only car in the parking lot. We got into Jeff's car and drove to the trailhead - again where his was the only car. Gathering all our gear, we stepped on the white blazes going northbound. The sky was crystal clear - the stars shining brightly. Temps were around upper teens - it was not bad. As I had anticipated, there was no snow on the trail. The 2 mile walk to John's Hollow Shelter went pretty smooth and soon we rolled into our sleeping bags for the night.
The next morning we were on the trail at 7:30. It was cloudy and would remain so pretty much the whole day. The trail rose up to Little Rocky Row and then Big Rocky Row - the climb got us pumping. Those two places offered a good view westwards overlooking James River as it twists and swirls.
The trail continued on the open ridge further along with some minor climbs and descents. It was quite a nice section. After crossing Salt Log Gap (S), the trail started climbing towards Bluff Mountain - the highest point on this ridge. We were again treated with great views at the top towards both east and west side.
Descending now to lower elevations, we got water at the Punch Bowl Shelter and then reached Blue Ridge Parkway. (Surprisingly there was a car parked here - isn't BRP closed in the winter?) After few more little climbs and descents, we headed down towards Pedlar Lake road where we took a long lunch break next to Little Irish Creek. The skies were opening a little and we got glimpses of the sun multiple times. We continued our journey on the trail which circled around Pedlar Lake. Temperatures were pretty good too - rising up to mid-thirties around this time. We even came across a family of 6 people (4 kids) and 2 dogs - they were planning on camping just before Brown Mtn. Creek Shelter - our destination for the day. We reached the shelter at 3 PM - that was 18 miles for the day. We briefly considered going to the next shelter ~6 miles away, then agreed not to do so for various reasons. With all the dead wood lying around, we got a good fire going. Things were looking quite nice.
Soon that was going to change. First it started become windy at frequent intervals. And then, just around dark, along came light snow. Together with speedy winds, the snow seemed frightening. Hoping things would die down soon, we decided to call it a night.
Morning came and at 6:30, we were on the trail. We had decided to start early to make sure we had enough time to reach the Priest Shelter - that would be 24 miles for the day. There was a meagre amount of snow on the trail.
The air temps were in low single digits, there were some winds but the valley protected us well from most of it. But as we climbed up to US 60, 2 miles away, we were out in the open climbing towards the exposed ridges. Here is where the winds started feeling like a lot. As we later calculated, with wind chill, we were dealing temperatures in the range of -20 F and -30 F. It was odd because the skies were clear blue and it was bright and sunny. Anyways, at some point I felt it was unsafe to continue - being exposed on the ridges later was the part which worried me most. I relayed that to Jeff and he agreed with me too and we started returning towards US 60 discussing other options. I considered trying to catch a ride to one of the cars, Jeff suggested an even better idea - going back all the way. For the immediate next part, we would mostly be in the valley, protected. The sun would hopefully warm up the temps. And we had multiple options ahead of us as well in terms of camping or getting on a road. Sounded good. So, off we went retracing our patch. Once in the valley we felt much well shielded from the winds. We passed by the family of 6 we met the day before - I was glad to see they were enjoying the warmth of a fire. Slowly and gradually, I felt my body warming up too after the cold start. Jeff had put a platypus inside his layers to warm it up. The mouth was slightly open when it froze - so when it started melting, Jeff's layers began to get wet. That didn't look good. We took a long break right before Pedlar Road to have lunch and dry gear. The sun was working its way well by warming up the temperatures - especially at lower elevations. Most of Jeff's layers were quite dry when we resumed backpacking. I suggested the trailname "Icebreaker" for Jeff and he ended up accepting it. Haha. It was pretty smooth sailing from here on. We climbed up Rice mountain, crossed Blue Ridge Parkway and then reached Punchbowl Shelter around 3 PM. We had two options, either to camp here or go to our first shelter 8.5 miles away. We agreed to keep on going. By this time, the winds had slowed down compared to how they were in the morning. It turned out to be a good decision. We took in the same views again - this time more enjoyable because of the clear skies.
Hiking in the sun felt pretty good too. We reached John's Hollow Shelter just before it got dark - that was 23 miles for the day. Temps were probably around upper teens when we got there. We collected firewood and got a fire going. We had our dinners - both reflecting on the day and agreeing that we ended up making pretty good decisions. It was sleep time right around 8 PM.
The next morning we tried sleeping in late - we just had 1.7 miles to the cars. Since we were both awake early (around 7ish), we decided to head out. In no time we reached the cars around 8:30 AM. I checked Devil's Backbone - they were not going to open until 11:30. Oh well. Since we were both heading out on I-81, we agreed to stop at Jalisco in Front Royal. We seemed to have beaten the snow storm coming in - as it started snowing a little bit on our way to I-81.
All in all, we ended up doing ~45 miles. I had a great time. The views we had on the trip were pretty good. True, the conditions were harsh and testing, but we found our way through all of that by modifying our plans. I had a great time in Jeff's company - I was actually quite glad that we both thought in a similar way when it came to making the big decisions. He is a strong, experienced backpacker. I look forward to backpacking with him more in the future!
Sounds like you had a good time. Glad you made decisions you feel good about. How strong was the wind on the ridge? It's too bad the weather didn't cooperate to get you to Spy Rock (that would be beautiful with the clear skies).
On Sunday morning, while climbing towards the ridge, I believe the winds were 15-20 mph steady and 40 mph gusts. And we didn't even get to the top of the ridge (after US 60), where we would be more exposed and air temps would be colder because of ~2k ft. elevation gain. The winds by itself weren't too bad - it was the combination of winds and cold temps which made conditions tricky. Things did seem to calm down as the day progressed. Back on initial ridge (Rocky Row Run, Bluff Mtn.) around 3 PM, the temps were 10 degrees warmer than the morning and winds were probably 10 mph steady. I was sad myself to miss out on views at Bald Knob and Spy Rock, but the other views were pretty good too
Thanks for the write-up. It was a good trip indeed.
Having an icicle down the front of my pants sure made me happy that the DWR on those trousers was still working! I may have acquired a different trail name had the water made it through.
Wunderground.com supported your wind estimates. The sustained winds would have made that a L-O-N-G day in those temps. The value of breathable wind protection was really driven home ascending the ridge. With my Goretex jacket open to vent, the gusts were brutal but zipped up quickly got steamy which, as you noted, can be dangerous with windchill so far below zero. I've certainly gained a renewed appreciation for how windchill should play into my fun factor estimate.