As this trip drew near, my anxiety grew. The weather forecast was predicting really cold temps. At one point, Sunday night lows were expected to be around -5 degrees. I considered cancelling the trip. With a bit of luck, the forecast started improving - eventually predicting around 5 degree lows on Sunday night and some (ahem) wind. I am so glad that happened, because looking back, this was one of the most satisfying winter experiences for me!
Sharon, Logan, Ben, Joe, Jim, Kylie and I started from Vienna promptly at 8 AM on Saturday. The drive went smooth with a quick lunch break on the way Al's Metro Deli in Christiansburg (great lunch place). As the road climbed towards Elk Garden parking lot, we got smothered in fog. We made it to the trailhead - Elk Garden - at around 2 PM.
When we started on the AT, heading northbound, we could barely see more than 30 feet ahead of us - the fog was dense. Because of the temps (it was just below freezing) and a probable recent rain, the vegetation had a thin coating of ice. Together with mist, that looked really beautiful. (It kinda reminded me of my icy Tuscarora Section 1 trip).
We gained some elevation taking in the beauty around. Our destination was one of the campsites near Thomas Knob - around 4 miles away. There was a thin covering of snow as we got to the balds. We considered visiting Mt. Rogers when we arrived at the junction. Given the time, all of us agreed to skip it and make camp. We paused for a few minutes at Thomas Knob Shelter, some of us needed water. For what it's worth, the piped spring was running fine, albeit slow. Also, we were a bit surprised to see a few people on the trail. Nothing like summer though, not even close. We walked for maybe quarter of a mile past the shelter and made camp. Our efforts at making a fire did not come to fruition though because the wood was really wet. We had our meals and headed off to our tents - the last of us leaving at 7:30 PM. Its winter - it means long nights in the tent. It snowed 1-2 inches during the night, nothing too bad.
We rose to morning temps of low 20s and hit the trail at 8. There was a light snow going on. There was no firm plan for today, i.e. Sunday, we were planning to make plans on the go. We agreed that Wise shelter (at a lower elevation) would be a good destination because of expected temps and winds the same night. With that in mind, we continued northbound on the AT. The fresh-snow clad pines looked pretty nice.
At a junction head, we went off the AT and onto the Crest trail. Onwards, we walked enjoying the fresh snow on the balds in the mist. A few miles in, we ran into much anticipated ponies. I wonder how they survive in the extreme conditions out there. They looked quite cute though against the snowy backdrop.
Jim tried facing the ponies, but thee ponies wanted their own space this time apparently. A bit later, we gathered at our meeting point - Scales. It was only 10:30 in the morning, we discussed our plans for the day. We decided to take the AT SOBO to campsites near Wise shelter, setup our basecamp there and explore a few trail afterwards. This would enable us to a) camp at a lower elevation, b) allow our gear to dry after the snow last night and c) leave Wilburn Ridge for the next day, i.e. Monday, when it won't be foggy. Pretty good decision, it turned out to be. On the AT we marched, headed towards the lonely tree on the top.
We reached Wise shelter, setup our tents in one of the nice isolated areas - right next to a stream. We had lunch too, as we discussed what to do next. We eventually took the Virginia Highlands trail back to Scales, then repeating the AT section from Scales to the Bearpen trail junction and then Bearpen trail to the campsites. We caught some nice views along Bearpen trail - although I bet it looks nicer without the fog.
We probably got to the campsite around 3. Time to make a fire. Jim and Ben starting working on it, but it deemed out to be challenging once again. After using gas (from Ben's whisperlite stove), alcohol, dry firewood and seemingly endless blowing, they were successful in getting the fire going. We really wondered how Hua makes it look so easy and wished she was there with us. Thanks a lot to Jim and Ben for their hard work making fire - it made the rest of the evening pleasant. Meals were had, whiskies were shared. We managed to stay outside our tents till 6:30. Temps were in the upper teens when we hit the sack. It snowed an inch or so during the night.
We all woke to a crisp, windy Monday morning - with air temperature at 4 degrees. Brrrr. Breaking the camp in the dark was a bit tricky, we hit the trail at 7 amid clear skies. Heading SOBO on the AT, we slowly, gradually climbed to the ridge. And were treated with a beautiful sunrise as we rose to the balds on Wilburn Ridge.
The other thing we all felt was the winds when we hit the exposed ridges. I felt bad for not listing balaclava and goggles among the recommended gear for this trip - these two pieces would have made a lot of difference. Sorry, everyone! At some times, the winds were a steady 20 mph, with gusts upto 35-40 mph. Yes, that felt very cold. The beautiful morning made it up though. We walked through the glorious sunlight as it hit the mountains and everything else.
In a way, we were reminded a lot of the ADKs while here. We all gathered at Thomas Knob Shelter and had a snack. The last few miles to the cars passed by quickly - we made good progress here. Actually being able to see where we walking made this section look very different than when we started here on Saturday. We reached the cars, headed towards Wooden Pickle, Marion (great after-hike meal place, two thumbs up). The rest of the drive went well.
Thanks again to everyone for joining - thanks especially to Jimmy for coming up with a great route. It worked out very well. Splits were roughly 4/12/9 miles. Also - thanks to everyone for preparing very well for this cold trip. Except for me and Jimmy, everybody else broke their lowest temperature records on the trail. Yeah, this was definitely a W3 trip. And a very beautiful, memorable one.