As one does with winter backpacking, we signed up weeks in advance and watched the forecast as the weekend approached. We all hoped for a little snow, if only to help make the winter landscape glorious and white. But we all watched with a little consternation and anticipation as the likely temperature for the weekend plummeted. I considered canceling but realized that we had a pretty experienced crew and folks seemed to be up for it. So we prepared. Lots and lots of down. Hydro flasks. You name it. And I was heartened by the fact we had Blackrock Hut as our Saturday destination. If nothing else, we could huddle together and start a fire. And so the tail begins . . .
Andrew (Hang Glider), Sharon, (MacGyver), Logan, and Sophie met me at the Vienna Metro Station ahead of schedule and we were rolling in two cars by 7:18 p.m. Holger and Erik were planning on meeting us at the trail head on the outskirts of Shenandoah National Park near Crimora, VA. The drive went smoothly and we assembled together and were ready to roll by 10:30 p.m. A dusting of snow was on the ground when we started off but no real accumulation. Unsure of what the trail was like ahead, we camped a short distance from the cars at the edge of the park in a wide, flat opening. No sooner had we settled down for the night in our tents then the snow started. It didn't snow a lot, in the end, but it felt like it came down on us off and on throughout the night. We didn't quite realize what we were dealing with until we peaked out in the morning and saw a lovely two inches all around us. Perfect. Also good was the fact that it didn't nearly get as cold as expected it too during the night. The cold front was coming in but it spared us a bit for what turned out to be a very cozy night of sleep. Basically, as we began hiking on Saturday, with snow still coming down on us, the wind picked up and the mercury continued to sink.
Riprap Trail was stunning in the white snow and we hiked our way out of the valley and to the Blue Ridge itself. Chimney Rocks was frosted and scenic, and we made our way to the Appalachian Trail without much hassle. We were going a bit slower than our usual pace but not by too much. Paine Run Trail provided a lovely wide and easy descent back off of the ridge. At the bottom, and after a hairy stream crossing that everyone pulled off with different rock-hopping variations, we forced ourselves to eat a real lunch and put some layers on to make it comfortable enough to stop moving.
It was around this point that it began to really hit us how cold it was. Eating and drinking were now deliberate chores. Nobody wanted to stop, take gloves/mittens off, or do the needful to stay hydrated and fed. But we did need to eat and drink. Even our hydro flask lids were freezing up so we drank as much as we could and hoped that the spring at Blackrock Hut would be running and save us. We bundled up and began to work our way up the rather long ascent to the top of Trayfoot Mountain and Blackrock Summit. It was as beautiful as could be but for me personally the extra layers, bit of snow, and dropping temperature were keeping me moving at a slow pace to avoid overheating and sweating through my layers. It was great to catch up with Holger, everyone's favorite German backpacker. We need to get him to come down and spend more time with us this year!
We eventually all met up at Blackrock Hut -- far earlier than I would have expected. It was not even 3:00 p.m. and we were done moving for the day. Some folks got immediately into their sleeping bags to thaw out. Others layered on the down, especially booties, as the cold surrounded us. The spring was working, a small pile of firewood was blessedly left for us, and our biggest challenge seemed to be how to occupy ourselves until it was a decent time to go to bed. Luckily, enough whiskey (AND tequila!) was around, the conversation was fantastic, and we managed to stay warm enough huddled around the fire, our stoves, the table, and the shelter to have a fun little afternoon. That being said, we were still all asleep and ready to begin the Blackrock Hut snore-a-thon by 7:00 p.m. Erik, a recent thru-hiker who picked up the name Boomerang on the AT thanks to his frozen sock throwing skills, was a great addition to the team, both on the trail and around the fire. His booties, however, need to be upgraded at some point. I hope someone posts a picture of his moon boots.
The sun was blazing as it set, the sky was crystal clear, and the heavens were devoid of all heat. Over night it got colder and colder and colder. Holger left a thermometer out and it showed a -2 reading in the morning. We got up and made a beeline back, traversing the AT and a very scenic Wildcat Ridge trail back to the cars. I don't think folks really ate or drank much after leaving the hut. It was just too darn cold. Some of us even hiked in some down layers for the first time ever. The wind was blowing and we were hopping back and forth on both sides of the ridge in and out of protection. The cars started fine and we were off and running without the slightest hitch or mishap.
Everyone was prepared, everyone had a great attitude, and it ended up being just an extra cold weekend getaway. The hut itself was the MVP, I think. Even if it didn't actually keep us any warmer than our individual shelters, it allowed us to stay together as a group and not have everyone off on their own trying to stay warm. And the fire, even if it didn't do much more than brighten our moods, was fun to play with. I'm not a huge fan of cold weather like this but I'm also not a fan of not backpacking during the winter, so I'm glad we're able to pull this off.
Thanks to the team for being well-prepared and great company!