VMO: Epic Traverse of Great North Mountain Trip Report

Posted by Evan Mc on

Devil's Backbone. Great North Mountain. Erstwhile boundary of two warring nations. Whatever you call it, it forms the third major ridge heading west from D.C., starting with Shenandoah's Blue Ridge and following with our beloved Massanuttens before rising mightily on the West Virginia-Virginia border. And it is an amazing area to hike. Many of us know it from climbing Big Schloss, hiking the Tuscarora Trail, or circumnavigating Trout Run Valley. We decided to string along a series of ridge-specific hikes to run the mountain border from 48/55 all the way down to Hunkerson Gap and Tomahawk Pond Campground in a normal Friday night to Sunday morning of DC UL Backpacking -- which is where (or why) some of the adventures over the weekend began.

After a warm and pleasant, if a little overcast, morning on Saturday that saw our team of Veteran Members (Karan, Kylie, Logan, Dan, Andrew, Mark, Mike VW, Sophie, Adrian, and Evan) wake up before dawn less than a mile from our cars on the Tuscarora Trail on the ridge and traverse about seven miles on the ridge and another three or so up the valley to regain the mountain, some of the crew began to take their maps out for the first time that day and do some rough calculations. Andrew, looking up a bit incredulously from his map, said, "I think we have another 18 miles today!" And so we did, if not a bit more. We smiled. Shrugged. Realized we would just have a bit more of a challenge that day than we realized. How did we get here? One, water. Since we planned a cache along a forest road (we could have cached elsewhere but that's another story), we knew we had a very specific destination to get to that evening if we wanted to have water. Two, I guessed a bit during trip planning, eyeballing rather than measuring specific distances. Three, we didn't hike an extra four miles Friday night to Gerhard Shelter, which added those miles immediately to our Saturday. There we were, powering forward over Mill Mountain Trail and Big Schloss as the heavens began to open with rain and wind. We passed some woefully unprepared day hikers in shorts making their way up to Big Schloss. Of our crew, only Adrian actually went up to the top. The rest of us, bundled up in the worst of the rain and wind (though it wasn't as bad or as long as some potential forecasts), decided to forego the limited views and potential storm threat on the Big Schloss summit. We rolled through Wolf Gap and up and over Tibbet Knob as the storm gradually subsided and the winds died down. A final sputter of moisture and the sun was out, bright and spring-like by mid afternoon. It was brisk and much colder than our warm night and morning, but still felt more like a March or even April hike than February.

The team gutted out the road walk (with good views) to get back to the ridge and North Mountain Trail. Most of us gathered together for one of two rather short breaks and then set out along a gorgeous stretch of ridge line. If the weather had been worse or the trail taxing, our spirits might have flagged along these final miles that, we later calculated, pushed our daily total to around 30 miles. But it was some of the best mountain walking I've done in the area. There was enough green from the moss, and mountain laurel, and pines to keep the trail lovely in the late day sun. And the trail itself seemed to just flow out and guide us all the way to our water and campsite for the night.

Folks were rightfully exhausted. Karan, Kylie, Sophie, Logan and Mike VW were already mostly set up by the time I rolled in. Adrian, Andrew, and Dan soon followed. We got our tents up in the relative wind break of the campsite and got a fire up and going before people collapsed for the night. The warmth and whisky worked. The team gathered, Mark rolled in late with a huge smile on his face, and a festive DC UL dinner scene unfolded. In addition to my bottle of Laphroaig, Honduran rum, and other whiskeys joined the evening's drink list. Sophie experienced a bit of a setback when her water jug tipped over and got her Jetboil wet too. No problem. The team pitched in extra water and boiled water for her (thanks, Kylie and Logan). We were fast asleep by nine . . . and back up and hiking before dawn the next day.

The wonder of the Great North Mountain ridge continued on gloriously the next day. Our final 9 or so miles were perfect and scenic, and the cars waiting for us just as planned at the end. Keeping on the orange-blazed North Mountain Trail took a little bit of extra attention, and most of our team had to explore a side trail or two before getting back on the right path, but almost no time was lost. It was a good reminder that being a Veteran Member isn't just about hiking twenty miles a day. It's also about keeping yourself on the right trail and fixing any navigation errors fast and efficiently. It's also about knowing the norms of the group. The way we hike together but individually all day. We hike our own hikes but also look out for each other and gather unannounced at the right spots, forming little groups as the day goes on. We also move fast out of camp in the morning and also for our evening camp routine. It's social, sure. But we are rarely up late and are always back at it again the next morning.

It was a great weekend with a superb team of backpackers. Karan's final reading says 0.5-30-9.5. That feels about right. But it isn't about numbers. We ran the ridge, turning a late February weekend into a long mileage spring-like adventure.