While groping wildly around my bivy sack to find and turn off my alarm at 5:00 a.m., I heard the plunking of rain on my tarp and groaned. Max, Mark, and I had hoped blindly that the vicious thunderstorm that chased off of the ridge the evening before had signaled the end of the front. Boy were we wrong. Generously, the rain halted briefly to allow us to pack up in the dark but returned and stayed once we were on the trail. And not just any rain. This front, rocking the entire East Coast with flood-level rain and a twenty-plus degree temperature drop, was here to stay with us all day long of our final 28 Sunday miles, almost all of it on the knife-edge of the ridge top. The night time low of the evening ended up being higher than the day time Sunday high.
(From left. Evan and Max)
We had set out at 6:15 p.m. on Friday for a 71.1 "thru hike" of the Massanutten Mountain Trail in 48 hours. It would be my third spring in a row hiking the entire iconic mountain loop, though a whole day shorter in duration than our previous outings. Most DC-area hikers and hang-glider aficionados know the various Massanutten peaks as day adventures but few take advantage of the perfect 71 mile loop taking in two ridges and countless miles of 360 views, packed with elegiac scenes of the Shenandoah Valley, Great North Mountain guarding the West Virginia border, and the length of the Blue Ridge wending through Shenandoah National Park, not to mention the George Washington-surveyed Fort Valley tucked in between the two ridges.
A View of Fort Valley and the East ridge from the West ridge
Friday evening's ten miles to get a jump start on the weekend allowed us to take in a breathtaking sunset at Signal Knob, which we earned by accidently parking in the wrong parking lot and having to bushwhack to the Massanutten Mountain Trail and past a large group of high school girls out for a backpacking trip -- and snickering at my kilt as we squeezed past. Warning: don't spend too much time by the tower at Signal Knob.
Evan radiating personality.
Soon stars and planets took over the night sky, causing Mark to get lost in the heavens and bounce off of me and straight into a stream. Saturday brought a perfect day -- though even a little too hot and sunny for us on the first few ridge lines. We moved fast and hard and ended up ahead of our mileage plans, eventually finishing the day with 33 miles under our belt.
Sunset at Signal Knob
Saturday wasn't without hazard, though. In the afternoon our sun was snatched from us, first alleviating our heat exhaustion and then hounding us with intense wind, rain, and lightning bolts. With few trees and no place to go but forward we counted the seconds between flashes and thunderclaps. We picked up our pace and stayed hyper aware when the the two became nearly simultaneous. Our flight took us past taped off fire burn area warnings and into a control-burned ridge from a couple weeks before. There was no warning about this at any of the trail heads or intersections, so we shrugged and held our nose as we picked our way along the hell fire scent of the trail. When the storm broke and we caught our second amazing sunset of the trip, we figure the corner had been turned and our 71 miles in 2.25 days would be a piece of cake.
We were wrong. Sure, the feat of the mileage (eventually coming out at 10.1, 33, and 28) was a bit of challenge for us. But the pummeling of cold, rain, and fog, soaking us to our bones and staying with us for eleven hours, almost took the joy out of living. Our long mileage day ensured that we would be a target for the elements. The twenty-mile ridge of Massanutten Mountain between Kennedy Peak and Shaw Gap is normally one of my favorite in all of the mid-Atlantic. Almost continuous views of valley, ridge, and sky are enhanced by blooming mountain laurel, lichen-covered rock formations, and the cones, needles, and craggy trunks of pine. Today the cold front replaced all that and gave us a wall of biting fog, freezing rain, and slick slabs of rock. We were too cold to even stop and drink our carefully hoarded water. We were too wet and cold to talk, to listen to music, to appreciate anything. We hustled silently along the 20-mile ridge with barely a five-minute break. I started muttering incoherently by the end of the stretch, fists clenched and cramped shut with cold, body losing temperature control. We finally decided to stop at a shelter to get in our insulating layers and make a warm meal. It changed our moods and gave us the strength, just barely, to finish the trip ahead of our 48 hour plan.
(From left. Max and Mark.)
As we huddled brain-dead in our cars for half an hour just trying to take control over our shaking hands and shivering bodies, I promised myself that I would never again willingly schedule trips that would guarantee a full day of cold rain hiking. I had made a similar promise last spring. Who was I kidding?
[A big thank you to Max (2008 AT thru hiker - aka Yeti) and Mark for coming on our foolhardy adventure and smiling as you drove home. It's also fitting to note that the only other backpackers we saw on the trail all weekend other than our friendly gang of girls, were our own buddies Ryan and Chris, smiling in Sunday's deluge as we chatted and crossed paths on the ridge. A final comment for Sport Kilt: your Velcro waistband on your hiking kilt fails to hold after ten hours in the rain. Very embarrassing. Just sayin']
The ridge flora -- my camera was put away Saturday afternoon to never return for the trip, sadly.
Trail Map and Notes (PATC): https://docs.google.com/open?id=0B30wOnXyYN79ZGZTOXdNemJLcXM