A Snow "Epic" in Grayson Highlands a.k.a Two Idiot Brothers on a Trip
Two days in Spring,
A cold and windy place
Brings two brothers together
Backpacking in VA can be a bit tame compared to wilder places like the Rockies. So I us creative ways to make it more of a challenge or “Epic.” My adventure loving brother Joseph (now 14 years old) often shares these “Epics” with me.
As you might expect we've had our successes and failures with this approach. We bailed out of an overly ambitious Linville Gorge hike, froze to death while going SUL in February, and climbed a mountain on the verge of dehydration too name a few adventures that fit under the “don’t tell mom” category.
Snow at Grayson Highlands sounds promising so off we go. The challenge on this trip will be to put in a long day and see some new places. We are expecting relatively mild temperatures and carry summer gear but through in warmer jackets at the last minute "just in case."
In the parking lot we realize it is much colder than we expected. I’m glad we brought our jackets instead of our vests. They might just barely be enough to keep us warm.
The snow gets deeper the higher we go and eventually we are hiking through drifts of snow under frosty white evergreens. Its colder and snowier then predicted. We now have no real idea what weather to expect.
As the Mt. Rogers trail swings around to the southern (and sunnier) side of the mountain the snow is thinner. Even so the slippery conditions slow our normally fast hiking speed.
We take a side trail to Cabin Ridge with great views of snow capped peaks. With the wind and snowy scenery I feel like I’m in Colorado not Virginia.
“Look Mom, I’m an Ultralight Hiker!” My baseweight is about 8 pounds for this trip, all packed into my wonderful Zimmerbuilt pack.
Back in the Fir forest the snow is deeper again. Again we hike slowly. I am now positive we will have to change our planned route but I decide to put off any decision till we see what conditions are like up on the balds.
Near Thomas Knob Shelter we enter more open meadows or "balds." So far we’ve only seen one set of footprints in the snow. I tell Joseph we probably have this place to ourselves.
It is much colder than expected and the wind is brutal. We hide in the Thomas Knob shelter while we have a snack.
I've been hoping that the wind and sun will have kept the route through the high meadows snow and ice free. No such luck. We’ll take a short cut and skip the northern part of the loop since we’re hiking slowly.
The trail follows a ridgeline over several summits toward Rhododendron Gap.
The thought crosses my mind that for all practical purposes our travel time to the road is at least double what it normally is. If we get in trouble here it will be a long, long way out.
After passing Rhododendron Gap I check the map. Suddenly I realize our problem is not one of shortening our trip; that is easy. Our problem is that it will be dark soon and we need to find a campsite off the snow and off this wind blasted ridge. Otherwise it will be a very miserable and possibly dangerous night.
In my mind I remember this picture from years ago when it was colder then expected. We had to huddle by a fire in our sleeping bags to warm up and Joseph was borderline hypothermic. That is NOT something I want to repeat on this trip.
Now the sun is going down and it is clearly going to be a cold night. I don’t know how cold it will get but I’m wondering if our sleeping bags will be warm enough.
I quickly look for the fastest way off the ridge to a protected campsite. I settle on Pine Mountain.
Daylight is fading as we quickly hike back to Rhododendron Gap and turn onto the Crest Trail.
As the sun goes down the temperature quickly drops and my anxiety rises. We move fast but snow and ice slow us down.
A short break to grab water at a spring leaves me shivering violently. Not a good sign. “We’re taking the next good campsite we find, no questions asked” I tell Joseph. Our priorities have shifted from an epic loop hike to “Let’s not get hypothermia tonight.”
Joseph sees a spot in the trees and goes to check it out. There are two open spots for our tarps and it is out of the wind, perfect. This is our campsite.
Starting a fire with wet wood is tough. I try splitting wood then put my knife away, worried that with my numb fingers I’ll just cut myself. Finally we dump our alcohol gel over wads of toilet paper and light that under a nest of twigs and birch bark. We have our fire for the night.
We wake up cold and pack quickly in all our layers. Fortunately the predicted snow/freezing rain never came. We skip breakfast in favor of moving fast and warming up.
After warming up a bit we stop to eat breakfast while we admire the snow capped view.
At Scales we turn onto the Appalachian Trail and head down. As expected there is more snow under the shade of the forest. Going down a mountain is much easier as long as you’re careful not to fall!
The last couple miles are mostly snow free. Apparently it was warmer down lower. My guess now is that the weather forecast that was supposedly for Grayson Highlands State Park was actually more accurate for the valleys surrounding the mountains.
After a short road walk we are back at the car. We share a brotherly hug and throw our packs in the car. “Thanks for coming Joseph that was fun.”
“Yeah, thanks for taking me Luke. That was epic.”
As it turned out we didn't do a very long trip by our standards. The real challenge was dealing with winter weather that we really weren't packed for. I would not intentionally live that close to the edge with a 14 year old but we survived and the element of risk made it one of our more memorable adventures.
Gear Geek Notes
The picture above shows my Zimmerbuilt pack. It is becoming my go to pack for most of my trips. For this trip I used the compression straps to shrink it down to a weekend pack size. It replaces a worn out pack and a Golite Jam. It is about 8oz heavier then my old Jam2 but it carries so much better it is worth the weight.
Tarps - I tried out a MLD Cuben tarp on this trip. I like it but was a bit nervous of abrasion damage when I tried to fit it in between bushes while the wind was whipping it around. Joseph needs a longer tarp now that he is taller.
Prolite Pads (short) – Comfy as usual but I really should have packed foam pads as well or at least sit pads for our lower legs. More bottom insulation would have given us the flexibility to sleep on snow rather than looking for a bare ground campsite.
MLD Bivy – Nice but the slippery bottom made for a bad combination with the Prolite and I slid down a lot. I might try putting friction spots on the bottom of the pad. Or I could be more careful to find a perfectly flat sleeping spot.
Trail shoes worked okay. We had warm dry socks for day 2 so we weren’t starting in wet socks. Traction devices like micro spikes might have been a worthwhile investment for part of the hike on snow/ice.