Monday, March 31, 2014

The Appalachian Trail over the New River and Peters Mountain

This is the story of a Boy Scout backpacking journey that did not exactly go as planned, but it still provided a great learning experience. The group of six scouts and three leaders was following a plan I developed to backpack over three days and two nights hiking approximately 21 miles on the A.T. north from the New River in Pearisburg, Virginia. Of the nine participants, only I completed the original route.

When I plan a hike, I try to utilize as many resources as I can - maps, elevation profiles, guidebooks, and, if available, blog postings and observations from friends who have hiked the section. In this case, I came up with a hike that did not seem difficult on paper - a two hour climb on Friday, then a relatively minimal amount of elevation change on Saturday over about 12 ridgetop miles before dropping down off the mountain at the end of the hike with less than half a mile to complete on Sunday.  This would ensure an early departure.

On about 10% of my hikes the route seems much more difficult than the data would suggest. Northern Massanutten trails are on this list, and so is the last 10 miles of the A.T. before Harper's Ferry.  This weekend I added to this list. The climb up the mountain was a difficult one for one of the adults, particularly given the weight he was carrying. Because his legs were giving him problems, the three adult leaders discussed the option of turning back on Saturday. I traded backpacks with him part way up the mountain, and he had a heavy load. As a group, we will be working harder on lessening our pack weights before heading out again.
On the bridge over the New River during a brief quiet moment.
The hike started out on the south end of the U.S. 460 bridge crossing the New River.  (Route from Charlottesville to trailhead: Link.)  The mile-and-a-half of trail north of the New River is the most spectacularly ugly section of the A.T. I have ever witnessed. Walking the bridge is kind of interesting, though cars are whizzing past at interstate speeds.  At least you can look through the fencing at the river and railroad tracks.
On the north side, the trail drops down some concrete steps and passes by a giant plastics plant.  The plant is really enormous, and should be credited for not stinking like the paper mills in Maine can do. After a short walk up a private factory road, the trail exits asphalt and heads into the woods.  But the winter woods could not shield us from the factory view.

Update: The A.T. has since been rerouted between the New River and the Rice Fields Shelter.  I returned later in 2014 to hike the reroute.  Link.


Soon we crossed a road, where we were greeted by a large sign stating that this is the road to the plant's dump.
Stay out of the dump.
After about an hour of hiking (Scout time...), we came to Clendennin Road, where we had agreed we would meet one of the shuttle cars.  (Link to shuttle route: Link.) Two adults shuttled a car to the end of our hike then returned in one car to a parking area 1.5 miles into the Scouts' hike to join the group. But the parking area did not exist.  It was totally taken over by construction equipment.  Instead the car parked on the grass on the side of the road.  Fortunately, all of this trail is on the endangered list, as it will be replaced by a major realignment in the next year or two - stretching from the New River almost to the Rice Field Shelter, away from the factory and off of what I am told is the single longest piece of private property crossed by the A.T. over its entire 2100+ mile length.
Looking toward the factory on Clendennin Road when meeting the shuttle vehicle.
It took the scouts another couple of hours to hike the 3 miles to the ridge top, climbing from 1740 feet to 3275 feet at an average grade of 9.6%.  This is a pretty steep climb, especially with backpacks, and one of the leaders was feeling no love from his legs, thanks in part to his heavy pack.  I switched packs with him after 2.3 miles from the car drop (3.8 miles total) and his pack was at least 10 pounds heavier than mine.  On the way up the mountain, we crossed paths with an older guy who was a 1965 Va Tech grad and member of the football team ("back when they played teams like VMI.")  He seemed borderline offended that a group from Charlottesville (home of the rival University of Virginia) would be hiking the A.T. so close to his beloved university.  He spent 5 minutes on the trail telling us how much he hated UVA and hoped they would lose the basketball game that night.  None of us ever said we had any affiliation with his rival - we were suspect merely because of where we live. And now you know why I will never put a UVA sports sticker on my car and leave that car at a rural trailhead.
Rice Fields on top of Peters Mountain.
We decided to camp earlier than planned, tenting behind the Rice Field Shelter.  The shelter itself was only big enough for 8 and we had 9, so it was an easy choice to set up the tents in respect for the thru-hikers. One thru-hiker was already in the shelter and 2 more joined him, while a stealth fourth thru-hiker arrived after I was asleep and set up his tent not more than twenty feet from mine at 11 PM that night.
We asked permission of the thru-hiker first arriving if we could use the picnic table and he had no problem with that.  In turn, we tried to stay quiet as the hiker napped during our dinner.

The latrine at the Rice Field Shelter is a true outdoors experience.
That night, the boys enjoyed the spectacular view across the valley into West Virginia.  Considering the weekend was projected to have much rain, we felt very lucky to enjoy the sunset from the Rice Field viewpoint on a mountain that forms the border between Virginia and West Virginia.
The Money Shot.
The adults discussed the option of returning back to the vehicles the next morning because of the leg difficulties one adult was experiencing.  The decision was cemented as soon as we listened to the weather report on the NOAA radio transmission I received that night from the top of the mountain. The Blacksburg report stated that, in addition to rain, expectations the next night were for consistent 35 MPH winds and gusts exceeding 60 MPH. The transmission warned of extensive tree downings and widespread electrical outages. The leaders were unanimous in agreeing that this was not tenting weather. And, while we could have utilized the shelter in the area where we expected to camp, the shelter has a capacity of 8 and we had 9 hikers. And 3 thru-hikers had stayed in the shelter next to our tents the night we camped, so we could have exposed others to risk if we filled up the shelter.

Because we had a car shuttled to the end of our expected hike, the adults agreed that I would leave early and solo hike the 13 miles to that car, while the other two adults would descend directly to our starting trailhead.  Here is a map of our route: Link.  We came up from the south, and the Rice Field Shelter is marked with a point on the map.  The rest of the group retraced their steps.
Downed trees make it difficult to follow the trail ahead.

The next morning was misty and ripe for rain when I started off.  Though sizable amounts of rain never materialized, the threat was constant. Hiking the original planned route on Saturday confirmed for me that we made the right choice turning back, as there were literally hundreds of downed trees and branches on this section of trail, which caused difficulty following the trail. The number of downed trees was truly extraordinary - a thru-hiker commented the same to me - and makes me wonder whether the trail organization charged with maintaining this part of the A.T. is up for the task. At one point, I had to crawl on my hands and knees to get under a particularly large downed section.  I have since taken the unusual step of writing to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy to highlight the poor condition of this section of trail.
I had to crawl under this one - there was no other way.

This experience confirmed that we made the right decision to turn the group around at the Rice Field Shelter - information we would not have if I hadn't gotten the vehicle using the trail. Was it the right decision to have me head north on my own?  It turned out well, and I am certainly experienced at solo hiking.  But I am not sure I made the right call.

The uphill section north of Dickenson Gap, about 8 miles into the hike, was particularly grueling.  I hit a wall here, and really slowed down.  In no small part, this was due to the fact that I brought very little water and could not replenish my supply on the ridge top. Though I hiked with a portable filter, I left the bulk of the water with the group, figuring I could obtain water along the way.  And I had very little to eat because I needed the fluids to digest the food.  By the time I reached the wide switchbacks heading down in the valley of the stream called the Pine Swamp Branch, I was spent.  But at least I could stop and get water out of the stream, using my backup filter.  And this part of the trail was exceptionally beautiful!

I'd like to say that I beat the other group down the mountain and returned up to help bring gear down. But they had been waiting over an hour for me when I arrived.  And I was totally wiped - glad that another adult was doing the driving.  After meeting up around 1:30 PM and stopping for fast food, we were back in Charlottesville around 6PM.

I have learned a few important lessons on this trip. First, the group should always bring a weather radio - I am very glad I spent the extra money to purchase a transistor containing that option, especially since I really purchased it to listen to a UVA basketball game that I failed to stay awake late enough to experience. Second, I need to get better information before heading out on a trail I have never hiked or stick to familiar locations. Sometimes plans turn out spectacularly well - as when the troop hiked Mt. Rogers on some trails I had never taken (though not all). But there is a risk that is totally separate from the extremely low risk of getting lost on the A.T. Part of the requirements for Backpacking MB is to discuss lessons learned and future adaptations. We will be doing that.

I am exceptionally proud of the boys who accepted this challenge.  They showed great flexibility when plans changed and they had to be returned home early.  They offered to take on extra pounds to help make it easier on a fellow hiker.  And they never complained that the weather or the activity wasn't what they hoped it to be.  I hope to get the chance to lead them again in the future - on the trail.

Addendum:  Shortly after our return, I learned of another troop's plight the same weekend on the Appalachian Trail between our hike and Charlottesville, at the Seely-Woodworth Shelter.  The troop woke up to several inches of snow on the second night of a 15 mile backpack.  They apparently felt that the boys would have difficulty returning the seven miles to the cars, and called a local rescue squad for help.  The squad advised the troop by phone to continue north on the A.T. to an exit trail, and met the troop along that trail.  When their plight first hit the news, I searched the net and came up with the troop's website and a notice advertising the hike that is no longer posted.  In the troop website's description of their hike, they stated that they were basing the trip on Hiking Upward's Tar Jacket Ridge backpack and gave a link to that hike on the site. The map Hiking Upward posts with that hike does not show other accesses to this shelter, and it really doesn't need to.  This appears to be a very experienced troop with top notch adult leadership. But I am guessing that the troop did not have the PATC Map 13, the Trails Illustrated edition for this area, or an A.T. Guidebook, so they didn't know how to get down to the closest road.  I think they would agree that they should have been prepared. They should have been prepared for the weather, even though snow was not in the forecast - the actual forecast was bad enough to confirm that we should pull our boys from the trail.  And the end of March does not mean the end of snow at 3800 feet elevation in the Blue Ridge.  But I do not fault a leader for calling for help, given that he probably knew there were closer trailheads than a return to their cars (but didn't have access to finding them), and he was responsible for the lives of several young boys with a potential icy and snowdrift laden hike ahead of him.

My experience preparing for hikes in the White Mountains necessarily includes knowing the escape routes in case of weather issues above timberline.  I try to apply that to all my hikes and constantly tell people that my favorite piece of outdoor equipment is a good map.  A $10 purchase would have likely made a big difference in their day.

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1 comment:

  1. I think I'd rather dig a cat-hole in the brush than use that latrine!

    ReplyDelete