Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Hiker Rescue from the Old Rag Summit

Old Rag Mountain is located on the eastern edge of Shenandoah National Park. A combination of proximity to the Beltway, great views and a trail section that is the outdoor equivalent of a 1/2 mile linear jungle gym combine to make this the most popular and spectacular trail in Virginia. No legitimate "Top 5 Hikes in Virginia" list would fail to include this hike. I have often wondered how crowded the hike would be if Old Rag were located on the west side of Shenandoah National Park, rather than on the side closest to D.C.

I have stayed away from describing the hike because the reader can find descriptions of this hike in hundreds of places if said hiker hasn't already taken the trip, in detail down to the tenth of a mile. I have taken the loop at least 6 times - I've lost count.

The latest ascent was on January 2, 2015, my first hike of the new year.  I went because my 14 year old son had hiked it two years' previous in January, and wanted to go again with a couple of buddies. What made this hike worthy of describing when I've often said I'd never write about this hike was what we witnessed at the summit.

The way the Old Rag hike works, basically, is that you park in a giant parking lot, then walk about a mile down a paved road to the old parking lot, traveling within 6 feet of some of the houses on the road. That old lot holds about 8 vehicles and has now been closed off.  But I do remember finding parking there back in the 1990's if I hiked on an off day. From the lot, you hike into the woods and switchback many times before reaching the ridge top. On the ridge, you squeeze under, between, over, and around all kinds of gigantic boulders while still gaining elevation. Eventually you make it to an open field of rock, and most folks settle down here to eat lunch while enjoying a 270 degree view.

But this open area, despite its spectacular views, is not the summit of the mountain. You need to keep following the blue blazes painted on rocks to come to a sign pointing off the main trail to the mountain's summit. It was here that my son and his buddies decided they wanted to have lunch.

Park rangers to the right on wireless communicators.  
A 14 year old hiker is full of speed and lung capacity, so when I reached the summit with my companion - the grandfather of one of the boys - the young hikers were already hanging out enjoying the view, shielded by large boulders. I wasn't sure where they were, so I started on the southwestern end of the overlook and worked my way north. At the very southern part of the overlook, I noticed, about 50 feet down, a number of hikers standing around with several National Park Service rangers. A stretcher was out down there, but nobody looked too concerned, and I couldn't tell from my angle whether there was anybody in the stretcher. I couldn't tell if this was a legitimate rescue or a training exercise, so after taking a couple of photos down there, I wandered off to find the rest of my group.
I couldn't tell what was going on down there.

We started having lunch, but it wasn't more than 5 minutes before we heard the unmistakable sound of helicopter blades headed our way. At this point, I told the boys to pack up, as we were headed to the other end of the rocks to witness a rescue. By the time we returned to where I had been a few minutes before, one of the rangers was corralling the hikers, backing them up against the boulders, having them sit down, and preparing us for all kinds of blowing stuff headed our way. We were fortunate that it was an exceptionally still day - the kind where airplane vapor trails remain in the sky an hour after the plane is gone.

The helicopter circled the summit then came back around to hover above where I had seen the stretcher.  A cable dropped down, then 30 seconds later a basket came up with the injured hiker. He seemed to be sitting up and was clearly conscious.  It didn't look like a big problem, which was a relief. I later heard that it was a 33 year old male hiker who sustained a serious broken leg. My son took the following video.

Some Thoughts on Old Rag:
I am not going to describe the hike in more detail, but there are thoughts that come up every time I hike the Ridge Trail to the top. This list might be helpful if you are attempting this hike for the first time.

+ Although it makes for a longer hike, it is an act of kindness to other hikers to hike the loop (clockwise) and not go back down on the Ridge Trail. There are sections that are so tight that coming back down this trail creates legitimate traffic jams. Do as you would want other to do to you and go back down the back side!
+ The Ridge Trail is one of very few in Shenandoah National Park that prohibit dogs. Please respect that prohibition - there is a good reason! I saw a couple walking a dog back down the trail when on my way up. I wonder if they got to the point where they said, "Uh Oh!  I don't want to carry my 150 pound dog outta here!"
+ I saw more than one family letting 8 year old boys wander off trail, which makes me shudder. Keep an adult in front and one in back while on the ridge, for the safety of your children.
+ One or more hikers ahead of me kept dropping used Kleenexes on the trail. I plumb forgot my surgical gloves to pick those nasty things up. Better yet, keep track of your trash. (I also picked up a pair of brown furry gloves from The North Face. They look like bear paws. If they are yours, let me know.)
+ If you don't hike much but are out doing this hike, expect to feel stiff the next day. I hike a lot and this hike beats me up worse than any outside of New Hampshire and Maine that are under ten miles.
+ I cannot speak to the circumstances of the injury because it happened before I arrived, but remember that accidents happen more frequently when you are tired. For this reason, the top of the mountain is the most likely location for accidents to happen.
+ Going during winter? Be ready for ice on the trail.
+ Kudos to the U.S. Park Service S&R team and the other Rangers for their incredible professionalism. They do a great job!

1 comment:

  1. Jeff M thanks for the great report. I enjoyed being able to get an armchair Old Rag fix. I used to volunteer on Old Rag 2 or 3 times a month with either PATC Trail Patrol or Old Rag Mountain Stewards. I will not be able to spend much time on Old Rag until the Fall of 2015. A couple of thoughts on your final bullets. I used to think that the Kleenex droppings were on purpose until one day when I was coming up behind someone and say a Kleenex they had stuffed in the jacket pocket fall out of its own accord. I certainly not claim that this is the reason for the bulk of the tissue paper flowers I clean up but it did restore at least a smidgen of my faith in fellow hikers when I saw it happen. Unless the hiking patterns have changed since around 18 months ago it is probably perfectly okay to go down the Ridge Trail as long as you do it late in the afternoon after the upward bound crowds have thinned. I would agree that on crowded days that it is very rude to be going down the Ridge Trail at anytime there is a lot of hikers coming up. If you are interested I have kept a blog about Old Rag that can be found if you google Old Rag Patrols by RSL.


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