Appalachian Trail Project in VA – 3/30/14 - Grayson Highlands Backpack – Dickey Gap to Old Orchard Shelter – 10.2 Miles
The miles on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia are adding up and the gaps are narrowing down. One 36-mile stretch in the most southwestern section I have been anxious to get to is the Grayson Highlands area. I’ve backpacked there twice in past years, enjoying the wild ponies and the massive rhododendron bloom in June. Putting out a couple of invitations yielded no available hiking partners, so I was ready to suck it up and go solo. In a kitchen table session with maps and mileages I laid out my plan to convince Jim (and myself) that I had a reasonable plan. The same old drawbacks, possible extreme cold weather, exposed areas and out of cell phone range.
On Tuesday I got an email from my friend Mike: his paddling plans in Florida had canceled (too much water) and was I still going to Grayson Highlands? Yes, yes, yes!
Then the deal got sweeter as Mike (who has hiked the area multiple times) proposed tweaks to my itinerary, making it easier for me. He was willing to shuttle and let me slackpack some (meaning carry just a daypack) and meet me late in the day. Very generous – what’s in it for him? Companionship at the end of the day plus good guy status.
We had a five-day window for our three-day scenario and we watched the weather forecast worsen and then move around the calendar, ultimately settling on a Sunday-Monday-Tuesday plan. Sunday’s forecast called for morning rain/snow but clearing quickly and steadily after that.
So imagine my dismay as I’m driving to meet Mike in Virginia, wind gusting and snow starting to blow. I stopped for gas and I felt just how bone-chilling the wind factor was. Do I really want to get into this? Can I just turn around and go get a cup of coffee? But I knew Mike was waiting for me. Maybe I can talk him out of it.
Mike’s big grin and “Are you ready for this?” told me that there was no wimping out on this adventure. I followed his vehicle along windy Highway 58 to the drop-off point for my car. The snow fell thicker by the minute, definitely more than an inch or two, probably three or four inches and sticking to everything, coating tree trunks and branches and rhododendron leaves. The plan for today was an 8.5-mile hike southbound from Dickey Gap to VA 603 (Fox Creek) where I would meet Mike, then backpack in about 1.5 miles to Orchard Shelter for the night. I felt apprehensive but resigned to give it a try and at least do the 8.5 miles.
At Dickey Gap I put on my rain jacket and pants and started down the pristine, footprint- less trail of fresh snow. Below the ridge the wind was minimal, a muffled hush, magical, everything coated in white.
The rhodies say b-r-r-r
Yeah, that’s the trail
Soon I met a couple hiking northbound, giving me footprints to follow, which was helpful in places like rock fields. I couldn’t rely on white blazes today.
Snow sticking more and more
At the side trail to Hurricane Mountain Shelter I experienced a few moments of indecision. The signs were twisted at an angle, there were multiple sets of footprints going to the shelter and then northbound where I had come from, and keeping straight (southbound) looked very narrow, more like a trail to a water source or privy. The rhododendrons were bent over from the heavy snow, closing in the trail. I opted for the straight “trail less traveled” and eventually found a white blaze, and now was following two sets of footprints going the same direction as me, plus doggie prints. I concluded that several hikers stayed at the shelter last night and set out in both directions this morning.
At the junction with Iron Mountain Trail, Mike intercepted me hiking as he was hiking a loop starting from VA 603. He took a great photo of me in my red rain jacket. Then he continued his loop and planned to meet me at the Fox Creek parking area. I had such a great time hiking in the snow that I had decided to continue with the three-day plan. After all, it was forecast to steadily improve, right?
Sure enough, blue skies peeking through!
At Mike’s van I traded my daypack for my backpack, taking care to think through what I needed for the next two days. We hiked 1.5 miles to Old Orchard Shelter, which we were disappointed to see was quite uninviting, small and cramped.
And snow had blown in and been packed down. I don’t think I'll be sleeping here.
We quickly decided to pitch tents in an open area where obviously someone had done the same the night before.
The shelter was pretty bad but the privy sure was nice.
Handicapped accessible with a ramp and railings by the toilet – but how does the wheelchair get there?
Piped spring water source
While it was still daylight we spent time finding the right tree to hang our food bags. Some folks don’t bother with this, just hang their food on a low branch away from their tent or even keep it in their tent and hope for the best. I admit I’ve done all of the above, whatever the group is doing. But Mike is conscientious about best practices and always sets up a bear bag line.
As the sun went down and we cooked supper I began to get cold. Mike doesn’t get into his tent too early but I couldn’t keep him company. Shivering set in and I had to relent and get warm. Usually the activity of preparing for sleep inside my tent and putting on layers gets me warmed up to slip into my sleeping bag, but this time it didn’t quite do the trick. During the night I added layers of clothing until the only thing I was not wearing was my rain jacket (using it as a pillow). I had on two pairs of socks plus two pairs of liner socks, sleeping tights, hiking pants, rain pants, short sleeved shirt, two long sleeved shirts (one Smartwool), my light fleece jacket, my primaloft coat, two hats and a thick pair of wool gloves. I felt like a stuffed burrito in that 15-degree sleeping bag…plus a silk bag liner! Still it was hours before I warmed up to a comfortable level. Not for the first (or last) time I questioned my judgment on carrying a bag of stuff and sleeping outside in the cold.
But I’m glad I didn’t miss it.