Saturday, December 31, 2011

Where Would You Like to Hike in 2012?

I passed up a last chance to hike in 2011. The Meetup Group I sometimes hike with had a hike to Reed's Gap planned on a beautiful day that felt more like spring than winter. And they had room for people to still join, which is unusual. But I am running the Shamrock Half-Marathon in less than three months, to celebrate 10 years surviving cancer this spring. And I have not run much at all. So instead, I joined Team in Training for seven badly needed miles this morning. Hiking will have to wait until 2012.

So, here we are, on the cusp of 2012. Where would you like to hike in 2012? Be realistic, taking into account your time availability, finances, and physical condition. In my case, I work full time and have very little time off other than some weekends that I can hike. So although it is not like I have the money to drop everything and leave for the Rockies or South America or Alaska, vacation time limits what I can do more than anything else. So that being said, here are some places I would love to get to in 2012 - and have at least a realistic shot of attaining many of them:

  • Mt. Rogers - the highest mountain in Virginia, there are dozens of miles of trail in the National Forest there. I'd love to spend a few days hiking there and in Grayson Highlands State Park.

  • Do another loop in Shenandoah National Park, similar to my three day trip over Trayfoot Mountain a couple of months ago.

  • White Mountains in New Hampshire - I'd love to do a multi-day-trip to New Hampshire and hike in the Whites, staying at the (by hiking standards) luxurious huts maintained by the Appalachian Mountain Club. But it is at least an all day drive each way from home.

  • Hike one of Manitou Islands in Lake Michigan, maybe on a trip to see my granddaughter.

  • Hike or backpack in the Dolly Sods area of West Virginia.

  • Make it to Trail Days in Damascus, Virginia this coming May. Lots of kindred spirits, bluegrass music, day hiking, and - rumor has it - cold beer.

  • A bonus would be a trip to a new National Park, and do some hiking - but that is a lot of time and money.

Those are some of my ideas. How about you - where do you hope to hike to in the brand new year? Oh - HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Here are some of the things I am considering from a foot racing point of view in 2012.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Black Rocks Panoramas

During my three day backpacking circuit over Trayfoot Mountain last month, I visited Black Rocks on the third day. While there, I took a series of photos, side by side, hoping to make a panorama at some point. Having gotten some photo editing software for Christmas, some point is now.

The first panorama combines three photos and shows our approximate camping location from the night before, tucked in behind Horsehead Mountain, well below us down in the Paine Run Valley. The ridgeline of Trayfoot Mountain takes up the rightmost third of the photo.My second panorama combines six photos side by side to show views going from the southwest to the east-northeast. You can see Trayfoot Mountain near the right side of the photo, with a little bit of the Black Rocks in the foreground right.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Poll Results - Hiking Alone

My poll about hiking along closed yesterday. Here are the results:

Would not hike alone - 0%. I am glad that people are willing, and not afraid, to hike alone!

I'd hike alone, but never anywhere I was not familiar with: 33.33%

I'd hike alone, even someplace new, but I would not go backpacking alone: 33.33%

I'd go backpacking alone: 33.33%

I didn't vote in my own poll, but if I had, I would have been in the backpacking category. Even though I have not gone backpacking alone in a long time, and although I prefer the company of others for a lot of reasons, I would not let it stop me if that was the only way to get a trip in.

Whether you hike alone or with others, have a great time doing it!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Photoless Hike

As I parked in the parking lot at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge yesterday morning, I noticed a large group of ducks and several tundra swans just offshore, in good range for a photo using my Sony CyberShot. I pulled out the camera and turned it on. Nothing! The rechargeable battery was dead. But that is not a problem, as I keep a second battery - the camera requires a special battery - in the bag. So I switched batteries, turned the camera on, and - nothing! Another dead battery. This camera takes great photos, but without a battery, the photo quality is the same as a picture taken with a pack of matches. I heard the sound of ducks and swans snickering at me. It reminded me of the time that I walked 10 miles each way to the North Carolina border and my camera batteries were dead. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then this will have to be a long post - but it won't be.

Well, I was there for a hike, and hike I would do. I knew that with no camera, I would be seeing lots of wildlife, and I was not disappointed there. No, a bobcat didn't step into the path and groom itself just feet away. Nothing that spectacular happened. But during my approximately four mile hike, I saw thousands of animals. Yes, thousands!

After leaving the ducks and swans, I headed along the path through the forest. A male cardinal displayed colorfully just feet away from me. Winter warblers flitted in and out of the trees. A great blue heron took off from a small pond, and a belted kingfisher perched high above the pond in a tree. At one point, he took off and made a circular flight above the pond, calling with his distinctive rattling cry as he flew. Despite the cold, a turtle's nose broke the surface like the snorkel from an old Diesel submarine. And at the end of the path, where the bay meets the woods, large number of ducks and swans swam and fed. On the hike back, a group of tundra swans flew directly over my head, about 100 feet above me. It was spectacular! I could hear every wing beat. It would have made a great photo.

As I reached the dike trail, a huge group of grackles flew around. There were hundreds of them. They tended to rise all at once, their voices sounding like hinges in need of oil. I hiked the mile along the dikes to the wildlife observation building, and watched many ducks and swans out in the freshwater. The wild cries of the tundra swans are amazing. They are just arriving from the Hudson Bay area. As I began my return, another huge flight of grackles - over a thousand, I estimated - flew around. They rose and moved like smoke, and as they would take flight from their resting place, it sounded like a wave breaking on rocks - there were that many of them.

I watched a harrier fly over the marsh, and then ended my hike with a short walk on the beach, seeing a single sanderling and a gull. No camera today, so the images have to all be in my brain.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Another Poll

I got 9 votes on my last poll about your favorite thing about hiking, broken down as follows:

Getting away from it all - 6
Fresh air and exercise - 1
Great scenery - 1
A chance to have an adventure - 1

All others - no votes

So I thought I would try another poll. Would you hike alone? Would you backpack alone? I'll leave the new poll open for a couple of weeks, until Christmas.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Returning to Black Rocks

On the last day of my three day backpacking trip in Shenandoah National Park a couple of weeks ago, I passed through Black Rocks. It is a spectacular area, with great views, but my lunch stop there had special significance to me that went far beyond any views. It was my first time there since June 2, 2002, the day before I started chemotherapy for Hodgkin's lymphoma.

On that day, nine and a half years ago, I wanted to go for a little hike in the mountains. It was a pretty spring day, and I was dreading what was coming the next day. I knew it would be my last chance to go to the mountains for a while, and to take a short walk there. Part of me, a part I didn't want to admit, wondered if I would survive to ever go again. That type of lymphoma is very treatable, and my odds of making it five years were about 80%, but even so, there is a lot of uncertainty to experiencing cancer. As the oncologist told me, "We are both old enough to know there are no guarantees in life."

Just three days before, on May 30, I'd had surgery to implant a portocath in my chest near my right shoulder. It was tied into my subclavian vein to deliver the chemicals directly into my bloodstream. They would enter that vein, and a second or two later flow into my heart, go through my lungs, return to my heart, and from there, visit every cell in my body. The drugs would cause lots of damage on their little trip, but hopefully as part of that journey, they would also ravage every single lymphoma cell in my chest, abdomen, and wherever else they might be hiding like tiny guerrilla warriors. Because if even one such cell would survive, I'd have to go through it all again in a year or so, with even less certain results. Little did I know, or even imagine, that nine years from the day I had that port put in, my sister Ann would die from breast cancer. She was so worried about me having to go through cancer.

So on June 2, I was still a bit tired from the surgery, and my upper chest was very sore - right where a pack strap would rub. Therefore, I took just a tiny and light day pack on the short - a half mile each way - hike my wife and I made to Black Rocks from the Skyline Drive. I'd been there once before, on a long day hike up Trayfoot Mountain with a group. Now, I kept thinking about chemo the next day. I had gotten a buzz cut, my preemptive strike for my upcoming baldness. I'd seen other people - my stepmother, my father, and my sister-in-law among them - go through chemotherapy, and I knew it was really rough. I was quite worried that I might vomit on a nurse during chemo (I didn't). I knew two of the four chemo drugs were really dangerous, and I wondered if I might survive the cancer but end up dying from the cure. There was a lot to think about, besides just trying to enjoy the mountains, with the mountain laurel in bloom, that June day.Now, nearly ten years later, I was back here. I waited nearly 45 minutes for my hiking buddy, Hawkeye, to arrive. It turns out that he had had a horrible calf cramp. During that time, I explored and climbed over the rocks,and reflected a bit on my journey I had taken to get here since cancer. Three marathons. Two half-marathons. I'd never done either one pre-cancer. Lots of hikes. Healthy enough to carry a 40 pound pack for three days just now. A three-day 60 mile walk just a couple of months before to honor my sister's memory. It was good to be back at the Black Rocks as a healthy person, and that is what I intend on staying for as long as possible.

I was last at Black Rocks in 2002 as a person with cancer, wondering what the next few years would hold for me, dreading starting chemo the next day. More than nine years later, I've returned as a strong survivor.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

How Did My New Gear Do?

On my recent three day backpacking trip, I used three pieces of brand new gear. Well, in a way, it was four. Or maybe five, depending on your point of view. Anyhow, did the gear perform well and hold up? Here is my report.

What is the most important piece of gear for hiking and back packing? Pack? Tent? Sleeping bag? Well, I maintain it is your boots, although with temperatures in the teens, I'd accept a very warm sleeping bag for an answer, too. But if your feet are miserable on a long walk, no other piece of gear is going to make up for that. I have the hardest time finding hiking boots that work for me. They never seem comfortable. Sometimes they are too tight and sometimes they are too loose. I've given up on or returned many a pair of boots. I once got a pair that Backpacker Magazine raved about as instantly comfortable with no break-in needed, and they felt great in the store. But once I started hiking in them, they rubbed and I got blisters every time I wore them, despite trying to break them in. After several months, I returned them (and got a full refund from LL Bean). So it was with trepidation that I recently got yet one more pair of boots, realizing that my current pair that I have had for years never really was very comfortable. I spent hours going through issues of Backpacker looking for highly rated boots, and finally selected several pairs to try. As luck would have it, neither REI or Blue Ridge Mountain Sports had any of the boots I had targeted. So I tried about five or six other pairs. One of them, Keen Targhee mid-height, seemed pretty comfortable, and after much walking around and hemming and hawing, I bought them from REI. I also bought a pair of Sole inserts that Backpacker strongly recommended, since the insoles that come with most hiking boots are minimal. I wore them a lot around town and even on a few hikes, and they still felt pretty good with a little rubbing. So I was really pleased how comfortable they were on this 22 mile hike with two pairs of socks. They felt great - good support, no blisters, and comfortable. We will see what the future holds, but I optimistic that these boots and I will hike happy trails together.
Second on my major gear list was my new tent, the Eastern Mountain Sport Velocity 1. I was very pleased with it, even though it took me a little while to remember how to set up as the darkness rolled in that first night. It was comfortable with good ventilation, although I did try to get the fly closer to the tent on that first very cold night. I had plenty of room - side, head, and foot. My only complaint was that the footprint was too small for the tent, and as I remember when I set it up at the house, it fit perfectly. I could remember wrong, of course. I could sit up to change clothing, and it was easy to get in and out of. Here is my tent, sans fly, the first morning we camped out near Madison Run. My sleeping bag and the tent fly are hanging on a line and airing out behind the tent.
Third on my list of major new gear was my Jetboil SOL stove. I didn't actually cook with it, and have heard mixed reviews about cooking in its little pot with such a concentrated flame. But I did boil water for tea, hot chocolate, and cleaning up, and the stove did this very quickly. Within about 2 minutes of firing it up, I had two or more cups of boiling water.
Now, although not new gear, I used a pair of borrowed Leki trekking poles for the first time on a hike. So they were new to me. I loved them! They especially made steep downhills and stream crossings less difficult, as well as really steep uphills like climbing out of our two campsites up very steep banks. I'll be getting a pair for sure, and may have to (mostly) retire my gnome hiking staff that a friend made for me from a piece of beaver wood.

Finally, although technically my feet are not gear, and are definitely not new even if they were considered to be gear, in a way, I had a new left foot. Because of a bunch of things, especially six months of plantar fasciitis, I have not done a lot of hiking this year. At the end of January, I had surgery to remove a neuroma that had plagued me for years with hiking, running, and long walks. This was my first really long, tough hike since having that surgery - and wearing a 40 pound pack to boot. I am pleased to report that the neuroma surgery seems to have accomplished the goal - no pain in that left forefoot! I still have some numbness, but the pain is finally gone. I was excited by that. Now, if I can only get the heel to get rid of the last plantar fasciitis pain, I'd be really excited! Here I am January 25, the day after my surgery, looking forward to walking normally again someday.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Poll - What is Your Favorite Thing About Hiking?

I've set up a new poll on my blog. I don't usually get a lot of response from these, but I am nothing if not persistent, so here we go again. I'll leave the poll open until December 10. So vote for what your favorite thing is about hiking. Hopefully, I've covered most of the bases with the choices I put out there, but if not, you can always vote for "other."

As always, comments are welcome.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Austin / Trayfoot Mountains Backpacking

A week ago, November 18 to 20, I went backpacking for two nights in Shenandoah National Park, hiking about 22 miles over Austin, Furnace, and Trayfoot Mountains, and having a great trip. It took me a while to write my posts about the trip, and have set them up in the reverse order that things usually get posted in Blogger: i.e. oldest posts first instead of newest posts first. In that way, you can read about my trip in a chronological order. Here are my accounts of the trip to this remote part of Virginia: no showers, no bathrooms or toilets or outhouses, no beds, no TV or electricity, no campfires (not allowed) - but lots of fun!

Planning my trip - how did I decide to do this trip and get it planned out?
Preparing to hike for three days - How did I prepare for my trip, and would it be adequate to the task?
Packing my gear - it looked like an REI store and a grocery store exploded in my guest bedroom, but somehow, I got it all crammed into my Millet 60 pack
Trip Overview - where exactly are Austin and Trayfoot Mountain?
Day 1 of the trip - we cut out of work early, and hit the trail by 1PM, but would we find a decent place to camp before dark?
Day 2 of the trip - We climbed, climbed, and climbed some more. Then suddenly, it was all downhill from there.
Day 3 of the trip - It was an uphill hike to the spectacular Black Rocks, then an easy couple of miles back to car and civilization.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Planning a Trip

We don't get pay raises where I work - at least not for the last four years. We all feel lucky to have a job and benefits. But now and then, they throw us a bone. This past summer, we were each given four hours of extra leave. A month or so ago, I got the idea to use said leave by taking off Friday afternoon and getting in a three day back packing trip. The idea germinated, and I asked a co-worker if he wanted to go. I would go by myself if need be, but much prefer hiking with someone else.

But where should we go? I'd thought of Ramsey Draft Wilderness, but that is popular with hunters. So we will leave that to them, deciding on Shenandoah National Park. There are hundreds of miles of trail. Over the weekend, I started to look at one of my trail guides and maps, and a great sounding trip kind of jumped out at me - a 21 mile circuit in the Southern part of the park that goes by Austin, Furnace, and Trayfoot Mountains, and up past Black Rocks. Chris agreed, and so we are good to go.

At 10AM Friday, we'll cut out of work (starting early that day) and will hit the road. Given time for a lunch break, we should be hiking by 1PM and reach a camping spot four miles later by 4PM - just enough time to put up tents and pick a spot in daylight. The next two days, we will hike about 8.5 miles each day. We are each bringing three meals - breakfast, lunch, and dinner - for two people. I went shopping Wednesday night, came home, and started putting my gear out. Thursday night, I'll see what does and does not fit in my pack. Then Friday, we will hit the trail! Can't wait! The weather looks clear and kind of cold, but not as cold as our trip to The Priest last year.

Preparing for My Three Day Hike

I've done three marathons, two half marathons, and a half dozen 10K's, all in the last six years. I finished the Susan G. Komen 3-Day for the Cure just about two months ago - a three day walk of nearly 60 miles to combat breast cancer. For every one of these - well, not the latest 10K maybe - I have trained and trained hard. So what have I done to prepare for this backpacking trip that starts tomorrow (as I write this on Thursday, November 17)? After all, we are talking hiking in the mountains for 21 miles, carrying a fairly heavy pack with everything I will need to not freeze to death for three days.

Short answer - not much. Obviously, if I can walk 60 miles (carrying no pack) and run much of a 10K (walking the rest) a few days after that with no preparation for a run, I am at a decent level of fitness. It is not like I have not left the couch for 2 years and eat potato chips all day. I am in pretty good shape, even for a younger man, much less one of my advancing years. But I should have been doing some things to prepare for this tough upcoming hike, more than I have done. Plus no matter what else, I just cannot shake this painful plantar fasciitis after more than six months. It is no where near as bad as it was in May and June, but it still hurts.

So what have I done? Well, you can read about some of it in this blog - several recent hikes, including two in the mountains. And I have tried to break in my new boots, both on hikes and just wearing them.

What else should I have done? Well, lots, actually. I should have been doing a series of strengthening exercises that were in one of my recent backpacker magazines. I should have loaded a pack with 35 pounds of junk - jugs of cat litter, water, whatever - and walked on trails or at least on a treadmill on an incline. But I have been having some back pain, and that made keeping up with some of the exercises painful. And then there is the time factor - there is never enough time to do everything. This working for a living sure takes away from other aspects of life. And then some of that is just making excuses - we all do that.

Bottom line - while I know I am fit enough to do this hike, I could be better prepared physically. Hopefully, I won't pay a high price for my lack of preparation. I will learn soon enough.

Getting Packed Up

I stared at the pile of gear, clothing, and food with dismay. It looked like a REI Warehouse and a grocery store had exploded in my guest bedroom. I stared at my impossibly small pack. a Millet 60, meaning it has a 60 liter capacity.It is a nice pack, good for a weekend or even a bit longer in mild weather. The problem is, it is not mild weather where I am heading. Lows will be in the 20's, highs in the 40's or maybe even up to the mid-50's by Sunday. That means I have to bring a bulky sleeping bag that will not fit in the pack's sleeping bag compartment, so I have to put it in the pack itself. It seems to take up nearly a third of the pack's main compartment capacity. There is no room for a winter coat. I've crammed my tent, some layers and spare clothing, gloves, rain gear, camping gear, and emergency gear in there. With three liters of water and food, it weighs 41 pounds. I crammed everything in there, but it is top heavy, so I will try to rearrange things tomorrow (Friday) at the trailhead. But for now, I am ready to go. All I have to remember is to get my dinner packet out of the fridge - it includes cheeses and butter so I don't want to leave it sitting out at room temperature all night - and load the pack in the car.

Then, Friday morning, it is in to work from seven to ten, then heading for the mountains for three chilly days. Should be fun!

Austin and Trayfoot Mountain Trip Overview

Over the next few days as time permits, I'll be writing detailed accounts of my three day backpacking trip over Austin, Furnace and Trayfoot Mountains in Shenandoah National Park, and posting bunches of photos, but I will start with an overview of my trip. It was a 22 mile loop, as measured by my GPS (including a bit of backtracking to find camp sites). We started and ended at Browns Gap, and traveled on a number of connecting trails. Here is an overall map of the route. Brown's Gap is on the upper right hand side of the map where the first day's route, colored in magenta begins. The day ended 5.7 miles later as we camped by Madison Run after crossing Austin Mountain. The second day's route, marked in orange, was 9.8 miles and climbed steeply over Furnace and Trayfoot Mountains before dropping sharply down to Paine Run where we camped for a second night. The third day, a 6.8 mile trek marked in red, ascended steadily up the Paine Run trail, then continued on the Appalachian Trail for a steep climb to Black Rocks and thence back to Browns Gap.

We had dry weather, but very cold Friday night into Saturday morning, with a low of 18 F. It was a chilly night camping out by the stream. We saw hardly any wildlife, and nothing notable (other than a pileated woodpecker as we drove out of the park). The trip was a lot of fun. Stay tuned for detailed accounts.

Here is a summary of the miles and elevation gains:

Day 1 -
Distance 5.7 miles
Minimum Elevation 1,382 feet
Maximum Elevation 2,839 feet
Climbing Elevation 1,269 feet
Descending Elevation 2,441 feet
Trip account here

Day 2 -
Distance 9.8 miles
Minimum Elevation 1,359 feet
Maximum Elevation 3,340 feet
Climbing Elevation 3,238 feet
Descending Elevation 3,155 feet
Trip account here

Day 3 -
Distance 6.8 miles
Minimum Elevation 1,495 feet
Maximum Elevation 3,094 feet
Climbing Elevation 2,117 feet
Descending Elevation 1,026 feet
Trip account here

Trip Total -
Distance 22.3 miles
Minimum Elevation 1,359 feet
Maximum Elevation 3,340 feet
Climbing Elevation 6,624 feet
Descending Elevation 6,622 feet

Austin and Trayfoot Mountain Trip: Day 1

My friend Chris and I left work at 10AM Friday November 18, right as planned. And right as planned, we started our hike just after 1PM from Brown's Gap on the Skyline Drive. Plans were to reach our first day destination, Madison Run, about three hours later, which would give us plenty of time to find a great camping site along the stream. My guide book hinted that great camping sites would probably be leaping out at us. So we headed out, starting on the Appalachian Trail for a short distance, then heading west on the Big Run Loop Trail. I had hiked on this trail on my last mountain hike around Big Run. From there, we would stay west on the Rockytop Trail for a little ways, then finish the day with a few miles on the Austin Mountain Trail. We would cross near the summit of Austin Mountain, and then descend steeply into the valley. It would be our shortest and easiest hike of our three day trip. Topo maps and a three day representation of the hike are shown here in magenta (we started on the southeast point of this map at Brown's Gap):
We would start at an elevation of about 2,530 feet, climb to a high of 2,829 feet, and then descend to our camping spot at 1,382 feet. Along the way, we would gain 1,269 feet and descend 2,441 feet. My DeLorme PN-60w GPS captured the track, and DeLorme Topo USA later showed the elevation profile of the day's hike:
At the start of the hike, I tried to adjust my 40 pound pack, and ended up making more adjustments along with way with Chris's help. He has much more recent backpacking experience than do I, and offered many helpful suggestions along the way.
Here is Chris, climbing along the Appalachian Trail near the start of the hike. We had very nice afternoon weather, and soon removed our outer layers.
The first several miles had minimal views, as we hiked through mostly second growth hardwood forests. Even with the lack of leaves, it was hard to get open views. But as we moved on to the Austin Mountain Trail, the views opened up and we had tremendous views for several miles, such as this:
We also got a good look at Furnace Mountain, which we would climb the next day, looming across the Madison Run Valley:
Along the steep slopes of Austin Mountain, we encountered four or five rock slides, like this one. It made for slow and cautious going:
It is hard to tell from this photo how steep the rock slides were, but they were extensive and very steep.We looked for wildlife, especially snakes, but saw none, although I caught a quick glimpse of legs and a tail disappearing under a rock. I think it was a large lizard.

Chris took this great photo of lichens on a rock. Maybe it is the Mickey Mouse formation?
We also got a final glimpse of fall as the trail descended, and I also saw this beautiful orange bracket fungus on a log at around the same point.
Not too much past 4PM, more or less on schedule, we arrived at the gravel fire road along Madison Run. It would be light for about an hour, but the temperature was dropping rapidly and I added a layer. My guide said that there were great campsites along the stream, so we started looking. And looking. And looking. Chris saw a potential campsite in the woods across the stream, but there was no clear way to cross without wading, so we kept looking. We finally crossed the stream and headed back through the woods. Every spot was covered with small or large trees, or rocks, or brush, or was too wet. It started to get semi-dark. Then Chris, who's trail name is "Hawkeye," spotted the site we had seen earlier from the road. It was far from great but adequate, and just a stone's throw from the stream. We set up our tents just before the darkness enfolded us. I took this picture of our campsite in the morning. My tent is the one on the left:
Chris, after some searching, located a "bear bag" tree in near darkness - one with a branch close enough to the ground to throw a rope over to haul bags of food up there, but not so close to the ground for a bear to reach up. We heated water for dinner in the dark: prepackaged commercial freeze-dried meals - just add boiling water, filtered from Madison Run - to the pouch and let it sit for 10 minutes.

By now, it was below freezing and the temperature continued to drop. Snow flurries came and went. We sat out by the stream for a while, giving us a great view of the starry night sky. Chris saw several meteorites, but I was always looking the wrong way. At 7:00, completely cold from the air and from sitting on cold rocks, we went to bed. I didn't sleep that well, since my thin sleeping pad kept getting cold from the ground. But I was fairly warm, despite the 18 degree F temperature in the morning. I slept in long underwear, my heavy hiking socks, two shirts, and my winter hat. I also kept my water bottle, camera, GPS, and Spot in my sleeping back, and kept banging into them. When I wasn't sleeping, I enjoyed listening to the stream as it babbled along. I also got to listen to Chris snoring about 8 feet away. The steam sounded better than his snores. Trust me! And there were plenty of times when I was sleeping and heard neither one. I came outside for a few bathroom breaks - although of course, there are no bathrooms in the woods, as a female co-worker was amazed to learn this week when we told her about our hike - and about froze for 30 seconds each time. But then I would quickly warm up in my warm sleeping bag. All in all, it was a great start to our adventure!

With my Spot and my GPS, I sent a message with the exact location of our campsite here.

Austin and Trayfoot Mountain Trip: Day 2

Saturday morning, November 19, it was 18 degrees around first light, and I couldn't force myself out of my warm sleeping bag at first. Finally, I got up and crawled outside, putting on all my barely adequate layers, gloves, and hat. We'd heard a screech owl call the night before as we sat in the cold watching the stars, the only real evidence of wildlife in our area. I could hear gunshots booming outside the park, as deer season was in full swing. While hunting is not as big here as in the hunter-mad states of Pennsylvania and Maine, it is still fairly popular. So I decided to explore a bit while Chris still slept to see if I could find anything, and also to try to (unsuccessfully) warm up. Eventually, finding nothing, I returned to camp and ate some trail mix. When Chris got up, we decided it was too cold to eat the powdered eggs he brought, and each had a bagel for breakfast. We packed up, got some water - not enough as it turned out - and started the day's hike at 10AM. Here is a map of the route - we started from the campsite waypoint at the top of the map, and ended the day at the campsite waypoint at the bottom (the waypoint near Furnace Mountain is a mistake): We had a minimum elevation of 1,359 feet, climbed most of the first half plus of the hike to a high of 3,340 feet, and then descended to our camping spot at around 1,470 feet. Along the way, we would gain a total of 3,238 feet and descend 3,155 feet. Here is the elevation profile of the day's 9.8 mile hike. Furnace Mountain is the summit about 2.5 miles in, and Trayfoot Mountain is the summit about 5 miles along:We clambered back up to the fire road, and walked a short distance to the Furnace Mountain trail head, then started ascending. Much of the hike up was steep, and it didn't take long for me to stop and remove my fleece. As we climbed, Trayfoot Mountain loomed high above us in the distance.
As we hiked upward, three men passed us - the first people we had seen since starting the trip the day before. They were part of a meet-up hiking group from the Washington - Baltimore area, and they had started from Brown's Gap early that morning to do a circuit day hike. There were a total of a dozen of them, and they joined us on the rocky summit of Furnace Mountain (click here to see my Spot check-in point) for lunch. There were great views there, and we had good conversation, plus a meal of peanut butter and orange marmalade on bagels, homemade oatmeal - raisin - chocolate chip cookies, apples, and Hershey bars. My pack lost a good two pounds of weight from the lunch break. Here are some of the views, the first being Austin Mountain, where we had hiked the day before:
Chris relaxes on the edge of the Furnace Mountain summit,
and here I stand on the same edge:
Our new found friends had left by now, and soon we did as well. After leaving our great lunch spot on Furnace Mountain, we descended the half mile back to the trail to Trayfoot and resumed climbing. It was a fairly continuous climb, and along the way, I stopped getting water out of my camel-back. When I unpacked my pack to take a look at it, I was shocked to learn that I had consumed both liters of my water already. Because I had so much water left from yesterday's hike, I had assumed that I would not need more than two liters today and had not replenished my water store.. But the steep climbing had made me drink more than the day before. My separate water bottle had only about a cup and a half in it. Chris had about the same. It was going to be a long, dry hike the rest of the day. We continued the climb, steep at times, to the Trayfoot summit - with a great view of Black Rocks, tomorrow's main destination, just before reaching the summit. Then, we started the descent.

After all the climbing we had done that day, much of it with very little water, it felt good to go mostly downhill along the ridgeline and then the steep descending trail. I got more and more thirsty. We each had less than a pint of water each for the last 6 miles of the hike. We knew we could get water at Paine Run, though. We got partial views from the ridge, but I thought this rocky area on Trayfoot's ridgeline was pretty neat:Every now and then, we got some clear views from the ridgeline, like this one of the Shenandoah Valley two thousand feet below about an hour before sunset:
The last four and a half miles of the hike was a steady descent along the Trayfoot Mountain ridgeline and down into Lefthand Hollow and the Paine Run area. Here is Chris booking it down the trail not too long before sunset:
We reached Paine Run, where my guide book promised many great campsites. Again, the land was so steep or heavily wooded or rocky that we just couldn't find any. We crossed Paine Run on rocks, looking for a campsite that couple we met along the way told us about, right by a little waterfall on the stream. We found the falls, but no good campsite. We kept walking, and started to climb, leaving the stream behind, and we knew that we would have to turn around and find a spot. It was nearly dark now as we retraced our steps. "There!" said "Hawkeye", pointing down a steep slope through the forest. It looked like a little spot of flat land, and when we checked it out, it looked just big enough for two tents. (Click here for my Spot check-in location of our campsite). So we immediately started putting up our tents as the last light faded.

Tents up, Chris pumped us enough water to slake our increasing thirst and for dinner, while I searched for a suitable tree to hand our food bags. Then I made our meal for the night, a delicious - if I say so myself - pasta and cheese dish called Debsconeag Easy 'Roni that I got from a Backpacker Magazine. We ate quickly before the food cooled too much, and split a big chunky bar for desert. We put the dirty dishes in ziplock bags and then into our food bags and hung the bags high in the tree. We walked downstream in the dark and found the spot where we had crossed and sat there for about 30 minutes, listening for owls - none tonight - and looking at the stars. Then, about 8PM or so, we returned to our tents and hit the sack. We were both tired and I slept great that night. It was at least 20 degrees F warmer and a much more comfortable night.

Here are some photos of our camping area. Our tiny campsite was on a little patch of flat ground about 20 feet below, and down a very steep slope from, the trail. There was barely enough room for two tents, and we sat between them to cook and eat:
Paine Run, a beautiful stream, ran about eight feet below our camping spot in elevation and maybe 20 feet away in straight-line distance. I loved listening to it babble along while we camped there:
Before we started our hike the next morning, Chris used his filter to get water for breakfast and for the day's hike ahead from Paine Run. We didn't repeat the mistake of the day before, and got plenty of water, even though our hike would be much shorter today:
This photo gives a good indication of the terrain in the area - very little flat land. This is the start of Horsehead Mountain rising just across from Paine Run where we camped.

Austin and Trayfoot Mountain Trip: Day 3

I woke up about 6AM on Sunday, November 20. It was still dark, so I decided to just lie peacefully in my comfortable sleeping bag and listen to Paine Run gurgling along just below our tents. When it got lighter, I boiled water with my Jetboil stove and cleaned out my bowl from the previous night with the hot water. Then I brewed a mug of Irish Breakfast tea, - yes, I am a tea fiend - added some honey, and sat on the ground enjoying the tea. When Chris got up, I made some Glade oats and pecans for breakfast, using another recipe out of Backpacker Magazine. I also mixed up a cup of instant milk for our oatmeal. Then, we struck our tents, packed up our gear, and were ready to hit the trail by 9:15.

Here, marked in red, is our route for the day, leaving our campsite in the southwest part of the map and reaching Brown's Gap in the northeast part of the map:
We had a minimum elevation of 1,495 feet, climbed most of the first two thirds of the hike to a high of 3,094 feet at Black Rocks, and then descended to my car at Brown's Gap. Along the way, we would gain a total of 2,117 feet and descend 1,026 feet. Here is the elevation profile of the day's 6.8 mile hike. Black Rocks is the high point about four miles in.
The first mile or so of the day's hike was easy and pleasant, but we could see where we were heading looming above us:
A piliated woodpecker did quite a job on this snag:
Here I am, crossing Paine Run again as the trail crosses it:
From this point, the trail began to climb steadily out of the Paine Run Valley, reaching Black Rock Gap on the Skyline Drive after a total of about three miles. After leaving Black Rocks Gap, the hike up the Appalachian Trail to Black Rocks is continuous uphill and often steep. It gains about 800 feet in about 1.3 miles.
As you climb higher and higher up the AT, some nice views of the Blue Ridge start coming into sight:
Black Rocks is a pretty cool area, one that I had not been to in nine years. I think it formed when a cliff collapsed eons ago. I arrived about a half hour ahead of Chris, who had a painful calf cramp during the steep hike up. I explored a bit and ate some trail mix, took photos, and climbed over the rocks, hoping in vain to find a snake on the cool, windy summit. Here are some of the photos:

Black Rocks:
Trayfoot Mountain is only a mile or so away by direct trail from Black Rocks, but the way we took was nearly 10 miles:
Deep down in this valley, behind the low mountain just right of center and to the left of the mountain (Horsehead Mountain) tucked behind that mountain, is where we camped last night:
Mountains in the distance beyond Black Rocks:
I asked a couple of women to snap this photo of me on top of Black Rocks:
A cave I found in the rocks:
Chris at the bottom of Black Rocks:
After Black Rocks, our hike ended with a gradual descent for about 2.5 miles along the Appalachian Trail back to my car at Brown's Gap. It had been a great trip, despite the lack of wildlife sightings, but now it was time to get home and get a hot shower!