I love hiking.   I love being out in the woods and away from the distractions of modern life. Living just out outside of DC, one would think it would be challenging to find a place to get away from the hustle and bustle of the beltway.  But just about 90 minutes beckons the  Shenandoah National park and it’s numerous hiking trails.
One of these trails is the path up Old Rag Mountain.  Old Rag is probably the most popular hiking/climbing destinations in the park, partially due to its dramatic 365 degree views at the summit, but also because of the unique climbing/scrambling opportunities it affords adventurous hikers.   Because unlike other mountains in the area, Old Rag has an exposed (ie rocky) summit which makes it more like something you find out in the Sierra Nevadas, and less like something in the Ridge Ridge range (which it belongs to).

Driving down 601 towards Old Rag Mountain


But being the most popular unfortunately also makes it way more crowded.   From April through November the mountain is literally a traffic jam of hikers clamoring for an opportunity to get to the summit.   It’s fine if you don’t mind crowds, but not so great if you’re just trying to get away.

But during the winter, the snow and ice on the trails and rocks makes the trail more treacherous  and subsequently it keeps most casual hikers away.  To take advantage of this break in the crowds (and old do some training for Mt. Washington next month), several of my buddies and I woke up early on Sunday morning, grabbed some coffee from Starbucks and made the drive out to Old Rag for a winter hike/climb.

Not knowing what we’d encounter,  we each carried a day pack with extra layers, some food, water and other misc items like a first aid kit.  I wasn’t sure about the weather or how I’d feel hiking in this cold of temps (it was in the low 30”s in the morning), so I dressed in a lot of layers.  Here’s what I started off with:

  • REI base layer pants
  • Columbia softshell convertible pants
  • Salomon Goretex hiking books
  • Two pairs of wool socks (one thin, one thick)
  • Orage 1/4 zip base layer top
  • Orage soft shell hoodie
  • Marmot down vest (800 fill power)
  • Marmot medium weight Goretex trekking gloves

In my day pack I had:

  • Mountain Hardware insulated jacket (in case the weather got really cold)
  • North Face fleece cap
  • Extra pair of Goretex gloves
  • Extra pair of wool socks (in case the ones I was wearing got soaked)
  • Two naglene bottles (one insulated)
  • Jetboil portable stove (cooking some hot soup and melting snow if I needed more water)
  • Extra fuel for the JetBoil
  • ramen noodle soup mix
  • small first aid kit
  • Paleo crunch
  • an avocado (with some kosher salt on the side, this makes a great snack!)
  • Bandanna
  • extra pair of sunglasses
  • Headlamp (because you never know!)

Woah, that sounds like a lot doesn’t it?  Well as it turned out, I didn’t really over pack, but I did overdress. By the time we were 15 minutes into the snow packed trails that lead to the summit I had already dropped the soft shell and within 30 I had stripped off the down vest and my fleece hat which I replaced with a bandanna.

The hike to the top was a little bit slippery, but the snow on the trail was packed down enough to where we could manage a relatively decent pace.  By the time we got close to the rocky area nearer to the summit, we saw other hikers who had turned back.  They told us it was too icy to make a safe summit attempt without climbing gear.

Cresting the rocky plateau

Heading up the trail

We went to investigate and found the while it was icy on many of the rocks and cliffs, there was some potential pathways that could be safely traversed without climbing gear.  We broke for lunch and while Dave,  one of the more adventurous of the group, went ahead to scout out a pathway.

Dave going to find us a path to the summit

While I stuff my face full of noodle

He came back about 40 minutes later saying he had found a difficult but safe trail which we could use to get to the summit.  Most of the group was already pretty set on going back down so they decided to wait while Dave and I made a scramble for the summit. Since it was already 2pm we knew we had to get up and back quickly if we didn’t want to hike back down the mountain while it was dark.

Hope no one's claustrophobic!

It was a fairly difficult path and it required a lot of holding on to ice covered hand holds and sliding around on our butts.  There were parts where I wasn’t sure we could find enough traction to get up, but we finally got through the tough parts and make to to the soft path to the summit.

The view from the top made it well worth the effort:

We quickly scrambled back down and got back to the group at about 3pm.  We made quick work of the trail back down and were back at the parking area by 4:30.  We piled out sore bodies into the car and stopped by the local pizza parlor (Rudys Pizza) in downtown Sperryville for some new York Style pizza and beers to celebrate our successful day of hiking and scrambling.