I know, I’ve been a bad blogger as of late.  I haven’t been posting and it hasn’t been for a lack of material, it’s really been for a lack of time.  Life’s been pretty hectic lately with work stuff, working on the house, training for the North Face Endurance Challenge, rock climbing and, of course, spending time with my sweetie.   But enough excuses, let me share a recent adventure with ya’ll:

A few weeks ago I got to talking with my buddy Matt, who’s been mentoring me at the climbing gym, about doing some outdoor climbing.  He told me how much different/better outdoor climbing is and the more he told me about it, the more eager I was to get out there and try it.

Now here in DC, we have several places to go climbing outside.   One of the more popular spots is someplace I’m pretty familiar with, Old Rag Mountain in the Shenandoah National Park.  You’ll remember one of my first posts on here detailed a winter hike me and my buddies did up Old Rag back in February.    I noticed then, as I scrambled up the big crags how cool it would be to someday come back and climb them, I guess I didn’t realize it would be so soon!

So a few Saturdays ago we loaded up a couple of cars and me, Matt, my buddies Dave and Rick, along with my friend Louie who is a gifted photographer who graciously provided the pictures you see below.  The fiance and our dog, Dan, also decided to come along for the hike.
We started off on our 90 minute drive to Old Rag at about 7am under a drizzling sky that occasionally turned into a full on downpour.   We thought that maybe our plans for climbing would be dashed, but after stopping for breakfast and taking our time to get there, we arrived at around 10am to find partly cloudy skies and mid 60 degree temps in the parking area.  We loaded up our packs with water, some stuff for lunch and the ropes and other climbing gear than Matt brought and set off up the fire road towards the summit.

Now, I should note here that there are two ways to get to the top of Old Rag.  There’s a longer, more strenuous hike that’s by far more popular, and there’s the back way that’s shorter, less steep and offers quicker access to more of the climbing routes.  If you want to do climbing at Old Rag, Take Route 231 South past the turnoff for Nethers. Continue south to Route 670 near Banco. Turn right at Syria, then left onto Route 600. Go
past the Whiteoak Canyon parking area to Berry Hollow. The hike starts on the Berry Hollow Fire Road and then takes the Saddle Trail to the summit.

This route, while not usually quite as breathtaking as the other way up the mountain, was unusually scenic and gorgeous on this morning.  The weather, which had pummeled us on the drive in, was starting to move out rather quickly and we watched as the clouds rapidly slipped below us in the valleys and around the mountain peaks.  It was one of the most spectacular hikes I’ve been on.

After about 90 minutes of slow, easy hiking, we made it to the summit.

There, were able to experience the full force of the departing weather system as it blew at us with 50+ mph winds that made standing on the true summit, let’s say, a little difficult. It was pretty cool to get blown around for a couple of minutes but we quickly got down into the rocks get relief from the wind and enjoy a quick lunch before looking around for our destination; The Summit Crags.

The Summit Crags, 100 feet of granite rock face on the Western face of the mountain, is a popular crag with 6-7 different routes ranging from 5.6-5.10.  We chose the Summit Crags, because of their close proximity to the summit and because of the varying degree of difficulty offered by the different routes.  Since it was mine and Dave’s first time climbing outdoors, we thought it best to start with something easy.
Only Matt, Dave and I were going to climb, so the three of us went down to the bottom to check out the rock.  To give you an idea of the scale of the crag, check out this picture with us at the bottom:

We went to the bottom first, to scope out the routes before we went back up top to setup the anchors and drop the ropes down

Once up top, we found a pretty good spot to anchor in and Matt took the next 30 minutes showing us how to set up several different types of anchors.

Now that the anchors were set and the ropes were dropped, we had to get back down.  Now we could walk back down to the bottom, or we could repel.   I had never repelled before and the idea of doing it for my first time down a 100ft cliff wasn’t terribly appealing to me, but I mustered up my courage and offered to be the first one to repel down.

Let me tell you what; when you first lean back over the edge and all your weight it on that rope and the only thing to your back is 100ft of air, you don’t think of anything but how much you love that rope.   That rope, those anchors, your repel device and your hands are the only thing keeping you from tumbling down the rocks.  To say it’s harrowing would be an understatement.

But, like most things, once you’ve been on the rope for about 10 seconds, and you realize you have control and it’s not going to just snap under your weight, it’s tremendously exhilarating.   I probably can count on one hand how many times I’ve felt that overwhelmed with excitement and adrenaline.   It was incredible.

Once we were all at the bottom, we started taking turns trying out the routes.  I could write a whole post about how different outdoor climbing is from doing it in the gym, but let’s just say it was remarkable.   While the gym is great practice for it, nothing is quite like being 30ft up on a rock and having no idea where the next hold it at.  There’s no colored tape or neon flavored hold indicating where you go next, you have to be creative and use everything and anything you can find.  It’s harder, more challenging and, ultimately, much more satisfying.

That’s not to say I don’t still love going to the gym.  I do.  I actually like the crowds and the energy and bumping beat of the music they blast.  But man, let me tell you.  There’s nothing like the quiet serenity that you get to enjoy when you make the final move going up a route outdoors and the only sound you hear is that of your own labored breathing.

We spent about 90 minutes climbing while the rest of our party patiently waited for us to finish having our fun.   At about 2pm we loaded up the gear, un-anchored the lines and headed back down the mountain.

If you’re looking to climb Old Rag or another areas outdoors, I highly recommend picking up Rock Climbing Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland.  It’s a small price to pay for the wealth of knowledge it contains on climbing spots in the DC area.

It was a significant day of firsts.  Mine and Dave’s first time outdoor climbing AND the fiance’s first time hiking up a mountain (she did awesome BTW).   It was even the first time we got to take our four legged friend Dan out for a hike.   As much fun as we all had, I think he was the happiest of all…

Happy trails!

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