Sunday, December 7, 2008

Appalachian Trail hike #1-Spy Rock and Priest Wilderness

A Novice’s First Virginia AT Trip
by Kevin Du Bois

Aside for a snowshoe trip on a Vermont section of the AT in high school, I have not hiked the AT and it’s been a long time since I backpack camped. That’s why I joined the TATC – to recover and augment my backpacking wisdom. I’m planning a trip to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons and want to get in mental and physical shape for that trip.

Frankly, I’ve been intimidated by the TATC club hikes, worried that I wouldn’t be in shape enough or be geared up enough to hang with seasoned members. I joined the club in January of ’08, took the Backpacking 101 class the club offered, have attended the Packing Light seminar at Blue Ridge Outfitters, and have slowly built up my gear arsenal. When a friend of mine invited me to go on an AT trip through the Priest Wilderness with only about 5 miles scheduled the first day and 5 miles the second day, I figured this was an ideal way to begin my on-the-trail learning curve.

Looking at the AT trail maps and, more importantly, the elevation sections, we decided on our route. We would drive up Friday after work and car camp at the Tye River. We found a shuttle driver from the AT Conservancy website that would ferry us from the Tye River to a state fish hatchery off Route 56 near Montebello (~2,700’). From there we would hike half 0.9 miles to the junction with the AT (at 3,454’) and another half a mile to Spy Rock (3,680’), over Main Top Mountain (4,040’), and then on to the Priest Shelter – 4.6 miles total. The next day we’d summit the Priest (4,063’) and then make our way down the mountain and back to the car at the Tye River – 4.8 miles total. With this route, we’d skip the difficult and long climb up the Priest – described in the Appalachian Trail Guide for Central Virginia as a “strenuous elevation change of 3,100 feet in four miles. The way we went, our climb to Spy Rock was about 1000’ in a mile and a half and to the top of Main Top Mountain was another 440’ in 0.3 miles. Steep but shorter. We would conquer the Priest going downhill.

We thought our planning was sound. But then the weather through us a curveball! Rain was forecast for Friday evening with an 80% chance of rain all day Saturday. What to do? We checked the weather again the day before our departure and the forecast had been clarified – rain Friday night and a 70% of rain on Saturday with clearing in the afternoon and nice weather on Sunday. We’re going!

After a harrowing drive Friday night through rain and dense fog, we arrived at the Tye River and set up the big tent in the rain in record time. We put down our pads and unrolled our bags and fell fast asleep.

We overslept until 7 am and so we quickly packed up. The big tent was soaked so we decided to leave it standing with the hopes it would be dry when we returned the next day. We repacked our packs and got our shuttle ride at 8 am not bothering to bust out the Jetboil to make our oatmeal in the rain. At the fish hatchery, we spoke briefly with a guy who had gotten separated from his party, thought he got lost, and returned to the hatchery parking lot the night before. He was going to wait out the rain – we pressed on at 8:30. I know the climb was supposed to be a lot easier than going up the Priest, but was challenging enough to tell us we were not in good AT hiking shape. It was 0.9 miles climbing up the fish hatchery road (from about 2700’) and another half mile climb to Spy Rock I felt a sense of accomplishment when we made it to Spy Rock and we shed our packs to explore. We found the lost guy’s stag party at one of the Spy Rock camping areas and told them of his plans. They were packing up soaked sleeping bags and equipment. I heard somebody say something about a bad way to spend a birthday and that made the half drunk gallon of Southern Comfort make sense. These guys looked pitiful.

We scrambled up Spy Rock but unfortunately the rain and clouds blocked all the views. We made our way down, picked up our packs and continued our climb to Main Top Mountain. We were getting drenched by the rain but we were warm from the hiking. I was too warm and quickly realized on the way to Spry Rock I had overdressed. I had quick dry pants and rain pants, a silk weight shirt, a polypro long sleeve shirt, a fleece sweater and rain coat. OK you vets, don’t laugh too hard! I was not getting wet from the outside, but sweating like crazy and I did not want to take off layers in a full on downpour. My companions were not as lucky and they were getting drenched from the rain. On the way to Main Top, we started talking about alternative plans. I thought that if the rain stopped in the afternoon and we could build a fire at the Priest Shelter and dry some things out we could stick to the itinerary. My companions were very uncomfortable and wanted to hike all 11 miles back to the Tye and the car. I was worried about doing all those miles, held out hope for the possibility of a fire, but agreed to go with the majority decision.

We made it to the Priest shelter around 12:30. It was wet. I don’t know why, but I assumed the “code of the trail” or something would have a load of dry wood stockpiled by previous users of the shelter (sort of like at our club’s cabin). There wasn’t anything and the woods were soaked from the previous evening’s and the day’s downpour. By now, our boots were wet and socks were soaked. The water had wicked up my pants and my shirts were soaked with sweat. Water dripped off my saturated coat and hat/buff. My companions were worst off. Clothes and sleeping bags were soaked and without a chance of a fire and evening temps predicted to fall below freezing, we decided the only prudent thing was to keep going. We ate a cold lunch, donned our packs and headed back to the car at 1:10.

First we had to summit the Priest – up another 220’ to 4,063’. The rain stopped at around 2:30 but the wind kept a steady sprinkle coming for another 45 min. or so. The steep descent from the Priest summit was very rocky and I was going slow – fearful of a twisted ankle. As we made our way down, we came across a beautiful overlook of the valley below. We took some pictures and wondered about how our hike would have been if we could have done it in the dry! Tired and sore and wet, we continued our controlled fall down the trail. We came across some salamanders reveling in the wetness of the leaf-strewn trail and we saw two large deer who were unafraid. As we made our way down, the trail got smoother, there were some level parts of the switchbacks, and we could open up our stride a little. We passed two pairs of hikers on their way up (God bless them!) and a single – all in shorts and T-shits. One pair in particular was charging the climb and I just got my sorry a$$ out of their way as I watched in amazement! We had beautiful sun for about the last hour of our descent and that illuminated just how beautiful the surrounding woods were. But we were focused on going down. We heard the roar of the river, then some road noise, then we caught sight of the parking lot at the Tye. We made it back at right around 4 pm and one hiker was just leaving on his way up. Man, he better hurry to make the summit and a place to camp! It took us almost 3 hours to come down! We dumped the packs, changed into dry clothes, had some food and water, and took down the big tent. With the afternoon sun in full effect we took in the beautiful countryside scenery as we navigated backroads on our way to Charlottesville. We talked most of the way home about the trip and lessons learned. The trip was not fun, but it did speed the learning curve. Here’s what this novice learned (no laughing allowed!):

Since we had the option, we probably should have waited out the rain and started hiking as late in the day as we could in order to make it to the shelter or campground by dark. That would have saved us a lot of misery and we would have been able to enjoy the views at Spy Rock and along the ridges we had labored so hard to attain.
I totally overdressed at the start of the day. I need to assess the effort needed for the trail section and dress accordingly.
Next time, I’m going to leave the utility tarp home – even if it may rain.
I’m soooooo glad I had trekking poles. They really helped me with the ups and downs!
I carried way too much food – doubling up on lunch and dinner portions and trail mix. I found that the hiking was an appetite depressant. We skipped breakfast and I wasn’t even that hungry at lunch. Next time I’ll be able to plan accordingly and save on food weight – the heaviest bag next to my tent and sleeping bag.
I wish I had studied the trail map (topos) and x-sections to be able to mentally anticipate the climbs and downhill sections as I was on the trail. I think next time I will laminate the trail section I’m going to hike each day and attach it to the outside of my pack so I can refer to it without taking the pack off or having someone else pull it out. Knowledge is power!
I should probably get some gators.
I’m never going to carry a heavy and expensive 35mm camera backpacking again. Anyone want to get me a pocketsize Cannon digital elph for Christmas?
I need to buy my own down sleeping bag and a waterproof stuff sack.
I need to start a movement that encourages AT hikers to stockpile some wood at or under shelters before they leave.


Anonymous said...

It was certainly interesting for me to read the article. Thanks for it. I like such topics and everything that is connected to them. I would like to read more on that blog soon.
Cell jammers

KevinDuBoisPhoto said...

Thanks Cell Jammers. I think I've learned a lot since that post. There are other posts about subsequent trips to the Blue Ridge and Shenandoah NP and a trip to Yellowstone. Hope you enjoy them as well.