Tuesday, December 8, 2009

End of season.. "Off season"

It is hard to believe... the season is over! If you've noticed, that's the way things are..the busier you are, the faster the time passes. That was definitely the case for the Old Rag Mountain Steward program this year...All the planning, all the training, all the preparation came into sharp focus this fall as almost every weekend we were confronted by a situation that posed significant challenge(s).

While there is never really an off season on Old Rag, we consider the six months of the year when there is no official presence of the Mountain stewards to be the off season. It's a time for us to reflect on the year's accomplishments and to prepare and plan for the upcoming 2010 season.

2009 Season Wrap-up:

(excerpted from the 2009 Summary sitrep... for a complete copy email mtnjedi@gmail.com)

"The 2009 season can be judged an unqualified success. regardless of whether the Stewards were called upon to perform as first responders, on-scene technical rescue leaders or simply assisting novice hikers and backpackers to hike and camp responsibly, their performance was top level. The ORMS presence continues to be an accepted, recognized and fully integrated outreach program on ORM, and the interest level and ORMS morale remains high."

"- ORMS provided more than 25 first aid assists, 8 of which required evacuation or further treatment at a medical facility.
- more than 438 interactions with hikers involved providing directional assistance.
- 16 groups and individuals, without lights, were assisted off the mountain after dark.
- 27 "separated parties" were located and reunited."

.. and about the ORMS volunteers:
"- a total of 189 days of service was provided to the public by ORMS volunteers.
- 2323 hours of service were donated by ORMS volunteers
- "top stewards" averaged 34 ascents )each) of ORM during the year."

There were at least 2 newspaper articles written about the ORMS, and we received numerous notes of thanks from various visitors to the mountain...
and, (hallelujah!) Shenandoah National Park completed a
MOULDERING PRIVY and placed it near the Old Rag Shelter.. hopefully folks will now be able to "hold it" just a bit longer and refrain from using this amazing wilderness as an open potty.

Planning for 2010 includes:

- Wilderness / Mountain First aid and refresher training (for ORMS) weekend on 27-28 March
- a consolidated and published annual training plan for ORMS weekends
-sometime this Spring, the upper parking lot for Old Rag will be permanently closed
- April will begin the ORMS spring season.

As always, we look forward to seeing you out on the mountain, and better yet, JOINING US!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


A large part of the Old Rag Mountain Steward program is interacting with people.. from aiding those in need, to helping hikers and climbers understand how fragile the mountain's flora can be (especially when tromping around off-trail), offering wilderness living tips to those who are venturing out overnight for the first time, and being a resource of advanced skills for anyone interested. The result is the same.. a more informed enthusiast for this amazing resource.

This past weekend, with a Sunday visitation approaching 2,000 it was good to see our friend and neighbor David C. on one of his frequent trips up the mountain.. And it was also a pleasure to meet a follower of this blog from Richmond VA... and she had a great question... "How do you go about contacting one of the stewards ("the orange shirts") on the mountain if you need them?"

This is how...
On any given weekend on Old Rag during the "busy season" there are usually 4-8 stewards "orange shirts" on the mountain...usually traveling in 2-3 groups. Accompanying each group is an NPS radio, on which all Shenandoah National Park communications traffic is monitored.
If you find yourself in need of assistance, head either up or down the mountain, keep your eyes open and ask others where the nearest Old Rag Mountain Steward is... If you are near the bottom, go to the Fee station at either White Oak Canyon or Old Rag (Nethers) and we can be contacted via park communications... Normally, a group of stewards can be readily located between the summit and the Byrds Nest, where we keep our gear.

*** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** ***
When stewards are not on the mountain, (December- April, August) and an accident requiring medical assistance occurs, it can often require up to 18 hours or more (and the help of 25 rescuers) to receive definitive care in a controlled environment.. With the stewards on the mountain, that time can be slashed to 9 hours (which is still a long time... but it beats 18..)

Due to the rugged, and fairly unforgiving nature of Old Rag, ( when something happens, it's too late to learn what to do) a large portion of each weekend's time is spend refreshing basic rescue and first aid skills. You will find even the most experienced stewards participating in this training.

The goal is that when the NPS rescue team arrives the ORMS mesh seemlessly with the NPS professionals... a goal we are meeting nicely.

"Thank you (Rangers Scully and Martinelli)again for all you did to get me safely off the mountain on Sunday. I am still astonished at the Herculean efforts you and all the others so calmly put forth to rescue me. I can only wonder what would have happened if you had not responded and I had tried in my shock and daze to climb back out. I will be grateful forever.
Fortunately, the damage to my head will heal and no harm occurred to myskeleton. The hospital staff cleared me on Sunday night, I rested, and today I went to work and am almost feeling like normal again...
(stewards)Chad and Matt were terrific. I have to say it took a real leap of faith to allow strangers to tote and sometimes haul me by ropes over a rocky mountain on a litter, but my husband and I felt totally reassured by their professional demeanor. Chad was calm, kind, and knowledgeable, and took extra care at the outset of the hauling maneuvers and throughout the journey off the mountain to ensure that everyone understood each step of the drill and didn't rush. His behavior kept me calm and allayed my greatest fear -- that someone else would get hurt in trying to help me. In addition to everything else, Matt made at least two trips that I remember up and down the mountain to locate necessary items. I just can't thank them enough. The Old Rag Mountain Stewards is an incredible program. "

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Early October.. Back on the Mountain

The low Autumn sun provides a great profile view of Old Rag across Virginia's Piedmont.
(photo by steward Ben M.)

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

To the Mountain Stewards:

Yesterday, the Old Rag Mountain Stewards helped my daughter out in a big way. I want to thank them again for all their help in getting her down from the summit of Old Rag Mountain. We made it up through the rock scramble early yesterday morning with XXXX leading the way. We decided to return from the summit through the rock scramble and she took an unfortunate fall. We were immediately assisted by fellow hikers. Our cell phones were getting no signal. A couple of other female hikers did very well in keeping her calm. Within 40 minutes of her fall, Jeremy and Ben, Old Rag Mountain Stewards, were on the scene to help. In all 5 Stewards and many park rangers helped her off the mountain.

Throughout the ordeal XXXX was a trooper. Thanks to many she remained calm. As it turns out she broke her leg in two places. She has a break through her lower fibula and another through her ankle. Other than the disappointment that she will miss her entire soccer season, she is doing fine. I don't recall everyone's names yesterday that assisted her; however, I want to thank all of you again. You are true professionals and provide a great service. Job well done yesterday!


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

From the mountain..

orange shirts on the mountain
Making a difference.

.. and still more training for the eventual call.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009


As the spring half of the ORMS season draws to a close in the next two weeks, it's nice to have the opportunity to look back on an extremely successful season... so far.

First, thanks to the folks at Sport Science, all the mountain stewards are wearing the distinctive orange tee shirts with the ORMS logo.. Thank you Sport Science!!!!

The stewards have all spent a lot of really special time on the mountain this spring and have continued to learn a lot about the "specialness" of the place.. Old Rag Mountain.
From watching soaring peregrines to training for the (eventual) medical emergency, from learning about the history of "PO Junction" to developing effective techniques of Preventative Search and Rescue (P-SAR).

P-SAR is a fascinating concept... and one that is growing in focus across the spectrum of outdoor adventure pursuits, worldwide. Instead of focusing on the reactionary... "OK here is the situation, now what?" P-SAR, instead, encourages folks to look at the environment they are entering and asks them to do a critical evaluation of their mental, physical and material readiness... BEFORE they become over committed to a situation that may be beyond a their abilities or their companion's abilities.
(This is not new... it's something instinctively practised by experienced outdoors enthusiasts, outdoor professionals, rangers and guides.. however with sites such as Old Rag, where a lot, as in thousands, of people have their first outdoor, mountain adventures... instincts like this are definitely not commonplace.)

All P-SAR really is, is good old fashioned situational awareness and planning... aka "common sense"
- Starting at dusk for a 7 hour hike? "take a headlight/flashlight or two"
- Thunderstorms in the forecast? "take rain gear and don't have your heart set on the summit"
- The weather at 3,200' in Western VA is not the same as it is an hour to the east. Consult a local forecast or better, Shenandoah National Parks website, and plan accordingly.
- Hiking in a group of all different ages and fitness levels? Plan on multiple rally points throughout the hike to make sure you have everyone.
- Hiking in new shoes? plan for blisters.
- Need to go to the bathroom at the start of the hike? How are you going to feel 4 hours from now? prepare!
- Go to the bathroom in the woods?! how about on exposed granite!! (ask a ranger or ORMS how to best prepare for this eventuality)
- Just had knee surgery? back surgery? consider choosing a more forgiving hike...
- Is this your first mountain hike ever?? maybe consider working up to this hike..
- It's a hot, humid day, with a strenuous climb.. "if you think you have enough water, then you don't."

If more people listened to that one point alone, a lot fewer people would come down the mountain desperate for a drink!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Oh! the mysteries...

There are many mysteries about and on Old Rag Mountain... some are definitely local legends and lore, some are hearsay... and then there are some that are known to the Old Rag Mountain Stewards that simply defy explanation..
Valid? fish tales? you be the judge. The bottom line is: These mysteries are real.

Mystery 1 - "The Old Rag Summit Bunny."..

Long thought to be from the Washington metropolitan region.. perhaps an enthusiastic newcomer to ORM hiking... this past weekend the Stewards got a pretty good glimpse of the real deal... urban legend? We don't think so.. you be the judge.. this shot is directly behind the summit sign..

Mystery 2. The "Christmas in Summer" decorations on Old Rag.

This one had us stumped for a very long time.. Of course we've all seen the fallen decorations on the ground, but it wasn't until the festivities associated with Memorial Day, and no less than 400 collective lifetime ascents of the mountain that we got to see these storied decorations face to face.. judging from the general conditions on the mountain, Santa's elves have been busy..
It's not everyday (thankfully), you get to see bushes and trees decorated with used toilet paper and "wet wipes".. I guess we just got lucky..

(hmm. I wonder if Santa's elves also brought in the Easter Bunny...)

Mystery 3. "The Self-Cutting Rope"
On the Ridge Trail of ORM is a spot that tends to be a bit of a challenge to some visitors.. it is the crux move required for a successful ascent of the mountain. Known to most as "The Chute" this spot has been known to create backups and waits that exceed an hour on busy days. In order to alleviate the backup on busy days, the Mountain Stewards install a fixed rope to facilitate a more speedy ascent by those not prepared for such a vertical challenge. This weekend, before 3 hours worth of hikers had passed the spot... the rope, perhaps possessed of some evil spirit.. cut itself. Not into two pieces mind you, but more like 3/4 of the way thru.. now serving as a ticking bomb, waiting to fail when loaded .. instead of as an aid to ascent... Mountain gremlin?? evil spirits? bored Boy Scout with a knife? who knows?

Mystery 4. "The Phantom Trail Pooper of Old Rag Mountain"

YES.. this one really exists, but is highly elusive.
Folks there is no other way to put it. This is really scary. To think this could happen right where I'm walking is disturbing. This weekend the phantom struck in FOUR different spots..(despite having almost 1,000 fellow hikers)all with the same effect. In every public place outside of Old Rag, people are supposed to pick up after their DOGS.. even former President Bush does this.. Why, if we pick up after our dogs, do at least four people feel it's ok to not pick up after themSELVES??!!
This was the result of a group, (probably Summit bunnies) and poor leadership and planning.. and we know who they were! Mystery partly solved...

Mystery 5 .. "The Old Rag Testosterone Vortex"
Naturally occurring, Testosterone Vortexes (T.V.s) are usually solid physical challenges that pose some level of risk to the "challenger".. Often viewed as a battle (complete with winners/victors) or some mythic pursuit that validates manhood..
When talking with people taking on the "challenge of Old Rag Mountain", you soon learn that testosterone trumps water as a needed survival tool. It also trumps a headlight, proper footwear, dressing in layers, food, a map, good judgment... you name it. When you are in such a T.V., testosterone is all you need... it's all your friends need, it's all your girlfriend needs, it's all your family needs.
(They all just need to "man up"!!) It just doesn't matter if the temperature is pushing 90, or that you're going to be out for 7 hours, or that the rangers recommend at least 3 litres of water EACH.. YOU have testosterone, you are in a T.V.. and that is all that matters.. you don't NEED anything else!

(This may be the single biggest mystery on Old Rag.. and the cause of more discomfort, agony, distress, you name it.)
And, still, those hundreds per weekend, high on testosterone, bent on "conquering" the Old Rag T.V., really don't want to hear how many grandmothers when properly prepared, climb the mountain with relative ease, regularly.

Mystery 6. "The Vanishing Warrenton Barbell"
May 23, 2009, a group of 8 young people from Warrenton VA, including a "self proclaimed" Eagle Scout* and a newly hired nursing technician arrived on the summit bearing a 30 lb barbell, wrapped in foam...( the "why?" is a mystery in and of itself.. ) When they were leaving the summit, the bar just vanished.. only to be found hiding in/under a rock... bar recovered, the group continued to proceed down the Ridge Trail... The bar again, "just vanished".. not to be found. It is strongly suspected that the above- mentioned "TV" factor played a big role in the bar's appearance on the mountain, but no one can explain it's disappearance.. it just vanished.
fish tale? laziness? evil mountain spirits? trolls? magnetic anomaly? you be the judge.

* no Eagle Scout we know of would be caught in this sort of mystery

Monday, May 18, 2009

On Old Rag Mountain..

The Pinxters and the oaks are just blooming on the summit while around along the fire road, the Fraser Magnolia are full on..
It's been a great start to the 2009 season, with Jane's article (below) and notes and words of appreciation keeping our spirits high..

We are always in the business of recruiting... and we'd love your have your help if you are so inclined.. Join us and learn more about this mountain and mountain skills than you ever imagined!

We received an e-mail this week from some recent hikers, entitled:

"Celebrating the Stewards

"On Saturday, May 2, 2009, my husband and I climbed Old Rag. We had climbed the mountain about 10 years before. Now we are both in our mid 60s and we found that the climb was more challenging than we remembered. When we reached
the rock scrambles
, we encountered 3 stewards. They were most helpful, not only to us, but to many of the other visitors that day. They assisted each visitor with explanations of handholds, ways to navigate narrow cracks, and methods to successfully climb Old Rag. I can truly say that I would not have been able to reach the summit without their expertise and help. I saw that many other climbers had a more enjoyable and successful day of climbing as a result of the dedication, knowledge, and patience of the stewards. When we reached the summit, we met the other 3 stewards.
This program is truly to be commended. We are fortunate to have such generous, competent, and helpful people who volunteer to help others enjoy the park.
Please pass on my thanks to these wonderful volunteers."

You are more than welcome!

Some recent local press...


By Jane DeGeorge
Eagle Reporter

Published: May 13, 2009

In some areas of the country, the pink blossom of a lady’s slipper orchid is a rare sight.

“If you’re a local and just saw one on [Old Rag] Mountain, you would think they’re like dandelions,” said hiker Bob Look, 54. “In other parts of the country, people would go ‘gaga’ just to see one.”

The unusual orchid is one of many flowers and other plant species unique to the billion-year old granite mountain, located in the Madison County portion of Shenandoah National Park.

Mountains often “function like an island” in that their climates are unique and provide fragile environments to plants and animals uncommon to their surrounding areas.

“As you go up a mountain it gets colder, the soil changes…there are species there that exist nowhere else,” said Look, who does patrol hikes on the mountain as a volunteer with the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club and Old Rag Mountain Stewards.

Look – who lives and works in Northern Virginia – has spent at least one day hiking Old Rag every weekend for the past year and half. A former avid rock climber, Look first hiked Old Rag about 36 years ago to “scout out the rocks.” The abundance of open rock along the “Alpine-like” hike left a lasting impression on Look, who returned to hiking a couple years ago after taking a two decade-long break.

The frequent hiker insists there are many other Old Rag visitors who make their way up to the 3,291-foot summit much more often than he.

“There used to be a fellow who lived in a cabin right outside the upper lot who, for a couple years, did a circuit everyday…when he was even in his 70s he did a lot of circuits,” Look said.

“If I’ve done 50 circuits in the last year Chad and Andy have done a hundred times that amount,” Look said of Andy Nichols and Chad Heddleston – two Rappahannock County natives that also volunteer with the Old Rag Mountain Stewards group.

Look says he’s encountered an abundance of warmth from the mountain’s Madison County neighbors since he started his frequent visits to the area. While picking up some trash left on the side of Nethers Road (Route 600) near one of the trail’s entrances recently, a nearby resident who was driving by stopped to chat.

“She walked toward me and said, ‘I just wanted to say thank you. Bless you for picking up trash,’” Look recalled.

The woman told him a story about how a visitor to the area had once left a big pile of trash in her driveway and, unfortunately for them, there were some items included in the pile that had their address on it.

She boxed up all of the trash and then mailed it off with a note that said, “I think you forgot something,” Look said laughing.

“I thought, at least she has a sense of humor,” he said, adding that he understands the park’s neighbors’ frustration as he has sometimes become equally upset by the leftover trash and inappropriate parking by some of the area’s visitors.

In addition to the human hikers, Look often encounters animals that favor the trail, such as black bears – his record is spotting eight bears in one day – and local dogs, such as Junior, a Burmese shepherd who likes to hike sans owner.

Junior – whose owners gave him a special tag with a “I’m a local dog and I know my way home”-type of message – likes to latch on to some groups and hike alongside humans for a few hours before heading off on his own.

“He’s a little color on the mountain,” Look said.

But some local dog hikers have caused human visitors along the trail some grief, Look said. Junior likes to hike up the mountain and then take a snooze in the shade beneath some rocks. But he’s a sound sleeper and often doesn’t respond to calls while napping, which has caused some hikers to call in rangers for help suspecting the pup has passed away.

Even though Look sometimes spots these dogs, pets (even when on a leash) are prohibited on Old Rag Mountain.

With an average of 50,000 hikers heading up the mountain every year, the trail sometimes backs up.

“The longest we’ve seen was a little over an hour [wait]. The line was about 250 people,” he said of an area near the summit where hikers are required to boost themselves up between two boulders and scramble through rocks.

Although the mountain’s high number of visitors turns some people off, Look enjoys encountering fellow hikers and observing people experience their trip up Old Rag, he said.

“There’s certain places I’m comfortable with now, but I can kind of remember thinking, ‘Geez…if I have to do this, I wonder what’s around that next corner,’” he said. “It’s interesting to see people experience that for the first time…and you know it’s going to be something they’re going to remember.”

Look often suggests hikers avoid the big crowds by “time shifting” and visiting the mountain either later in the day or on weekdays when visitor numbers are down. Surprisingly though, there is typically always even a few people up on the mountain, Look says.

Moonlight hikers and adventure running clubs often do circuit hikes in the evening. Look has seen several head lamp-topped runners proceeding up the mountain at 9 p.m. since it’s the only time they can run along the trails with no one in their way.

“You would think there would never be anyone there at night but it’s not true,” he said.

The goals of the two organizations Look represents is to help protect the mountain’s resources as well as serve as an “ambassador” to hikers to make sure they enjoy their time and hike safely.

Look – as well as other Potomac Appalachian Trail Club and Old Rag Mountain Stewards volunteers – wears patches with the organizations’ names on the left side pocket area of his shirts and encourages anyone who spots him hiking to stop and chat.

Shenandoah National Park representatives initiated the creation of the Old Rag Mountain Stewards in an effort to lessen the impact of the abundance of hikers stomping on the mountain every year.

As the park worked to develop its “rock outcrop management plan,” one of the thoughts was to promote outreach and education of hikers as another avenue of lessening the impact of the use of the mountain rather than closing off even more areas of the park than are already restricted to the public.

Monday, May 4, 2009

First weekend of the 2009 season..

..was foggy, wet and cool. We had very few visitors, so we were all able to brush up on our plant identification and general mountain knowledge...

I's truly amazing how how much trash and waste can be generated by a very few number of visitors.. like everything.. the smallest percentage has the biggest impact.. in this case a very negative impact.

It's been hard to identify this flower, as it's not in any of the books.. however it seems to be sprouting all over the mountainside...

As soft as the springtime soil is, I guess it was just too much effort to bury it.

(top photo courtesy of Ben Minehart)

Monday, April 27, 2009

Even more ready.

While the first official ORMS weekend isn't until the first weekend in May (supposedly timed for the highest visitation weekends... ha!) our good friend and fellow ORM Steward Bob Look reports that the past few weekends have been crazy crowded.. all due to the beautiful, if hot, weather. While he's kept his circuits on the mountain, taking time to interact with the many visitors, other off duty stewards have had the opportunity to render some critical first aid while on Old Rag for recreation... and still some of the other stewards have been busy keeping their technical rescue skills sharp and helping folks from numerous federal agencies as well as NPS Search and Rescue teams on top of their rescue skills.

This past week Stewards Chad, Jeremy and Andy traveled to the North Carolina section of the Blue Ridge Parkway (Linville Gorge area) to help with the Eastern High Angle Rescue Training.. This year was the third year of their participation, but the first for them as instructors...

..all in the name of helping the ORMS be one of the most professional and fully prepared volunteer mountain safety organizations around..

See you this weekend!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

According to ORM Steward, Liz...

(from the Lynchburg News Advance.com)

Real Sense of Adventure
By Liz Barry on Apr. 01, 2009

Hiking 8 miles in flip-flops is a bad idea. Scrambling over car-sized boulders in high heels is downright absurd.
Believe it or not, those feats of stupidity, and others, have been attempted on Old Rag Mountain, a strenuous hiking hotspot in Shenandoah National Park that offers a challenging rock scramble and stellar views.
Each year, upwards of 50,000 people ascend Old Rag, making it one of the most popular hiking destinations in the mid-Atlantic region. Because of its proximity to Washington, D.C. and a number of smaller cities like Lynchburg, Old Rag, tends to attract city folk looking for adventure.
“It’s the closest big, wild experience to D.C. It gives everybody a real sense of adventure,” says Andy Nichols, coordinator of the Old Rag Mountain Stewards, a volunteer group that mans the mountain every weekend from May to November.
Over the years, the high volume of hikers has damaged Old Rag’s natural resources — including rare mosses and other vulnerable wildlife. Park officials have considered restricting access to the mountain.
That’s where the Old Rag Mountain Stewards (ORMS) come in. This motley crew of trained volunteers protects the mountain’s natural resources by educating hikers and keeping them safe. After last year, their first season on Old Rag, park rangers saw a significant decline in trash and injuries on the mountain.
The volunteers hope to continue that work next year. And for the foreseeable future, the mountain is open year round to the public without major restrictions.

For more of this GREAT article look here

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Ready for the season ahead..

We had a great training weekend over this past weekend. We took the opportunity to gather all of last years Stewards and the batch of prospective Stewards and conduct a serious amount of baseline medical training.
We were pleased to be able to host Bill Kane, from SOLO in NH, (one of the fathers of Wilderness Medicine) as our primary instructor. We focused on patient assessment, and first responder protocols for both single and team rescues.

Members of the Shenandoah National Park's emergency response team, rangers and medics, were also able to join us to assist our new members, and refresh the old members with the nuances and procedures for using some of the high speed gear including spine splints and wheeled litters.

To train with the gear that we will be using, in conditions similar to those that can be expected on the mountain... if that was our goal, then the weekend was a huge success!

Classes Saturday ran from 0700 thru 2100.. and Saturday night provided a good opportunity for all the Stewards to re-connect after the long winter...

Sunday, the weather broke and we were greeted with 60 degree temperatures, sunburns for winter-tender skin, and a chance to feel really ready for the challenges ahead!

By the end of the weekend, even the stewards who are the old grizzled pros, who are in the mountains all the time out of both love and vocation, felt like they had added some key tools to their tool kit for keeping Old Rag and its visitors, whole.