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)