snowy hike

Photo by JOE BARATY

A 55-degree day turned into a cold snowy hike at Mount Rogers, as a 4- to 6-inch snow blanket covered the campsite overnight.

If you weren’t with us last week, the topic at hand is favorite Wild Adventure Stories. I hope some of you are taking me up on my request to send in your own favorite story. Remember, if you get it to me before Nov. 15, you will have the chance of having your story published here as my Nov. 22 feature article. I can’t wait to be captivated by your stories.

I also promised last week that I would share my own favorite story; so come join me now on my own crazy wild adventure:

My story takes us back about a dozen years, to a time when I was still physically able to backpack the trails on a regular basis. My wife, Pat, and I were out just about every weekend as the weather permitted.

It had been a cold and untypically snowy December that year. Everyone was already planning for a long and brutal winter. I was enjoying my holiday break from school the week between Christmas and New Years. I woke up this particular morning and as I always do, checked the weather forecast for the day … sunny and a mild 55 degrees.

Without hesitation I enthusiastically yelled out to my wife, “Have you seen today’s forecast?” We had absolutely nothing on our calendars, the family holiday commitments had all been fulfilled by this time, so I told Pat to get the gear packed up…we were going backpacking. It’s not every year you get blessed with 55-degree weather this late in December.

By noon we were already driving south on I-81 heading to our favorite hiking destination; Mount Rogers. I had regularly hiked Mount Rogers, but never once backpacked it. There was always way too much foot traffic on this popular trail for my taste, and I preferred a much quieter environment for my camping experience. But in mid-December, there was a good chance we would have the mountain to ourselves.

I was a bit disappointed, although not terribly concerned, that the sun had disappeared behind a large bank of clouds as we traveled past the Pulaski exits. However, by the time we passed the Marion exit that bank of clouds had grown to cover the sky completely. Still OK I expressed to Pat, “even if it’s cloudy, you can’t beat 55 degrees in December.”

We stopped at a convenience store in the charming town of Damascus to pick up a few food items for the hike. I’ll never forget us getting out of opposite sides of the vehicle, stopping abruptly and turning to face each other across the hood of our vehicle. It seems that we both said the same thing in unison; “it’s not 55 degrees here.” And it wasn’t. It was more like 40 degrees and breezy to boot.

“What do you want to do?” Pat asked.

There was still several hours of daylight left so in my misguided optimism, I convinced her that the sun would soon come out and it would warm up for us. So on we went.

At Grayson Highlands State Park, one of my expectations for this day finally became reality. The parking lot was indeed empty. We would truly have the mountain all to ourselves. However, the breeze we felt down below was now a brisk wind, and the real-feel temperature had plummeted into the 30s. A sane person would interject that maybe there’s a reason the parking lot is empty.

Every married couple has experienced this moment before. That instance when you know that you have made a terrible mistake in judgment but refuse to admit to it. And your wife knows exactly how poor a decision you have made but knows not to bring it up. So without another word being uttered, we both strapped on our backpacks and trudged up the trail at Massie’s Gap.

The initial plan was to blaze the 12-mile loop below Mount Rogers, pitching camp halfway in. It became quite clear early on that we were not going to make the 6 miles before we needed to stop. The wind by now was howling, and it was getting increasingly colder. Just past Little Wilson Creek, about 4 miles in, we found a semi-protected spot to make camp shielded on three sides by a stand of pine.

Keeping any kind of fire going in the wind was near impossible, so we decided to just bundle up and call it a night. As dark set in, things got terribly eerie. Nearby coyotes began their screaming howl, which I am not so sure wasn’t either an omen or a warning. As I peaked out of the tent to see what was going on, the snow began to fall. Flurries at first, but within minutes the wind brought in furious white-out conditions. We slept an anxious, uneasy sleep.

Morning came in quiet and still…the wind was thankfully gone, but it was bitter cold. There was a 4- to 6-inch blanket of snow across the entire mountain. Apparently, the snow came down very wet and was followed by a deep freeze in the early hours of the morning. The result was a shimmering glaze of slippery crusty frozen precipitation … ideal for traversing the remaining 8 miles of trail.

In retrospect, it would have been nice to take time to enjoy the snow-covered vista; the sun reflecting off the icy landscape truly was beautiful. But for the next four hours, all our focus would be on the next small portion of land that you would set your foot down on as we gingerly hiked off that mountain.

I have always been a fast hiker, and Pat has always allowed me to move ahead of her by 50 yards or so. Even in the icy conditions, we began to experience some separation. As I reached the end of Pine Mountain Trail, there was a high rocky spot at Rhododendron Gap; so I stopped and looked back to see how Pat was doing. I had a sight of over 100 yards of trail, but she was nowhere in sight. So I waited … and waited some more.

After several minutes I began to worry. I took off my pack so I could move quicker and headed back down the trail to find her. I worked my way through a rock outcropping and as I exited, saw her slowly making her way up the incline toward me. Technically, we were still newlyweds, but limited time together did not keep me from knowing what the look on her face meant — it meant I was in trouble.

Seems she had taken a fall, face first into an icy snowbank, with a 30-pound pack on her back and had a very difficult time getting up, and I wasn’t around to help her. Goes without saying; there would be no more hiking the final 2 miles of trail. Today we laugh about it all and share our story often with friends. Much was learned by the poor decisions made, which could easily have ended much worse for us. But it was WILD … the best memories usually are.

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