First time: Old Rag Mountain, VA

Even after my first climbing class and indoor climbing, I hadn’t really done something to prove to myself that I have anywhere near the ability to really tackle a big mountain. Yes, I successfully did the class outdoors and climbed a 5.7 crag- and yes, I climbed indoors as well. But who was to say that once on a real trail, on a real mountain, that I would be able to reach the peak? With that I set out to find something that I could climb that would challenge me but yet not kill me given the below points:

  1. I’ve never hiked before. Ever.
  2. No real experience outdoors
  3. A childhood history of asthma

On the east coast there are few options that fit what I was looking for: essentially a class three scramble with a serious amount of altitude gained. But it didn’t take much searching to find something that fit: Old Rag Mountain.

Old Rag is 3,291 foot (1003m) granite mountain in the Blue Ridge formation in the Shenandoah Mountains. It’s a class three scramble (so hands and feet both needed), but is “easy” enough for someone with no experience (but in at least decent shape) to tackle. This looked like a good candidate, and luckily at the time I had a colleague who was an avid outdoors enthusiast and had experience on Old Rag. He agreed to take me up the mountain.

It was a cold day in November when we arrived at the parking lot, about a mile south of the trail head.

At the Parking Lot

The temperature was somewhere in the teens as we stepped out of the car. I remember thinking that there was no way I could spend hours in those conditions with what I was wearing (how wrong I was!). We got our bags and walked up to the trail head, where we discussed what our plans were. It wasn’t anything fancy- just make our way up the trail. My colleague explained that it’s lots of elevation gain via switchbacks while were at and below the tree-line. But that once we are above it, it turns into a scramble, and we’ll go through the false summit (even with the warning, this fooled me near the top) before actually standing on the summit.

And thus we began. Quite literally, this was my first time walking in the “woods” for more than a few minutes/steps. The elevation gain started pretty fast, and the sight of the switchbacks as we went up the mountain was a bit of energy-sapper. One thing that struck me quickly was how quiet it was: no sounds of vehicles, or people, or music, or anything else….just the wind rustling through the trees, the occasional bird, and our own boots crackling on the leaves and dirt as we made our way up the trail. At this point, the trail is both marked and well worn enough to make it out easily. Since this was new to me and my performance was a big unknown variable, my colleague was gracious enough to let me lead through this section (which took us the bulk of our ascent time- probably 80% of our time was spent through this portion).

Every once in a while there was enough of a clearing through the trees to get  decent picture out through the area and the surrounding ridges and mountains in the area.

Old Rag hike

Our trek up the mountain continued. It was about half-way up that I learned my first real lesson: you get hot when you’re moving. This is obvious and second-nature for everyone. But the point is driven home more by the fact that half-way up, as the temperature was probably trying to break 20 degrees, I was peeling off layers and was down to my lowest possible layer pretty fast. The cold was only particularly apparent when we stopped for a quick break (which was pretty often). But when we were moving, the cold was barely perceptible. Even if I could feel it, my mind was solely dedicated to the effort of making it up, and not worrying about the cold and how I probably (definitely) had the wrong boots, etc. And we continued. The scenery got more and more beautiful as we rose in altitude and as the sun came up.

Old Rag hike

But finally, we hit the rock. No longer where we treading dirt and leaves up the mountain. We had finally gotten above the tree-line and hit the rock scramble part of the hike. Like hiking, this was a first for me. The first time I really put my hands on rock for an extended period of time was just months prior when I took my first climbing class out west. Here I was staring at a lengthy (1.1 mile) rock scramble to the summit. This was more or less my last chance to turn around. Hikers can get down the switch-back part pretty easily, but once you’re in the scramble portion, the only safe way down is to reach the summit and go back the backside of the mountain. We took one last break and started through.

The first thing I noticed is that my pack was often getting in my way. This was because the spaces I was crawling through, over, under, and around were often too small for me to make it with my pack on. This was mostly the case for my colleague as well. He was leading at this point (as the physical trail disappears and you are relying on worn paint marks on rocks and memory to make it through correctly), so he would hand me his pack, make the move, and then get his pack back before taking mine so I could follow. This was superbly beneficial as well because I was able to watch him make the move first, guiding me in how I should attempt each challenge. And “challenge” is a good word for it: there were a few points were I thought rope would be handy, and one particular spot where there was actually a rope there to use (it would have been near impossible for me otherwise). There were also a few points where you would emerge from the rock and all of the sudden be faced with your altitude- above the tree-line, nothing stood between me and the drop off the mountain but my own movement. The first time I saw this I saw down and took a picture.

Above the Tree Line

Once I got past the danger part of it, I was able to enjoy the stunning view. The combination of altitude, the season (fall), the early morning light, and clouds made the sky and the view something truly beautiful to behold. Even without the summit this view alone would have made the trip worth it.

Once I stood up from the view in the previous picture, my colleague warned me of the false summit up ahead. Yet somehow, I forgot that point after what couldn’t have been more than 10 minutes. This section was harder to get through, easily the toughest of the day so far. It was probably because of that fact that once I saw what looked like a summit, I was just waiting to stand on the peak. I thought, any moment now. Of course, once we got to what looked like the peak I realized we still had more to go. The picture was worth it, though. In the below shot you can see the view from the false summit and a good portion of the rocks we had to scramble through to get there (at the bottom left corner).

from the false summit

Despite the disappointment with the false part of this summit, it was only another 10 or 15 minutes to the actual summit. You walk around a large formation of rocks that blocks your view of the summit so that you don’t actually realize you’re there until you stand at the top. But once I was there….wow. What a feeling! The view was amazing, only to be overcome by the sheer elation I felt having made it to the top.

at the summit

We shared the space with a few other folks, but luckily it’s large enough for a fair number of people to hang out. We found a rock to sit on and enjoy the view, have a snack, drink lots of water, and simply rest with the feeling of accomplishment. We then began to discuss the plan heading down. My colleague explained to me that on the trip down, it was pretty steep for short while, but then the descent began to level out and become far more gradual, bringing us to a fire road. We were to hike down that road the rest of the way, and it would bring us back to the trail head to complete the 5.4 mile circuit hike.

at the summit


This last part was boring because it was a relatively gradual and then flat hike through the forest along the fire road. But it was a good chance for my colleague and I to talk about things other than the hike itself. Ultimately it was good, because it was like a casual walk back (just long), giving me a chance to reflect on the day and what I had done.

We eventually made it back to the trail head a little while before lunch time. We saw lots of people staggering up from the trail head into the switch-backs, and I realized at that moment how great of an idea it was for us to start as early as we did. Through the entire ascent we saw 6 other people (two groups of three). Now we saw about 15 people starting on the trail at the same time! We got back to the car and dropped our packs in the back and made our way out.

This wasn’t a real “climb” (it was a hike), it wasn’t snowing or icy or super cold, and I know of people’s grandmothers and 8 year olds that have done this as well. But I wasn’t out to impress anyone, it was simply to prove to myself that I could actually do something of this caliber. Given my history of asthma and my complete lack of experience outdoors, I wasn’t entirely confident that I would be able to make the summit (and back down) safely or successfully. But having achieved it, I was convinced otherwise. The 3,000 feet on Old Rag isn’t even close to the 12,000 feet I will face on Mt. Adams next year, and the level of effort required is like comparing apples to oranges. But having done this successfully, I felt as if I could learn and train for something bigger.


One thought on “First time: Old Rag Mountain, VA

  1. Pingback: Why Do I Love Mountain Climbing? | Stories of My Wandering Feet (& Mind)

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