Wednesday, May 13, 2015

As springtime warms, hiking heats up in the Appalachian Mountains

by Brian Schwarz

It's been nearly two months since I've checked in here on Man of Merit blog, but a lot's been going on in my preparations for summertime camping and backpacking. I've been obtaining new skills I'll count on as I delve into wilderness survival and emergency preparedness, too.

Brian on top of Old Rag Mountain, April 2, 2015, at 330 lbs.
Old Rag Mountain

In April, warm and sunny weather broke through the cold grey winter. I was able to get in some big hikes, one out of every three days. The first hig hike of spring was Shenandoah's Old Rag Mountain on April 2.

This winter was pretty rough on me and my fit life journey; I'd gained five pounds from a combination of unhealthy eating and lack of exercise, so when I took on Old Rag I was weighing in at a beefy 335 pounds. Try not to laugh when imagining me heaving and hauling my deluxe-sized body over walls of boulders and squeezing through ascending and descending crevices. Encouraged by such an auspicious start as summiting the DMV's biggest, baddest (and perhaps baldest) Blue Ridge outlier, I'd hiked 10 pounds off by the end of the month.

A guy from work named Tom, who's in training to hike Mount McKinley this summer, hiked Old Rag with me. Rucking with 50 pounds on his back, Tom got a kick at how I handled my own 20-pound pack while at the same time grunting and groaning as I made my way precariously over, under and through the rock formations for two miles at the top.

Just prior to reaching the Old Rag rock scramble that day, Tom and I ran into a dude who been shopping at our store the day before - Abdiel. As it turns out, Abdiel would end up joining our little HTO hiking crew, too. As a result, the two of them would become avid hiking partners for as long as I could keep up with them; We ended up doing several high points in the Massanutten Mountain Range and elsewhere in the Appalachians before the month was out.

Abdiel and Tom on Massanutten's Buzzard Rock, overlooking Fort Valley
Signal Knob and Maneka Peak

Signal Knob and Maneka Peak was the first big Massanutten hike I did with Tom. About 100 yards from the Signal Knob overlook, there's a tower for Virginia public television. You'd think this would detract from the views, but its existence in no way takes away from the experience.

After spending a while panning the landscape at the Signal Knob overlook, a couple walked up who had a lot of knowledge about some of the topography you could see from here. I was able to gain connections from the geography I'd learned while living in the area for five years in the 1980s. The couple pointed out in the distance a series of small outliers from Great North Mountain.

One of these outliers rises up from the valley floor just west of the city of Winchester; It's called Apple Pie Ridge. This ridge, I remembered, is where I'd gone to the Ridge Campus of my high school for marching band practice. And it was during those many intensive band practices that I'd built up the base for my "hiking calves", marching in cadence and formations all while playing a saxophone at my core.

Hiking north, down from Kennedy Peak, overlooking Shenandoah Valley
High Peak and Massanutten Ridge

On a foggy and drizzly day, Abdiel and I hiked to High Peak along the Tuscarora and Massanutten trails. We heard more than 70 gunshots in Shenandoah's south valley that day, and I'm pretty sure we'd agree that we heard a bear rifling around near a newly rerouted section of the Tuscarora Trail, below Shawl Gap. There was a cool bear's den sort of outcropping along the trail. Maybe we were passing by its home and it was watching from a distance. In any event, we kept moving along.

Kennedy Peak and Edith Gap

It was a super sunny day when I hiked Kennedy Peak with Tom. The views from the Kennedy Peak tower are some of the best I've seen in the region. At the summit, Tom surprised me with a fish taco - simply a small flour tortilla filled with grilled asparagus and striped bass meat. But the meat was from a fish he'd caught only the day before at the confluence of the Potomac River approaching the Chesapeake Bay, so as we looked east from the summit tower, across the Shenandoah Valley and toward the Blue Ridge in the distance, this down-home Virginia-caught bass tasted especially good.

Buzzard Rock

Even after experiencing the overlook at Signal Knob and the high tower at Kennedy Peak, a much easier hike that I did with both Tom and Abdiel sticks in my mind most for the incredible vistas from its namesake rock. I say the vistas were incredible, but I honestly lost words at the moment I saw the view of Fort Valley and western ridges of the expansive northern Massanutten Mountain Range. Lost. Words. I possibly even gasped.

Buzzard Rock is the huge slab of rock that you see hanging high on the ridge to your left as you enter Fort Valley and the Elizabeth Furnace section of Washington National Forest from the north along Passage Creek. The day we hiked to Buzzard Rock, there was a group camp set up just down from ridge. We stopped and chatted with one of the group for a while, who told us he was a guide with a therapy outing. Some teen guys were being "straightened out" through leadership and trust exercises while rock climbing, or some such.

Next Steps

My hiking has slowed a bit in May, and it's been by choice - I felt for the first week at least I needed to recover. I'll be heading out on a big hike tomorrow, though. Tom and Abdiel are doing 13 miles at Crabtree Falls. I'd go with them but Tom leaves soon for a three-week expedition at Denali National Park, so I think he may want to go harder than I'll be able to handle. Instead, I think I'm going to opt for something shorter, around between seven and 10 miles, maybe in West Virginia.

So when am I going to start backpacking? I've taken four days off around my birthday weekend, so this is probably when it will happen. I still need to buy a backpack, which is a pretty big deal. It's going to cost me around $200, and it's a really big decision as to which one to buy. I need to do it soon, though. Meanwhile, I am planning to do some car camping in conjunction with big day hikes at wilderness areas around Charlottesville and Roanoke. But backpacking will happen soon. Stay tuned to see my progress!

Follow Brian's adventures on Instagram @fitlifechronicles. Check out his splash page at

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