Sometimes it’s good to find out what you really can’t do any more.
The only other time that I’d hiked the Ridge Trail to Old Rag, that craggy outlier of the Blue Ridge in the eastern reaches of Shenandoah National Park, was August, 1992. Back then, the only notation I made in my logbook was my time to complete the 7.1-mile circuit from the upper parking lot: 4-1/2 hours. Now, I remember from that hike that it was a little tricky, and I particularly remember the section where you have to billy goat-hop from one boulder to another. I think it was foggy, and I went on a weekday when there wasn’t much traffic. What I found this past Sunday when I repeated the hike, was a lot harder than I remember. I almost wish that the ranger at the check-in station had told me, “This trail is not for you, out-of-shape middle-aged guy.”
Let me back up a bit. Old Rag is one of better-known mountains to hike in this part of the country. The north face is a ragged mess of tanker-sized boulders, and the upper reaches of the Ridge Trail are more the idea of a trail than a real trail, at least compared to what we day hikers in the East deal with. Or, as the concrete signpost at the Byrds Nest Shelter says, with unaccustomed albeit understated frankness, “RIDGE TR. IS VERY STEEP AND ROCKY.”
The first half of the climb, about 1000 feet, is not particularly arduous, just a steady climb through the usual Blue Ridge woods, with a smattering of mountain laurel. The biggest hazard you face, at this season, is the steady pelting of falling acorns. After that, things start to get a little crazy. There are three or four narrow, deep cracks that you have to negotiate. Then, at one point, the trail blaze, instead of the usual inch-and-a-half bars of friendly blue paint, is an arrow pointing straight down. I’ve lost a little agility and flexibility in my legs, and I’ve never had any upper-body strength to work with. I’ve made up for it with stronger claustrophobia. As I worked through the first crack, I experienced a twinge of panic, and once I got out of it, I felt the second twinge, when I realized that I could only go up—I was not going back down through that again. Ever.
When I got to the ledge, and couldn’t get over it the first time, I honestly wanted to cry like a little kid, “I cannot do this.” See, there was this ledge, about waist high, that you have to get up onto to continue on the trail. It’s in a crack about four feet wide, and blocked by a pointy stone jutting out about shoulder height. Probably what I did 14 years ago was chimney-walk the wall and jump over, but by this time I was already running at 80% and I didn’t trust my legs. So I pulled myself up on the jutting-out stone and slung myself over. Maybe it was easier the first time with new boots and no mud. Halfway up, I sincerely hoped that I wasn’t going to twist a knee.
I think I reached the first of the false summits shortly thereafter. After that, I didn’t so much mind the mini-tunnel that makes you drop to your knees, or the nasty joke of a boulder wedged above the trail made of steps cut into the rock. When I got to the boulder-hopping section, I sort of crawled up the boulders on my knees. I just kept working it, maybe three minutes on, three minutes off to get my breathing and anxiety back under control. I stopped for some food, but the lunch I brought, some poor choices, just sucked the moisture out of my mouth.
I did indeed make it to the top of that G.D. mountain, three hours after leaving the parking lot. The views are fine up there, but the thing with me is that I usually enjoy the process, the climbing, more than I enjoy the summit. I took a picture for three guys hiking together, and I surprised myself by joking with them about the swarm of gnats that rests on the uppermost rocks, waiting for a foolish human to climb up.
Going back down, the Saddle Trail is a lot easier to take. It would be one of the more severe climbs of the Blue Ridge trails, but it’s still doable. Oddly enough, the Weakley Hollow Fire Road, which connects the Saddle Trail to the parking areas in a long gentle downgrade, is perhaps the smoothest, best-maintained fire roads in the Park that I’ve ever hiked. I had a brief “Big Two-Hearted River” splash in the cold waters of Brokenback Run, a tributary of Hughes RIver.
My time wasn’t too bad: from the lower parking area, which added about 40 minutes to the hike, I made the 9.4-mile loop (2300 feet of elevation change), in 5:40. But I think that’s my last time over the Ridge Trail.