Tod and I decided to take a three day backpack trip on the AT by going to Snickers Gap to Manassas Gap. Why does the title suggest that we only got to Ashby Gap? Well, I suppose that is an important part of our story.
As we drove to Snickers Gap the sky started to blacken and rain began to fall. The hottest days of the season were forecast (close to 100 heat index) and we were weighed down with the heaviest packs ever due to the uncertainly of the water supply. To top it off, we were about to tackle the most difficult section of Virginia. What could possibly go wrong?!?!
This section is known as the “roller coaster”. About a decade ago, the AT moved West onto a route that goes up and down, with 400-600 ft ascents and descents, one right after the other, for about 12 miles. Appropriately, it is known as “the roller coaster”. The hike began with a quick 400 ft. climb to Bear Dens Hostel. “Not bad!,” I thought. However, by the time we got to the beautiful area near Sam Moore Shelter, 3.5 miles later, we were shocked to find that we were going at about half our usual pace. At this rate, getting to our intended destination of Rod Hollow Shelter was looking pretty dim. Still, we pressed on, hopeful that we could pick up the pace.
Along the way we ran into a group of hikers who were attending the AT Conservancy conference. They would stop and we passed. When we stopped, they passed. Back and forth, we had opportunities to chat. (The next day, they took a day hike in the opposite direction and we saw them again!)
We used our water filter for the first time in a beautiful stream about a mile north of Rt. 605. Still, it was clear that we would need to stop for the night soon. We looked for a campsite that was supposedly just past Morgan Mill stream. No luck! We were headed up and up.
We never found the campsite. Tired, fried, whipped and beat, we reluctantly set up camp just off the trail near the top of Piney Ridge. I was convinced we were sitting on a bed of poison ivy! Although we had a delicious meal of mac and cheese ready to go, we soon realized that we had no utensils. Ugh! Have you ever eaten mac and cheese (and oatmeal the next morning) with just your fingers!?
The next day we took off determined to make up time and get to Dick’s Dome. After descending to Bolden Hollow there is a sharp turn right, up a hill to continue onto the AT. We didn’t see it! In fact, there is a white dash of paint on a tree near the turn that sort of suggests that one should continue straight instead of turn. (This is only a problem Southbound. North bound folks have a nice sign pointing to where to go. Please add one for those going Southbound!) We went off trail for quite a while before we realized our mistake and backtracked to get going in the right direction again.
We loaded up with tons of water (about 8 liters) at Rod Hollow. Although we had technically completed the roller coaster, the tremendous heat took its toll. The mud from the previous rains combined with the heat made it tough going. We were soaked with sweat and drinking water at a rate that was not sustainable in order to get to the next water supply. Our pace was awful and safety concerns caused us to make the decision to save the rest of the trip for a cooler day.
Luckily, we met a couple as we approached Ashby Gap that was willing to drive us to our car. All said, we learned some valuable lessons. Look at the elevation changes when planning trips, bring tons of food for energy, keep in mind trail conditions, and don’t plan tough hikes for 90+ day heat. Most importantly, when it stops being fun or health concerns kick in, take a break!