LGN 69: Old Rag Mountain


Old Rag is, apparently, the most popular hiking trail in the Shenandoahs. It’s wise to get there before 7 am according to some guides. Maybe that’s why Pete likes to go at night.

Meet Pete aka Butterfingrs

Pete is kind of crazy but in a good way. If you think I’m being harsh, check out the photos of the group at the summit. Notice what everyone is wearing. Note that Pete is wearing a light long sleeve shirt under a cotton T-shirt, shorts, and shoes with no socks. Note how freezing cold everyone else looks. Note how Pete has chosen to ignore the 28 degree F forecast and mountain top wind chill factor.


He’s a former intern at GD. Ah, to be barely in my 20’s again. He has done a bunch of marathons. He hiked the Appalachian Trail last Summer (after months of researching and gathering super ultra light gear), which is over 1,000 miles long and takes about 3 months.

He attempted to ride a unicycle from Arlington to Pittsburgh last Winter but got iced out. He’s planning a unicycle trip across the US for this Summer.

Since he’s not my son or nephew or brother or whatever, I highly encourage all of this wandering and exploring and skirting school.

If I were independently wealthy I would totally be into doing a photo biopic of Pete’s adventures. Except I’d be driving or something as opposed to doing all of that walking/hiking and madness. Join him on the road for a day or two here and there. Chronicle the journey and the people.

I tried to get him to come to a mental toughness class, but at the time he must have decided it would be easier to walk for three months like an ersatz Forrest Gump.

Sadly, out of the nearly 40 people Pete invited to Old Rag only 15 agreed to go. And this was after he pushed the date back a week to accommodate more people’s schedules. Then another person canceled due to illness and some more people backed out. Then the day before the hike four more people backed out. I almost roped in some gym people. Almost.

It ended up being only five of us. That’s a good, manageable number, though.

Two things.

  1. Granted, everything about this hike is about as inconvenient as is possible. Leave NoVA at 1 AM. Drive for over an hour and a half to get there around 3 AM to start the hike in the middle of the night in sub-freezing weather. Get to the summit after a strenuous effort in time for sunrise a little before 7 AM. Walk and walk and walk and walk and walk back to the car. After 7 to 8 hours of hiking, get back in the car and drive home for another hour and a half.So I can understand why people would be reluctant. Believe me, I’ve given plenty of “maybe”s in the past.
  2. To my gym friends who couldn’t make it or decided not to, you probably did the right thing. Especially if you’re not in the habit of hiking nearly 10 miles. Shenandoah hikes are very hilly and rocky. They wear me out, to be honest. I’m not a big fan of that terrain. Well, my knees and feet aren’t. But that wasn’t the problem really. The problem on this occasion was the snow and ice.

If you’re a Facebook friend you can see some of the pics I took on Friday night’s (or Saturday morning’s) outing. I had lots of ideas of photos to take and things to try (like light painting on the rocks and light painted portraits) but … I wanted to live.

The Easy Part

The story of me doing anything that requires effort for hours on end is usually a story of muscle cramps. This time was no different. Even before we got to the actual trail — just walking on the road at a slight incline — the backs of my lower legs were sore. It’s probably from training. It’s been a good but tough cycle — EDTs. This is also a reminder, again, to be active outside of the gym. Come on, warm and dry weather.

The easy part is about 3 miles of hiking up the side of the mountain. Nine switchbacks. I don’t know how everyone else was doing but my lower legs were burning. Just full of lactic acid, I guess. And my feet were numb. My right foot was falling asleep. Must’ve have laced up the boots too tight.

I’m generally slow so I was lagging behind. I should have stopped and fixed my boots early on but I didn’t. I didn’t want to lose sight of people, y’know, in the dark in the woods at 3:30 AM on a trail I’ve never been on. And the pace way fast because of Dan.

Meet Dan. Dan has lost hundreds of pounds over the past year+ through sheer discipline and lifehacking. Part of that process has included a methodical approach to (everything and) walking. He’s been training for a 50K walking event. That’s 30 miles. So he started by walking to work, then local Arlington trails, then local hikes, then hikes in the mountains, then 20 mile weekend walks on the local foot trails. And he walks fast. Faster on inclines just because.

Whatever the case, three miles of uphill hiking is tough, especially when that’s your warm up, right. So that plus fatigued muscles and I was feeling muscle twinges here and there. Not a good sign but whatever. You just buckle down, turn your head lamp on and start thinking about the hike in different terms.

Any time you have a tough task in front of you, you size it up, break it up into doable, bite-sized chunks and get at it until it’s done.

It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time but we started to see snow and ice on the trail. Obviously you had to be careful where you stepped. You had to grab tree branches worn smooth from the hundreds or thousands of people who have grabbed those same tree branches before you. So okay. Strenuous night hike. Now with night hike ice. Interesting.

Meet Alex and Anna. Anna? I hope her name is Anna or I’m going to be embarrassed. Alex and Anna, I met that night, and they were keeping an eye out for me, which is a good thing because we reached the foreshadowing of the scramble.

A large stone in the midst of an inclined section of trail. About 6 ft. high and imagine that it had been split down the middle by lightning down to the ground. The gap between the halves was V-shaped, narrower at the bottom. Like a baked potato split with a butter knife. What little actual trail there was between the two halves (about 10 inches wide) was slick with frictionless ice. To the right, a steep hill or drop into the dark. To the left, a horizontal wedge. The trail under your feet: ice.

You had to crawl up on to the rock to your left and belly crawl underneath the edge of another boulder to get past this part of the trail. The complication here is that the rock that you’re laying on to shimmy your way through has a stream of ice right down the middle of it.

It was at this time, while on this rock and trying to figure out how to work this that a muscle cramp in my left calf hit. Luckily, my foot was in a position that allowed me to immediately stretch it. Then it tried to cramp again. Then again. Then again. There was much repetitive cursing. Alex and Anna were there to help me through. Passed my backpack and camera bag up to Alex. Backed off the rock on to the trail and grabbed a tree branch in order to not slide backward on the ice all the while trying to stretch that cramp out.

Whenever I tried to lift a leg to climb up … meh. It’s at that point that you start to wonder. How the hell am I going to hike, scramble and climb up the rest of this mountain? We haven’t even started yet.

So I just stood there sh-ttily for a bit. My muscles had enough time to calm down a little so I was able to get back on the rock, get my right leg over the icy part and pull myself slightly up and through. Much easier without the backpack. The first overlook was only about 30 ft. after that. Thank goodness. Well, it was pretty much the thick of night so there wasn’t much to see. I took pictures. Most didn’t turn out. Oh well. Rested a little. Stretched a little. Drank some pickle brine and water.

The question was asked, what should we do? We went on, of course. I put my bear crawl to good use on them rocks.

The Scramble

At this point, most of the trail was big ol’ rocks, boulders, crevices, caves. One little confused wild mouse. Thick veins of ice running down the sides of a cleft that you lowered yourself into. It was beautiful.

The boulder and paths were lit with faint moonlight and our head lamps. The only good thing I have to say about that ice, aside from making an interesting story, is that if it looked icy it was. If it didn’t look icy it was dry and solid and had traction. It was awesome.

Then the scramble turned upward. Every incline, every step up, every boulder — I dreaded. Each one was like, “Okay. How am I going to manage this?” Not because it was too hard for me. I love that stuff. It was because my body was just … off. I tried to keep pressure off my left calf. My right achilles would threaten to cramp. I’d lift my right leg high and hip flexor would threaten to cramp. It was just all out of any proportion. So %$@#! frustrating.

I ended up relying on upper body strength, which isn’t efficient but it worked. Get myself up on a boulder backwards and use my arms. Wedge myself in a chimney and get my body in there so I could pull with my arms while bracing with the legs.

It was definitely exhilarating. You’d turn your head and look behind you to see a steep slope covered with snow and then beyond the range of your head lamp just darkness.

It got very, very iffy at some points. Not stupid iffy. Not one-slip-and-you’ll-plummet-to-your death iffy. More like one-slip-and-you’ll-fall-and-bruise-something iffy. Or sprain something. It would take two or three successive slips to really damage yourself enough to be health or life threatening. Or one-slip-and-ice may have been a life/death thing. Oh well.

Alex carried my pack for a while. Then Pete hung back to guide me up the two areas that involve actual climbing. He said, “If you can get through this part the rest is easy. Think of it as easy rockclimbing.”

The ice made it more difficult than it should have been. Challenging but doable.

We got past that part and after a little break headed up to the summit. After some badly icy trails we reached a kind of boulder field and then the summit just in time to wake up a stranger and enjoy sunrise.


It got mighty cold up there. Pete’s backpack was about 40 lbs. of drinks and food. Champagne, orange juice, milk, beer, coffee, raw eggs and bacon, a pot to cook the eggs, a little stove, candied bacon. Homemade quiche.

Unfortunately, the stove didn’t work and it was too dang cold and windy so we headed back down. I had to get to the kite festival in DC and Alex and Anna had somewhere to be.

The Walk Back

The walk back is actually longer than the hike to the summit. Brace yourself. It was mentally draining, for me at least, knowing that I had about 5 miles of walking back to the parking lot. I was mad. Not mad at anybody. Just mad at physics and biomechanics. I wanted to be done!

On the way down from the summit was your typical trail, right. Oh. Did I mention that I fell? My own fault. F’ing around with the camera while standing on ice. Alex said that his mother had broken her ankle messing with her camera when she should have been hiking. It happens. Anyway, it wasn’t anything too bad. Just an awkward fall but when I hit the ground my toes did the cramp twinge. What the hell is wrong with me?

It was kind of like that the whole way down. See, after a while the narrow winding trail down the side of the mountain was made of ice and snow. It was like a downhill stream of ice and snow with rocks poking out.

At first I tried grabbing branches. Then doing the controlled slide. Finally I gave up on it, sat down and slid down the ice on my butt. Had to do that a number of times. For some reason my adductors(?) — the inside of my thighs started to cramp. I know, right? WTH.

It took a lot of concentration to get down the ice trail. It got easier when I thought about it like a stream. Step on the dry rocks or use them as brakes.

There was lots of butt sledding down rocky ice trails. Not a euphemism. Oh. Guess who keeps his iPhone in his back pocket. Guess who stood up and realized that there was a hole in his back pocket where his iPhone used to be. Yep. Guess who had no idea how long it had been since that happened.

I tried to go back up the trail but I couldn’t manage it. Too icy. Luckily, Pete came back to see what was taking me so long. I told him I had lost my phone. He ran back up the trail somehow and while I was yelling for him to not worry about it (I figured someone would find it and I’d have a good chance of recovering it that way if the battery didn’t run out first) I heard him yell, “Got it!”

The glass on the back is cracked and dinged but otherwise it’s fine.

I told you I was kind of a load.

Eventually the trail met up with the fire road. From then on out it’s just a loooooong but easy walk. I did a lot of focused breathing to keep the muscles going.

Then the car ride back. Then uploaded the photos. Then headed out to DC for the kite festival. That was fun. There are pictures of that, too. Took the metro in from Ballston.

Physically, I was exhausted and my legs were NOT having it. All that extra walking around the National Mall. It was tough. It was a good time, though. Hung out with some fellow camera nerds on a beautiful day with a perfectly blue sky, white clouds, sequined with kites of all sizes shapes and colors.


I haven’t pulled an all-nighter in ages. I did better than I thought I would with the no-sleep thing but it definitely caught up to me with ferocity.

Anyway, once I get some distance between me and the hike I’ll start forgetting the bad stuff and remembering the thrill. Then we may have to plan a bigger outing.

Lace up your boots and fire up your head lamp

A good trip especially for the Underground Athletes in the house. It would make for a great mental toughness day. Or mental toughness night, actually.

But I have no intentions of ever doing that again if there’s ice on the trail. That’s just not wise. I think those snow storms that near-missed us around DC did their thing up in the mountains. It probably would have been worse last week.

Keep it in mind.

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