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Must See Video: “Outdoors in the City”

Christian Wood just sent us this sweet video highlighting some of Richmond’s most popular outdoor pursuits — whitewater kayaking, mountain biking and rock climbing. It’s the kind of clip that makes you look out the window, check the weather and think hard about whether you want to take a half day off from work. (The answer is yes, you should.)

Nice work, Christian!

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Coming Soon: Downtown RVA Osprey Cam

Connor Riley attaches the new sign to the downstream side of the T. Tyler Potterfield Memorial Bridge.

Yesterday was an exciting day on the river for RichmondOutside.com.

For a couple of years now we’ve batted around the idea of putting a camera on an osprey or eagle nest somewhere in Richmond. Yesterday we got serious. Together with Dave Fary of Riverside Outfitters and local climber/data science entrepreneur Connor Riley, we headed out onto the James from Tredegar Beach with two missions: 1) Reinstall the sign under the T. Tyler Potterfield Memorial Bridge that led boaters to the safest passage through the Vepco levee and 2) begin preparations for mounting an osprey cam on one of the old Richmond-Petersburg Railroad Railroad bridge pilings.

Both missions were huge successes. The second we think will allow us to show off not only downtown RVA’s abundant wildlife in an intimate way, but the abundant human activity taking place on that stretch of the river as well. In short, we think this osprey cam will be a one-of-a-kind addition to RVA’s river scene.

Riley rock climbs to the top of a Richmond-Petersburg Railroad Bridge piling in the James River.

For mission one, Fary guided our company raft through the Vepco levee underneath the T Pot and into an eddy below one of the bridge pilings. Dozens watched from the above as Riley, a former Navy demolitions expert and experienced rock climber, repelled from the bridge and hung a blue “Falls of the James” sign in place of the “Ashland” sign that had hung there for years.

To get to mission two, Fary navigated the boat through a few small rapids to the now-defunct Richmond-Petersburg Railroad Bridge piling that we’d been told has had an active osprey nest for the past few years. (If you’re standing on the T Pot, it’s the fourth stone piling from the north bank of the James). We’ll eventually need a camera, a solar panel and the battery that the panel charges up there, and the goal for the day was to secure a reliable route to bring the hardware up to the top of the piling.

First impression: this granite beast looks much taller when you’re standing at the base of it. It must have been close to 40 feet to the top. It was slow going, as we set a 27-foot ladder in place and Riley attached anchors to the granite wall. When he reached the top of the ladder, Fary belayed for Riley, who rock climbed the remaining 10-12 feet to the top. From there he could set anchors for the hardware we’ll install hopefully later this week. When we were done, we ran Pipeline Rapids to our takeout at 14th Street.

I’ll be writing more about the osprey cam as we get closer to the launch date. If you happen to be down on Brown’s Island or on the T Pot during the day on Friday, look for us out on the water. We’ll be the guys climbing a giant bridge piling trying to give all of us the best view of bird life — and river life — in Richmond.

The cargo raft on its way to the 14th St. takeout after a successful day on and above the water.

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Caving in RVA?

First, let’s discuss common misconceptions about Caves in VA

There are no caves in RVA

Sad but true! Richmond is home to one of the nation’s oldest caving groups, though, commonly known as “grottoes” of the National Speleological Society. The Richmond grotto, Richmond Area Speleological Society  (RASS) for short, currently about 70 members ranging in different ages and backgrounds.  Most members are also rock climbers, canoers, kayakers, hikers, skiers, disc golfers, conservationists, mountain bikers, canyoneers, and other generally outdoorsy types. The caves RASS frequents most are in the Bath/Highland counties of Virginia and Pocahontas/Pendleton Counties of West Virginia. This is about a three hour drive west on I-64, and unlike going to the beach or NOVA on a Friday after work, traffic is always moving when heading west.

cave6Caves have snakes, bats, spiders, and the occasional bear!

Oh sorry, that’s partially true! Virginia caves are an exact median of the temperature range of the Appalachian Mountains at our latitude. Underground temperatures in Virginia sit around fifty degrees. Snakes, lizards, spiders, and other creepies don’t like it that cold; so other than at the entrance, it’s extremely rare to run into anything you would disagree with. As for bears, they don’t like caves because they are usually damp, windy places. Bears usually prefer to hibernate in confined spaces that insulate instead of drain heat out (such as hollow logs and earthen berms). In Virginia, we do have bats! Not to worry though, these are not the bats in Crocodile Dundee. Most bats are called Little Brown Bats and they are exactly that: small, little guys that have no interest in draining your blood. They are perfectly content with eating bugs and hanging out from the ceiling of caves.

cave9You will get lost if you go down there!

Dang, that’s also partially true! If you decide to just “wing it” and go underground without knowing the rules, you could definitely get lost or hurt. Being properly prepared is crucial to having a fun and safe experience. The same is true if you went on a backpacking trip without planning your backpack contents or your route! Proper caving preparation includes having maps, trail markers, three sources of light, a helmet, at least two other people and folks on the top side that know when you went in and when you plan on being out. If you are interested in learning the ropes; come to a monthly RASS meeting right here in Richmond, educate yourself on safe caving practices, mingle with the members; then sign up for the next RASS novice trip and you’ll be on your way to an exciting future in caving. Don’t go out and buy all new gear for your first caving trip, RASS can provide you with the correct equipment and know-how to get you started on this truly unique outdoor “feather in your hat”, or helmet in our case.

The Richmond Area Speleological Society travels all over the state and West Virginia in search of underground adventure.

The Richmond Area Speleological Society travels all over the state and West Virginia in search of underground adventure.

I’ve been to Luray Caverns; I know what to expect

Finally, this is not true!! Luray is a beautiful cave, but it’s not the prettiest, and it’s definitely not what you should expect from a real cave trip here in the Old Dominion. When you go on a real cave trip, you can expect to do short climbs, crawls, shimmies, and a lot of other fun different maneuvers. Also you better be prepared to get a little muddy! Since our mountains are amongst the oldest in the world, Virginia has procured extremely decorated caves. Don’t let commercial caves be your only experience underground!! You’ll be missing out, if you do.

Now that we have dispelled some of the rumors about caving (um, kind of?), let’s talk about how you can get your boots dirty! RASS meets at 7 p.m. on the first Thursday of every month at the NEW Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries building at 7870 Villa Park Drive, Suite 400 Henrico, VA  23228. (Villa Park 3)

cave4Check out our website to see where the current information about meeting contents. The meetings usually last for about an hour, and we always have a presentation on a recent trip, or a live training demo. When you are there, let it be known that you want to find out more about Caving or that you want to go on a trip. We will put you on a crew that is going either that month, or sometime soon and they will give you all the particulars. RASS does provide you with a place to camp close to the caves so plan on making a weekend out of it. Some of the best times are spent around a campfire post trip, reminiscing on the experiences of the day. Oh, yeah, did I mention that RASS is a non-profit club, which means, you will NEVER BE CHARGED TO GO CAVING? We strongly discourage you from ever paying to go on a cave trip.

If you have any questions please feel free to contact me by email, go to our website, or join Richmond Area Speleological Society group on Facebook. It’s always being updated on trips going out and other festivities.

 

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Destination Nepal – Before & After the Earthquake

 

In 2011, I spent over three months in Nepal traveling and kayaking in various remote areas.  During that time I developed a strong connection and marvel for a country of humble and compassionate people.  This wonder brought me back again in 2014, though with different goals.  There were still rivers and places I wanted to see, though I always found myself wanting to spend more time staying put in the villages than my paddling partners.  From my kayaking experience in the remote district of Dolpa & Humla I knew that I wanted to spend time in area where there were no cars or buses, only walking trails.  I wanted to frequent the same houses and get to know the locals and how they got on in their daily lives.  I had met so many Nepalis who lived the agrarian lifestyle and radiated some of the warmest smiles I had encountered, it was addicting.

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Humla

Late November as I wandered the maze of cobbled streets in Kathmandu I found myself in a volunteer office inquiring about teaching opportunities.  I had done some shorter stints of teaching in Upper Dolpa & Mysore, India and knew how energetic the young population could be.  When the coordinator suggested a working with Sherpas on their English in Kathmandu, I stopped her and explained I wanted to be far from these crowded and polluted streets.  So I was place in the town of Surkhe of the Ramechapp District.  To get there I would take a 9 hour bus ride, 3 of which were on mountainous roads and then still have to walk about an hour to get to my host family.  Having just got off a 24-hour bus from Western Nepal, this commute was quite inviting.  The village even overlooked one of my favorite paddling destinations, the Tamba Kosi River.

Surkhe

Surkhe

For the next month I lived with a host family and their 4 adorable children.  Every morning I woke up at 6:00 am had a cup of tea, some corn nuts, and walked about half an hour to the school while the sun rose and caste its first light on the Himalayas across the valley.  I taught English and Literature in the mornings to the upper level (class 11 & 12) before walking home again for lunch.  After lunch, I again took the walk through mustard fields, past chickens & marigolds back to school by 11:00 am for my other classes.  The afternoons was filled with English and some Math for the 8th, 9th, & 10th classes.  Over 80 students were packed into my 10th class geometry course!  In the evenings I returned to my host family for dinner and early to bed.  Six days a week the process repeated.

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12th Class Literature

On my days off I was able to explore the incredible landscape that surrounded me.  A 7-hour hike brought me to the top of Sailung (3200 meters) and views of the entire Rolwaling Himal Range.  A morning sunrise atop the meadows of Sailung with prayer flags snapping all around was a rare special moment in life where time seems to stop.  On another weekend I was able to link up with paddlers and run the continuous big water class IV Tamba Kosi River.  The endless single track, hospitable guesthouses, & rich culture create a unique area to explore Nepal and yourself.

About a month ago, two very powerful earthquakes and countless aftershocks struck this area and many other parts of central Nepal.  My host family was forced to sleep underneath their plastic greenhouse because damage to their home made it too dangerous to inhabit.  Since the earthquake, the country I love has been turned upside down with its citizens questioning even the ground they walk on.  Even weeks later the entire country slept outside in the rain as aftershocks continued to rattle the fragile infrastructure and their lives. The stream of social media of friends in the country who have shared first person accounts of the disaster has been humbling.

 

Many friends locally set up grass roots efforts to respond to the some of the most remote and hard hit areas outside of the major centers.  First response efforts were led by fellow rafting & kayaking guides who used their knowledge of the area, local connections, & money raised from social media campaigns to save lives and assess the situation.  Quickly it became apparent that more long-term projects were needed.  Improvised housings would need to be replaced by more permanent structures, & quickly due to the impending monsoon.

Nepal will take many years to rebuild, though one of the constant messages I see from friends is they want to build a better Nepal by the hands of the Nepalis locals.  These dark haired short statured Mongols have adapted to live EVERYWHERE in their country.  Their resourcefulness and ingenuity of making do with what the land provides is something to marvel at.  Their bonds of social security are held together through families and villages.

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Earthquake Resistant House

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Temporary School

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For a better Nepal to endure they will still need help from the outside.  Programs like Medical Trek Nepal & Mandala Organization continue to take in funds and turn donors money into houses.  Houses for a better Nepal, more resistant to earthquakes, yet extremely cost efficient.  Just $200 is enough to change a family’s life.

Local efforts and outside donations will make an amazing contribution, but Nepal will also need its biggest resource to return, tourist.  Tourism accounts for nearly 10% of Nepal’s GDP and has been growing over the past decade.  Out of 75 districts in Nepal less than 10 were severely affected by the earthquake.  The airport is totally operational and buses in Kathmandu are waiting.  If you have a love of the outdoors and mountains, there is no better destination on earth.  Nepal has it all and can be done on a shoestring budget, just make sure you like rice & lentils.  I can’t wait to get back!

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Elevate Nepal

Come climb and Elevate Nepal on Friday, June 19th from 6pm-9pm at Peak Experiences Climbing Center. Enjoy climbing and Nepali snacks while learning more about Nepal’s needs and people.  Entrance cost to the event will be a donation to support Nepali earthquake disaster relief. 100% of the money donated will be sent directly to a remote village through Medical Trek Nepal for housing during the upcoming monsoon season.

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Outdoors “Stupidity” Explored at Green Life

Lester Zook will offer his take on decision making -- good and bad -- in the outdoors Thursday at Green Life. Credt: mountainramblings.wordpress.com

Lester Zook will offer his take on decision making — good and bad — in the outdoors Thursday at Green Life. Credt: mountainramblings.wordpress.com

EDITORS NOTE: Due to the inclement weather forecast for Thursday evening, this event has been postponed. Check back for a makeup date.

 

Green Life Adventure Sports and Peak Experiences Indoor Rock Climbing are teaming up this Thursday to offer a really cool-sounding lecture that I want to highlight. At 6:30 p.m. (March 5), Lester Zook, owner of WILD GUYde Adventures near Harrisonburg, will give a talk entitled Stupidity Explored: Why Do Some People Get Hurt in the Outdoors?

Zook is a Single Pitch Instructor with the American Mountain Guides Association, and is a member of the Professional Climbing Instructors’ Association, the National Speleological Society, and the Access Fund.  He teaches and presents frequently on outdoor leadership and risk management issues. This should be a fascinating lecture — great thinking starter for anyone interested in outdoor safety or leadership issues — and the timing couldn’t be better, with spring right around the corner.

Green Life is located at 9691 W.Broad St. in Glen Allen. And since everyone likes free stuff, there will be door prize drawings and free shwag for attendees.

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Trekking the Himalayas: The local view from the top of the world

Could a return to Nepal compare with our technical climbing and mountaineering success there in 2000? Knowing that a real mountaineering route would be harder fourteen years later, could we instead enjoy the pros and cons of a trekking route in the Everest region? We would find out in 2014. We call it, “Laurel and Hardy do the Himalaya.”

Richmonder Harvey Lankford and Remi Sojka in the Himalayas in 2014. Credit: Harvey Lankford

Richmonder Harvey Lankford and Remi Sojka in the Himalayas in 2014. Credit: Harvey Lankford

Trekking means carrying 30 lbs in our packs, not 110 lbs like on Aconcagua in 1998 when we made double carries to get all that gear up the mountain. In 2014, we would be among the 5% who trek independently, meaning no guide and no porters. Only occasionally would our route be scary or icy, but not requiring ice axes, full-size crampons, ropes, and living in tents. At heights up to 18,500 ft where half the atmosphere is gone, the main risk is high-altitude sickness.

Trekking on mostly established trails from teahouse to teahouse is a matter of overcoming Mountaineer’s Foot – putting one in front of the other no matter the steep terrain, or hours. The biggest problem is acclimatization –the body’s slow adjustment to the demands of thin air. Teahouse rooms are unheated, but they offer better shelter than tents. Many have warm dining rooms with a pot bellied stove burning yak dung, and simple hot meals. Compared to 2000, most teahouses now have a solar-powered LED light for each room, battery recharging capability, and Wifi connection by satellite. We could communicate back home about such favorite subjects as historical mountaineering literature and high altitude medicine. This was a tremendous change, even if the primitive sanitation and frequency of GI illnesses were not. The camaraderie of meeting other hikers from around the world was still there, of course.

Our trip was punctuated by numerous medical incidents, not just for us, but for others. There were daily helicopter evacuations – for things like orthopedic injuries and high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE). We achieved three of our five goals. A glaciated 17,800 ft pass named Cho La connects deep valleys leading to two minor peaks, 18,500 ft Kalapattar and 17,600 ft Gokyo Ri. Both summits were purposely reached about 4 p.m., then bundled up with five layers of clothing we waited. For 60 minutes the changing colors of the setting sun painted the western side of Everest with alpenglow. The descent in darkness was “interesting” but we could only think of tough early explorers like George Mallory or Eric Shipton who had walked 300 miles just to get started on some of these same places. At that time, they were just blank on the map.

The North Face of Mount Everest. Credit: Wikipedia

The North Face of Mount Everest. Credit: Wikipedia

So why did we go? British physiologist Griffith Pugh showed during the six months-long Silver Hut Himalayan medical study in 1961 that the limit of long-term existence even with warmth, shelter, and food was 17,000 ft. Some people can go higher for a while, but not stay there permanently — oxygen is good stuff. Why did we once again put up with the work, cold, dirt, misery, hypoxia, and thirty-pound weight loss between us during those three weeks? All we needed to do was look up at the white giants towering to 29,000 feet in a 360 degree panorama all around us to have our answer. We felt privileged to witness the incredible powers of Creation and Destruction in these Greater Himalaya.

In 1921, George Mallory described Mountt Everest physically as, “a prodigious white fang excrescent from the jaw of the world.” The introspective view is even more important, as he explained, “concerned no less with the spiritual side of us than with the physical.” He was right. We came back richly rewarded.

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American Alpine Club seeks to energize RVA’s climbing community

Of the many great outdoor activities for which Richmond is known, climbing may not top the list. However, if you look closely, you will find a community of dedicated climbers of various styles making the most of Richmond’s diverse and unique outdoor and indoor climbing spaces. Whether bouldering along the Buttermilk Trail, lead climbing and top roping at the Manchester Wall, or “pulling plastic” at Peak Experiences Rock climbing gym, people of various ages and experience levels have discovered that Richmond has a lot to offer.

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The Manchester Wall is probably RVA’s most popular climbing location. Credit: onthevergeoftears.wordpress.com

The city also serves as a springboard for larger adventures, whether 100 or 1,000 miles away. Each week, “traditional” and “sport” climbers head out to Old Rag, Seneca Rocks, or the New River Gorge to rock climb; alpinists seek ice climbing adventures in the Shenandoah; or further north each winter, and seasoned mountaineers plan trips to the great mountain ranges in hopes of summiting some of the world’s most majestic peaks.

Among individuals within each of these different climbing styles, I have repeatedly heard a consistent message: “The Richmond climbing scene is on the cusp!” While this means different things to different people, it certainly forecasts an increase in the number of people utilizing Richmond’s climbing resources and increased demand and impact on the local climbing areas.

As an outdoor community, how will we best respond to the increased interest and participation in climbing? My personal answer and decision is to support and organize the local community of climbers who are members of the American Alpine Club.

At a national level, the American Alpine Club exists because “together we’re stronger.” The RVA Chapter of the AAC seeks to realize this vision at a local level. For me, this primarily means three things:

To realize these objectives, the RVA Chapter of the AAC has begun to host social events to further develop community, and climbing clinics to promote proper technical skills and risk management. Going forward, we are planning a number of additional socials and events, organizing climbing trips, volunteering to support the areas we love, and partnering with businesses, other organizations, and the City.

The American Alpine Club exists to support our shared passion for climbing and respect for the places we climb. Towards that end, we’re excited to engage with the Richmond outdoors community!

If you’re interested in learning more or joining the American Alpine Club, please visit the AAC website or contact Rick.

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‘Friends’ report: JRPS usage dwarfs other area attractions

If you’re a James River Park System user, you might already know about the Friends of the James River Park and the regular newsletter they send out. It’s full of valuable information and volunteer opportunities for park lovers. I wanted to highlight the lead item in their most recent newsletter because it offers some updates on a topic I’ve covered before.

Volunteers from the James River Hikers at the new Texas Beach bordwalk in the JRPS.

Volunteers from the James River Hikers at the new Texas Beach boardwalk in the JRPS. Credit: Dennis Bussey

Back in early September, I wrote about the sky-high usage numbers that park Superintendent Nathan Burrell found when he pulled the data from the newly-installed infrared and electronic counters. “Up through July,” Burrell said at the time, “we were at 500,000+ visitors. That’s May through July. And we only have counters at seven locations right now.”

Well, now the Friends of the JRP newsletter is reporting that the park saw “795,117 visitors from May 2014 until the end of October 2014.” Extrapolating from that now rather large data set suggests that by May 2015 the JRPS will see well over 1 million users and probably closer to 1.5 million.

Here’s some perspective: In February the Times-Dispatch reported that Maymont was the “most-visited place in the Richmond area,” with 527,153 visitors in 2013. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts was second with 479,907 visitors. Rounding out the top five were the Children’s Museum of Richmond with 393,529 visitors; Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden with 339,139 visitors; and Henrico’s Three Lakes Nature Center and Aquarium with 304,621 visitors.

The Washington Redskins training camp brought in 164,789 visitors this year. Needless to say, the Redskins, with their tax breaks and sweetheart deals, don’t offer the city what the JRPS does in one or two summer months.

The James River Park has always been a popular place. We now know how popular.

The James River Park has always been a popular place. We now know how popular.

And keep this in mind too, as I wrote in September, “The JRPS with it’s 1 million or more visitors a year is maintained by four full-time employees (including Burrell), two seasonal employees and one part-timer.” Note to the mayor and city council: That’s crazy!

And the Friends’ newsletter also reports that the park “provides a huge economic benefit to the City. Using the $16 per day per user estimate for park economic impact numbers from the 2014 edition of the Virginia Outdoors Plan, JRPS right now, provides a $12,721,872 economic impact directly to the City and local businesses.”

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Counters show sky-high James River Park usage

Back in late May, I reported on the installation of counters — vehicle and infrared — at seven different units of the James River Park. The counters were made possible by a $2,000 gift from the Friends of the James River Park and the James River Outdoor Coalition. The idea with the counters was, for the first time, to acquire actual usage numbers for the 20-parcel, 550-acre park that runs through the heart of Richmond. Up until then, usage surveys were conducted and visitation estimates were extrapolated from there.

Infrared counters are used to count people at a couple of park locations.

Infrared counters are used to count people at a couple of park locations.

With the heavy summer park-use season now over, I spoke with Nathan Burrell, JRPS superintendent, to see how much mounting those counters did. The results were pretty astounding.

“Up through July we were at 500,000+ visitors,” he said. “That’s May through July. And we only have counters at seven locations right now.”

Burrell said he’ll be getting the August numbers by the end of the week, and he expects them to be somewhere north of 100,000 visitors but probably less than July’s 160,000 tally. June had 141,000.

Burrell explained that they use a conservative coefficient to account for the fact that many of the cars that arrive at the park have multiple people in them and some people use the park more than one time a day.

“We’re missing some people there, but we thought it was a safe number. We wanted to be conservative. The last thing I wanted is to be wildly high and then people just disregard them.”

To put these numbers in perspective, in February the Times-Dispatch reported that Maymont was the “most-visited place in the Richmond area,” with 527,153 visitors in 2013. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts was second in the region with 479,907 visitors. Rounding out the top five were the Children’s Museum of Richmond with 393,529 visitors; Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden with 339,139 visitors; and Three Lakes Nature Center and Aquarium with 304,621 visitors.

The James River Park has always been a popular place. We now know how popular. Credit: Richmond.com

The James River Park has always been a popular place. We now know how popular. Credit: Richmond.com

The Washington Redskins training camp brought in 164,789 visitors this year.

Burrell said that in 2012, the park system conducted a survey of usage from which they extrapolated a year-long visitation number: that number was between 500,000 and 1.5 million. “We’re going to be close to that million mark (when 2014 is over),” Burrell said.

Here’s some more perspective that city council and the mayor should take note of for future budgets. The JRPS with it’s 1 million or more visitors a year is maintained by four full-time employees (including Burrell), two seasonal employees and one part-timer. That’s something to keep in mind when proposals for $250,000 Carytown signs and redundant, million-dollar bridges over the Haxall Canal come up for debate.

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‘America’s Footpath,’ a plane crash, and first ascents in the Blue Ridge

The land, seas, and skies have been crossed time and time again, but there are still mountains we have yet to summit. Climbers will battle earth and ice for years to have their name forever attached to a line of rock. In our world, first ascents are one of the last forms of genuine exploration. It takes the creative and daring artist to look up at a rock face and go for it – the adventure is not found at the top, but in the fear and unknown route to get there.

pic1As spring crept into the Blue Ridge this year, my girlfriend and I drove out to Dobie Mountain in George Washington National Forest next to the popular Humpback Rocks. The plan was to welcome the changing of the seasons and for me to take the opportunity to climb on something real. As we began the hike, the wind ripped through the neighboring peaks until we dipped down below the ridgeline, making a sharp u-turn onto the Appalachian Trail, “America’s Footpath.”  Many boots had passed along this white-blazed trail and I felt a sense of reverie every time I travelled on it. About a hundred yards into the A.T. a few small boulders hugged the trail. I threw on my climbing shoes and began working out sequences. I ticked a few little guys off and then went off-trail and up the mountainside. About fifty yards up was a classic Virginia bluestone boulder. The chossy rock broke in burly lines and most of the underside had snapped off creating an epic roof. I set my feet and with the first move my left hand ripped a brick-sized chunk out. I fell back hard on my wrist. Spiders and millipedes came crawling out from the empty spot and I brushed them off creating a new handhold. There could have been a hundred different routes on that boulder, ever-changing as it broke away over the years. I was determined to get one of them. After a few more attempts, the rocks held, my feet stuck, and I was able to pull up and over the lip of the boulder.

pic4 (1)Back on the AT, we weaved through the barren forest and trounced over matted leaves.  The trail held a story at each of its 2,181 miles, and I thought about a time in the future when I could travel each one with her. About a mile further we came to Glass Hollow Overlook. Hundreds of pebbles, fallen from their former peaks, had leveled trees, revealing the patched valley floors stretching east.  Behind them, the rolling mountains blended from earth to sky.

I hiked down to the bottom of this outcrop and began looking for climbable routes on the twenty-foot face. Unfortunately I had forgotten to pack crashpads, ropes, or really a suitable spotter.

I found a vertical crack along the left side that ended on a small ledge about 12 feet up, leaving the last eight feet for some basic rock scrambling. I cleaned some crisp lichen off the crack and then started my ascent. A lay-back and small finger jams gave me enough to get off the ground and a couple reachy crimps allowed me to pull up onto the ledge. From here I had one more level of rock to climb before I was on easy street. I stretched, looking for anything to grab but only found sloping terrain and patches of moss. I looked down for any footholds. There was crumbling lichen all over the ledge but one thigh-high pocket to my right. I lifted my foot up and wedged my toes into the pocket but immediately put it back down – it was too high to trust. I doubted I could shift my weight onto it.

pic5 (1)The panic hit immediately. I looked back down at my girlfriend taking pictures, and she knew something was wrong. I shuffled back and forth on the narrow ledge fearing my foot would slip on the brittle lichen. “Could I turn around, sit down, and jump off?  This didn’t look as high from the ground,” I thought. I kept stalling, chalking up my hands and searching for any decent handhold to pair with my shaky foot.  It was a typical climber reaction, as if more chalk would eventually turn a sloping hold into a jug.  My girlfriend shouted, “Should I be spotting you?” “That’s probably a good idea.” I said, “just try not to let my head hit first.”  She paced back and forth on the ground, arms high, trying to guess my landing zone.

Hesitation, uncertainty, the fear of falling. I had no other choice. I dug my right toe into that lone pocket and shifted all my weight onto it praying the sticky rubber would do its job. I stood up, leaned forward, and lunged for the top. An immediate rush coupled with relief. Another send. Maybe the first for this line, this rock? I would never know. I realized then the personal connection that was different in each climber: some climb for exercise, others to compete, some to achieve a higher grade, and a few climb to create.

Back in one piece on the A.T., we hiked towards the Paul C. Wolfe shelter. As we approached, we could see a granite bench out of place in the Virginia woods. The bench was a memorial for John Donovan. A member of the Old Dominion Appalachian Trail Club, he had disappeared attempting to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail back in 2005. Exactly one year to the day later his abandoned campsite saved two lost hikers. His self-centered trek ending in purpose.pic6

Even farther on along the hike we came across an old plane crash site from 1964. In the darkening forest it was eerie standing over this wreckage. I’d like to think that the pilot bailed into the Blue Ridge and escaped to live the quiet life in the woods with only the streams and the birds and his mind.

After having my own scare, I contemplated John Donovan, that pilot, climbers, and pioneers. Those that spend their lives pursuing what they love and whose lives end in that pursuit. Pilots dream of flying faster, higher, farther, of seeking freedom in the skies.  Hikers are constantly traveling thousands of miles to embrace nature one step at a time. To climb is to explore vertically. Those that choose to stand on that ledge daily, hearts racing and palms sweating humble me. We all had our own reasons for the journey. I was still unsure of mine. All I knew, sitting at Blue Mountain Brewery that night having some suds with my girl… I knew I was a little bit luckier.

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