At 7 a.m. New Year’s Eve Bill, who is the original owner of Mt. Rogers Outfitters in Damascus, picked me up at Crazy Larry’s hostel. He shuttled me 63 trail miles north to Partnership Shelter so I could hike southward back to my car in Damascus. The most fitting way to welcome the new year would be on the trail, I thought.
My new roomier pack and extra winter gear freights a few pounds heavier than the set up I used when I left the trail for Christmas. Actually, it’s more than a few. The whole giddy-up weighs 37 lbs with food and water. It didn’t take long to feel the difference.
My goal was Hurricane Mountain Shelter some 20 miles from the drop-off point. With that jaunt, I was trying to set up a return home by Friday night. It would require several long days with a 24 miler on Thursday. That would enable a Friday noon finish. It didn’t happen, but first things first.
The southbound hike into Hurricane ended in a series of steep ascents. That’s where 13 days off the trail and the extra tonnage on my back reared their ugly heads. The day ended up with a short up hill night hike into a delightful shelter ideally situated to snag the sunrise. The kid was beat.
After camp chores, the stroke of hiker midnight turned out to be around 7:30 p.m. I texted new year greetings to my family and a few select hiker friends who would understand that I hadn’t nipped the champagne early. 2014 arrived a little early on Hurricane Mountain sans champagne.
Around actual midnight I awoke to the sound of distant fireworks and a sense stifling warmth. Had I died and gone to hell?
Actually, it was 20 degrees outside and my sleeping bag, augmented by down pants, booties and jackets, made heat stroke seem like a real possibility. I slept the remainder of the night with the bag unzipped and open to the waist. “Do I really need all this winter gear,” I questioned? The answer will come in the blog post following this one.
New Years Day dawned bright and sunny. Opposite the weather, it delivered one of the most difficult hikes of my life. First, the trail profile was mostly up hill – way up hill from 3,810 ft. to 5,430 ft. in altitude. What the guidebook didn’t say was that the rocks would be back in overwhelming force.
All the rocky delights were represented like a Whitman’s Sampler – talus, high steps, tombstones, loose rollers, jumbled piles. Some were even frosted with ice from the previous morning’s sleet storm I forgot to mention earlier.
So what, I rationalized. The Grayson Highlands ponies were the New Year’s Day featured attraction. They’re worth the price of admission.
What a price. My quads burned from the previous day’s marathon. Every high step was agonizing. Grayson is deceptive. You dip in and out of the park and pastures in such a way that several times you believe you’re done. You’re not and neither are the rocks. The southbound hike just gets harder.
So there I was closing in on sunset and still no ponies. Was I going to be “Oh Fer” and get skunked like my hiker friend Karma whose misfortune was to strike out on her thru hike last year? “Damn!” I cursed in fatigued disappointment.
Ultimately, the trail guided me up a bald topped like a fudge sundae with a crumbling brown rock pile. As I schlepped around the cherry on top, there they were!
In the far, far distance I spied ponies grazing high on a steep hillside. Thinking I wasn’t headed that way, I snapped a shaky telephoto shot with my iPhone thinking that would be all there was. Not much later I was parading through the middle of them.
Darkness was closing in rapidly with the shelter three long miles away. Two night hikes in a row. Grump grump.
The previous day’s sleet had painted the plants with a glassy coat. As the sun sank, the backlit splendor was sadly impossible to capture with a camera phone, but I tried anyway.
All I can say is that as my headlamp blazed the path forward, a million ice crystal facets wink back as if to say, “Slow down. Be patient. All will be well.” And it was.
The trail improved and promptly at 6:15 pm the shelter showed up right on time. After fetching water, I looked into a cold and clear sky winking with stars. Not a sight one sees in cities like the one where I live. All was well.
The shelter register reads. 1-1-14. “Sisu slept here on the first beautiful day of 2014 and wishes you a happy new year.”