Trip Report: A Stormy Night atop Elliott Knob (11/23-11/24)

Like the DCUL low-mileage trip to Elliott Knob led by Cassie and Erik back in March 2019, this weekend’s hike turned out to be more demanding than the typical “LM.” No matter how many times our group scoured the details of Cassie and Erik’s trip report, nor how many weather advisory alert notifications we checked and swiped off our phones, each of us likely underestimated the (fun?) challenges of this seemingly straightforward hike. I want to congratulate and thank each of the participants — half of whom were first-time DCULers — for greeting the challenges with a forgiving and can-do attitude. 

Kathryn, Zach, Alex D (AD), Joe, Stan, Pat, Don, and Alex B (AB) all met at Vienna North lot at 7:30 AM on Saturday. AB provided a quick logistical rundown of how we’re setting up the shuttle and how we were to divvy up the cars. We filed away, two-by-two, into the four cars necessary to set up the shuttle. It was a cold morning after a relatively warmer week, giving us a healthy dose of the cold air that was to follow us all weekend. We were in a bit of a rush due to freezing rain the forecast in the afternoon. 

After setting up the shuttle, the group started at the Chimney Hollow trailhead. The first set of stream crossings were fully in their autumnal form: mere hints of vernal riverbeds, foreshadowing the challenges of finding solid sources of water later on. The rest of the afternoon was a gradual climb up Crawford Mountain and ultimately Elliott Knob, with only a few steep sections and switchbacks. The group powered through these climbs like a locomotive, in almost implicit agreement that to stop is to risk getting caught in the oncoming rain. Despite the near-freezing temperatures, the unrelenting climb up the ridge was a great lesson in layering and sweat management.  

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Buffalo Spring was the first major water source of the weekend. Zach was the only one of us to make use of this spring, which reportedly was nearly black with sediment and pure nastiness. In the final two miles of the ascent, it felt like we were hiking up into a cloud. As we crawled up the last leg along the service road to Elliott Knob, we were reminded of the differences between windward and leeward sides of ridges. With the rain coming down harder and harder, and the wind slamming us against the slope, the group decided to use the lower spruce stand as a bit of protection instead of attempting to camp up top near the fire tower. The wind and freezing rain battered our shelters for the whole evening and most of the night. Many of us had issues with the wind pulling out our stakes from the soft, needley ground. And most of us had to venture out into the storm to re-adjust our shelters at least once in the night. A few of us skipped a hot meal that night, since the wind was just too strong to cook, even in the vestibules. No campfires and group chats, tragically. 

Fortunately, the rain let up and the clouds dispersed enough to cover us instead with the warming red glow of the sun. Wake up call was around 6:30 AM, but due to the challenges of frozen shoes, sleeping bags, and tarps, we didn’t finish packing up until around 7:20. On top of that, most of us were running low on water and didn’t want to risk relying on the only spring ahead of us on the trail. So most of us headed down to the man-made pond below the summit to refill for the day. We finally left camp around 7:45, hiking along the North Mountain Trail. Because the trail threaded itself along the spine of the ridge, powerful winds knocked against us for the first hour or so. For the most part, the group stayed together and stopped only when the wind gave us a brief break. No one bothered to stop at the Chestnut Flats Spring, which was a ways down on a spur trail. 

Somewhere just west of Archer Knob, after a brief stop, the tight formation of the group broke apart. AB, Kathryn, Joe, and Don found themselves alone and decidedly off-trail (the trail also seemed to completely disappear around this point; there haven’t been blazes for miles). They decided to retrace their steps in hope of finding the group up near Archer Knob. When they neared the top of the hill, there were no other group members to be seen. There were, on the other hand, signs of foot-traffic heading down towards the forest road, where AB told the group we should be headed. When the no-longer-lost group shuffled down the slope following the tracks of the other group, they could not see or hear anyone in either direction along the forest road. AB decided to try to catch up to the rest of the group, who must have pushed on, thinking that the no-longer-lost group was ahead of them. In retrospect, AB as the leader should have done more to ensure that the group stayed together on Sunday, which would have avoided any mix-ups like this. That said, the hunch turned out to be accurate, as the first group found AD, Stan, and Pat at the junction with Ramsey’s Gap Road. Unfortunately, Zach was absent from both groups. Assuming he was on trail somewhere, AB decided it would be best if some folks waited for Zach at the road junction in case he was behind us, and the rest would charge on towards the cars in case he was in front of us. This plan seemed to work, as Zach triumphantly found his way to those waiting for him after a couple of hours of solo hiking. 

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Only four of us ended up reaching the cars at the southern terminus. Getting there was a little tricky but lots of fun. After taking an old forest road for about a mile (it was on Google Maps, surprisingly), the road disappeared. We began to see “Private Property” signs and hunters’ tree stands. Kathryn later informed us that a grumpy bachelor owned most of the land south of Ramsey’s Gap, and that we didn’t have to worry about him shooting at us since hunting is forbidden on Sundays in Virginia. Yikes. For the remaining 2.5 miles, we bounced around spits and spats of defunct forest roads, relying on Gaia and map-reading skills. We remarked on how fun it was to bushwack when the weather was sunny and more-or-less pleasant.

The “away team” arrived at the cars close to 2. Pat went back up to Ramsey’s Gap to pick up the rest of the group and some of our gear. The rest of us headed directly to Shenandoah Pizza to get those veggie pizza orders in. There, we learned that pickles on a pizza is downright delicious. Full of cheesy goodness, we said our goodbyes and headed home in twos, just as we came. Looking back, I am proud and appreciative of this group for successfully camping on top of a mountain through a storm, in freezing conditions, and for facing unexpected challenges throughout the weekend with grace and the well-known DCUL optimism.

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