I almost cancelled this Veteran’s Day Weekend backpacking trip. The pre-trip weather report showed the remnants of Hurricane Nicole crashing into our path at the start of the trip, followed by a gale-force cold front dropping wind chill temperatures to the single digits. Wet and frigid weather is an unwelcome combination for a 60 mile three-day, three night hike.
I sent out a text message highlighting the weather prediction, and upgraded the trip to a Winter I or II rating, the first of the winter season. Unsurprisingly, attrition instantly hit the RSVP list. Out of the ten DCULers who signed up for this trip, six rapidly dropped out. I individually messaged the three others with the simple question: “should we reconsider?”
Logan responded first: “I hadn’t counted on a hurricane. I’m still game if you are. This could be a good way to test our wet weather gear.”
Mark V. wrote next: “The forecast isn’t looking particularly bad to me. It’ll be wet and cold—sure, but we can pack for that.”
Bryan closed the loop: “I”m still open to going if it’s one crappy day of weather. Whether or not it is dangerous, I don’t know.”
Gosh, DCULers can be extreme! Is there any Meetup adventure club like ours? I thought hard on the safety and wisdom of going myself before remembering a famous Nordic saying: “There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.” Also, I technically wasn’t hiking into a real hurricane, but into the remnants of a hurricane—the junior varsity of hurricanes. So, I packed my nerves, pulled off my short sleeve Spider-Man shirt, replaced it with a long sleeve Spider-Man shirt, looked in the mirror, furrowed my brow, and said to my reflection, “ok, it is time to ‘do a Chicago!’”
The rock band Chicago inspired this hiking challenge through their hit song “25 or 6 to 4.” Like other arbitrary hiking goals, such as a “10 by 10”—hiking 10 miles before 10:00 a.m.—or the “Four State Challenge”—hiking 44 miles in a single day while crossing the borders of Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania—“Doing a “Chicago” is hiking 25 or 26 miles before 4:00 pm. In the song, as I understand it, a weary backpacker is deciding whether to keep hiking or not, asking himself, “should I try to [hike] some more . . . 25 or 6 to 4:00.” It is the perfect winter challenge considering the short winter days with 5:00 sunsets. Since Chicago is also known as the “Windy City,” the predicted weather conditions easily fit the theme.
We planned to hike north to south from Virginia’s High Knob, west of Harrisonburg, to Elliott’s Knob, west of Staunton—60 miles down the spine of a long mountain chain framing the western side of the Shenandoah Valley. The trail at many points forms the border of Virginia and West Virginia. With daily mileage splits of 1 mile, 25 (or 26) miles, 22 miles, and 11 miles, the trip promised challenges beyond the poor weather.
Thursday night after work we met at the Vienna Metro to carpool to the southern terminus, leaving a car before doubling back an hour north to the northern trailhead. Combining the long drive with the shuttle set-up we did not start hiking until after 11:00 pm. Near the top of High Knob a heavy wet mist blinded us. However, we hiked rapidly into the cloud hoping to set up camp before the imminent rainfall. We chose to camp just below the Knob in a small opening in the trees. It started sprinkling as we set our final tent stakes. Combined with the midnight hour, we needed no more motivation to dive into our tents and burrow into down quilts. The rain progressed to heavy and stayed that way all night. My Dyneema tarp-tent pitches very taught, which made the rain reverberate like a drum. The rain kept me awake much of the night. Also, puddling formed at my feet on the right side from water entering from the ground, wetting the bottom of my quilt. Feeling around in the dark I learned the remainder of my floor was dry, so I drained the puddle, put my pack on top of it, and put my feet over my pack. This solved the problem. It rained all night.
We woke early Friday morning at 5:30 a.m. to “do a Chicago.” The rain continued steadily as we scrambled to pack up our soaked tents in the dark by headlamp. Hefting my pack I was amazed at how heavy wet gear can get. Logan and I started hiking at 6:30 on the dot, as called. Mark V and Bryan, neither of whom embrace meaningless challenges like “doing a Chicago,” were not as fastidious and left after us. We would not see them again until our evening camp at Hiner Spring.
The hiking was wet, but with temperatures in the high 40s, it was tolerable. Logan and I hiked in shorts and light jackets. We kept dry using what is now a DCUL wet weather uniform. It starts with a Tactical Rain Deflection Device (“TRDD”—pronounced “Turd.”) Looking much like an umbrella, a TRDD creates a dry zone over the user. It finishes with a rain kilt—a wrap of Dyneema or other fabric around the waste to shed water while allowing ventilation from below. This keeps one’s pants dry. Combined, this system really works. It lets the hiker stay dry without overheating. Hiking in raincoats and rainpants makes one unpleasantly hot and wet from sweat. The TRDD-kilt combo perfectly solves that problem.
Logan is keeping dry with his TRDD and rain kilt.
We hiked into the rain all day. Stopping was uncomfortably cold, though. So, we eschewed breaks. At lunchtime, for example, we just paused, grabbed food from our packs, and hiked on while eating. On the climb up to Reddish Knob the temperatures dipped lower. I reached the point where I started shivering. Logan did, too. So, at a junction with a gravel road just off the peak we stopped to put on a layer and mittens. We helped each other stay dry in the heavy rain by taking turns holding each other’s TRDDs as we layered up. It instantly made us feel better.
As we were helping each other add layers along this gravel road, a pickup truck ambled by, stopped, and reversed to greet us. Two guys in full camouflage with guns on a back rack rolled down their window,squinting into the rain to address us.
At this point let me confess something. I’ve learned that wearing my Spider-Man shirt while hiking gives me some strange superpowers. Please do not tell anybody, but it gives me strength to, for example, backpack 50 miles in a single day (See 4 State Challenge). It also lets me read minds. To me, the mind reading appears as text boxes over a person’s head. Whatever one thinks appears as text in the box above his or her head. No one else can see it, but I can. Weird, right?
The hunter behind the steering wheel said “hi, how are you doing?” He looked at us sympathetically in the hard driving rain. However, the text box above his head read: “You are lucky we drove by. We are going to save your lives!” We returned the greeting and he asked, “where are you headed?” At the moment we were just below the peak of Reddish Knob, but I responded with our penultimate destination—Elliott’s Knob. He responded simply, “no you’re not.” The text box above his head read: “These guys are hopelessly lost—Elliott Knob is over 40 miles away. And, they are hiking into the remnants of Hurricane Nicole!”
Then he regarded us. I was holding my TRDD over Logan as he was changing, holding his own TRDD to give himself a larger cone of dryness. We were both in our rain kilts. The hunter’s text box read: “Whoa! These dudes are backpacking in skirts and parasols!” Shocked, I nearly disclosed my superpower. I almost blurted out: “These are NOT “parasols!” We are holding turds!” And: “We are NOT wearing skirts! These are rain kilts!” Fortunately, I said nothing. The hunter continued, “do y’all need any help?” His text box read: “You clearly do—on many levels.” Logan responded that we were fine, backpacking into planned weather conditions.
To change the subject I tried to make the conversation more reciprocal. I asked the hunters, “are you hunters?” The hunter’s text box immediately read, “What gave us away? Was it the pickup truck with dead birds in the bed, the camo with blaze orange we are wearing, the guns, or the fact we are in a hunting area. Duh!” However, he brightly responded, “yes, we are hunting grouse.” He asked us where we were from, his text box reading, “clearly, it is not from around here.” When I responded, “Fairfax,” his text box read, “that figures . . . ” Wishing each other well, we pressed onward.
In the late afternoon the rain took occasional, welcomed breaks. It was nice to stow our TRDDs and have full use our our trekking poles.
We scored our “Chicago” before reaching our intended campsite at Hiner Spring, reaching 25 miles just before 3:30 pm. We arrived at the campsite shortly afterward also getting 26 miles before 4:00 p.m. We congratulated ourselves for hiking 25 AND 26 before 4:00. The rain held up and we thought that the hurricane finally moved away.
Thus, under dry skies and the remaining daylight, we looked for a good spot to set up camp. Hiner Springs is a great camping area with abundant established spots. Unfortunately, it has been trashed. Garbage surrounded the main fire pit. Like a couple of unlicensed Realtors, Logan and I weighed the perfect spot to set up. I wanted to camp close to the side of the mountain to help shield us from the wind. Logan wanted a flat spot. We both wanted to be away from the trash. We picked what seemed like the best spot. However, after I set up my tent a small branch fell from a nearby tree. It was a safe distance from my tent but when a second branch from that same tree fell I figured I’d be happier even further from that tree. I moved my tent nearer to Logan’s. We started to cook dinner outside our tents, but then the skies opened up again. We scampered into our tents to stay dry and would not emerge until the next morning.
Deep darkness came quickly—and the rain became the strongest yet. The wind also picked up. The rain fell so heavily that it had a variety of different sounds. There was the hard-driving, frantic din one would expect if one pitched a tent in a bathroom shower. Then, there were gusts sounding like someone spraying a power washer against the tent. Most annoyingly, there were loud drops that fell on the tent from trees like bullets. My thoughts went to Mark V and Bryan who were still out hiking in that dark tempest. I had not seen either one all day and hoped they were alright. Both are strong hikers, with whom I’ve backpacked many times, so I knew they were up to the distance and conditions—but I’ve never been in such a heavy, sustained rain. I assumed they would have either slowed their hiking due to the conditions or sheltered elsewhere. It turned out that they did not try to do a Chicago and did a normal hike, complete with a lunch break. In Bryan’s case, he thought 25 or 26 miles was too little so he added some bonus miles due to a navigational malfunction. I was truly relieved that all four of us made it to Hiner Springs, but the all night rain left me sleeping fitfully.
We woke later on Saturday, no longer having the Chicago challenge. It was nice packing up without rain. However, Logan learned overnight why Realtors are licensed. With all the rain his “perfect” spot turned out to be in the middle of a drainage run, soaking the bottom of his tent. The hidden stream missed me by inches.
With darkness at 5:00 and with 22 miles to hike, we didn’t exactly linger over brunch. The weather was cool, but not cold. We started hiking at 7:00 am.
Just before noon we stopped for an hour on a mountain top to dry out our gear in the sun. The weather had turned so warm I was even hiking in shorts and t-shirt.
The trail was nice, smooth, and well-graded. There was a significant elevation gain, but it was not difficult at first. Toward the end, though, I was getting really tired, taking stops to catch my breath.
I approached Elliott’s Knob alone—the highest point in the area at almost 4,500 feet. It was getting close to sunset, the wind picked up, and there was a momentary drizzle. It started getting very chilly. The cold front was clearly moving in. I went to the fire tower thinking I’d check out the view and consider sleeping inside it. Mark V suggested he wanted to do that. The gate around the tower was wide open and there were no “no trespassing” signs. However, on the handrail at the bottom of the stairs, an engineering tag flapped in the wind. It read, “structurally unsound.” I needed to read no more. I did not want to be in a structurally unsound fire tower during a night of gale-force winds. I walked away and looked to a grove of pine trees near the tower to set up camp before deciding it would be less windy in a lower grove of pine trees further down the peak.
Logan arrived and we again set up camp together, eating dinner outside our tents before retreating to get out of the wind. As with the prior night, Mark V came after dark. He proceeded to the tower. He later reported that the engineering tag was dated 2001. Bryan arrived very late, again taking on extra miles. He set up his tent near us. I was happy to go to sleep without the noise of the rain until I realized that the sound of very heavy wind is equally challenging to a good night sleep. It got colder and colder all night, but I had plenty of down in my nest and I felt fine. We had hiked 22 miles.
We woke even later on Sunday morning into a frozen morning. The wind continued and the wind chill clearly dropped to the single digits. However, it was blissfully dry. We did not linger at the peak and started hiking to our car. This part of the hike is shockingly pretty when the leaves are off the trees. The entire 11 miles consists of walking on the knife’s edge of the mountaintop with soaring views of the valleys and mountains on both the right and left sides the entire time. The trail was very smooth and easy to follow for the first half, tough to follow for the second half. It was a significant descent—our reward for all the climbing we did the prior two days.
We arrived at our car in the late morning, had our celebratory pizza in Staunton, reversed the shuttle and drove home. While still glowing with my pride from “doing a Chicago” in such challenging weather, one of my friends in the car wistfully commented to me, “next time can we ‘do a Hawaii?”