Trip Report (“Hiner Spring Rescue Mission” or “How Many Backpackers Does it Take to Pack Out a Spatula?” Ramsey’s Draft Loop; Dec. 10-11, 2022)

“Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, thirty or forty hulking giants? I intend to do battle with them and slay them.” Don Quixote (Miguel de Cervantes)

Hiner Spring, a delightful mountain spring in a grove of pine trees, sits on top of the Ramsey’s Draft Wilderness, west of Staunton, Virginia. It is a terrific place to camp when backpacking in the area. However, on DCUL’s epic “25 or 6 to 4:00” trip from High Knob past Elliott’s Knob last month, we camped at the spring a bit distressed. Prior hikers left a bunch of trash around the fire pit. (Click here for the “25 or 6 to 4:00 Trip Report”:

Determined to restore Hiner Spring to her glory, I organized a DCUL rescue party.

Nine of us carpooled from the Vienna Metro in two cars to the southern end of Ramsey’s Draft on Saturday morning to slay the trash. I was pleased that half the hikers were either new to DCUL or new to me. The plan was simple: hike north 10 miles up the Shenandoah Mountain trail to the spring, clean up the area and camp, then hike south 7 miles down Ramsey’s Draft trail. Everyone was prepared for temperatures in the low 40s during the day and below freezing overnight—nothing fluffy down and a roaring campfire can’t blunt! So, with trash bags added to our packs, we began our quest for fun and trash. 

Alighting from the cars, Logan immediately started hiking up Road Hollow trail, which leads to Shenandoah Mountain trail, with a few hikers behind him. Others finished adjusting gear and departed in groups of two or three. I decided to hike in the rear so I could meet new people. We missed the rain by a few hours, but everything was wet and misty—a very dim, grey day. However, hiking kept us warm.

On the way, I got to know folks new to me. WB was back on the trail after recovering from foot surgery. Her doctor cleared her for the hike but warned her that she might have pain. Her attitude was so great, no one knew she had any pain until she admitted to the discomfort after the trip. She told us about her international backpacking trips to places I’ve never been, and her mountaineering trips ice climbing. Adam, who previously hiked the entire Appalachian Trail, told what it is like thru-hiking the AT, waiting a few years, and then picking up again for a weekend trip. (Spoiler alert: one hikes slower up mountains years later). If he was a semi-truck going up the mountain, he was full Ferrari going down the next day. 

The trail was a steady climb, but very gently graded. I lost myself in the hike. Jarring me back to reality, I came across all other hikers stopped, sitting around an unlit fire ring. This confused me because we were only a mile from our destination. Why stop here? We were on a mission for trash! Dimitri and Alexander (Mr. Woo) were sitting comfortably in lawn chairs. Where did they get the chairs? Hiking with chairs, even on a “low mileage” trip is the anthesis of “ultralight backpacking.” They said they found the chairs folded up behind a tree near the fire ring and thought they would rest and wait for everyone there before summiting. I looked at the chairs, a rusty spatula Mr. Woo said he pulled out of the fire ring, and a few pieces of long discarded tin foil still in the ring. Then it hit me. TRASH! I immediately tore off my pack to pull out a garbage bag for just this occasion. It would not be so simple.

Mr. Woo, Dmitri, Garrett, Vince, WB, Logan, Adam, Jake. Not pictured: Spider-Man.

DCUL is a Washington, DC-based backpacking club, and DC attracts very analytical people from around the world. So, naturally, a discussion ensued about the “trash.” First, our mission was to clear trash from Hiner Spring, not at some random stop on the way there. Would picking up trash here constitute “mission creep,” diminishing our capacity to hit the primary target—Hiner Spring? We wanted the advertised mission to be successful. Second, were the chairs technically “trash?” They were neatly folded behind a tree. Maybe someone left them there intending to return to them that evening. Also, which of us was going to carry the two chairs another mile up the mountain before carrying them down the other side the next day? When someone posed that last question everyone looked down like first year law students hoping the professor will not call on them. So, we compromised. Everyone agreed the tin foil had to go and I quickly stuffed the few pieces in my oversized trash compactor bag. The chairs arguably looked prepositioned for someone, so we decided to leave them. Mr. Woo initially protested the removal of the spatula, but conceded it was rusty and missing a handle and thus could qualify as “trash.” I added it to my bag. Mr. Woo and Dimitri refolded the chairs and returned them where they found them, and we all saddled up so we could attack our primary target—the trash at Hiner Spring.

We arrived at Hiner Spring quickly—it was only a mile away. We immediately began pitching tents and gathering wood for a campfire. I noticed Logan picked a spot for his tent far from the drainage stream he unfortunately camped in last month. I paused and could not help but feel that something was missing. Hmmm. What was missing? 

TRASH! I looked all around. Where was the trash? It was all gone. I like to think that the people who left the trash saw our “Hiner Spring Rescue Mission” post, felt bad, and returned to clean up their trash before we got there. In any event, there was nothing to pack out. So, instead of gathering trash, we gathered firewood.

There was still no rain but the campsite at the spring was soaking wet from the recent rain. Drops fell from the trees, a dense cloud was settling around us, and all the available wood was drenched. It was almost sunset and the temperatures were rapidly declining. Dimitri began building a fire and it was immediately apparent that this would not be easy. Mr. Woo began cracking apart sticks in an attempt to pull drier kindling from the inside to use. Dimitri’s strategy was to continuously fan a match-sized flame with his sit pad to keep it going so it could dry additional twigs he would periodically add to his growing pile. Naturally we all wanted a fire in this damp environment but, frankly, this looked hopeless. The second he paused from active fanning, the flame would go out. He remained steadfast, however. “Fire is like a nuclear reaction,” he said. “All you need is critical mass. This fire will start.” After a full hour of nonstop fanning, he proved himself correct. The fire/nuclear reaction blazed and we happily cooked our dinners in its glow.

The darkness dropped hard. There should have been a large, bright moon, but we could not see it. The darkness and the fog teamed up to make visibility very difficult. At one point I left the fire to get more water from the spring only 200 years away—and got lost! The fire pierced through this veil warmly, making Dimitri the hero of this trip (after me, of course, since I had the spatula and tin foil trash secured in my trash bag). It continued to get colder and people began peeling away for the warmth of their tents. I did, too, after calling for a 6:00 a.m. wake up that did not please Adam. 

Darkness. Pure darkness.

I awakened in what must have been the middle of the night. It was totally silent. Naturally, there are never sounds of crickets or other bugs in Winter, but there were no other sounds—no wind through the trees, no raindrops on the tent, no vixen fox screams. As I marveled, rain started and I fell back asleep to its gentle, rhythmic sound.  

We woke to the classic DCUL wake-up chant. I yelled: “Good morning, DCUL! We wake early, pack light, hike far!” Vince later told me he had been dreaming of cheerleaders who suddenly cheered, “wake early, pack light, hike far!” So, technically, Vince dreamed of me. (That’s ok, Vince, I am the stuff of many people’s dreams). The rain had stopped but we still packed up wet tents.

Dimitri and Mr. Woo left to descend the mountain ahead of schedule, initially hiking the wrong way to get some bonus miles. Logan led the fastest hikers down. I initially hiked with WB, Vince, and Jake. Soon, however, WB increased the pace leaving the three of us behind. Jake told us what it was like to be a Park Ranger. (“Ok, Bambi, license and registration, keep your hoofs where I can see ‘em!” Actually, he never said that, but I was hoping he would.) Vince told us all about Native American tribal governance and ICWA.

The hike down Ramsey’s Draft trail requires a dozen stream crossings. The stream was running low enough that rock hopping looked possible, but high enough that it was very difficult. Early on Vince dropped a foot in the water and abandoned the effort to stay dry. He just waded across each crossing. Jake and I sought out the best crossings, often engaging in yoga-like poses to successfully cross. At the lower section of the trail the stream got wider and the crossing more challenging. I put a foot in and gave up on the hops. Jake held out only a little longer.

We arrived at the cars all within a reasonable time, stripped off our wet socks, changed into travel clothes, and went to Kathy’s, a diner in Staunton, for our second breakfast. (They have a variety of homemade pies . . .) I was able to chat briefly with Garrett, who is now upgraded from “Applicant” to “Member.” 

I held off unfurling the giant “Mission Accomplished” banner I had for the occasion. There was nothing at Hiner Spring to save and the little trash we did collect was insignificant. We may have been tilting at windmills like Don Quixote, however intentions count. So, when we all have good luck in 2023 we will know why. 

—Spider-Man (David O.)

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