Trip Report: Whale Watching in the Blue Ridge Mountains (Humpback & Three Ridges & the Priest; Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia) (February 17-19, 2023) (40 miles)

“Call me Ishmael.” — Herman Melville, Moby-Dick


One month Prior:

Bryan (Wolverine) texted me to request that I post a backpacking trip during Presidents’ Day Weekend. “It doesn’t have to be epic,” he wrote. (Ha! He should know me better . . .)

One month later:

Friday night, February 17, 2023, 11:00 p.m.

Afton Mountain, Rockfish Gap, 1,900 feet

Wind Chill: 9 degrees Fahrenheit.

We alighted from our three cars into a maelstrom of an icy cold gale-force wind. Those on the windward side of the cars struggled to open the car doors against the strong force of the constant gusts. Emily pulled her hands away from her trunk microseconds before the wind slammed it closed. Hikers scrambled to put on clothing layers as garments snapped around in all directions. The sound of the fury, combined with the hats and hoods covering ears, made communication as difficult as on an airport tarmac with planes taking off.

“Go down the road, over the bridge! The trail is on the other side of the guardrail!” I shouted to someone I could not recognize in his ninja-covered face with his headlamp killing my vision. 


“Go down the road . . !” I repeated.


“Down! The! Road!” I yelled with my arms swaying exaggeratedly over my head toward the trailhead. 

Now organized in a single file behind Logan, our four-hiker advance team leaned into the wind down the road and onto the trail, their headlamps slicing the dark sky. I hurried back to my car, the wind slamming the door shut for me. Mark and Emily, the two other drivers of this adventure followed suit.

I sat for a moment in the sudden silence in my mobile cocoon, my car gently rocking back and forth. “I hope I didn’t make this trip too epic,” I thought to myself.

Emily, Mark, and I caravanned to Crabtree Falls, our weekend destination, to set up the return side of the shuttle before returning to the Afton Mountain tempest. We constituted the second wave of our DCUL force. Now that we were expecting the weather, we were better prepared than our advance-team. Even so, as we fought the wind as we prepared to hike, Emily dropped a glove while adjusting her trekking polls that I luckily caught before it was lost forever. Just before walking I looked up at the stars. They were shockingly bright, but this was not a time to linger. 

Shortly after stepping onto the Appalachian Trail, the trees shielded us from the worst of the wind. This relieved me greatly. We descended to Paul C. Wolfe Shelter together, crossing streams and scrambling over and around deadfalls by headlamp. We would hike almost two hours that night, arriving at 1:00 a.m. We quickly added three tents to the four already pitched and immediately fell asleep. Unfortunately, the shocking start of the trip, plus the loud creek next to us, and the wind, made sleep intermittent for many of us. We hiked five miles that evening.

Emily and Mark


DCULer Cassie forged and completed what was our original plan a few years ago. She mapped a classic route through the Humpback Rock and Three Ridges area of the Blue Ridge Mountains. These areas are immediately south from the Shenandoah National Park. Per her plan, I advertised splits of 2.5 miles / 16 miles / 11 miles from Humpback to Maupin Shelter, and around the classic Mau-Har loop.

I like themes for the DCUL trips I post. (See, e.g., “Doing a Chicago: 25 or 6 to 4–Into a Hurricane” or “I WANNA ROCK! ROCK!). So, riffing off of “Humpback Rocks,” I figured I could turn this into a combination hiking/whale-watching trip. Admittedly, whale watching in the Blue Ridge Mountains was, in retrospect, a bit hopeful. However, the original settlers in that area used to always ask: Question: “Do you know why you never see whales hiding in the trees? Answer: Because they are so good at it!” This, of course, led me to re-read Moby-Dick, which I last read in high school when my mother tricked me into doing so. Using reverse psychology, she discouraged me from reading it “because it was a bit too racy.” (Spoiler alert: it is not!) In any event, this trip became my second attempt to change the DCUL ethos from the “extreme backpacking/whisky drinking club” dream of our founder, Evan (“Whisky Fairy”) to my concept of Washington’s most extreme backpacking/classic book club.” (See “Hiner Spring Rescue Mission” with its obvious Don Quixote references).

As the departure date of the trip approached, I was excited for a relatively easy hike with unseasonably warm temperatures. However, the weather took a turn . . .

The weather predictions became so precarious that, shortly before the trip date, eagle-eyed Mark learned that authorities closed the Blue Ridge Parkway. This made our shuttle plan impossible without adjustment.

I polled the group with options. Happily, I found a commonality in the responses: more is better. Should we hike in 5 miles Friday night from Rockfish Gap instead of the 2.5 miles from the Humpback parking lot? Sure! Should we hike 22 miles on Saturday to Harper’s Creek Shelter instead of 16 miles to Maupin Field Shelter to have a chance of minting three new Veteran Members who need a 20 mile day for their resume? Hell, yes! Should we add a 3,169 foot nonstop climb up the Priest Mountain Sunday with the newfound time we’d have after the 22 miler Saturday? “I would prefer whatever is longer,” chimed in David U (“Baseball”). Emily sealed the deal by typing, “I’ve been wanting to get 20 miles on one of these trips. I’d like to try the plan for doing the Priest at this point.”

My friend, Mark, another Assistant Organizer who signed up for the trip, was always involved in the conversation. He never said “no” to the evolving itinerary. However, he tried to gently nudge me back closer to the original mission as Captain Ahab’s first-mate, Starbuck, did in Moby-Dick. We ultimately compromised. We would set up a tripartite shuttle, with the third car positioned at the AT at Rt. 56. This would allow a bail-out of anyone deciding against climbing the Priest on Sunday. We never posted the bail-out car, though. Neither Mark nor Emily, the ones who initially asked for this option, ultimately wanted it—we were committed.


We woke late Saturday morning by DCUL standards—6:30 a.m.—and started hiking at 7:30. Overnight lows were well below freezing and, even with the wind somewhat shielded by the valley, the wind chill made it feel even colder. At one point overnight I put on my down jacket despite me sleeping under a 10 degree-rated quilt. Many of us had a fitful sleep.

Still cold from the weather, we welcomed the climb from the shelter up to Humpback Rocks. At the eponymous rock outcropping, we stopped to regard the views. With the Blue Ridge Parkway closed we had the popular site all to ourselves. Some of the rocks resembled whales, I suppose. So, I took some photos.

Two of our hikers run hot and the current weather did not play well to this condition. Hiking uphill resulted in profuse sweating that froze in the wind at elevation. This sweat-freeze cycle must have been unpleasant at best, dangerous at worst. As the trail skirted the Wintergreen Ski Resort, one of our crew took the opportunity to self-extract by renting a room at the resort and hiking the twenty minutes there. We would pick him up on Sunday on the way home.  

We hiked along a pleasant ridge for most of the way to Maupin Field Shelter, the original destination for the day. However, it was only 3:00 when all of us collected there. And, the dream of becoming a Veteran Member of DCUL was burning brightly in three of us. We considered pushing forward to the next shelter, Harper’s Creek Shelter. Based on the timing we knew we would arrive there at or just after sunset, but this did not dissuade us. Looking at the map I confidently, albeit completely inaccurately, declared that the trip “down” to Harper’s Creek would be a breeze. It looked like a short uphill climb before a long, steady descent to the shelter. Neither Logan nor Wolverine, who each had previously hiked that segment, contradicted me. Emily, however, carefully studied the map. She sighed when she calculated a 1,300 foot elevation gain. Nonetheless, she said she was up for it.

The hike around the Three Ridges is beautiful, but the hike was hard at that point in the day. The elevation gain was all-together and front-loaded—meaning it was steep and steady. The descent into camp was not the easy stroll I thought. It was very steep and rocky. One had to pay close attention to the feet to avoid slipping on ice dispersed on the rocks. The climb down was exhausting. I gave up looking for whales. It was a stupid theme anyway. I’m going to bring more Scotch on my next trip!

We arrived at the shelter and most of us set up camp down from it, across a creek. We returned to the shelter for dinner around a blazing campfire that we shared with a couple hiking the Mau-Har loop with their dog. Their company was very pleasant, but I was most taken by their generous efforts to maintain the fire for us. We returned the favor by sharing the “all-you-can-eat” s’mores Wolverine brought.

John (“Ketchup”) decided to stay the night at the shelter. Naturally, the discussion turned to snakes. It always does when people discuss AT shelters. Someone asked, “do we even have to worry about snakes in winter? Do snakes hibernate like bears?” Fortuitously, one of our new friends was a biologist (or pretended to be, like George did on Seinfeld). It turns out snakes do enter a hibernation-like state, but not exactly like bears. Called brumation, they sleep for short periods of time, twitching around in slow, sluggish ways, ready for action when the temperatures warm.

Bedtime calls early in the mountains on a cold evening. Shivering as we left the warm fire, our thoughts turned to our missing comrade at the Wintergreen. He was also in front of a fire—as the waiter brought his second martini while he finished his expertly prepared steak. Swirling his olives absentmindedly, he asked himself existential questions, such as: “would a second massage be overindulgent?” Our thoughts turned away from him. (His fancy dinner may or may not have happened. This was how I imagined him at the time, though).

Much warmer than Friday night, most of us slept very well. I even took off layers during the evening to avoid overheating.


On Sunday we again woke at 6:30 a.m. in anticipation of our impending climb up the Priest. The hike started with a nice, short warm-up climb out of the canyon where we camped, before a gentle descent to Rt. 56 and the trailhead for the Priest. When I arrived, Logan, Baseball, and Emily had already started their climb. Wolverine was on the ground stretching. Ketchup was steeling his nerves. The weather in the valley was warm and the sun bright. Knowing I’d be climbing 4.5 miles up 3,169 feet, I stripped off my jacket and fleece—down to my long-sleeve Spider-Man shirt. I put on my earbuds, turned my Spotify playlist to “Fast Hiking,” and said, “let’s do this,” as Lady Gaga started singing Bad Romance in my ears—rah, rah-ah-ah-ah, roma roma-ma, gaga ooh-la-la. It isn’t immediately obvious how she sold more records than Moby-Dick author, Herman Melville.

Emily posing in front of the Priest.

The climb was well-graded, but very long. It also featured a number of false summits. Cruelly, each “new” summit looked like a different and very steep mountain of its own. Psychologically, this was tough. I quickly realized why they called this mountain “the Priest.” Each of us, no matter our religion (or no religion), engaged in deep prayer. “God! Please make this climb end!” I passed Logan when he stopped to rest at an overlook. I glanced at the impressive view but told him I had to maintain my momentum. I didn’t have the time or breath to further explain that one does not stop in the middle of Def Leppard “Pour[ing] Some Sugar on It,” the song perfectly matching my climbing stride. At one point later I approached Baseball, his face glistening in sweat as steam rose off his back in the sunshine. I slowed to ask how he was feeling. He said he was fine and that it looked like we were almost at the summit. “Sure,” I lied, thinking I could seek absolution for my dishonesty from the Priest at the summit. We still had a fourth of the way to climb.

I reached the summit alone. Now let me be clear. DCUL hikes are not races. There are no “winners” or “losers.” However, for the record, I was the first on the summit. (My favorite competitions are ones where others do not know we are in a competition). I looked around for the overlook, but did not see it. Wandering around on the flat top, Baseball caught up to me. He could not identify the summit, either. We hiked on to the shelter.

Eventually, everyone arrived at the shelter. Due to the name of the mountain, hikers posted “confessions” in the shelter journal. Some confessed minor trespasses, such as one who confessed his cursing on the climb up the mountains, and another who confessed to relieving himself in a chipmunk hole instead of digging a cat hole as he should. (He did write that he hoped the chipmunk was alright). We had a wag in our group who added his voice. Ketchup wrote, “Forgive me trail gods for I have sinned. Last night I slept with my food. I know I should have made an honest meal of it, but I couldn’t leave it hanging any longer.”

After resting in the sun, we started the descent down Crabtree Falls. This is the largest waterfall in Virginia. It was beautiful, but on an unseasonably warm winter day on a holiday weekend it was mobbed with day hikers. It was also very slippery due to mud and ice. The descent was slower than expected, primarily due to the crowd.

We collected at the base of the falls, changed out of our hiking clothes, drove to Wintergreen to pick up our friend, to Rockfish Gap to reverse our shuttle, and to Shenandoah Pizza in Staunton to fill our bellies. We had hiked 12 miles that day. All together, we hiked almost 40 miles, with significant elevation gain—over 8,000 feet.

Driving home I considered the trip successful despite not seeing an actual whale. (In fairness, they are good at hiding). In my mind the modifications to the trip made it more excitingly challenging. I’m certainly delighted I was not the sole survivor, like Ishmael was in Moby-Dick! Best of all, let me introduce you to DCUL’s newest Veteran Members! Welcome to this elite club, Emily, Baseball, and Ketchup! I look forward to living the next great classic novel on a trip with them, along with Wolverine, Mark, and Logan in the future. It doesn’t have to be epic.

—Spider-Man (David O)

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