Saturday, May 9, 2015

For my anniversary gift last year Amber purchased me a premium back pack from Bass Pro Shops. You know, the kind that real hikers wear with a frame to evenly distribute weight and straps to hook at your chest and waist. It's plush padding added to its appeal and as I slipped it on the store, it felt...normal. As we walked to the car, dreams of camping trips and miles of trail ran through my mind and I couldn't wait to wear it out.
My new pack.

Months went by, seasons changed, and my pack stayed exactly where I had left it the night I brought it home with the tags still dangling as if it to taunt me for neglecting it for so long. Every day as I dressed for work I longed to trade my neck tie for a chest strap and some nights I would stuff it full of weight and walk the stairs practicing for the day I would use it while Amber rolled her eyes watching me from the couch.

With the new year came new goals and one of them was to hike 500 miles. I typically hike every off day but it generally ranges anywhere from 4-8 miles so I knew if I were to succeed I would have to stretch my legs a little more this year. The first long hike I wanted to tackle was Carvers Gap to 19e, a fourteen mile run across the Roan Highlands. I've hiked it twice before but never in the winter so I was sure I would find something new to take away from it. As the days closed in on the hike the weather stayed colder than predicted and snow fell in the higher elevations. With miles of exposed ridge line and the possibility of snow drifts and 50mph wind gusts I decided I would save Roan Mountain for another day.

Slightly bummed but not defeated, I immediately started looking for a suitable replacement hike. My friend Shane has always wanted to hike the Brumley Mountain Trail from Hidden Valley Lake to VA Route 80. The fifteen mile trail also is home to the Great Channels of Virginia, a 400 million year old sandstone boulder maze located near the 12 mile mark of trail. I called Shane to tell him my change of plans and he didn't let me finish the sentence before agreeing to tag along adding that our friend Sherrell would most likely hike as well. The news of Sherrell joining us added to my excitement due to the fact he typically doesn't get to hike with us much and I sent out the message to trail  stalwart John Forbes of our intentions with his response being, "my bags are packed!"

Our crew of four made me dread the fifteen mile march a little less and the night before the hike we all exchanged messages and hype for the day ahead. I joyfully ripped the tags off my pack and went to work storing all my gear in the many compartments. The hike would also make another first for me, with its distance, we would park a car at either end of the trail making it a shuttle hike. As I finished checking bags and batteries I remembered running into John Lane the last time I was at the Channels. I had only hiked with him at Devil's Bathtub for JDRF fund raising but he was fun to be around and we struck up conversation once again and he told me to let him know when I had another big hike coming up. Not expecting a response on such short notice I sent him a message letting him know where we were heading. The next morning I awoke to a response, "I'll be there but it will be later, I'll run up from the other side and meet you all on the trail."

The morning of our hike I picked up Sherrell in Boones Creek and grabbed John as we passed Bristol. We met Shane at Food City in Abingdon and we were off to leave my truck at the parking area for the Channels at VA 80. The road to the top of the mountain is incredibly curvy and as we gained elevation a troubling development began to unfold; the higher we climbed the more snow we saw all around us. Shane chalked it up to the sun not hitting in the shade and reassured us we would have clear trails the entirety of Brumley Mountain. When we eased into the ice packed parking area at the terminus of the Brumley Mountain Trail I couldn't help but notice the empty parking area and snow covered trail stretching off into the wilderness. Almost reluctantly, I gathered my gear and tossed it in Shane's truck for the ride over to Hidden Valley Lake and the start of our fifteen mile journey.
The road to Hidden Valley Lake and our starting point to get to the starting point.

If I've ever been to Hidden Valley Lake I don't remember it. The road up to the trail head is steeper and just as curvy as the VA 80 side and as we approached the final few switchbacks up the mountain a solid sheet of ice stopped Shane in his tracks. We all got out of the truck inspecting the ice coated road and decided we should park I'm a wide curve avoiding the dangerous stretch to the top. Our hike would begin with a hike to the trail head.
14 miles on the sign. 15 mile on GPS. Another cruel joke by the trail team.
Shane, John Forbes, and Sherrell ready to take on the Brumley Mountain Trail.

The road was so slick it was pointless to try to walk on. As I flung my pack onto my shoulders it felt heavier than the night before and it took me a few minutes to figure out the fancy waist belt. Once I was strapped in it felt a little better but a short distance into the vertical climb my lungs were already burning, it was going to be a long day!
AND were off!

No tracks.

The quickest way to the trail head was straight up a dried up creek bed just about half a mile in length but straight up the gut of the valley to the summit. When I finally crested the hill I saw the Brumley Mountain Trail sign attached to a small kiosk. We posed for pictures anxious to hit the woods still not fully understanding the conditions we would face. The trail is blazed by small white plastic signs with black arrows. As we started up the trail it was difficult with the snow seeing from marker to marker, almost everything was white! The climb isn't rough but it's enough to make you sweat even in the winter and a short distance in I was wiping it from my forehead. Shane had hiked a short distance on the trail before and even struggled finding the markers. The snow on the ground was a beautiful sight and high in the trees the branches glistened with a coating of ice. As the day warmed up small shards of it rained down on us as we approached a nice overlook off of the crest of the mountain. A large rock jutted out giving us a nice platform to take in views of rolling hills coated in snow. I peered over the edge telling Shane it was only about a 30ft drop and through a little coaxing we got him to the edge for some photos.
First views come during the first mile of the trail.
Shane enjoying our efforts so far.

After the stop at the overlook, we started back to finding our way from marker to marker. Adding to the difficulty was the fact no one else had been on the trail since the snow so there weren't any footprints to follow. At a particularly frustrating section we couldn't find the marker so we all split up in search of the next one. Luckily I was looking down and noticed the sign attached to a fallen tree. The arrow was now pointing to the right and we set off once again in search of the next blaze. Sherrell spied it downhill a good distance and we seemed to get better at following the trail as we went along. The climbing ceased for a while and we followed along some cliffs overlooking the town of Lebanon, Va. It was if the designers of the trail purposely kept it a safe distance from the edge and any decent view. As I had my eyes trained on the search for markers I noticed something shiny attached to a tree, and when I drew closer I saw that it said "Mile 1."
Follow me, I have a real pack. Photo by John Forbes.
Downed trail markers.

Even after the first mile it was obvious John was feeling the effects of an all day hike the day before. He fell behind our pace and was soon completely out of sight. Frustration played a factor as well with our planned trip being canceled to avoid snow but as we continued on the snow started getting deeper. Shane, Sherrell, and I would stop and wait and soon we would spot him heading our way. When he caught us he was complaining of cramping but said he would be fine. There's few people I wouldn't bet against when it comes to hiking and John is one of them, I knew he would make it, even if it meant crawling.
Climbing along the trail.
Lebanon, Va.
Food City in Lebanon from the Brumley Mountain Trail.

As we passed mile marker three and eventually five each time I glanced over the cliffs we were following it seemed I was looking at the exact same spot in downtown Lebanon. Shane and Sherrell could identify several landmarks and pointed out the location of the Food City. Cars driving in the road far below were tiny specks from our vantage point. John would fade and we would stop to look over the scene below until he could catch up before we continued on. On a level stretch of trail Shane spotted a barrel resting against a tree a short distance below us. The barrel was locked shut and had a code on the side. We were intrigued by it's distance from anything and decided to leave it alone but not before taking a few pictures.
These markers kept us going.
Our mystery barrel.

The snow around mile six was somewhere around 8 inches or more. I continued to struggle with my pack and the weight shifting around on my back. I tried loosening the straps and then tightening them. I decided I needed to lose some weight and guzzled one of the four waters I had stuffed in some side pockets. I regretted it instantly knowing I should have conserved my water since we weren't even halfway. When we finally decided to take a lunch break at what we determined to be the halfway point (since we never could find the marker for mile 7) I felt a huge relief dumping my pack off for a few minutes. I dug into some beef jerky and joined Sherrell resting on a perfect log bench made by a fallen tree. Despite the deep snow and tired legs we all were really enjoying ourselves. I had brought along some celebratory spirits and we all took turns passing the jar around during lunch. John caught us to join the festivities and we all agreed that surely we were beyond halfway.
Shane and I nearing lunch time.
Lunch break.
The Hidden Valley Lake Hikers at lunch.
Sherrell and I at lunch.

After a nice break we were back on the trail and I was feeling completely refreshed. The pack seemed to fit better and my feet felt lighter, or maybe it was just the alcohol.  As the trail took another climb around the edge of the ridge I spotted it, mile marker eight! We were on the back side of the hike! I ran to the tree it was attached to and gave it a loving hug. My excitement was short lived as Shane pointed out a tiny line raising above the tree line on a distance ridge. He said, "hey guys there's the fire tower at the Channels." When I finally came out of shock I chuckled, it looked DAYS away, not four miles. The next two miles continued a rolling climb then descent, climb then descent, but I kept my eyes fixed to the ground and the now foot deep snow. The trail started passing through tunnels of laurel and my pack snagged each limb making it dangerous to hike behind me with all the flying branches. Sherrell stayed right on my heels though and I admired his grit. He hadn't hiked with me since our trip over a year before to the Sand Cave in Ewing, Va But here he was taking on the longest hike of the year. Shane didn't hike as much as he beamed. The smile on his face stuck like glue and he was savoring what had been a hiking goal of his for quite some time. He kept us motivated as well telling stories and sharing laughs as arrow after arrow passed. I really don't think he realized how much it was helping me ignore the screaming shoulders adjusting to the weight of a full pack.

This wasn't a photo op, I was that excited to see mile eight.
Sherell at mile nine.

One the laurel tunnels.
Still making tracks.

Sometime a few hours earlier, John Lane arrived at VA 80 finding it full with cars. He jumped out of his ride with a small backpack with built in water storage, a hammock, and his cell phone to snap a few pics. Despite the winter conditions he wore blue jeans, a wind breaker, and running shoes. He took off up the trail catching and passing other hikers in search of the missing Hidden Valley Lake Hikers heading his way slowly but surely.

Enter John Lane. Shane and Sherrell taking pictures of the fire tower marking the entrance to the Great Channels of Virginia.
Trail conference before final push to Channels.

As I crested another rolling hill I could see the shadow of the ridge growing larger and some detail emerging from the fire tower still so far away. Suddenly my eyes were drawn away to something coming toward me on the trail...running. That something was someone and John Lane ran up to greet me with a handshake. I introduced him to Shane and Sherrell and couldn't resist bringing up his light dress with the snow. He said he had got tired on the  backside of the mountain and set his hammock up but his feet got cold and to keep them warm he decided to run. I almost couldn't believe someone would hike that far over a mountain and then downhill knowing he had to climb it again with us! I was pumped, ecstatic, and any other word you can use to describe absolute joy. John fell right into conversation with Shane and Sherrell and our pace quickened. Despite his positive attitude he did warn that the climb up to the Channels was "a little rough." He seemed impressed by our efforts repeating, "I can't believe you guys have came so far in this snow." His admiration really lifted me and helped me appreciate we were doing something incredibly difficult.

On the clmb to the Channels we ran into Drew and his hiking buddy.

I wasn't prepared for this last mile of climbing!

I told you I wasn't prepared!

John Lane making snow angels.
I had only THOUGHT we were doing something incredibly difficult through the first eleven miles. The last mile to reach the top of the mountain and the Great Channels of Virginia was brutal. The snow was not only deep but as it started melting each step was really slick. The steep grade of the trail reduced me to a slug coming up the final stretch. I used large trees lining the trail as a way to have a goal to hike to. When I would reach each one I would collapse against it gasping for breath. During one of my breaks I noticed Sherrell's face was really red. He had ran out of water and between Shane, John, and I we rounded up enough to share with him. It had been over an hour since we had seen John Forbes and I asked if we should wait for him to catch us. John Lane told us he had been texting with him and he called to see where he was at. Luckily, John answered and he was within a mile of us and we decided to push on up the grade. Two hikers approached us coming down the mountain and I realized I knew one of them! Drew Duncan used to work with me at one of my countless Food City stops and he had hiked in from the bottom of the mountain on the Hidden Valley Lake side earlier in the day. We stopped for a quick group picture before continuing on. I heard a low flying plane approaching and an antique plane buzzed the top of the mountain tipping it's wings taking pictures of the Channels from above! The plane made several passes and each time we were closer and closer. Suddenly we popped out onto a level spot on the trail and over my shoulder I saw the familiar spur trail to the Channels! John Lane celebrated by falling in the snow making snow angels, I was afraid to sit down unsure if I could get back to my feet. The final push up the spur trail was again misery, The laurel caught my pack and John was kind enough to free me each time I got caught even lifting limbs to let me pass. Not only does he resemble Jesus, I imagine he has a lot of his actions. The pristine snow we had put our prints in didn't exist on the spur to the Channels. It was obvious a lot of people had hiked up from VA 80 that morning and when I popped out onto the rocks below the fire tower a crowd was gathered round watching a group of hikers climb to the top. In the distance I could hear music coming from a group of college kids sitting on top of the Channels a few feet down the mountain. Suddenly I longed again for the solitude we had through the first 12 miles. I shimmied out of my pack and laid flat on my back on a rock directly below the fire tower. I was now completely out of water with a three mile downhill hike between me and my truck. My feet were killing me but so were my shoulders. When I laid back closing my eyes the world started to spin. I felt like I had to hold on to keep from falling off and I sat up quickly realizing I almost blacked out from exhaustion! I had half of a mountain dew I'd brought to wash down my beef jerky and I chugged it to get the sugar rush to shock my system back online. After resting for ten minutes or so I wanted to see if I could even move. Surprisingly I felt good and I got up to go investigate the Channels. Sherrell said he wanted to rest and stayed behind with my pack while Shane elected to come with me. John Lane had vanished for the time being and Shane and I eased our way down the ice packed trail into the main part of the Channels. Even the walls of the rock were coated in ice and Shane and I were briefly alone in the two acre frozen maze. I broke out the gopro for a few pictures before retreating back up top with Sherrell and John Lane. I asked if they had seen Forbes and they said he still was MIA. As we gathered our belongings for the hike out Forbes arrived near the abandoned cabin and took a few pictures from there of the distant mountains. He said he had started feeling better after drinking the majority of his water thinking he was most likely dehydrated. We took the first picture of our whole hiking team at mile 12 of 15 of our day.
Heading up the spur to the Channels.
Dead legs coming through the laurel.
Pure exhaustion below the fire tower.
Realizing how far away it seemed and being able to lay beneath the fire tower gave me some energy.
Our group at the fire tower at the Great Channels of Virginia.

The three mile downhill stretch to VA 80 had much less snow but plenty of mud. It was a slippery affair the whole way and I spent so much energy just trying to stay upright. John Forbes found a new gear and led us the majority of the hike back. I spent a lot of time hiking with Sherrell as John Lane and Shane were quickly reeling in Forbes as they compared trail tales. I asked Sherrell if he would ever forgive me for the torture we had put him through, and he said he would gladly join us again when he had more free time. Shane eventually took the lead and as we crossed the gate just above the parking area I couldn't help but hum the theme to the TV show, I Shouldn't Be Alive. Fifteen miles of Brumley Mountain Trail was now on the hiking resume and we were all safe. As with most hikes, we decided a feast was in order to celebrate the accomplishment and we all carpooled to Pizza Inn in Abingdon devastating the beautiful buffet bar.
Shane and I inside the Channels.
We both were almost too tired to smile.
Deep inside the Channels. One of my favorite selfies ever.
John Forbes redeemed.
Our reward was some Pizza Inn and quality time with Jesus.

I took so much away from this hike it's hard to squeeze it all in, even if this is a lengthy entry. Helping Shane meet one of his hiking goals was an honor. Watching Sherrell take on such a long hike with no prep time and still enjoy himself was a testament to his discipline with his health. Having John Lane appear in one of the bleaker stretches of trail and immediately lift our spirits, and finally seeing John Forbes being bent but not broken as he pushed through cramps, dehydration, and fatigue to conquer Brumley Mountain. Until next time, happy trails.

Friday, March 27, 2015

In early March of 1993 I was a 13 year old living at home in Hiltons, Virginia with my mom and dad. A late winter storm was brewing and with it forecasts for record snowfalls had everyone rushing to the store to stock up and be prepared for the worst. As it turns out, the worst is exactly what we got. Over two feet of snow fell at my home during the storm. The winds with the snow caused wild drifts to form some measuring five feet or more. To this day, I still vividly remember snow above the door knob leading onto our back deck. we didn't go to school for two weeks and a week of that was without power. Needless to say, my brother and I were ecstatic. Twenty two years would pass before anything would come close to even touching it.

Now 35 years old and working in a grocery store as an assistant manager my love for snow storms has greatly diminished. With the mere mention of snow it's a mad dash and crazed shoppers rip the shelves of bread and milk. This winter has seen it's share of snow scares and actual snows. a couple of the storm systems lined themselves up on back to back days creating a nightmare scenario of over a foot of snow. Despite my dread for what was to come my mind went back to snow tunnels built on my uncles farm and riding the tractor through those huge drifts during the Blizzard of 93.

The bulk of the snow only grazed the Tricities with still respectable amounts of up to 10 inches or more that I received at my house in Gray, Tennessee. The storm instead stayed compact dumping the majority of the snow on Eastern Kentucky and Southwest Virginia or as I call it, home. When the dust finally settled enough at work for an off day I decided I would head to the hills of Virginia to visit one of my favorite waterfalls with some of my friends, but none of us were prepared for what we would find when we got there.
Buried car roadside in Dungannon, Virginia.

Amber, Halley, and I left from Gray and as it had been a few days since it snowed last the roads were clear and patches of grass could be seen throughout the neighborhood. As we crossed Bays Mountain with very little snow I was beginning to think it might be a total bust, but the closer we got to Virginia the more snow began to pile along the edges of the road. We met John at the Food City in Weber City and huge snow mounds were all over the parking lot some of them nearly 12ft high or more. I couldn't believe the difference in snowfall amounts within a thirty minute drive! Elsewhere Shane was traveling to meet us at the trail head at Hanging Rock in Dungannon, Va from his home in Abingdon.

Highway 72 to Fort Blackmore was clear of snow but some of it was piled so deep it was even with the bottom of the truck windows. The road beyond Mann Farms in Fort Blackmore started showing patches of ice and lingering snow deepening the further we drove along the road. However the first true sign we were in for something that I hadn't seen in years happened as we went through downtown Dungannon. I seen a large mound in the snow near the road. As we got closer I could see the side mirror of a car sticking out, it was a car that was completely buried! I stopped in the middle of the road so we could take a few pictures and I began to wonder how we would even pull off the road to park at Hanging Rock.

Almost an hour earlier Shane had arrived at the trail head at Hanging Rock finding that the snow was over two feet deep and there wasn't a way to get off the road. Thankfully he was prepared with a snow shovel and while he waited on us to arrive he dug out two parking places! I can't tell you my surprise when I rounded the corner and seen Shane in a t-shirt digging snow in a trench hitting him above the knee! He pulled his truck out into the road revealing room for one more vehicle just in front of where he was parked. Everyone was stunned at how much he had shoveled JUST so we could pull off the road! What could we expect further up the mountain?
Shane at the trail head.
The START of our day! Crazy deep snow at the start of Hanging Rock Recreation Area.
Amber ready to tackle Little Stony.

As everyone jumped out of the truck we all sunk in snow of varying depths based on our heights. I had a clear advantage only having snow below my knees but John and Amber were already in snow hitting them up on the thighs. We set our sights on the Falls of Little Stony but not being able to even drive to the gated road inside Hanging Rock we now added even more walking in deep snow on top of a 2.6 mile hike. Marching through the snow added an element of extreme hiking I've never attempted. I had to lift my legs high to keep moving and in a short distance my legs were burning. Everyone was having fun though, and we played in the snow like children, pushing each other into drifts, and throwing snow balls. It's probably only a few tenths of a mile to the forest sign that starts the Little Stony National Recreation Trail but it felt like I had walked a mile or more as I was already sweating through my many layers of clothes. Little Stony was as wild as I'd seen it with the snow melt it was muddy and large chunks of ice churned downstream as we walked by. Despite his size disadvantage John took the lead as we approached Hanging Rock. The drifts between the boulders were hitting us above the belt line and it made for some dream photo ops. John scrambled up and under the Hanging Rock and we all joined him. Large icicles draped from the cliffs and I found a small ice cave where icicles had reached the ground and you could crawl behind them. Despite the cold and deep snow we were all smiles and even Amber was living it up in our winter playground.
When the snow is this deep on me, you know it's extreme! Photo by John Forbes.
John coming up what is usually a paved road.
First attempt at catching a snowball in flight...SUCCESS. Halley enjoying the stroll up to the trail head.
Trudging toward the trail head, Halley and Shane making a trail.
Drifts on the boulders near Hanging Rock.
Little Stony from Hanging Rock.
No tracks.
The snow around Hanging Rock.
I was there and it still seems unreal at how deep the snow is. Photo by John Forbes.
Amber and Halley at Hanging Rock.
Icicles from Hanging Rock.

Leaving Hanging Rock the trail was non existent and with the creek being out of banks we had to be careful where we stepped or we would end up with wet feet and a trip back to the truck. The blazes on the trees were the only thing that kept us on course. When we arrived at the first bridge crossing of the creek. The true depth of the snow was obvious. The stairs were completely buried and snow was delicately balanced on the rails up to a foot deep! I made a short video of Amber plowing through the snow giving us all a good laugh watching her high step across. Normally there are small streams that can be easily stepped across but with the raging waters we had to find ways off trail to jump the newly formed creeks. Shane saved the hike for me by convincing Amber to cross one of the wider streams, I still owe him for keeping me out of trouble! Shane and I found our stride across the stream and distanced ourselves from John, Halley, and Amber. We seemed to be in constant bewilderment as snow drifts continued to grow in size. Shane eventually stopped in his tracks saying he couldn't find a way to continue. I could see a blaze on a tree ahead but the snow was piled up chest high now. I told him we would have to dig through and we took to using sticks and our hands clearing the trail so that we could continue. On the opposite side of the drift we had to crawl under some fallen trees and I couldn't help but think of crawling through snow tunnels twenty two years earlier. Shane and I arrived at the second bridge and the first significant waterfall and decided to wait for everyone to catch up. Across the gorge a side stream fell around fifty feet making a large ice cone at it's base and I couldn't wait to get over for a closer inspection. As I watched the trail for signs of anyone coming our way I could see Amber was next to catch us! I was so proud of her for pushing through what had to be misery in places and still smiling when she saw Shane and I waiting on her. When John and Halley caught up they told us of seeing a small mouse sitting in the trail in one of our tracks and John had grabbed a few pictures. Amber elected to stay on the bridge while we explored the rocky wall and waterfall across the creek.
Amber, Shane, and John coming up the trail.
Halley being a bully as usual. Amber looking usual.
Sweet revenge! Photo by John Forbes.
Amber on the first bridge across Little Stony.
Ice build up along the banks of the creek.
Snow covered boulders along the creek.
Waist deep snow as the trail narrows around some cliffs. Photo by John Forbes.
Snow wading! Photo by John Forbes.
Shane with that look of "seriously?"
Amber's arrival at the second bridge.
Shane crawling through the snow under some fallen trees.
This is the look of pride...well at least from me.
Shane's rock paddle.
The trio under the waterfall along Little Stony Creek. Photo by Shane Estep.
a close up of the ice cone.
Shane next to the ice cone.
Krypton attempt #2. Photo by John Forbes.
From the lost Halley Burleson collection. Shane, John, and I behind the waterfall.
Thigh deep snow..on ME!
Amber making her way back.
High above Little Stony.
Our trail we blazed, what a day!

Climbing the steep bank wasn't an easy task but I plowed through making foot holds for Shane, Halley, and John. It was a welcome rest for my legs once I got under the cliffs and out of the snow. I paced up to the waterfall to inspect the ice cone. Large fragments of ice had broke free from a week of warming temperatures and they were piled around where I stepped. An idea struck me and I had Shane film me as I threw one into the ice cone in attempt to resurrect the lost planet of Krypton, a continuing just for fun series we had started on an icy trip to Rowland Creek Falls. Halley rested under the cliffs while John joined Shane and I playing under the waterfall. We took a few more pictures before deciding to hike back to Amber on the bridge. Shane needed to get back for some afternoon obligations and my feet were frozen with my boots being full  of snow, so we started hiking back not making it to the upper falls.  Normally I would be disappointed but I had seen and experienced things that some people go a lifetime without. Having Amber along for one of the more extreme trips made me feel validated as well, I often tell her the stories and show her pictures when I get home usually getting no more than a shrug or a "that's nice honey" but watching her churn through the snow made me smile knowing she would remember this one. In fact, she's the reason I've jumped a trip or two ahead to bring you this story, she just couldn't wait to relive the unforgettable day on Little Snowy...err Stony. Until next time, happy trails!
Little Stony Snow Waders. Gopro shot from the first bridge over Little Stony.