Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Tibbet Knob/Big Schloss

It wasn't a surprise, the foul winter weather that came roaring in Saturday afternoon and is still raging here and there today, Monday. This winter storm, the one they called Argos, (when did they start naming winter storms?) wreaked havoc across the country all week and even the forecasters couldn't screw this one up: it started howling at 1:15 on Saturday afternoon as predicted, bringing clouds, raging gusts, and splats of sleet.

After weeks of mild weather, winter hit with a vengeance before Thanksgiving, unusually early for this part of the world. Even though we were forewarned of 30-40 mph gusts and ambient temperatures around freezing (to say nothing of wind chill), we reasoned that this storm presented us with a good opportunity to give our gear a true winter shakedown. This will be Ann's first winter hiking and I took a thirty-five year hiatus, with all my gear getting disposed of in my divorce, so I am in the process of re-equipping and remembering old tricks. It proved to be a good tune-up for us both.

Brave Smile Facing the Howling Wind
Our destination this weekend was Wolf Gap right on the Virginia-West Virginia border where we were going to climb both Tibbet Knob to the south and Big Schloss to the north. With a short mileage day and really cold temperatures, we could afford to wait later in the morning for it to warm up a bit, if it was going to warm up, which it really didn't do. In any case, we took our time getting going in the morning, sitting and having coffee before hitting the road just before 9:00 to arrive at Wolf Gap just about 10:00.

Even as we made our way south down I-81 to Woodstock with me holding on to the steering wheel with two hands trying in vain against the raging gusts to stay in my own lane, we could see light snow on Signal Knob and the Massanuttens to the east and on Little North Mountain to the west. What we couldn't see were the snow squalls that we found ourselves in heading up route 675 to Wolf Gap. When we arrived at the Wolf Gap camp ground, ours was the only car in parking lot. When does that ever happen at this most popular of destinations in the George Washington National Forest?

Ours Was the Only Car in the Lot

Obligatory Map

We Hiked Both Tibbet Knob and Mill Mountain Trails
Sometimes when hiking, you have to guess about what to wear to account for the weather. Last week, for example, I opted for long pants but by 11am, I was wishing I had worn shorts. In this case, there wasn't much guesswork involved. When I opened the car door, pushing and shoving it into the howling westerly wind, it was obvious what to wear: pretty much everything I brought.

Four layers up top was just about right. With the wind, we never stopped to remove any layers. I regulated my temperature with my hood, beanie, and buff. At one point in the pine woods coming back down off Tibbet Knob, I actually took my gloves off for a quarter mile before we hit the winds screaming through Wolf Gap.

Starting our trek, we hiked off through the snow south in the direction of Tibbet Knob. I love to be the first one to break trail in the snow. It gives me a chance to see all the animal tracks before they get stomped on by humans. I remember one time climbing Sharp Top at Peaks of Otter and seeing both bear and turkey tracks in the snow. Alas, we were not the first on this trail. Somebody with huge boots on had walked the trail in both directions before us. We did not see this person or anyone else until we met a threesome on the way back down from the peak.

Walking in the Snow

Tibbet Knob in the Distance

Looking Northeast from Tibbet Knob Trail
The Tibbet Knob Trail climbs to and follows a ridgeline with great views out east all the way to Shenandoah National Park. Up on the ridge line, we were higher than the clouds in the valley to our east below and it was quite the sight to watch it snow below us. You can see the snow on Wolf Gap Road in the picture below. After the ridgeline, the trail ducks down and then bends right (west) and starts to climb up Tibbet Knob.

Snowing Below Us

As the trail heads westerly over the north flank of Tibbet Knob, it suddenly makes 180-degree switchback to the east before starting a much steeper climb to the south and the summit. We missed the switchback in the snow and continued on a game trail for about 75 yards before realizing that the mountain laurels were starting to choke the trail. We were not the only ones to have made this mistake: from the bootprints in the snow it was clear that the guy who went before us made the same mistake. I took a couple of minutes to drag some brush up to block the wrong turn. The switchback is probably obvious without the snow, but maybe this will keep other parties on the correct trail.

Toward the top of the climb, there are two short rock scrambles that make for an interesting day. This trail is not super kid friendly, but it is certainly not technical either.

Annie Working up Through the Rocks

The Second Rock Scramble
Once you emerge over the top of the second rock scramble, the trail becomes much less steep and you find yourself at the summit very quickly. The views here are to the north and west, about 180 degrees, and it is clear at the top where the views are: a big west-facing rock outcropping. In addition to the exquisite views, there was nothing to stop the gale force winds sweeping in from the plains and Canada. The wind was brutal and I wasn't sure if my photos would turn out because I kept rocking as I snapped frame after frame.

Panorama From Summit of Tibbet Knob
The views were stunning. We could see the entirety of Trout Run Valley from Wolf Gap all the way to Halfmoon Mountain in the north, framed to the west by Long Mountain with its long escarpment of stone and to the east by Great North Mountain (Mill Mountain).

The Entirety of Trout Run Valley

Back to the Wind; Long Mountain Behind
Ann's yellow bandana in the frame below tells the story of the day: it is horizontal in the brutal wind. I am propped against a rock ledge trying to get this picture. I first tried a stunted pine tree for a brace, but it was rocking viciously in the wind. The noise from the wind screaming through the trees was almost deafening at times.

Striking a Pose; Big Schloss Behind
At the top of Tibbet Knob is an awesome camp site. Although it is dry and you have to carry water up to it, it is surrounded by a mountain laurel thicket that keeps it relatively wind free. It is big enough for several tents.

Camp Site at Top of Tibbet Knob

It Was Cold: Two Hoods and a Balaclava Cold
We didn't spend as much time as we would have liked up top because it was so windy and cold. After a few minutes and the obligatory photos, we had about as much of the wind as we wanted and started the trek back to Wolf Gap. In the photo below, we are descending Tibbet Knob with a great view of Big Schloss just ahead through the trees, about three miles distant.

Descending; Big Schloss Ahead
On the way down, once we got in the lee of the hill and the sun came out a bit, it got warm enough for me to take off my gloves and my beanie. But as we progressed north into the saddle that is Wolf Gap, there was nothing to stop the screaming wind or to block the snow flurries. We decided to eat lunch back at the campground. We saw lots of picnic tables that we could have eaten at, but because it had clouded up, the wind had started howling again, and our faces were getting stung with gale-driven snowflakes, we both gravitated to the Jeep for some well-earned shelter.

Our min-feast of wraps of sliced ham, arugula, and hummus flavored with piquillo peppers and Spanish chorizo hit the spot. We didn't dare stay in the car too long and overheat, though I will say that the temptation was there. In the campground, nowhere on any of the sign boards are directions to the Mill Mountain/Big Schloss trail head, but I reasoned it would leave out of the back (the northern end) of the campground and sure enough, it was trivial to find.

Heading North from Wolf Gap
It appears that this trailhead has been the site of one or more Eagle Scout projects: in addition to the signboard, there is a long, nicely built bench, and the initial part of the trail is wide and clearly manicured. The initial climb out of the campground to the ridgeline was steep. It was much worse for me coming back down: my right knee was screaming in agony for about a quarter mile. Once up on the ridgeline, the walking is easy and very similar to all the ridgeline walking the length of Mill Mountain. We have never approached Big Schloss from the south, but the trail is extremely reminiscent of the trail approaching from the north.

There are great views all along the ridge now that the leaves have fallen, views to the east of Little Sluice, Little North Mountain, and stretching way out into the distance, the Massanuttens and the Blue Ridge.

Annie Shooting a Panorama

The Panorama
It was chilly up here on the exposed ridge line, but nothing like it would be up top on Big Schloss. We took advantage of a bit of westerly sun to take a quick selfie. Even in the sun, my four layers are just enough to keep me warm: a polypro t-shirt, a polypro long-sleeved shirt, my Patagonia R1 hoodie, and a cheap and lightweight fleece outer layer to keep out the wind. My Merino wool buff and beanie were instrumental in keeping my head warm.

Ann and I compared notes along the trail about our clothing because part of our reason for being out in crap weather was to shake down our equipment and make any necessary changes for winter. We both found our butts and the fronts of our thighs to be cold through our convertible hiking pants. Ann was uncomfortable enough to want an underlayer under her pants, but I was not. It would need to be a bit colder before I haul out the silk longjohns.

I typically like to use lightweight Merino wool glove liners for hiking, but they kind of sucked on this hike for two reasons: they don't block the wind and they are pretty much useless on the more technical rock sections. I love them because they are super light, easily packable, and I don't like my hands to be too warm. But on today's hike, fail. I picked up a couple pairs of cheap Spandex running gloves for windy weather. We'll see how those do.

And my Merrell Moab low hiking shoes are not what the doctored ordered. I have been looking for replacement boots for a while now and have just about honed in on a pair, which are now hopefully on order. The ventilated low shows are good trail runners for quick summer green tunnel hiking on smooth dirt trails, but I was really worried about keeping them dry in the snow. In addition, the soles are too flexible and I get rock fatigue after about 10 miles on our typical rocky trail. Coupled with no protection on my ankles (this is an issue of rock scrapes, not support) and the fact that lows become dumping grounds for all kinds of trail trash necessitating stops to clean them out, I'm switching back to a boot.

Damn, It was Cold!

Approaching Big Schloss from South

Totally Random Trailside Cairn
The walk up to Big Schloss was uneventful and the solitude was great. It was great fun to have the peak all to ourselves. The wind up top was as wicked as it had been all day. The bridge was rocking as we walked across it and as I climbed up to the top, the wind rammed me into the rockface a couple of times. I kept the exposures on the camera very brief to minimize blur from shaking so much.

The Bridge to the Schloss, Rocking in the Wind

Annie Surveys the Valley

Photographing Her Boots
Ann has this thing for bootshots. Compare this one to the bootshot in October.

Boots on Old Schloss
Back in October, I noticed certain fossilized track-like things in certain of the sandstone rocks on the summit. I decided to photograph them this time. They're pretty neat looking, whatever they are.

Fossilized Something or Other

Looking North at Halfmoon Mountain
Below is a shot that I also made back in October of the summit. The tree to the right was scarlet back then, the smaller tree to the left was yellow. What a difference a month makes!

The Schloss from the Bridge
Our time up on the summit was really limited. We may have spent less time there on Sunday than back in October when it was overrun with people. The wind was too brutal for us to be out in it directly on the rockface for very long. I enjoyed being up there a lot but I was ready to leave. I could hear the beer calling me.

The trip back was uneventful and we even ran into two couples and a mother with two teenagers coming up the trail as we were coming down. By 3:00, it was getting late in the day and the sun was obscured by clouds; it was getting colder still. If I were headed up to the Schloss with only two hours of daylight left (why would I do that in the winter?), I would have plenty of clothes with me and a headlamp for sure. It never ceases to amaze me how unprepared some people are, though from my time in Blue Ridge Mountain Rescue in college, I guess I shouldn't be surprised.

Back at the Jeep at Wolf Gap, we headed west down off the mountain through the Trout Run Valley to Wardensville (a gorgeous drive along the creek) where I finally got a phone signal and could check the weather. At 3:30 in the afternoon as we sat in the warmth of the bar at Lost Mountain Brewing, we could see the snow squalls outside and it seemed like the weather was beginning to deteriorate. I would not want to be the woman in sneakers with just a raincoat and no hat going up to the Schloss with two boys.

Back to the matters at hand. They were out of pale ale, so I had to settle for black ale instead. And instead of the usual hikers post-gaming it at the bar, Sunday it was just drunk hunters taking Sunday off from their tree stands. We met a couple of real characters there before we took our leave to climb back over Great North Mountain to Winchester.

Cold, Windy, and Getting Worse
Lessons learned include keeping granola bars close to your body. I re-remembered that wrangling a frozen granola bar is no fun. Also, our water bladders are going to be a problem; the tube wanted to freeze on me even in relatively mild temperatures. Time to go back to Nalgene's for the winter. Knit gloves are great most of the time, but suck in a gale. Merino wool is the bomb! Soft, light, and truly warm. Trail runners are great for three seasons, but not winter.

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