Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Strickler Knob, New Market VA

"Ow!" I exclaimed to the dogs and to no one in particular as we headed downstairs Monday morning to go outside. My quads were really sore, as sore as they have been in decades, thanks to an 800-foot descent in a half a mile on Sunday. It was so intensely steep that we had to take a "quad break" about 600 feet down to rest our burning legs. And worse still, though I didn't know it at the time, that descent caused a blister on my left heel, the first I have had in over a year.

We roused for our fifth hike of 2017, the year in which we have committed to 52 hikes, at 8am on Sunday morning, very early considering that we got crushed at the restaurant the night before and that I didn't sleep well on account of this damned cold that started coming on about Wednesday. 8 am was not a friendly hour to get up considering all that, but up we got with some insistent urging from the aforementioned hounds, mainly because we had a long day ahead of us in climbing Strickler Knob, reputedly one of the toughest hikes in this area. By now, my screaming quads have already let you know that it lived up to its reputation.

Atop Strickler Knob
It was a warm day in February, already 54 degrees and threatening to go to 65, so we both pulled on shorts and were away about 8:45 to stop at the local Sheetz for gas, coffee, and breakfast. Ann went inside and returned with two sausage and egg muffins and two cups of coffee while I filled up the tank on the Jeep.

We are spoiled by great coffee. We need to give a shout out to Sleepy Monk Coffee Roasters in Cannon Beach OR from whom we get our coffee for home. It is truly delicious. And our coffee at the restaurant isn't half bad either. Once I got onto I-81 heading south for New Market and got settled in to traffic, I finally got a second to take a sip of the Sheetz dark roast. Wow! Just Wow! It really sucks for coffee is the best that I can say. To compound things, breakfast was totally unsatisfying: the sausage in particular tasted like equal parts sawdust and cayenne. Delicious! NOT! At least it got us moving more quickly than wrangling coffee and grub at home.

Not a Great Start to the Day
At New Market, we headed up into the gap on 211 towards Luray, to turn north up Crisman Hollow Road to find where the Massanutten Trail intersects the dirt road. There is a gate a ways up the road where it turns from narrow paved road to dirt, right at the trailhead for the Massanutten Story Book trail, a short, wheelchair accessible trail. We had heard conflicting information about the gate, that it is closed from February to April and that it is only closed during bad weather, of which we have had approximately none this winter. We took a chance. As chance would have it, the gate was closed seven-tenths of a mile short of the Massanutten trail head.

At 9:45am, we were the third vehicle in the lot that can hold about six vehicles. The drivers of the other two were waiting on members of their hiking club to arrive before heading out to Strickler Knob. Ann and I decided to hoof it up the road to the trailhead and get some space between us and the group, reportedly 10 to 15 people, so we left at a rapid clip. What we didn't know is that the hiking group had a plan B that we would find out about later when they came blowing by us just about where we met the Scothorn Gap Trail.

Seven tenths up the road, we turned east into the warm morning sun on the Massanutten Trail which gently meandered along and over the ridgeline, before plunging straight down the hillside and by straight down I mean straight down, 800 feet of descent in a half a mile, where 500 feet in a half a mile is considered steep. This was no joke of a hill. It was so steep that I felt like I was skiing a triple black diamond slope. We had to take a "quad break" about 600 feet down to rest our burning legs.

Crossing Big Run on the Massanutten Trail
I could see by the bottom that Annie was not having a good day with her legs. She has good days and not so good days and this was one of the latter. I was worried that she needed to turn around, but turning around would mean scaling that beastly hill. As we got to Big Run creek in the bottom, it started to become really apparent how high we were going to have to climb to reach our goal. It was kind of cute when Ann exclaimed, "We have to climb THAT?!?" But trouper that she is, she soldiered on.

Ann: "We Have to Climb THAT?!?"
Our track took us east on the orange-blazed Massanutten Trail down the very brutal hill to Big Run. At Big Run we turned north and walked up the creek for two miles, crossing it a couple of times, climbing all the while to the intersection with the Scothorn Gap Trail. At this intersection, the Massanutten trail turns right and due east and makes a gentle climb to the ridgeline that is capped by Strickler Knob.

At the ridgeline, the orange-blazed Massanutten continues down over the mountain and eventually heads north again towards Camp Roosevelt, where we hiked back in the fall. But we were interested in an unofficial 3/4-mile pink-blazed trail south along the ridge to Strickler Knob. It was obvious where the trail should be but not obvious where it was for the trail was nothing but hopping from rock to rock and I hadn't yet figured out that the pink blazes were on rocks on the ground, as I was so used to looking for them in trees.

It was actually kind of fun sleuthing out where I thought the trail should be, sometimes finding a blaze and sometimes not, winding in and out of rock formations and hopping from rock to rock. Towards the end of the walk, the rocks started getting a bit more serious, including one about 9 feet high that we had to scale, which you see Annie doing below. It became obvious that our trekking poles were starting to be a hindrance, so we left them leaning against a big rock. On our return to this point, we had obviously started a trend because there were a dozen sets of poles where we left ours.

Some Climbing Required
From there it was a matter of winding in and out of cracks between immense boulders and rock stacks until we came up and through a formation of three large boulders to a very large stack capped with slab of rock, much like a giant's diving board.

Almost to the End

A Large Rock Stack at Strickler Knob

Annie Just Making it to the Top

Turkey Vulture Over Luray
While we were up top, we were joined by the large group that we had been leapfrogging all day. We all sat together and ate lunch. One guy even brought a plastic container of chocolate cake that he shared around to all interested takers. We felt a touch out of place as we were older than everyone by a good 20 years. After we ate our grilled chicken BLTs with pesto on focaccia, Ann decided that she wanted to go to the very top. I wanted to go up too, but she started a trend and it started to get crowded up there so I stayed below to photograph the goings on.

Lunch was Grilled Chicken BLTs
Show Off!

Selfie Queen in Action

The Resulting Selfie

Panorama from Very Highest Point
New Market Gap and Beyond
It was quarter to two when we started back along the ridgeline. I could see Ann's legs knocking together as she was walking, a sure sign of jelly legs and I was really starting to feel the blister on my left heel, despite a tape job at the top. Never mind that I had a raging cold and was only about 60%. I always scope the maps for potential bail-out points and alternate access in case of emergency. In this case, I knew Annie was going to have a rough go of climbing that 800 feet that we had descended earlier and I was leery of doing the same on a gimpy heel.

We bailed out on the Scothorn Gap trail back to Crisman Hollow Road, trading the 800-foot climb in half a mile for the same climb in two miles, a much more gentle and doable climb. It left us with a 2.7-mile road walk, but it would have been stupid to go the other way in our condition. I like to think that I have gained some wisdom from age. The 18-year old Ed would not have done this.

Just beyond the crossroads where we picked up the yellow-blazed Scothorn Gap trail, we started hearing an insistent noise coming from the woods just ahead. It was clear that Annie was hearing it too. I asked out loud, "Could that be geese?" Then I mused blackbirds. But then it became obvious that it was frogs. I don't know what kind of frogs though. Certainly not spring peepers, which I could also hear calling back in the woods and certainly not bullfrogs, whose calls I well know. We bushwhacked through some really soggy ground to come out on the little pond below.

As I was scanning the pond for signs of life, I saw a what looked like a log out at the far end. I imagined that perhaps there was a turtle on the right end of the log and I asked Ann if she thought there was one. She thought there might be, but it was too far away to tell for certain. I snapped a photo for giggles. Imagine my surprise when I got into Photoshop and could see not one, but three turtles! I do not recall ever seeing turtles basking in mid-February, but then, when have I ever been hiking in the mountains in Virginia in shorts in mid-February? This non-winter is pretty freaky, but I have to admit that I did enjoy hiking without toting all that winter gear on my back.

Turtles Sunning. In February?!?
Once we got back to Crisman Hollow Road, it was a long, long 2.7-mile trudge back to the car, nearly an hour. We were both really tired, but glad to be on a smooth dirt surface. But as we would crest one rise on the road, another would appear, and so on and so on for two straight miles. Being dog tired and hoping for a downhill stretch really makes a hike seem long. When we finally crested the ridge and started downhill to the car, we were exactly at the point where we started walking the Massanutten Trail. The last seven tenths went very quickly with the prospect of beer calling us on.

We were totally unprepared for about 50 cars where we left ours. They were lined head-to-tail down the left margin of the road, converting the already narrow road into singletrack. Thirty minutes after we thankfully unlaced our boots and sat down in the Jeep, we were sitting in the Woodstock Brewhouse just a few miles up route 11 towards Winchester.

Woodstock Brewhouse
Hophead that I am, I went straight for the 130 IBU Crow's Provender IPA, while Annie decided to go with the delicious Casey Jones Vanilla Porter, her first really big-girl beer. She's been slowly coming over to the dark side after starting with Corona and Blue Moon. It's been a steady evolution in her palate. I don't think she'll ever come over to hopland with me, but her palate is definitely widening. The beer here is very good.

Annie Tackles a Big-Girl Beer
While getting our second round at the bar, Ann also ordered a pretzel and a flatbread. The pretzel has size going for it, but not much else and the flatbread kind of reminds me of cheap college bar "pizza." It wasn't bad, but it wasn't good either.

Monster Pretzel

Meh Flatbread
To change the subject slightly, we've been discussing getting a tent and had narrowed the choice to two from a sea of contenders. We both ended up choosing the same one for slightly different reasons. Ann said wanted the one with more headroom for the times when we get in the sleeping bags and aren't ready to go to sleep. I told her that I would remind her of that at some point. My experience is that you are passed out within moments of hitting the sleeping bag after a long day's hike. Suffice it to say that back at home on Sunday after the brutal Strickler Knob hike, she rolled over and turned out the light at 8:20pm and was asleep within seconds. Ever the gallant husband, I now take the opportunity to remind her.

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