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Trip Reports

November 4th, 2006
A Dave Rockwell Trip Report.  Subject: Wilderness Regulation for Rock Outcroppings, etc.

Old Rag. Clear, gradually turning grayish, then back to mostly sun at sunset. High temp. about 45. With a large group of Access Fund types, NPS personnel and other rabble, i.e. climbers.

             I was operating on four hours of sleep after a nine-hour flight from Frankfurt the day before, with the inherent get-up-early boost of flying west through six time zones. I felt free and exuberant, though bloated with fat, after five hellish days of sitting on a tour bus in Tuscany and gobbling prosciutto and pasta four times a day, with the mandatory chugging of superb Chianti. The final day I did walk four miles or so with a boulder on my back (a very bad backpack/rolling carryon) which did my knee no good. So Old Rag, with its total lack of ancient vineyards, trattorias, museums and skinny Italian women with torn and faded skintight Capri jeans and shit-kicking stiletto-heel boots, was the perfect purgative and remedy, for everything but the knee.

             With various stops along the way, the group hiked from the Old Rag Shelter (to which we had been driven! - don’t tell anyone.) to the PATC wall, where botanists pointed out a rare (in Virginia) high-altitude smugwort, or plugwort - at any rate, I can now recognize it and avoid obliterating it. We all discussed strategies for channeling foot traffic and preserving soil and diversity without using heavy and unenforceable rules and regulations, or building concrete bunkers topped with razor-wire to protect the minuscule little buggers. I put in my two cents from time to time just on principle. So what if you’re an idiot -speak up! This is America and we want your thoughts expressed, so we can then grind them up for The Sausage That Is Democracy.
                 Let me warn you though: these hiking-boot bureaucrats are sneaky, subtle and deadly dangerous! They play the game better than we common plebeians. I observed them pretending to listen to our petty climber concerns, exhibiting egregious use of reason, tolerance, openness to the views of others, etc., and I was just working up a nice, juicy, bubbling stew of hatred and resentment for their insidious seduction that would lull us to sleep, after which we’d wake up in the Cannibal Pot of Restrictive Regulation faster than you can say Environmental Impact Study, when, BAM! It sunk into my granite skull that they weren’t faking it. We were all acting as a problem-solving study group, and interacting in good faith! Boy, that’s the most treacherous thing ever! So I had to toss the resentment stew into the bushes, so to speak.
              Some climbing-specific items that were discussed or at least bruited about: means of consolidating and improving social trails to minimize trampling of the rare plants; means of educating the general public as well as climbers to the ethics prevailing in more eco-aware regions, such as walking on rock whenever possible; the possibility of replacing old rusty quarter-inch deathtrap bolts here and there with new stainless-steel three-eighth-inch bolts in the same holes; the best way of minimizing traffic on the west summit, where there is a fine population of a globally-quite-rare plant that only grows in thin, poor granitic soils in harsh summit areas, and which can be blasted to hell in a moment by the careless brush of a child’s sneaker. All these goals need to be accomplished without the use of the iron fist, as in any case there is no enforcement budget, and without installing hideous barriers and neon signs that would destroy what’s left of that delicate and ineffable feeling of wilderness that we still sometimes get up there, when there’s a lull in the din from hordes of yelling kids and rowdy picnickers. When five hundred humans file through a site in a day, there’s always going to be some of that, and somebody’s going to drop his water bottle and forget about it. But here’s one reason I feel so good about the process we participated in: near the summit we wondered how to stop the erosion of islands of soil that sustain various tough little pines and other picturesque bushes, and it was suggested by NPS persons, mark you, that nearby boulders could be placed as retaining walls so artfully, by actual landscape architects, that only certified Feng Shui practitioners would suspect that they had not been there for the past billion years. Many of us felt very good that tax money could go to a goal so purely aesthetic, rather than pouring it as usual down some rat hole full of defense contractors. Could it actually be true - hold on to your hat - that government is not invariably evil?
              Some of us took a quick look at a flourishing colony of glugworts next to the short trail leading down to Pure Fun, just to see if the trail needed any change (consensus: probably not), and then most went on home, while myself and three others went down to the Sunshine Buttress area below the west summit, where I led a very nice classic little 5.8, maybe a hundred feet, which I had never suspected was there, as the sun went down in a blaze of glory as it usually does. I skipped the 5.10a finish, feeling clumsy enough as it was, and we walked off west through the usual maze of huge, weird boulders.
              The day was nicely capped with a typical bit of comic relief. As we were walking down the fire road in the quickly thickening gloom, we were accosted by an anxious young man, who had hiked the mountain earlier that afternoon with two companions, but had separated from them for his own inscrutable reasons, and now was unsure of how to get back to the parking lot, which lot it was, and what planet he was on, etc. No map, flashlight, water, or planning ability. Actually a quite common situation out here, which every so often leads to major problems as the temperature drops well below freezing. (We had encountered ice slicks in many areas all day long.) We walked him down to Berry Hollow where he thought he recognized his starting point, and with that good deed done another excellent Rag expedition ended.

Old Rag, September 27, 2009

Yet another Dave Rockwell Trip Report.

Gutterballs 5.9
Simple Man in a Complex World 5.8
Jabba the Hut Left – 5.8, but with direct 5.10a finish, part of newer climb. 

Chris and Dave. Song of the day: “Just a little lovin'” - Shelby Lynne version. T-shirt: PRANA

               Another perfect fall day at Old Rag. What more can I say? A lot more – just try and stop me. As everyone knows, Joe Brown said that time spent in the mountains is not deducted from the sum total of one's life – or was it that hosebag John Sherman? Regardless, the enduring tragedy is that we cannot live up there and become immortal, like those Taoist hermits that ride the winds and drink the dews of Heaven. Those guys have it made in the shade.

                It had rained hard that night. As we cruised westward from Warrenton the overcast drizzle began to lift in patches, and as we drove west from the speck of buildings that the elves call Etlan, the clouds drifted slow and low, obscuring the mountain, but revealing glimpses of the Blue Ridge behind, sporadically sunlit. As we hiked up from Berry Hollow and approached the Old Rag shelter on the fire road, the odd shaft of gold burned through and caused the doomed ferns of the forest floor to glow molten, water vapor rising through them. Soon we met two young men carrying heavy packs encased in garbage bags; I asked them how they liked the camping, and they said it was seriously wet last night, and that the mountain was a great place and a serious one, essentially. They seemed disposed to talk of their adventure, but we forged on. Halfway up at the outlook I frantically snapped the entire western horizon, mottled as it was with clouds of vapor cruising slowly through the various permutations of the Ridge. At the summit, around 11 am, a fine breeze was blowing and the many rainwater pools looked fresh enough to drink, instead of the usual algae soup. My legs felt fine and we went right on down to the mysterious and rarely-visited Gutterballs crag, pioneered, if I am not mistaken (and please correct me if I am wrong) by local demigod Sandy Fleming and crew.

              Now, lost in the mists of time there was a day when I went there alone and climbed the two climbs on self-belay. All I remembered was that there is absolutely no easy way to the base except rappelling (rusty but large two-bolt anchor) and that the climbs were interesting. One old tick list of mine claims that I flashed the lead of Gutterballs, but I have not the least recollection of doing the finish. So as huge vultures soared nearby in the void, sometimes only perhaps twenty feet away, and the sun came and went, Chris led Simple Man with no particular difficulty: an easy layback leads to a bolt and a short slab; then there is a short but rather nasty little overhang, which is analogous to placing one set of toes on the edge of a desk as such a height that one's knee is completely bent and the ankle splayed outward, and then standing up. Of course, Geoff, the Master of Carderock, can do this without strain, but I have a crappy left knee, and I needed something extra to levitate my wavering left hand another three inches to a mild horn. For me this involved a desperate mantle move with the right thumb tip and the second joint of the index finger pressing straight down into a nest of carpet tacks and applying a great deal of pressure. The climb finishes with a small headwall that demands a non-standard layback move and the use of tweakers, invisible from below, to get to a bucket, also invisible. 75 or 80 feet total and well worth the bushwack. I'm sorry, but there is no way to describe the location of the crag well enough to guarantee that anyone can find it. It is south of The Eagle's Gift, north of Jabba the Hut, northwest of Oh My God, etc., and east of the sun and west of the moon.

Mrozowski leading Simple Man in a Complex World

               Regardless of my marginal performance following Simple Man, I wanted to lead Gutterballs, and I did, mostly. The first half consists of three bolts just to the right of a shallow, rounded flaring seam with no crack at all; there is almost nothing useful to the face to either side. Basic technique for this consists of tiptoeing up the seam in short steps, while jumping the hands desperately to certain sparsely distributed side-cling edges, mandating a weird mixture of friction, face and subtle laybacking. Not unlike riding a unicycle down the gutter at the bowling alley. If you could stay right in the middle and had superhumanly perfect balance, it would be a cruise, but you can't; hence my unhesitating lead gave me great satisfaction. Then after that there is a rather horrible, vertical finger crack in a short dihedral set just above a small overhang in such a way that I could not find the start to it, regardless of the excellent nut I had placed above my head. Tape your fingers for this crack, unless you have the skill and strength of Chris, who went right up it on top belay (though using a small cheat stone that happened to be lying there) after I had bugged out and finished the lead on the easier climb. I very much doubt that any cheat stone would have helped me lead that on that day.

               Jabba the Hut is an amusing blob of granite bulging ominously on the south side of the Reflector Oven gully, the highest of the crags in that area, the closest to the trail, but nevertheless not so easy to find or approach. You can see it from several vantage points, but when you walk toward it from any direction you will soon find yourself either a) struggling upside down amongst brambles and dead sticks in some dead-end flytrap of granite, or, b) faced with frictioning up 80 or a hundred feet of 45-degree slope, or c) wading through brush blindly, following a vague trend down from the main trail. When you get there (and you won’t recognize it from above) you can friction down a short slope to the top, or use a nice new descending ring that’s been installed there. When rappelling to the base on the nice new rings at the summit, remember to leave all your stuff up there unless you enjoy hauling packs or climbing with them. On the other hand, you might contribute to the public good as we did, by hauling our packs and thus brushing off a portion of the big black lichens that have buried certain sections of Jabba Right (5.9) and the easy right-side finish of Jabba Left.
At the base (brushy, damp, vines and brambles, bugs) we found, just to the left where the clean granite slope extends down and around the bulging overhang, the new 5.10 (or harder?) which ascends a difficult overhang problem, and we could not resist, being already set up, a few attempts on toprope here. Momentarily we each seemed on the verge of success, trying to get into balance with the right leg swung high, the arms pulling in and down and the face practically planted in the bulging wall that has a few minor red-herring knobs which would be useless even if one could free a hand to grasp them. Nevertheless it was fun and I was able to further calibrate just what my crappy left shoulder will or will not do; in this case it performed well on a straightforward all-out pull.

Looking southeast from the base of Jabba
             Chris then led Jabba Left, the supposed 5.8, which I remembered from those dim ages of prehistory as disappointingly easy, because I had been expecting a 5.9 as listed in the old Rock and Ice guide, not knowing then that the ratings of the right and left climbs had been reversed. But now both climbs are nearly buried in black lichen in the last fifteen feet or so, and when Chris emerged from the rather stiff layback-crack start, did the leftward step-across and headed toward the single bolt a good ways up in the clean rock directly above, he found a much greater resistance than expected, and the bolt about a foot farther up than any logical stance-related placement would have placed it. He did a hard move, clipped it, and worked for a while on the next hard move before finally deciding to do the “French Free” and grab the quick-draw; the move would have been pretty much standing up on one big toe, on a fairly small item, with the hands just posing existentially here and there on meaningless bumps. I found it tough enough with his top-belay removing all risk. And then there are a couple more interesting, harder-than-5.8 moves to finally top out. Hence this makes the climb better; this is the finish to the 5.10 overhang start, but it also becomes the 5.9+ direct finish to the crack start. I might like to go back and try to lead it. In any case the nice little 5.9 on the right deserves to have the lichens cleaned from the top section. So gear list for the next expedition must include (as it always should at Old Rag) a wire brush and a pair of hand clippers. A machete would be helpful also, though heavy to lug along.

Friction slab guarding the summit of Jabba

               Heading home we cruised right on by the sunny summit, where we could have rested and sorted gear, but my legs felt fairly good, helped along with the trekking poles as always. As we drove out through Etlan and headed north, with Sperryville some ten or twelve miles ahead, we immediately fetched up behind a small car being driven either by a centenarian or a doper. He or she drove about 45 mph, except whenever the road turned slightly or went over a small hill, or when other cars approached, when he would quickly slow to 25 and flash his brights erratically. As this is a winding and hilly stretch of road, such slowdowns happened with great frequency, sometimes apparently triggered by nothing at all. I followed as closely as I dared, looking for my chance, but of course on the few straightaways the guy accelerated such that I could not safely pass. I was not in the mood for this, but I was relaxed enough from a good day of climbing that I restrained the Whale, knowing that right after Sperryville I'd drop this guy like a turd off a tower.

              Things even out, though – the rest of the drive was fast and easy and made quicker by listening to some classic old radio skits from the fifties, like Gunsmoke, and The Adventures of Philip Marlowe.

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