I wondered why only three parents volunteered for today’s sixth-grade field trip, to hike Old Rag Mountain near Sperryville, Virginia—myself, Ted Eldredge and Laura Scharfenberg. After all, the 8-mile hike was open to all parents and was described as simply “rigorous” in the preparation materials sent home. But who could resist an early November hike in the picturesque Shenandoah Valley with peak fall colors and nice weather expected? Well, it turns out perhaps those who had heard the Old Rag field trip stories…
OK, it’s my own fault. If I’d Googled the hike as I’d planned to before we embarked, I’d have read the National Park Service’s opening description: “Old Rag is Shenandoah’s most popular and most dangerous hike.” Hmm. Dangerous? It gets better: “The number of blogs and websites about this hike attest to its popularity. The number of search and rescue missions each year attest to its danger. There’s no doubt that the scramble is great fun and the views are spectacular. A day on Old Rag is one of Shenandoah’s premier experiences. We want to be sure that your experience is not marred by an accident or health issue that could be prevented with good planning. Start your Old Rag adventure planning by watching our safety video.”
Nope, no safety video for me. Just Cam’s encouragement and excitement this morning as we packed our lunches, tucked hats and gloves into our backpacks and I carefully chose my camera equipment, including my largest (and regretfully heaviest) DSLR. We arrived at the base of the mountain at 10 a.m. and set off under an overcast sky, with the light breeze promising clearing later.
I should have known something was up when I heard some of the kids ask early on, after about 45 minutes of serious climbing on switchbacks: “So, how long will it take us to reach the top?” Mrs. McCaskey, Cam’s science teacher and one of the teachers who regularly leads this hike, replied: “I don’t remember?” Don’t remember? She takes this hike each year and looks forward to it! So, I ambled up to her about 30 minutes later and quietly asked her how far we’d come. “We’re not quite halfway.” Uh oh.
Cam and his buddies joined the young and athletic Miss Wetterhahn at the front of the group, while I remained mid-pack most of the time taking photos of the scenery and the children. Mr. Mack, Cam’s sixth-grade teacher, remained at the back encouraging those who needed it. The lead group stopped and waited on the trail every 15 minutes or so for everyone else to catch up and catch their breath. Then they were off again, blazing the way higher and higher.
I didn’t see much of Cam until we reached the rock scramble. Yes, that’s the correct terminology. Here’s a description: “From this point to the summit in 0.9 miles, the trail becomes a rock scramble with narrow passages, and several spots requiring hand over hand climbing.” As I approached the first major boulder, I looked up to see Cameron coming back down. He took my hand and said, “Mom, I’m worried about you. I came back to help you.”
Cam stayed with me to the summit, the two of us helping each other and a few of his classmates who joined us to traverse the rock ledges, crevices and cracks. Finally, standing at the top of Old Rag, at elevation of 3,291 feet, some three hours after we started, was a huge accomplishment. We ate lunch at the top and watched the Ravens floating by us on the thermals.
I survived with some scrapes, bruises and fatigued muscles, but it was all worth it to join the sixth-graders and their impressive teachers on this adventure. Although Mr. Mack warned us the hike down was where he’d experienced all the serious accidents over the course of the 30 years he’s led this hike (two broken arms and two sprained ankles), I found it relaxing and beautiful.
In hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t read about the intensity of the Old Rag hike before I began. I may have chickened out and missed one of the most memorable days I’ve ever spent with my son.