The Ascent


To the trail head

This is a more verbose, reflective treatment of a hiking trip the men’s group from my church went on recently.  For a more visual version of this, see my Rag Mountain Hike page.

The Ridge trail head lay some distance, perhaps a mile or so, from the parking area, which at 8:30am was quickly filling with cars.  The bright, late spring day, with full sun and cool temperatures, made for a perfect day to attempt a climb to the top of the Old Rag Mountain (in west-central Virginia (Madison County).  We climbed out of the cars that brought us here, gathered our gear, paid our entrance fee, and began the hike to where the real hike would begin.  All around us, the nascent and emergent signs of spring tantalized our senses, as did the bubbling noises of Brokenback Run, strengthened by heavy rain from a storm that had lashed the area the day before.  The storm, with its high winds as well as rain, proved to be a blessing in disguise since it kept the normally busy trail from becoming a foot-sore version of I95.  What was their loss, was our gain, as the trail, though a bit wet and muddy in spots, was open and the path clear to both the summit and the fire trail on the way back.


One of the beautiful vistas on the way up.

So we followed the road leading to the trail head, passing the few homes of those living within the shadow of the mountain.  From the looks of it, and from what I understand about the crowds that make a pilgrimage to the mountain, living this close to Old Rag is a sacrifice in convenience and privacy.  Nevertheless, we passed quietly by, and gathered ourselves to follow the Ridge Trail up to the summit, and the infamous “rock scramble” to the summit.  I will admit that I did not know what to expect.  My previous hiking expeditions had been on back country trails out in the far-west, from Grand Teton National parkWind River Indian Reservation, to Canyonlands National park.  Those trails, while long and involved, mostly had well blazed and smooth trails, that allowed a leisurely and solitary path to vistas easily reached without the need to get on all fours.  Such was not the case with Old Rag.  The Ridge Trail began with a steadily climbing, narrow rocky trail, consisting of a lot of winding cutbacks.  My heart pounded as I kept my eyes fixed on the trail just ahead of me, fearful I’d either step off the trail boundary and down the slope, or trip over one of the many rocks and tree roots jutting up, over, and through the path.  That said, it wasn’t too terribly difficult to navigate, but you definitely had to keep your wits about you, and not slip into tourist mode, otherwise you’d find yourself with some serious dents in your knees, or with a twisted ankle.

Over, under and through the rocks we go.Once we finished the (seemingly endless) series of cutbacks, we reached an area where the “rock scramble” began.  This, as best I can tell, is where a series of hard granite “trails” (I use the term lightly, ha-ha) begins, and carries you up, with a few heart pounding exceptions, to the summit (at 3291 feet).  I am certainly glad I did not wear shorts on this trip, but I wish I had brought some climbers boots and gloves.  In many spots (at least 3, maybe 4) you had to get on all fours, and remove your pack to squeeze through the opening in the rock where the trail took you.  I had not encountered anything like this in my previous trips, though I was warned of the potential of it on this one.  That said, we did it, though I am glad of the help and support from the rest of the group in keeping my momentum going the right direction and making up for the lack of traction I got from my runner’s shoes.


From whence we came…


…to where we have yet to go.

As we ascended further and further toward the summit, we encountered more and more spectacular vistas going in all direction, but particularly ones looking east, toward the Fall Line.  The combination of sun-filled, almost cloudless skies, with budding trees, gave us visibility for miles out across the rolling country-side, dotted with farms, ponds and other evidence of our precarious existence in this world.  In fact, the line of sight was so clear, you could see to the horizon — definitely a God’s eye perspective that shows just how limited our own perspective and point-of-view can be from our lowly vantage-point at the base.

After the “scramble” we made it to the summit, for a well-earned rest and lunch break, with awe-inspiring vistas on all sides.  It is at these moments, when you take time to reflect, that you realize the bounty that surrounds us all, that is available for the taking if we only make the effort to both ask for the opportunity, and commit ourselves to the journey.  Truly a blessed experience.  The beauty of the view, however, left us exposed to the biting cold wind, and we retreated to the other side of the rock for shelter, and to warm up in the abundant sunshine.


Lunch on the summit.

Once we finished up our lunch on God’s tableau, we started our path down on the Saddle Trail, toward Old Rag shelter, for another break and some more trail mix.  The stop helped minimize the pounding our knees and ankles took, thumping down from one drop to another on the cutbacks, and helped out nature out by feeding the swarms of mosquitoes having their own lunch (I’ll have A positive please!).  It wasn’t all that bad, but we certainly gained some perspective when we talked to a local Park Ranger, who told us about the perils of late comers, who came ill prepared for the exertion (e.g., I drank nearly 48 ounces of water and didn’t need to water the plants, if you know what I mean), and wandered about until dark, or off the trail, vainly trying to rely on their fading GPS signal to find their way back down again, instead of the blue trail markers and maps available before setting out.  Courage and commitment are nice, but they need to be tempered with judgement and preparation as well.


Brokenback Run, from one of many footbridges across it.

We made it to the Weakley Hollow Fire Road, a wide, smooth path back the parking area, from here it was a long trek, quiet and reflective.  Several times we crossed Brokenback Run, a creek fed from waters shed by the granite outcrops of Old Rag.  The sounds of running water were a nice burbling goodbye to our group.  We ended up separating a bit, journeying in pairs, our footfalls echoing in the trees surrounding us.  Conversations dimmed, as we marched steadily to the parking area.  The euphoria of the climb had been replaced by the contemplation of the moment, and mental preparation for the tasks that lay ahead, back in our specific and individualized roles, but always as a brother in Christ.

With that thought, I am certainly glad I went with the group that I did.  They all have that kernel of kindness and compassion that Jesus called us to share with each other.  A number of times I needed assistance, and they were there, ready and willing.  Nor did I once question that it would be there.  I wish it was so easy for me to fully rely on God in all other matters, but I often find myself lacking the necessary faith to climb the rock toward his glory.  And yet, I still keep my eyes looking up toward the goal, never once doubting that is where I should be, even as I scramble upon my hands and knees over, under and through the obstacles in my path.  That said, it is still hard not to be dismayed and distracted by what is in your path, or even to realize that perhaps such impediments are there as opportunities to gain height and perspective before moving on.


To the horizon and beyond.