Old Do­min­ion Gran­ite


Climbing - - THE CLIMB THE PLACE - By Seth Derr | Photos by An­drew Burr

THE HU­MID SMARM that ac­com­pa­nies sum­mer­time in Vir­ginia stuck to ev­ery ounce of my body. I wished I had a can of WD- 40 to spray be­tween my ass and my un­der­wear. The July heat would have been enough to make suck­ing mar­gar­i­tas by the pool a chore. My friend Kyle Mat­ule­vich and I had passed the sum­mit of Old Rag Moun­tain— home to 100- plus routes on gran­ite spread over five main zones and count­less out­crop­pings— and thrashed through the sting­ing net­tles to a cra­glet on the side of the hill. I had just fin­ished tap­ing up be­low Bush­whack Crack ( 5.10c), a per­fect hand crack through a low roof, when I heard An­drew Burr’s voice boom through the jun­gle: “I am go­ing to mur­der you!” I knew this was go­ing to be a good day.

Lo­cated near Shenandoah Na­tional Park’s Sky­line Drive in the Blue Ridge Moun­tains of North­ern Vir­ginia, only 90 miles west of Wash­ing­ton, D.C., Old Rag fea­tures some of the best hik­ing in the Mid-At­lantic re­gion. On any given sunny week­end, the moun­tain bus­tles with vis­i­tors trekking the rocky 9.1 miles from car to car, scram­bling their way to the 3,291’ sum­mit. The Na­tional Park Ser­vice es­ti­mates that 85,000 peo­ple walk th­ese trails each year, mak­ing Old Rag one of the most vis­ited moun­tains in the coun­try. While hik­ers have vis­ited Shenandoah Na­tional Park since be­fore its es­tab­lish­ment in 1935, climb­ing de­vel­op­ment has been slower.

In the 1940s, mem­bers of the Po­tomac Ap­palachian Trail Club, a vol­un­teer or­ga­ni­za­tion founded in 1927 to over­see the lo­cal sec­tion of the then newly formed Ap­palachian Trail, com­pleted the first few, un­named as­cents on the gran­ite out­crop­pings and boul­ders on the moun­tain’s flanks. In 1951, ac­cord­ing to Eric Horst’s guide­book Rock Climb­ing: Vir­ginia, West Vir­ginia, and Mary­land, Arnold Wexler com­pleted the first recorded route on Old Rag when he thrashed up Jaws Chim­ney (5.6) at the Re­flec­tor Oven. Other climbers aided and freed mod­er­ate crack lines through the 1960s, but few as­cents were recorded. As climb­ing stan­dards pro­gressed through the 1970s and ‘80s, climbers dis­cov­ered and freed harder lines. Ru­mor has it that Greg Collins on­sight free soloed Bush­whack Crack in the early 1980s for its first as­cent. Collins be­gan work­ing a steep, hard aid line to the right. In 1989, John Ber­caw made the first free as­cent of this 45-foot off-fin­gers 5.13 painfest known as The The at the dif­fi­cult-to-find Wall That Dreams Are Made Of. The early 1990s saw the ad­di­tion of bolts to the un­pro­tectable faces. At first, de­vel­op­ers drilled on lead; in the lat­ter part of the decade, they rap-bolted a hand­ful of sport climbs, in­clud­ing per­haps the moun­tain’s best clipup, the steep, aes­thetic arête Gone Fishing (5.11d) at Mid­dle Sun­set.

In spite of about 40 bolted routes scat­tered about the var­i­ous

crags, tra­di­tion­ally pro­tected jam­ming and fric­tion make up the ma­jor­ity of the climb­ing. Crys­tal-laden cracks from rat­tly fin­gers to sinker hands, burly of­fwidths, and bom­bay chim­neys cleave for­ma­tions of stacked, rounded boul­ders. Fric­tion slabs up to 300 feet long and runout face climbs that uti­lize the ubiq­ui­tous big, sharp grains dot the hill­side. For tra­di­tional climbers, Old Rag is an East Coast heaven.

Con­sid­er­ing Old Rag is the only gran­ite be­tween the Adiron­dacks in Up­state New York and North Carolina’s Cashiers Val­ley, one might ex­pect per­pet­ual over­crowd­ing. How­ever, that is not the case. The same at­trac­tions—namely rugged ter­rain and steep, stren­u­ous trails—that lure in the back­pack­ers, day hik­ers, trail run­ners, and van­loads of Amish tourists make Old Rag a ma­jor un­der­tak­ing for rock climbers. The two-hour, three-mile up­hill hike ri­vals any ap­proach east of the Mis­sis­sippi, and the park ser­vice pro­hibits camp­ing above 2,800 feet—so you need to un­der­take the trudge anew each day. Even the climb­ing wards off the weak, as the large-grained crys­tals make crack climb­ing here akin to prac­tic­ing croc­o­dile den­tistry. In spite of a well-writ­ten guide­book, find­ing the crags can be the crux, es­pe­cially if you show up be­tween May and Oc­to­ber, when sum­mer’s jun­gle of lush thorns, poi­son ivy, and head-high forests of sting­ing net­tles ob­scures the cliffs. Mean­while, cop­per­heads and rat­tlesnakes, ticks, and bears hide amongst the dense veg­e­ta­tion, await­ing way­ward climbers.

ON MY FIRST trip to Old Rag, in July 2011, un­aware of the camp­ing ban, my part­ner and I each packed in two gal­lons of wa­ter, tents, sleep­ing bags, pads, climb­ing gear, and sup­plies enough for a cou­ple nights. As we floun­dered about in the woods, try­ing to find the elu­sive Tree With Three Trunks, the for­ma­tion mark­ing the path to some of the crag­ging, we en­coun­tered three rat­tlers and three bears. Soon, we’d de­pleted our wa­ter, drained dry by heat in the mid-90s and 80 per­cent hu­mid­ity. Around 3 p.m., af­ter hours of fruit­less hik­ing, we headed back to the car. We’d hiked 11.5 miles, car­ry­ing 60 pounds each, with­out see­ing climbable rock. That same July, my friend Chris Bursey and his part­ner Justin “Smitty” Smith got hope­lessly lost in a nasty patch of net­tles while search­ing for the Wall That Dreams Are Made Of. They’d ne­glected to read Horst’s guide­book note stat­ing, “The ap­proach is only pass­able from Novem­ber through April—it’s a jun­gle in the sum­mer.” Frus­trated, Smitty threw an all-points-off bully fit and smashed their wa­ter on a rock. They re­treated the five miles to their car with dry mouths. Was this sup­posed trad heaven even worth the price of ad­mis­sion?

Chris, Smitty, and I tried again that Jan­uary, this time guided to the does-it-re­ally-ex­ist? Wall That Dreams Are Made Of by our mu­tual friend Pa­trick An­drews, who had helped es­tab­lish an un­named 5.11d mixed climb at the Re­flec­tor Oven and knew the area well. The per­pet­u­ally psyched Pa­trick wanted to share his Old Rag knowl­edge. Sick with an up­per-res­pi­ra­tory in­fec­tion but keen to learn about the moun­tain, I spent most of the first day hud­dled in a cave over­dos­ing on Dayquil while my friends scur­ried up the cracks. The fol­low­ing day, feel­ing a bit less like dy­ing, I jammed my way up Straw­berry

Fields (5.9) and Bush­whack Crack. “While the ap­proach is Old Rag’s long­est (and car­ries a night­mar­ish rep­u­ta­tion),” Horst writes in his guide, “I be­lieve it’s 100 per­cent worth the ef­fort just to climb the won­der­ful Bush­whack Crack.” Horst was right. I loved the climb­ing. I sunk my hands into the cracks, twist­ing them painfully in the sharp rock. At the top, with shred­ded mitts, I dis­cov­ered the in­trin­sic plea­sure and pain of Old Rag. And though I’d only climbed a lit­tle, I’d learned that in win­ter the temps cool, the ticks dis­ap­pear, the snakes sleep, the leaves fall off the trees, and the climbers’ trails trans­form into rec­og­niz­able paths. It’s then that Old Rag be­comes a trad par­adise.

OVER THE LAST SIX YEARS, I’ve con­tin­ued to ex­plore and fall in love with Old Rag. The Re­flec­tor Oven and The Wall That Dreams Are Made Of catch morn­ing sun, and the God’s Area Crags soak in the last rays be­fore the sun dips be­hind the moun­tain, mak­ing a sunny win­ter’s day per­fect for bat­tling cracks. While many of the routes de­serve just a one- or two-star rat­ing, the bat­tle to sim­ply reach and find the climb­ing at Old Rag taken with the few five-star clas­sics makes it worth the fight. There are never crowds; re­cently, over a long week­end in Novem­ber when tem­per­a­tures pushed into the 60s, a group of us climbed for three straight days with­out see­ing a sin­gle other climber.

Which brings me back to Burr’s melt­down on our trip, in July 2015, to take pic­tures for this ar­ti­cle. Ear­lier that week, Kyle Mat­ule­vich and I had made plans to meet Burr at the only restau­rant in Sper­ryville, about twenty min­utes from Old Rag, at 8 a.m. Three times he drove past us in his rental car, and three times we waved, but with­out cell ser­vice we couldn’t con­nect. Kyle and I gave up and headed out to climb, hop­ing Burr had the same idea. For­tu­nately, Burr pulled up the ap­proach beta on Moun­tain Project. Cell ser­vice up near the sum­mit al­lowed a text ex­change to di­rect him to­ward our perch at

Bush­whack Crack. He plowed through the sting­ing net­tles, short­sclad legs sliced to rib­bons, and met us at the cliff in a pool of blood, sweat, and curses.

“Don’t you guys do any trail work?” he said as he emerged from the jun­gle. We re­grouped at the base then Burr scram­bled to the top of the for­ma­tion to photograph Bush­whack Crack and the sur­round­ing woods.

For the next few hours, Kyle and I fought the heat and climbed while Burr scram­bled around the moun­tain tak­ing pic­tures. We con­vinced Burr who “doesn’t climb” to climb Straw­berry Fields so he could get in place to photograph Re­port to Sick­bay (5.10); for some­one who “doesn’t climb,” Burr sure flew up the route, plac­ing only a cou­ple of cams. Kyle hopped on Sick­bay’s chim­ney and climbed half­way up be­fore bail­ing at the crux fin­ger­lock roof; An­drew and I lobbed in­sults, but in the end, it wasn’t enough to chide him on.

Later, Burr pho­tographed Oh My God Di­he­dral (5.10), a fin­gers-to-fists open book with a crack in its spine. Di­rectly across from the Re­flec­tor Oven, the crack sports some of the best views at Old Rag. Af­ter the gran­ite stem­ming and lie back­ing, Kyle and I trekked to the sum­mit and re­moved our tape gloves.

“One more photo,” Burr said. He thrust his cam­era into my hands and charged up Pic­ture Per­fect (5.8), a two-tiered slab to a veg­e­tated crack. Burr wore the bright­est blue pants I’d ever seen (pants he’d had in his pack all day, by the way), a col­or­ful coun­ter­point to the Old Do­min­ion State that fell away be­hind him—rolling, wooded hills in an end­less sea of green.

On the hike out, I looked at Kyle and Burr. Old Rag had chewed them up. The cracks had bit into their hands and the thorns had left rac­ing stripes along their legs (let’s hope those were from the thorns, any­way), and it called to mind my ill-fated first visit years ago, when I’d sworn never to re­turn. Yet here I was at the end of one of the most fun days I’d ever had on Old Rag, sweat-stained shirt and all, in the mid­dle of July. In the end, rock climb­ing is about the sto­ries you get to tell when the day is done, and Old Rag al­ways makes for one hell of a tale.




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