FDEF (as it came to be known) are all friends of my college roomate Jakes, most of them cross country and marathon runners. So hiking with them is always a killer workout. For this trip the group would be 8 including me. The last time I went with them was to Capital Reef National Park in Utah. THAT was a truly epic trip I will never forget.
This trip, while different, would be no less epic.
This trip would take us into the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia for 3 days of hiking and 2 nights camping in the backcountry. We set out from the Fox Den oustide of D.C., and after a couple of GPS misdirects, a road closure, and a requisite stop at Cracker Barrel, we arrived at the Laurel Fork Trail Head about 5 hours later. We took about 30 minutes doing a last minute gear check, leaving behind some extra stuff. The weather was gorgeous, and a little warm. This led me to (regrettably) leave behind my heavy Carhatt winter coat to lighten my pack. Sometime while pulling all the packs out of my Forester, one of the packs snagged on the roof cargo light switch, flipping it to 'ON' - which we would find out later.
Already burning day light, we set a brisk pace to get to the first planned camping zone for the night. We crush piles of leaves as we went, having to watch our footing for ankle twisting rocks and also to keep from sliding. The day was terribly sunny, and we weren't afforded any great views - but nonetheless it was invigorating just being hiking in the wood again. After reaching some camping signs at the bottom of the valley - and with light fading - we had a quick debate on which way to go, but quickly deciding to press on the mail trail a bit further where we shortly found a great campsite with fire pit ready to go.
There was plenty of flat, if rock, ground to setup our tents. And we had a stream just feet away for easy water filling. The site was about as ideal as you could get, except for being the lowest point in the valley. I didn't think about it at the time but no realize this is a really bad idea in winter camping as all the cold air drops at night and sits at the lowest altitude. But even as the sun dropped we still felt great, and with a roaring bonfire soon going we had no worries. Several hours after pitch black settled in, we could see another group of hikers descending from the way we came.
This is when we got the bad news that a silver Subaru had it's dome light on back at the trailhead. Groaning, I prepared to make a fast run back up the mountain. Jake offered to go with, but in the end I decided not to bother. The battery was still new, and I had a power pack in my car. As a backup Jake also had jumper cables in this trunk. I was confident we could get the Batmobile going again with little fuss. The second group of hikers made do with what little ground was still open just up the hill from us and made camp in total darkness. We finished dinner and had camp-fire talk for a few hours more, then all turned in.
The night was bitterly cold, and that is an understatement. I quickly realized how ill-equipped I was for winter camping in the mountains. I had the hood draw strings of my +40 summer down bag pulled so tight barely a straw hole was left to breath through. Without even any winter base layers, I slept in just my boxer briefs. I cursed myself for leaving the extra winter clothes and heavy coat back at the car. There was nothing for it, so I simply endured and slept little. With the first rays of light I popped out of my tent and quickly rebuilt the fire to warm my frozen bones.
It wasn't long before the other guys stirred and we took care of the breakfast. Most had been pretty chilled to the bones as well and the fire was a welcome relief. Soon enough the temperature rose. We shed layers as we broke camp. Our neighbors were ready to head out at the same time. We doused the fire, then headed towards the stream crossing. The hiking was easy and flat as we loosely followed the stream. Still taking our time, we lost sight of the other hikers on the winding trail.
At one point we heard a large animal startle in the foliage to our left. It plowed deeper into the brush and we never did get a glimpse of it so it could have been anything. From the noise it made we suspected it was a bear. Not far from that point, we had our wettest water crossing. Great care was needed as the crystal clear mountain water was strong even though not more then a few feet deep.
Next started a gradual climb back up. We had some steep scrambles to deal with, and the trail was hard to follow. We fought for purchase in the loose soil, and moved from tree to tree. Eventually the trail smoothed out and we walked in the clear sun for a while. We found another campsite with a fire ring, and decided to stop for lunch and some photo ops. With plenty more daylight, we pressed on. We encountered the group that camped by us last night coming back down the trail towards us. They said they had missed there turn around point, never intending to do the entire loop like we were.
Now they had a very long grueling climb to make it all the way back to the parking lot. They gave us a heads up on spotting the difficult to see trail turn. We nearly missed it anyway, as it was unmarked and looked like a nothing side trail. The climbing got steeper, following the stream back to it's source for a while. We passed many beaver dams along the way which we stopped to check out. The size of the logs they could cut through was impressive. My legs weren't toast at this point, so I grabbed up a beaver cut hiking stick that was just the right size.
The trail become almost impossible to follow, overgrown with pine trees and brush, but we made it up to the gravel road that would quickly get us to our next camping target. My light hiking shoes were worn out at this point, and a constant dull ache had me lagging behind the rest of the troop. We passed by a few car campers setup next to the road, but never saw anyone. We had to make another quick decent down from the road which was a great reprieve for all of us. But I hated it knowing it meant a long burning climb out of the valley in the morning.
We descended until we came to a perfect open area just above a stream. This wasn't a ready made site, so we went through some prep work. Dragging stones together for a fire ring and clearing some spaces for our tents. I piled a massive stack of leaves under my tent spot to give me some protection from the frozen ground. The weather was great now, but from last nights experience I knew it would be freezing. I slept little better though. The final climb out was as brutal as I feared. Falling behind my cross country and triathlon companions I had to quickly lose my warm layers as I was immediately drenched with sweat.
The trail was a little better today, but still tough to follow in spots. Once it leveled out we cruised out of the woods. Exhausted and sore from my heavy back, I couldn't be happier to drop it on the ground next to my Forester. A quick jump start later courtesy of Jake's Acura and we were on the road. Before hitting the highway we stopped at Fox Den's Pizza, were we made the mistake of ordering four extra large pizzas. Not knowing they were each the size of a table. But we were all starving, and we ate like wanton gluttons. An eating contest soon broke out, but I abstained as I was ready to curl up on the floor and sleep. The drive back to civilization was anticlimatic but I couldn't wait for a comfortable and warm good nights sleep! This trip would be the inspiration for my ultra-light epiphany, and the last time I would drag around a 60 pound pack.
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