Late 2014 with the calendar just turning to November, we were packing for a unique experience. As active duty Air Force, we had the opportunity to partake in the Air Force 50 Summits challenge. Consisting of members from each state, the challenge is to scale the highest point in each member's respective state. In Virginia, that summit happens to be Mt. Rogers, just a few miles from the North Carolina border. As we prepared for a multi-night camping trip, the forecasted temperature was the big thing on our minds. With the weather websites calling for highs of mid 20s and lows of mid teens, some mental preparation and extra gear was required.
The weekend of November 8, we loaded up in our Subaru and met up with other members of our team to embark on the 6-hour drive to our destination. This is the furthest we have traveled in Virginia up to this point and every mile after the 4-hour mark was a mile we hadn't seen before. After almost finding a Chick-Fil-A and then having to settle for gas station food, we were getting strung thin and the night was growing late. A winding road off the interstate took us through past eerie old buildings and cell service was nowhere to be found. Following only preloaded directions, we finally came upon our turn towards the campsites. Letting our friend in his Jeep go first down the icy road, we slowly made our way into camp where the rest of our team was waiting with a fire already blazing.
After setting up the tent and putting on warmer clothing, all of us gathered around the campfire and had some food. The temperatures were hovering around the low-20s and it certainly felt like I was sitting in an icebox. After an hour or two, everyone decided to call it a night to get some good sleep. We all retired to our tents and prepared for the chill the night would bring. Charlene and I had our sleeping bags but our bedding was some cheap thin foam. It was this experience that spurred our purchases of actual insulated air mattresses. Camber was nice and cozy in his dog bed and flannel blanket, lucky guy has his fur coat too. I stuffed my clothing for the morning down by my feet to ensure I woke up to warm clothes and put on my big coat and beanie to keep me warm. Somehow, we were able to sleep.
Waking up, I looked at my Suunto Ambit2 and the temperature was a crisp 14 degrees. I got dressed in my Beyond baselayers and then my pants and jacket. I let out Camber to do his morning business and feed him while Charlene didn't want to get out of her warm sleeping bag. While breakfast was cooking, our team got together to go over the game plan for the day. The hike was almost 8 miles total which would be sure to take up most of the day, especially with less daylight due to the time of the year. We all geared up after grabbing a bite and set off on our walk to the trailhead.
Our team consisted of multiple special ops guys and a few regular Air Force people, including Charlene and I. We met up with a Beyond rep and his family as they came down from DC and they joined in with us at the trailhead. This trail was a common one and very well maintained and marked. After a couple hundred yards, we encountered the ponies that live on this mountain. They were obviously very used to people as some in our party were able to pet them. Moving on, there was quite the wide range of terrain. Everything from flat fields and easy trails to giant boulders where people will climb, all the way to big rock fields where one must hop from boulder to boulder to cross. Camber stuck along with us and kept up very well. On a few occasions, he actually got his leg stuck down a hole between rocks but luckily we had a solid harness on him. One hand on each handle and we could lift him straight out of the mess he got himself into. On a few occasions, our buddy would lift him up a big ledge so I could grab him and lift him up the rest of the way. Like passing a sheep up a hill. Despite this, Camber was independent for a large majority of the hike.
We came to a stopping point after a few hours and before our final ascent through a forest. Camber was whining and fidgeting while we sat around letting the sweat dry out of our jackets. Charlene and I thought he was either cold or his feet hurt. Either way, once we started moving again he didn't make a peep. I guess Camber just wanted to get this hike done so he could eat again. While everyone rested and had a snack, I got the chance to grab some photos. The clouds were light and wispy and the sun was just nearing the top of the sky. We were above all the blue mountains and the view was amazing. Being able to see for miles in all directions was a real treat and one that we traveled almost 4 miles on an uphill trail for. A consensus was reached and off we went again to the summit. Entering the forest, our group traveled up a dirt trail made up of frozen ground. The last couple hundred yards were a series of icy steps where each member would be ready to catch the person in front of them should they slip. Camber, with his four legs, was able to just speed up each step and leave us in the dust. Every now and then he would wait for us to catch up, what a good boy. After the treacherous steps, we reached the top. There was no amazing view because it was literally surrounded by trees. the summit was a large rock outcropping that we climbed up on to. On top was the USGS medallion marking the summit.
After some snacks and photos, the trip back down began. We descended the same way we came up, down the icy steps to the clearing where we rested an hour ago. It was at this point that Charlene and I along with our friend and a few others decided to take the easy way back instead of navigating the boulders where Camber got himself stuck. We felt like an injury would not be very fun so instead we made a trail through some meadows, staying pointed in the general direction we came the first time. Playing hopscotch around pony and cow patties and through icy cold mud puddles, we made our way back. While not as physical strenuous as scaling down a rock scramble, our new way back required concentration to avoid stepping in something nasty. Along this route, we had a great view off one side of the mountain, to include all the smaller hills around it. By this time, the sun was starting to fall low and casted amazing shadows off the trees and hills. The sky grew more and more colorful as we walked. Due to our easier route, we made it to the trailhead a little bit before the rest of the group. After making sure we had everyone, we all headed back to camp to get some grub.
As the campfire was brought to life, I changed into some fresh clothing and shoes. The menu that night called for some awesome cheddar bratwurst and our friend's signature pineapple upside down cake from his dutch oven. Charlene and I even fashioned a few s'mores as our group shared stories and laughs together. Even though the temperatures were dipping again, I felt a lot warmer than the night before. I guess that's what good stories and laughs will do to a person. After what felt like minutes but turned out to be hours, everyone said goodnight and our friend was "kind" enough to extinguish the fire by urinating on it and smelling up the whole camp. I tucked in Camber for the night and made sure Charlene was squared away too. Then I burrowed myself into my sleeping bag and was out cold in a matter of minutes. It felt amazing to sleep after such an eventful day.
The next morning dipped low on the thermometer again as I woke up to take care of Cam. Most of the group was still sleeping while those who were awake already had the fire going. We shared a breakfast with our buddy who brought his griddle and cooked up some bacon and sausage. After filling our bellies, it was time to break camp. Like we often do when it's time to go home, we just tossed our stuff in the car with the intention of properly packing it once we got home. Slowly, the members of our group left one by one until it was just a few of us left. Our goal was to leave at around 0800 and we met that pretty well. We traveled the 6 hours back with our friend again, stopping at a few gas stations and a good pizza place to get some lunch. When Charlene and I got home, we were too exhausted to package up our supplies properly so we set it in a pile to sort through the next day.
All in all, it was a great trip and one of those trips that will always be remembered. Between battling the subfreezing temperatures in a tent to climbing the highest point in Virginia, we experienced many new things on this trip and learned a lot. It is a hike I would like to do again, in fact, I would do it often if the drive there didn't take 6 hours. I am extremely happy I was able to be a part of that special event with my brothers and sisters in arms. It is an experience not many are able to partake in. This trip was the perfect embodiment of how much there is in our backyard. A good adventure can be had within a few hours of wherever you are if you are willing to research and pursue it.