THE BLIZZARD OF THE CENTURY

 

As I write this, it is cold and snowy outside. It reminds me of the big blizzard we got on March 12 in 1993. Do you remember what you were doing in that storm that would be known as the storm of the century? Although I hadnít planned on making this a solitary outing, I spent that weekend at Corbin Cabin in the Shenandoah National Park by myself. What an experience! Twenty inches of fresh dry snow lay at my feet.  All because of a mountain laurel tree that I wanted to find (but more on that later). I knew my big test would be the hike from the Cabin through the snow to my car. I thought I was well prepared for the snowy conditions. After all, I had a pair of snow shoes that I had borrowed from my friend Kurt Rowan, so I actually was smugly looking forward to my walk out, floating carefree on top of this white sea of snow (I had extra food and even a flashlight---with extra batteries!). Have you ever tried walking in snowshoes? This was my first time. As I stepped out confidently from the porch of Corbin Cabin onto the newly fallen snow, my snowshoe immediately plunged out of sight under a foot of dry powdery snow. Now, in order to take my next step, not only did I have to pick up my foot with the weight of the snowshoe, but also the weight of the accumulated snow. This was not going to be as easy as I had anticipated. Things became even more onerous after my sixth step when the rubber bindings on one snowshoe broke. After repairs with extra rope was completed, I continued laboriously, one step at a time, until I reached the Hughes River; a total distance of approximately twenty yards, which took me twenty minutes to cover.

The hike up the Corbin Cabin Cut-off Trail became one of the most difficult ventures Iíve ever undertaken. The weight of the backpack, the steep ascent, and the deep snow, created conditions that thoroughly tested my leg strength. The endeavor quickly became a routine which would repeat itself countless times before I would reach the Skyline Drive; pick out a tree approximately twenty paces ahead, walk off the distance while the oxygen in my legs quickly was used up, and then take a three minute break to allow the recirculation of blood to restore the fuel to my aching legs. Two hours into the hike, and I still had at least a half mile to go. This 1.45 mile hike out was becoming an odyssey of over demanding proportions. I now recognized my plight. My car was parked at the bottom of the mountain at Weakley Hollow. With two feet of snow on the roads, there would be nothing I could do if I went to my car except rely on the benevolence of the locals until the roads were cleared. Not an acceptable option. So I had chosen to hike up to the Skyline Drive and then continue the six miles along the Drive to Route 211 at Thornton Gap. And what if the Drive wasnít plowed? At this rate, a rough estimate told me that I would end up hiking throughout the night with an ETA at the Gap of 3 or 4 am. This, assuming my energy would allow me to maintain this pace. I figured once I got to the Gap, I had a perfectly acceptable option. I would simply break into the Panorama restaurant. Let the Park Police arrest me---please! In the meantime, my goals were simple; make it to the Drive, and pray for a cleared Drive.

As I mentioned earlier, the only reason why Iím here at all is because of an elusive and historic old mountain laurel tree. On a previous weekend trip to Meadows Cabin, I came across a copy of the Spring, 1973 PATC magazine. In it were several stories about a venerable old mountain laurel tree on the east side of Old Rag Mountain that was found by Sam Moore on one of his bushwhacking trips back in 1938 with Don Hubbard and Paul Bradt. The stories said that the tree had been protected from the occasional fires that swept the slopes by itís location deep within a cool recessed pocket formed by several massive boulders. The tree is over 200 years old, 21 feet tall and has a circumference of 34 inches. It had been the focus of several group hikes over the years and spawned the formation of the "Society for the Preservation of the Giant Laurel". Clearly, this was worth investigating.

The quest for the giant laurel was on again, this time for the generation of the nineties. Over the next several months, I conversed with these Society members, giants themselves in the annuls of the PATC, learning what I could about the whereabouts of this sacred tree. Frank Shelborne, Dave Brownlie, Jeanette Fitzwilliams, Arnold Wexler, Ted Schad, and John and Suzanne Kominski, in addition to the previously mentioned three; all active climbers in the Clubsí earlier days, had their own stories about the tree and itís location.

During my conversations, I also found out about the "Reflector Oven" Cave; a suitable location high up on the east side of Old Rag, which would accommodate an overnight party of five. The use of the cave would allow us to maximize our scouting time on the top of Old Rag. RSVPís were sent out and quickly accepted by each of the invitees; Bob Huber, Tim Rose, Kevin Haney, and Dave Walters (where are you now, Dave?).

The plan was set. The weekend of March 12 through 14 would be the premier meeting of the 1993 revival of the Society to attempt to relocate this majestic tree. But, as the date approached, the weather dictated a radical change of plans. The forecast was for the snow to start late Friday evening and continue until late Saturday evening. Clearly, this was not a weekend for bushwhacking on top of Old Rag Mountain. However, with Corbin Cabin reserved, what an opportunity to observe the beauty of the woods in all itís winter glory! So, new plans were formulated to take off work Friday, hike up to the Cabin and revel in the winter wonderland from safe haven of George Corbinís porch. Unfortunately, for various reasons, the four invitees were unable to capitalize on this unique opportunity, so I was going to be on my own.

Up Nicholson Hollow I went, with an eye on the sky, flushed with adrenaline, in anticipation of a most remarkable experience. Soon I was at the Cabin, with the snow just beginning to fall. I spent an easy evening in the cabin, warmed by the stove, before settling down for a long winterís night sleep. It was now just me, the woods, and the impending storm.

And the storm did arrive. Saturday was as dark and gray as any day Iíve seen. The wind was constantly blowing the fine dry powder almost horizontally across the landscape. What a feeling of isolation. No phones, no electricity, no people, not even any wildlife could be seen. How wonderful and special it felt!

I found a copy of Dave Bateís excellent PATC publication "Breaking trail in the Central Appalachians". What a telling account of the early years of the PATC. I honestly wish the reading of this would be mandatory for all prospective new members. The efforts and dedication of these early trailblazers is all the motivation anyone could ask for to energize a person. I spent the day alternating between reading the book and looking out the window. For those familiar with Corbin Cabin, I stayed warm and content closed off in the kitchen; my new book, food, sleeping bag, and window view of my own personal wonderland. And the snow persisted all day long.

This brings me back to my hike out to civilization on Sunday. The morningís sky was bright blue with a brilliant sun beaming down on the white carpet of snoe. It was a beautiful day in the woods. I leisurely cleaned up the cabin, filled my pack and basked in the glory of the scene. I put on the snowshoes and started my grand exodus. Normally, the mile and Ĺ hike out takes just over a half hour. However, under these conditions, it took me 3 and Ĺ hours to hike up to the Drive. This includes losing the trail for fifteen minutes (and wasnít that a happy time!) and another fifteen minutes studying the site where I stirred up a grouse from under itís twenty inches of protective snow covering (I hope the unfortunate waste of this birdsí energy didnít prove fatal for this warm-blooded bird). As I make the final approach to the Drive, I peer over the roadís berm, desperately seeking signs of plowing. Halleluia! The road is plowed! I can take a few deep breathes, relax, kick off the snowshoes, and stroll the six miles along the Drive to Rte. 211. My hike to Thornton Gap unfolds with little drama (with the exception of finding the dead woodcock in the road path that had the unfortunate luck of coming up north just a little too early). While resting at the Gap, pondering my options, a cross-country skier I had talked to earlier on the Drive reappeared who generously offered me a ride to Culpepper. Great! I could find a place to stay! I bought him dinner and queried him about cheap motels around town. His response was that the roads werenít that bad and that heíd give me a ride to my parentsí house in McLean! What a serendipitous ending to a memorable weekend! Chris Demme, you are a truly generous man.

(Postscript: The mountain laurel tree was found by the author later that spring. It is still in fairly good condition, although some branches in the crown are dying out. Measurements were taken and sent to the Virginia Forestry Association. Based on the treeís height, circumference, and crown spread, the giant laurel on Old Rag Mountain is now the official state champion for the State of Virginia. Post-post script: It is not an easy tree to find. In fact, some of you will remember my December 1994 PATC hike when the encroaching darkness forced us to leave before I could locate the tree. (I also understand others have attempted to locate the tree subsequent to my taking them there and have come up empty-handed.) For those who are interested in a (moderately difficult) sojourn to this site, a hike is scheduled for March 29 of this month. See the forecast for details).

Gps N38į 32.796í W 78į 18.952í