Mount Rogers, 5,729ft
Date climbed: June 2004
We climbed Virginia’s highest mountain near the beginning of our highpointing career, at #5. As I write this, eight years later, I can start to put Mount Rogers in perspective. In 2004 we weren’t consciously working on any kind of high points list, we were just hungry for mountains. Growing up we had gone hiking all over Kentucky, from the Pinnacle, the Pigg House, and Anglin Falls – our favorite spots near Berea – to Mammoth Cave and Natural Bridge, to the Smoky Mountains in TN/NC. The big eye-opening experience for us came in 2000 when we went hiking at Philmont, the Boy Scout ranch in New Mexico.
At Philmont we realized that there are other mountains in the world. There are treeless mountains, desert mountains, mountains that have snow in the summertime, and mountains that are so high that it’s hard to breathe at the top. We were hooked. Ever since we had learned the art of backpacking at Philmont we were hungry for more mountains.
On family hikes down in the Smoky Mountains we began to get intrigued by the Appalachian Trail. The thought that there could be a trail so long that it took months to hike and brought you all the way from Georgia to Maine fascinated us. On backpacking trips in the springtime we’d often see thru-hikers at the shelters in the Smokies and hear their stories around the campfire. Then, in 2003, a friend of ours named Ian Rees quit high school to pursue his dream of hiking the Trail. While he hiked we were always checking his blog, hiking the trail vicariously through him. We began to get the idea that someday we’d hike the Great Trail too.
Right after graduating high school we wanted to get a little taste for the trail before starting college. We knew we’d be at MIT for the next four years (well make that ten) and also knew we’d be pretty busy. We didn’t know when we’d ever get a chance to hike the entire trail. So we wanted to hike a little section of the trail before going away to Massachusetts. We had a few weeks in between graduation and the first day of the Canada/USA Mathcamp we were going to in Maine for the summer, so we decided to spend a week on the AT. We figured that you couldn’t carry more than a week of food in you backpack anyway so seven days would be a reasonable goal.
We had already hiked a section of the AT (from Davenport Gap -> Roan Mountain) over Spring Break and hoped that our one week of hiking in June would be a little less challenging than that week in March. During that March hike, I remember starting out in a t-shirt and shorts with temps in the 80s. But by the end of that week we were postholing through two feet of slushy snow! I still vividly remember the moment when our Dad picked us up: we were wrapped up in our sleeping bags, huddled and shivering next to a big snow bank, our cotton clothes completely saturated, when finally, to our huge relief, we spotted our Dad in the big green van coming around the corner… But that’s a story for a different trip report; this story is about Mount Rogers.
One hot June day in 2004, after a 4.5 hour drive from Berea we arrived at the Appalachian Trailhead in Damascus, Virginia. Our Dad bid us farewell and we disappeared into the woods. It was a hot one, but from growing up in KY we were used to it. Twenty miles and one day later we were at the junction for the Mount Rogers Trail and a sign that read “Mt Rogers 0.5 mi.”
“You mean the trail doesn’t go over the top?” I complained to Eric. “A half mile side trail? We’re already hiking a hundred miles this week. It’s a shame we’ve got to add one more mile to that.”
“Well it’s just one mile, I bet the view will be good too,” Eric answered. At that moment we had reached a decision we’d have to make many more times in the future: do we take a side trail to a cool feature? Or do we keep hiking because we’ve got a lot more miles to hike and we’ve already seen enough cool features?
We decided to go for it, because after all it was the tallest mountain in the entire state of Virginia. Ten minutes later we arrived at a little clearing with a large rock outcropping. We were on top of the “Old Dominion” State!
“Well there isn’t a view but at least there’s a big rock to sit on,” Eric said.
Next came the big dilemma: the summit photo. We wanted to get a picture with the both of us in it, but our cameras didn’t have a time delay or remote trigger so we would have to get two separate photos: one of me, one of Eric. These were the early days and we each had one disposable camera. Twenty-four photos for me, twenty-four for Eric. We had just forty-eight photos for an entire week of hiking. Do we burn up two photos right now and risk running out of photos farther down the trail? What if there are bears or toads or turtles in the next few days? What it there’s some epic stream to cross or some awesome rock formation that we need to document? Is it worth it to devote two pictures to this viewless mountain?
Then I came up with an idea. We’d use a long stick to push down the trigger so both of us could be in the photo. There weren’t any long ones around so we’d have to make our own long stick. We grabbed our hiking sticks and scrounged around for some other branches. I cursed myself for not bringing any duck tape, but at least I had a bunch of rope from hanging bear bags. I lashed some sticks together and carefully balanced the camera on rock. I advanced the film and cautiously rested another rock on top to hold the camera down. We retreated to the actual summit rock and I extended the stick towards the camera.
“Dang it, it’s hard to hit the button,” I said, “this stick is too flimsy.”
“Here, let me do it,” said Eric.
“No, I got it.”
“Just give me the stick—” CLICK!
We saw the flash go off so we knew the picture had taken, we just couldn’t be sure that it was a decent photo. But we didn’t know what excitement awaited us farther down the trail so we decided to take our chances and assume that this one summit photo would be good enough. As I think about this eight years later, I’m sure glad that the summit photo was a good one, because otherwise that’d mean another trip to Mount Rogers. I’ve got to laugh when I see that photo because in it I’m wearing a nerdy cotton math t-shirt; I guess we wanted all the other hikers we met to know we were math geeks.
We looked around for a while, trying to admire the view, but came to the realization that the view was much better from atop the balds and fields back on the AT. Mount Rogers is situated in Grayson Highlands State Park, which in some places reminds me of hiking out west. There are high alpine meadows, cool rock formations, rugged hills, and not to mention the wild ponies! They say not to feed the ponies, which is good considering that our food rations were already pretty slim.
Another cool fun fact about Mount Rogers is that it was actually named after the founder of MIT, William Barton Rogers, back in the 1800s. Just like us, I guess ol’ Mr. Rogers split his nerdiness between science and hiking.