This past weekend we reached the pinnacle of the DC heatwave with temps soaring to 105 degrees in the city and planes literally melting into the tarmac at the airport… With the oppressively hot weather in the forecast, there was only one thing to do—escape to the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains in search of at least slightly cooler temps.
This weekend was less ambitious than others and could mostly be characterized as, well, gross due to the heat and humidity, but as always, a bad day in the mountains is better than a good day at a desk!
Saturday afternoon I joined Adam, a fellow Potomac Mountain Club member, for a late departure out to Shenandoah National Park.
We were planning on meeting up with a few other club members for climbing at Buzzard Rocks the next day, but we both wanted to get a little more bang for our buck over the weekend by throwing in an additional day in the outdoors.
We arrived in the park by late afternoon and made our way down to Matthews Arm Campground where we claimed a campsite. After that, we headed straight for the nearby Piney Branch Trailhead to get in a decent day hike.
Little Devils Stairs
We had settled on a roughly 9-10 mile loop involving Piney Branch, the Keyser Run Fire Road, and the notorious Little Devils Stairs. Now, normally, this hike wouldn’t be that bad especially with just small packs with day hiking essentials, but here we were doing this on what is the hottest day like EVER.
Thankfully we started our hike at the top of the ridge from Skyline Drive and worked our way down into the valley. I was relieved that the heat wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be since we were going downhill and were under the shade of the trees.
My relief soon turned to dismay however at the point where we hit the Hull School Fire Road and had to start actually hiking uphill… It was pretty miserable in all honesty and immediately drenched me in sweat, even though the climb itself wasn’t really that strenuous.
It felt like I was hiking at altitude when I started sucking wind—feeling as though I wasn’t getting enough oxygen in each breath because of the thick, swampy, humid air.
We soon stumbled across the old cemetery along the Keyser Run Fire Road, which was located at the top of that first real climb. At least it’d be a place to bury me if I died of a heat stroke… It’s an odd little plot which remains as a testament to the families and inhabitants that once lived in Shenandoah before they were evicted for the creation of the national park.
I guzzled down some more water and waited in vain to cool down a little bit. Thankfully the trail led us downhill again now, though in Shenandoah that just means the further you’ll have to hike back uphill to return to Skyline Drive. Before long we arrived at an absolutely deserted parking lot for Little Devils Stairs—apparently, the smart folks were avoiding huge climbs out of the valley today?
I’d only done Little Devils Stairs once before, and it was under another set of highly adverse conditions.
One spring a group of us from DC UL Backpacking had set out on a trip with torrential downpours in the forecast, we started out by hiking up Little Devils Stairs in an absolute monsoon-style deluge, crossing the raging stream numerous times, hiking through waterfalls, scrambling up the wet rock, and the whole canyon just dripping with water…
We continued hiking along the Appalachian Trail that afternoon (still pouring) through water that was now up to mid-shin on the trail. Across the region there were flash floods, bridges washed out, and all sorts of other mayhem caused by these rains, and yet here we were knowingly and willingly hiking headlong into it! That trip definitely remains one of the most fun and memorable that I’ve been on over the years.
This time, however, there were no rains to cool us down, in fact, there was relatively little water at all running through the canyon. This Little Devils Stairs was quite different than how I had come to know it… Now it was just hot, sticky, and miserable.
Alpinism is frequently compared to a sufferfest, but I have to say that this wasn’t that far off from a sufferfest, just in a different set of climatic conditions. We pushed through the steep climb up the rocky, slot canyon-esque Little Devils Stairs without a break, which is probably a good thing as I think it would’ve been difficult to start up again.
The bulk of the climb is approximately a mile and a half with 1,500 feet of elevation gain so you can make pretty quick work of it really. The hard part was now over thankfully, but we still had a few more miles to cover to get back to our vehicle…
We made it back to the car around 8 pm, a little over 4 hours after heading out. Back at Matthews Arm Campground we then set up camp and got some dinner.
This was also, I realized, my first-time car camping at Shenandoah (I just don’t generally car camp except when climbing), and I really didn’t get a restful night of sleep.
There were large animals crashing through the bushes nearby, which we thought may have been a bear… or it was people messing with us because I also could swear someone was randomly setting off firecrackers right near us in the middle of the night.
Climbing at Buzzard Rocks
The next morning we were up early for our rendezvous with a few fellow club members at the Buzzard Rocks parking lot. It’s a good 50-minute drive from the Matthews Arm Campground, so we really didn’t end up being that much closer to the crag than if we had departed straight from DC, simply because of the windy, curvy nature of Skyline Drive.
Buzzard Rocks is a crag located on the north end of the Massanuttens, near Elizabeth Furnace. I had never been up to Buzzards for climbing, only having hiked along the ridgeline above, but I had always heard it was a great place for new leaders because of the moderate, slabby nature of the climbs, as well as the number of climbs that have both bolted sections and those that require gear.
The crux of climbing at Buzzards is really in the approach—a two-mile or so hike uphill, laden with your rope, all the climbing gear, water, food, etc. It was early morning and it was still quite hot, but compared to Little Devils Stairs the day before it was much better conditions and pretty easy hiking.
After about an hour hiking we arrived at the top of the ridgeline and found the climbers trail down to the base of the crag. Adam took the first lead on, what I believe was, a 5.7 bolted line (Failure to Communicate?) adjacent to Raising Arizona.
I followed him up and found the rock to be refreshingly sticky compared to my recent slab climbing adventure at Carderock. There are fixed rap stations available, so we just coiled the rope and hiked down in between every pitch. I then led Raising Arizona (5.7) right beside it, which I guess is one of the classics for those new to Buzzards.
This was my first time clipping bolts, and I must say it was somewhat refreshing to not have to fret about gear placements. There were a series of four bolts and then above that there was a slightly run out 30-foot section, which takes small cams, though I didn’t use any.
Adam then stepped it up a notch and lead Pulp Friction (5.9), which I probably wouldn’t have gotten on the sharp end for (even though it’s bolted). The second portion of the climb has some pure friction climbing up a short featureless section.
I found myself skittering down this portion of the slab a couple of times before I got it. After that, the route eases up, though a bit run out. We then headed over to another section of the crag where everybody else was climbing just to have a look at some of the longer 5.8 routes that offered some mixed gear placements and bolted sections. It was early afternoon by now and things had warmed up considerably as the sun started cresting over the ridgeline.
They were still in the midst of climbing so we decided to go check out another route. I scoped out the Three Amigos wall which featured some purely trad climbs. I opted to try my hand on one of these 5.5 routes (though I’m not sure which variation I did)… I basically followed the small right-most crack system up the wall.
Overall I thought it was pretty sketchy rock quality though, the flake I utilized sounded hollow and loose, and I kept thinking about how if I fell on one of these cams it would probably bust the flake right off… Right, so don’t fall, of course. Thankfully, these aren’t Seneca grades, so a 5.5 is actually easy.
It was a short little route and fun, but with the sun only increasing in intensity we decided it was time to head out. The others were still climbing so we parted ways and headed straight for the swimming hole back down in the valley.
It was so great to actually cool off and rinse off a few days of accumulated salt and sweat. We hung out quite a while in the river until all a sudden a storm front moved in and it started raining along with thunder and lightning. This was the leading edge of another gnarly storm that eventually hit DC that night—and which thankfully has resulted in temps in the mid-80s in the following days!
I thought Buzzard Rocks was a pretty awesome place to climb and I’d love to spend a whole day climbing there when the temps return to sane-levels. There’s also a great backcountry campsite up on the ridgeline not too far from the crag that I’ve stayed at in the past. It would be fun to make an overnighter out of it—though it’d be a bummer to have to carry up enough water to last the weekend.
You can check out more details of the Little Devils Stairs hike from www.midatlantichikes.com, and you can find pretty good beta about climbing Buzzard Rocks from both MountainProject.com and from the Potomac Mountain Club (PATC-MS).
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