George Washington National Forest | 38.9569° N, 78.6564° W | February 23, 2019
Standing in the doorway of Robert’s house in downtown Harrisonburg, I stare at monochromatic misting rain and gray skies. It’s a typical winter day in northern Virginia—wet, cold, and bleak.
“This is perfect weather to curl up with a cup of coffee and read a good book,” I say, turning to Robert. Reclined on the couch in his sweatpants, he looks exceedingly comfortable. “Are you still down to do a hike?”
He nods. “Of course.”
Despite the crap weather, we both need to get out. Robert has a really cool job that allows him to spend a lot of time outside, but in the middle of winter, he gets stuck in the office. And I’ve been craving some time in the woods ever since I returned from doing field work in the Florida Keys. Plus, I told Icemule Coolers I would shoot some product photos for them while I was hiking this weekend. When I e-mailed their social media manager to say the forecast wasn’t exactly ideal for outdoor photography, she wrote back: “just do what you can, weather permitting.”
“Alright, so we’ve got some options,” Robert says, opening up his laptop to show me a few different areas within the George Washington National Forest. Without much deliberation, we pick a trail, then start shoving gear into our packs: extra layers, rain coats, water bottles, food and first aid.
After a quick stop to buy hand warmers and hard cider, we drive across the Shenandoah Valley towards the border of West Virginia. Even with rain and limited visibility, the rolling hills and faint outline of distant mountains create a striking landscape.
We turn off the main highway and drive up a twisting country road. Running parallel to a river, we pass trout fishing signs, rusted out pick-up trucks, trailers, and confederate flags. With an uncharacteristic southern twang, Robert says, “oh yeah, we’re in the holler now.”
We also start to see patches of snow, leftover from a brief storm earlier this week. I mention how much I love taking photos in the snow—how it acts as a giant reflector, bouncing light around and making subjects look brighter and more vivid against a clean, white backdrop. “You know, we might actually see some snow up on the trail,” Robert says. “It’s at a higher elevation than where we are now.”
He’s right. By the time we reach the trailhead, we see just how much snow has accumulated (and not yet melted) up here. It’s also (notably) not raining.
I jump out of the truck like a kid on Christmas morning. “This is beautiful! It’s like Narnia!”
As we hike, I savor the crunch of frozen snow under my boots—one of my favorite sounds in the world. Robert patiently listens to me wax poetic about my ice axe and crampons and mountaineering adventures. We talk about our Wilderness First Responder course, travels out west, and photography. Robert didn’t know I would ask him to be my model for the day, but he’s a great sport about it.
“Okay, take a step with your right foot. Now pause. Okay, now step again.”
I click through the images I just shot. “This is perfect!”
Robert glances over my shoulder and says, “it’s so bright—it doesn’t even look real.”
When we come to the steepest section of the trail, Robert says, “so this is basically mountaineering, right?”
“Absolutely,” I say, smiling. “Most of mountaineering is just walking uphill slowly.” At this point the snow is so frozen our boots can’t crunch through it. Crampons would be really helpful right now. Robert and I slip and slide our way up the hill, clutching tree branches and rocks for traction.
I take a step, slide backwards, and barely avoid falling on my ass. I also can’t stop laughing. “I’m a mountaineer, I swear!”
We finally reach a large boulder and claim it as our spot to rest and relax for a few minutes. “I’m okay with calling this our summit for the day.”
It’s still not raining, and now that we’re not moving, we take in the dense silence. There is an ethereal feeling that accompanies a wild place blanketed in snow, and we bask in it.
“I really didn’t think this was how our day would go,” Robert says. “I thought we’d be trudging through mud and rain.”
“Did you check the forecast for this particular area?” I ask.
“Yeah, I specifically looked at this mountain. It said pouring rain all afternoon.”
I feel an immediate and profound sense of gratitude—for the conditions, for this place, and for my stalwart adventure buddy. “Well, it’s a good thing we don’t let weather determine our decisions.”