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Monday, February 25, 2013

Getting elbowed and kneed by Old Rag

Call me Lucky. For that's what I was today, extremely fortunate. It all came as I was attempting to climb Old Rag Mountain, the first real mountain for me to tackle since I've been in Northern Virginia. However, a nasty slip on a boulder, followed by a slide into a crevice forced me to abort the ascent...well, like an idiot, I tried to go on, but it proved to more than my banged up body could handle, so I had to turn around and make a long, uncomfortable descent back to the car. As I write this in the comfort of our living room, after finally making it back home, I'm still pondering whether or not to visit an emergency center to have myself looked at. While I'm waiting for my elbow and knee to make up their minds, let me present you with what happened...

Old Rag is Shenandoah's most popular and most dangerous hike. The number of blogs and websites about this hike attests to its popularity. The number of search and rescue missions each year attests to its danger. 

It was a beautiful drive through rural Virginia to reach the parking lot for Old Rag Mountain. The first leg was a gentle walk up to the trailhead, with the Hughes River to the right of the path.

A couple of hikers check out the signboard at the start of the trail. The beautiful weather today brought out lots of people. Considering what happened to me later, for once I was glad I wasn't alone on the trails.

The first 0.7 miles (1.1 kilometers) were an easy uphill walk through a forest of hemlock trees.

Soon, large boulders like the ones above started to appear, and the trail became rockier. Shades of things to come.

The views going up were incredible. I was really looking forward to checking out the vista from the summit.

The view from around 2800 feet (853 meters) high. From this point forward the mad scramble over the boulders commenced.

A typical example of what was ahead. Note the ice patch and the low-hanging rock. I had to get through this part by crawling on all fours.

And here is where it happened. As I was making my way across the face of the boulder on the lower right, I lost my footing and started to slip. My feet became wedged between the boulder I was on, and the one with the blue arrow painted on it. Unfortunately, while my feet stopped moving, my body continued to slide, and it started to contort itself. As I was doing my unintended 180, I could feel my left kneecap try to pop out of place, not once, but twice. Fortunately, I was wearing a knee brace, which kept everything in place. But I had to twist my body around on to my stomach in order to properly align the knee in its socket, and after doing so, I slid on the bottom of the crevice, landing on my back. As I looked up at the sky, I started to wonder if I was going to need an emergency evacuation.

What saved me was the knee brace. I have a very bad left knee, which has popped out of its socket on a couple of occasions (including once on a mountain in Taiwan, necessitating my having to push it back into place with my hands), and has threatened to do so many other times. Had it not been for the support I was wearing, my left kneecap would most certainly had migrated to a spot it wasn't meant to be in, and I would've had to either try and put it back again by myself (which is as gruesome as it sounds - trust me!), and/or just lie there and wait for help. I was fortunate (again) in that other hikers soon appeared on the scene, and they waited around to see if I was OK. Had an evacuation been necessary, getting the word down to the rangers probably wouldn't have been a problem. I will never complain about crowds again (at least not here in the States).

After catching my breath, I got up and tested the knee. Everything seemed to be in order, so I thanked everyone for stopping to help and reassured them that I was fine. Now I'm not an experienced mountaineer, but I have done quite a bit of hiking, so I'm pretty confident that what happened to me could've happened to almost anybody. In fact, I was quite pleased with myself that I kept calm throughout and, in a cool-headed way, was able to extricate myself from my predicament without damaging the knee. However, I am an idiot. Not for slipping and falling, but for not turning back right there and then.

Yes, that's right, I decided to keep going uphill and over more boulders, despite the close call. And it turned out it wasn't just my knee I had to worry about - my left elbow was starting to feel funny. But for some stubbornly dumb reason, I wasn't going to be cheated out of the view from the summit of Old Rag, and I thought that if I could just get over the rocky obstacles and make it to the top, it would be an easy walk downhill from the other side.

What I hadn't counted on was the need for upper-body strength. My legs have always been strong, but at the same time, I've always been a weakling above the waist. As I struggled to get over the boulders, my elbow started to bother me more and more, to the point where it was threatening to act like my bad knee every time I tried to put weight on it. But still I pressed on.

There were more stunning views on the way up, but it was getting harder and harder to appreciate them.

After scrambling over some boulders, I was presented with this view. At this point, I seriously thought about throwing in the towel, but the idea of trying to make my way back down wasn't very appealing, either.

Another spot where I had to crawl on all fours, which was becoming a little more than agonizing on the left side of my body. At least on the way back, I could make my way on my butt.

Finally, I reached the Outcropping Too Far. I tried to hoist myself up, but my injured elbow wasn't having any of it. So I finally accepted reality, and turned around for the long, uncomfortable descent. A couple of times I had to ask people to give me a hand getting up and over some of the obstacles, as I was afraid that putting any more weight on my left elbow was going to result in it popping out of place (or worse). In the end, I did make it back to the car without further incident, but I developed some serious leg cramps on the long drive back to Falls Church.

Lessons learned? Plenty, I hope. Always, but always wear a knee brace. Don't press on if you're obviously in some discomfort (unless you've come too far to turn back). And start doing something about building up some upper-body strength. I suppose I'd been lulled into a false sense of complacency on similar terrain in Japan and Taiwan, where chains and ropes are often provided to give 97-pound weaklings like myself a chance to get over the obstacles in our path to the top. Here at Old Rag Mountain, it appeared to be survival of the fittest.

Someday, when we're back in Virginia, and the weather is warmer and my body is stronger, I'm going to tackle Old Rag Mountain again. Hopefully, I'll be wiser. In the meantime, I'm going to take it easy tonight and see how my aching elbow and knee feel. I have a feeling I should seek a physician tomorrow at the very latest.

At least I have a good excuse not to do my Chinese homework!


  1. Holy crap, dude! Glad you're OK. Sounds like it could've been much worse. Great story for the grand-kids!

    1. It could have been much worse, that's for sure. My body is as stiff as a board today.

  2. Jim, after reading this and looking at the photos, i'm grimacing in sympathetic pain! hope you heal up fast! take care.

    1. Thanks, I'm much better now. Still a little sore, but at least I an moving around now. I'm due to get an MRI next week, so we'll what happens from there.