I love the mountains.
Life takes on an incredible simplicity in the wooded peaks of Virginia. The trees envelop you, blocking out the surrounding landscapes. You are left without bearings, without placement. The trail markers make choices for you. All responsibilities, commitments, duties, appointments and promises slip away. You stop checking the time. The sun tells you to wake up, and the moon tells you to sleep. Existence enters a relaxed rhythm, anchored by the simple, unpretentious baseline of walking forwards.
All this embellished language is to help rationalize my choice to climb a random mountain in 12-degree weather with zero preparation. If I opened this column by saying, “I decided to hike 4,000 feet up an unfamiliar peak at night without proper preparation or skill,” I would give off the impression that I’m bad at making decisions. I make great decisions.
Or at least, they’re great in the moment. If someone asked me to go skydiving, I’d say yes. Is that a good decision? No, but in the short term it is more interesting than saying no. It’s the long term that’s the problem for me. So, when my friend Ian asked if I wanted to go climbing up a mountain 36.5 miles away from Grounds, I naturally said yes.
Dangers aside, it was the more exciting choice by far.
Less than a day later, I found myself on the highway headed towards Montebello, Va. The endpoint of our misguided odyssey was a viewpoint called Spy Rock. According to the official Virginia tourism website, the trail to Spy Rock is a “moderately strenuous hike.” Of course, it isn’t recommended you climb the mountain at night in below-freezing weather, but whatever.
Ever the survivalist, Ian was prepared for the cold with a heavy jacket. The two other students who were willing to undergo the perilous journey were similarly well-equipped. Disregarding the fact one of the nearby mountains was called “Cold Mountain,” I took a more freeform approach to preparation and wore a coat which would have been perfect if it were 30 degrees warmer.
The moment I stepped out of the car and onto the trail, a chill tore through my being. Shaking, I followed my group across a frigid stream — someone must have forgotten to build a bridge — only to find the trailhead closed with a "No Trespassing" sign. The alternate route took a while to find, and although the exertion of searching a mountain for an unlabeled trailhead warmed me up, a steady pain in my lungs informed me I was in for a rough hike.
Before I could really ponder whether or not I had — perhaps — overestimated my hiking ability, we started up the mountain. The internet informed me the trail to Spy Rock involved a “rock scramble,” which I did not realize entailed a mad struggle up a nearly vertical surface of ice-cold limestone. Yes, my heart almost stopped multiple times, but after a few hours of climbing — which, I confess, nobody else in the group seemed to find difficult — I reached the top.
I’ve heard people say that the stars — when unhindered by light pollution — can cause you to rethink your place in the universe. I’ve seen a full night sky before, but seeing the infinite cosmos spread out before me while delirious from the cold and 4,000 feet above my normal elevation caused my lizard brain to shut down.
I love the mountains. I love the dark power of the woods and the staggering immensity of the blue ridge horizon. The stars were more than staggering. They had more than dark power. I experienced then, in a way I never had before, the impossible scale of the universe. Thirty-six miles outside of Charlottesville, I witnessed a side of Virginia most people will never see.
I’m not going to say that scaling a mountain late at night with little of the necessary equipment skill is a good idea. It’s not. I’m also not going to say the night sky is worth the hike. I’m sure most people wouldn’t enjoy the experience. It’s a reasonable attitude.
But for me — in that moment — I knew I made the right decision.