Old Rag: Virginia’s Trad-Climbing Mecca

For trad climbers, Old Rag is an East Coast heaven, but with long hikes, bushwhacking, and hard rock, you've got to want it.
By Seth Derr ,

The classic Bushwhack Crack (5.10c) swallows Seth Derr’s mitts. Photo: Andrew Burr

The humid smarm that accompanies summertime in Virginia stuck to every ounce of my body. I wished I had a can of WD-40 to spray between my ass and my underwear. The July heat would have been enough to make sucking margaritas by the pool a chore. My friend Kyle Matulevich and I had passed the summit of Old Rag Mountain—home to 100-plus routes on granite spread over five main zones and countless outcroppings—and thrashed through the stinging nettles to a craglet on the side of the hill. I had just finished taping up below Bushwhack Crack (5.10c), a perfect hand crack through a low roof, when I heard Andrew Burr’s voice boom through the jungle: “I am going to murder you!” I knew this was going to be a good day.

Located near Shenandoah National Park’s Skyline Drive in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Northern Virginia, only 90 miles west of Washington, D.C., Old Rag features some of the best hiking in the Mid-Atlantic region. On any given sunny weekend, the mountain bustles with visitors trekking the rocky 9.1 miles from car to car, scrambling their way to the 3,291’ summit. The National Park Service estimates that 85,000 people walk these trails each year, making Old Rag one of the most visited mountains in the country. While hikers have visited Shenandoah National Park since before its establishment in 1935, climbing development has been slower.

In the 1940s, members of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, a volunteer organization founded in 1927 to oversee the local section of the then newly formed Appalachian Trail, completed the first few, unnamed ascents on the granite outcroppings and boulders on the mountain’s flanks. In 1951, according to Eric Horst’s guidebook Rock Climbing: Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland, Arnold Wexler completed the first recorded route on Old Rag when he thrashed up Jaws Chimney (5.6) at the Reflector Oven. Other climbers aided and freed moderate crack lines through the 1960s, but few ascents were recorded. As climbing standards progressed through the 1970s and ‘80s, climbers discovered and freed harder lines. Rumor has it that Greg Collins onsight free soloed Bushwhack Crack in the early 1980s for its first ascent. Collins began working a steep, hard aid line to the right. In 1989, John Bercaw made the first free ascent of this 45-foot off-fingers 5.13 painfest known as The The at the difficult-to-find Wall That Dreams Are Made Of. The early 1990s saw the addition of bolts to the unprotectable faces. At first, developers drilled on lead; in the latter part of the decade, they rap-bolted a handful of sport climbs, including perhaps the mountain’s best clip-up, the steep, aesthetic arête Gone Fishing (5.11d) at Middle Sunset.

The cliffs on Old Rag Mountain, Shenandoah National Park, VA. Photo: Andrew Burr

In spite of about 40 bolted routes scattered about the various crags, traditionally protected jamming and friction make up the majority of the climbing. Crystal-laden cracks from rattly fingers to sinker hands, burly offwidths, and bombay chimneys cleave formations of stacked, rounded boulders. Friction slabs up to 300 feet long and runout face climbs that utilize the ubiquitous big, sharp grains dot the hillside. For traditional climbers, Old Rag is an East Coast heaven.

Considering Old Rag is the only granite between the Adirondacks in Upstate New York and North Carolina’s Cashiers Valley, one might expect perpetual overcrowding. However, that is not the case. The same attractions—namely rugged terrain and steep, strenuous trails—that lure in the backpackers, day hikers, trail runners, and vanloads of Amish tourists make Old Rag a major undertaking for rock climbers. The two-hour, three-mile uphill hike rivals any approach east of the Mississippi, and the park service prohibits camping above 2,800 feet—so you need to undertake the trudge anew each day. Even the climbing wards off the weak, as the large-grained crystals make crack climbing here akin to practicing crocodile dentistry. In spite of a well-written guidebook, finding the crags can be the crux, especially if you show up between May and October, when summer’s jungle of lush thorns, poison ivy, and head-high forests of stinging nettles obscures the cliffs. Meanwhile, copperheads and rattlesnakes, ticks, and bears hide amongst the dense vegetation, awaiting wayward climbers.

On my first trip to Old Rag, in July 2011, unaware of the camping ban, my partner and I each packed in two gallons of water, tents, sleeping bags, pads, climbing gear, and supplies enough for a couple nights. As we floundered about in the woods, trying to find the elusive Tree With Three Trunks, the formation marking the path to some of the cragging, we encountered three rattlers and three bears. Soon, we’d depleted our water, drained dry by heat in the mid-90s and 80 percent humidity. Around 3 p.m., after hours of fruitless hiking, we headed back to the car. We’d hiked 11.5 miles, carrying 60 pounds each, without seeing climbable rock. That same July, my friend Chris Bursey and his partner Justin “Smitty” Smith got hopelessly lost in a nasty patch of nettles while searching for the Wall That Dreams Are Made Of. They’d neglected to read Horst’s guidebook note stating, “The approach is only passable from November through April—it’s a jungle in the summer.” Frustrated, Smitty threw an all-points-off bully fit and smashed their water on a rock. They retreated the five miles to their car with dry mouths. Was this supposed trad heaven even worth the price of admission?

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Chris, Smitty, and I tried again that January, this time guided to the does-it-really-exist? Wall That Dreams Are Made Of by our mutual friend Patrick Andrews, who had helped establish an unnamed 5.11d mixed climb at the Reflector Oven and knew the area well. The perpetually psyched Patrick wanted to share his Old Rag knowledge. Sick with an upper-respiratory infection but keen to learn about the mountain, I spent most of the first day huddled in a cave overdosing on Dayquil while my friends scurried up the cracks. The following day, feeling a bit less like dying, I jammed my way up Strawberry Fields (5.9) and Bushwhack Crack.

“While the approach is Old Rag’s longest (and carries a nightmarish reputation),” Horst writes in his guide, “I believe it’s 100 percent worth the effort just to climb the wonderful Bushwhack Crack.” Horst was right. I loved the climbing. I sunk my hands into the cracks, twisting them painfully in the sharp rock. At the top, with shredded mitts, I discovered the intrinsic pleasure and pain of Old Rag. And though I’d only climbed a little, I’d learned that in winter the temps cool, the ticks disappear, the snakes sleep, the leaves fall off the trees, and the climbers’ trails transform into recognizable paths. It’s then that Old Rag becomes a trad paradise.

Kyle Matulevich fights up Report to Sickbay (5.10c). Photo: Andrew Burr

Over the last six years, I’ve continued to explore and fall in love with Old Rag. The Reflector Oven and The Wall That Dreams Are Made Of catch morning sun, and the God’s Area Crags soak in the last rays before the sun dips behind the mountain, making a sunny winter’s day perfect for battling cracks. While many of the routes deserve just a one- or two-star rating, the battle to simply reach and find the climbing at Old Rag taken with the few five-star classics makes it worth the fight. There are never crowds; recently, over a long weekend in November when temperatures pushed into the 60s, a group of us climbed for three straight days without seeing a single other climber.

Which brings me back to Burr’s meltdown on our trip, in July 2015, to take pictures for this article. Earlier that week, Kyle Matulevich and I had made plans to meet Burr at the only restaurant in Sperryville, about twenty minutes from Old Rag, at 8 a.m. Three times he drove past us in his rental car, and three times we waved, but without cell service we couldn’t connect. Kyle and I gave up and headed out to climb, hoping Burr had the same idea. Fortunately, Burr pulled up the approach beta on Mountain Project. Cell service up near the summit allowed a text exchange to direct him toward our perch at Bushwhack Crack. He plowed through the stinging nettles, shorts-clad legs sliced to ribbons, and met us at the cliff in a pool of blood, sweat, and curses.

“Don’t you guys do any trail work?” he said as he emerged from the jungle. We regrouped at the base then Burr scrambled to the top of the formation to photograph Bushwhack Crack and the surrounding woods.

For the next few hours, Kyle and I fought the heat and climbed while Burr scrambled around the mountain taking pictures. We convinced Burr who “doesn’t climb” to climb Strawberry Fields so he could get in place to photograph Report to Sickbay (5.10); for someone who “doesn’t climb,” Burr sure flew up the route, placing only a couple of cams. Kyle hopped on Sickbay’s chimney and climbed halfway up before bailing at the crux fingerlock roof; Andrew and I lobbed insults, but in the end, it wasn’t enough to chide him on. Later, Burr photographed Oh My God Dihedral (5.10), a fingers-to-fists open book with a crack in its spine. Directly across from the Reflector Oven, the crack sports some of the best views at Old Rag. After the granite stemming and liebacking, Kyle and I trekked to the summit and removed our tape gloves.

“One more photo,” Burr said. He thrust his camera into my hands and charged up Picture Perfect (5.8), a two-tiered slab to a vegetated crack. Burr wore the brightest blue pants I’d ever seen (pants he’d had in his pack all day, by the way), a colorful counterpoint to the Old Dominion State that fell away behind him—rolling, wooded hills in an endless sea of green.

Andrew Burr climbs the looks-better-than-it-is Picture Perfect (5.8). Photo: Andrew Burr

On the hike out, I looked at Kyle and Burr. Old Rag had chewed them up. The cracks had bit into their hands and the thorns had left racing stripes along their legs (let’s hope those were from the thorns, anyway), and it called to mind my ill-fated first visit years ago, when I’d sworn never to return. Yet here I was at the end of one of the most fun days I’d ever had on Old Rag, sweat-stained shirt and all, in the middle of July. In the end, rock climbing is about the stories you get to tell when the day is done, and Old Rag always makes for one hell of a tale.

Old Rag Climbing Beta

When/Season

Late October through early May.

Where

Shenandoah National Park, Sperryville, Virginia. From Sperryville, drive to the Old Rag Mountain trailheads. Berry Hollow parking area provides the best approach to most of the crags.

Camping

Backcountry camping is permitted below 2,800 feet with a permit. Other campgrounds exist within Shenandoah National Park and in the surrounding countryside.

Classics

  • Chasm Crack (5.8)
  • Strawberry Fields (5.9+)
  • Oh My God Dihedral (5.10c)
  • Bushwhack Crack (5.10c)
  • Sunset Crack (5.11a)
  • Gone Fishing (5.11d)
  • The The (5.13a)

Rack Beta

Doubles to wide hands, a single fist-sized cam, and a set of nuts are sufficient for most routes. If you want to get funky and wide, bring doubles to no. 6.

Resources

Rock Climbing: Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland (Falcon, 2001) by Eric Horst offers the best beta. There are no known guide services. 

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