I squeezed my eyes shut. Just long enough to let my eyes rest for a moment. Opening them, I saw it again. The view from McAfee's Knob never gets old. It never disappoints, and it's always worth the effort. Even today.
But I was tired, and there was still a lot more to do. Gordon Wadsworth and I were at the summit of peak 5, and there was still two more to go, including the hike down from the McAfee's. I was really starting to despise the descents. The eccentric movements were what was getting to me most, and I was beginning to hurt. "Just two more," I told myself.
Let's back up.
Every year bike racing wraps up and fall arrives. With that change comes a bit of an itch to do other fun and adventurous things outside. Since having moved to Roanoke earlier this year, I found out about an awesome program put on by Roanoke Parks and Rec called "7 Peaks in 7 Weeks." Each year they get a bunch of folks to commit to doing 7 hikes close to the city across the span of 7 weeks. Now, I learned about this challenge after they started this year, but was still amazed and excited to see pictures from these hikes, where people were getting outside and enjoying the beautiful landscape around Roanoke.
Even though I had missed most of the challenge, I still thought it would be fun to do it, but to perhaps condense it into a shorter time period. When I was at Virginia Tech for undergrad, I did hike Virginia's Triple Crown, which is a 23 mile hike along the AT that passes 3 popular peaks in the region, and that was the biggest hiking achievement of my life, one that I still remember vividly to this day. Since that day though, I've not expanded my hiking accumen, but rather only done a bunch of short hikes here and there; nothing over 8 miles.
As I started to think about doing 7 peaks in the area, the question crossed my mind as to whether you could do it in a weekend. That quickly faded from my mind as impractical, as it would monopolize an entire weekend of precious time during the fall.
"Well how about one day?" I asked myself. Now, people of actual sanity might laugh and dismiss the question before it even forms on their lips. Before reason could take over though, I was on the phone with Gordon pitching the idea to him. Gordon and I spend a lot of time together doing somewhat unreasonably painful things. Racing, training, slogging out miles in the cold, dark and foul weather on our bikes. But this was not typical. It was out of the zone of what we know much about not being runners or big time hikers. So when the first thing Gordon said was, "That is a terrible idea, and I'm in," I knew we had something.
Many of you may know Gordon, myself, or even both of us, and you know that we ride bikes a lot. But one thing most people don't realize is that our time on bikes really has nothing to do with bikes. Ultimately, biking is a vehicle to adventure. For us, we love the unknown. Exploration, finding what our limits are, seeing the world; that drives us into these unreasonably painful activities. So when it comes to having the best possible adventures, we personally find that biking is the perfect avenue to accomplish those goals. So, we ride bikes a lot. If bikes were outlawed tomorrow though, I'd just go down to my second favorite way to find adventure and start doing that more.
There we were then, faced with a totally unknown challenge, full of obstacles we knew that we knew nothing about, but with the tantalizing offer of a new adventure. Of course then, our sheer curiosity drove us head first into it. We agreed right then we HAD to try this crazy hike. So we picked a date, and promptly forgot about it.
Hindsight is 2020, and looking back now, I think a few training hikes may have been a good idea. I do actually hike occasionally (which was my reasoning for NOT training), in fact I had done one of the peaks (Tinker Cliffs) 9 weeks earlier with my wife (and vividly remember lamenting how much harder the hike was than I remembered from my college years), so I was somewhat aware of what I was getting into. Gordon and I have done tons of 7, 8, 9 hour mountain bike races, so our thought process was that our fitness would carry over to some degree and would at least qualify us to try something as masochistic as this. In that vein, we both neglected any sort of training, but ensured we at least had gear and nutrition nailed down the week leading into the hike. The day arrived and we embarked on our self dubbed #7Peaks1Day challenge by foot.
What IS the challenge exactly?
The challenge was to hike 7 of the areas highest peaks, and our goal was to do it in 12 hours or less. Thanks to Roanoke Parks and Rec though, we had a very helpful website that gave us general details on how they approached each peak and what trails they took. You can find that HERE. We decided then to use their "recommended" versions of each hike to get to each summit, and the fastest trail back to the valley. We formulated our plan on the way to peak 1 and decided to hike each peak as fast as possible, get back in the car and refuel as we drove to the base of the next one, until all 7 had been hiked.
If you look on a map though, these hikes are pretty spread out. In the interest of time then, we carefully laid out our approach to maximize our hike time, and minimize our driving time. Based on that, we chose the following order:
1. Sharptop Mountain
2. Read Mountain
3. Tinker Cliffs
4. Dragon's Tooth
5. McAfee's Knob
6. Poor Mountain
7. Mill Mountain
Most good adventures seem to involve burning the candle at one end of the day. So we decided we would start in the dark, and try to catch the sunrise at Sharptop. With a 360 view from the top, we were almost guaranteed to get something spectacular. With headlamps on and ready, we left the car at the base lot around 6:20am and started up.
I'd forgotten how steep the hike was, but with motivation and fresh legs, we were up to the top in 30 minutes, 10 minutes until sunrise. We sat, soaked in the gorgeous sky, and watched the sun peak out on the horizon. As soon as it was up, we were back at it. The descent was careful, and deliberate. No running, just a brisk pace to save any energy we could. We arrived at the car slightly faster than our hike up, and got going on the long drive to Read Mountain.
The climb to Read's overlook starts right out of a suburban neighborhood, so for that reason its probably less known by most. It's a quick hike though and you reach the overlook with little difficulty. It's beautiful, but not exactly spectacular like Sharptop, so we probably were only there for a minute before turning around. According to the challenge though, this isn't an out and back hike, but rather a big loop. So we began doing the rest of the loop which ultimately made this hike the 3rd longest one we did time-wise, and only 20 minutes faster than McAfees.
We reached the bottom again, and were feeling good, but very aware that these two had merely been the warm up for the next three. We fueled up, shed some layers from the cooler morning temps, and hit the road to Tinker.
There is really nothing quite like Tinker Cliffs. It's only about 6-7 miles round trip, but the first mile is downhill. That leaves you with a 1,600 ft climb to do in 2 miles, which by anyone's standards is brutal. We knew this was the beginning of the tough stuff and as such, used the first mile of downhill and flat terrain to make up some time by running a bit.
Onto the steeper terrain we slowed to a fast hike and kept a decent pace all the way up to the summit. Another brief break for the views and back down we went, but this time, we were FLYING. We ran everywhere we could without crushing our legs too much, and made great time, finishing the hike at the 1:47 mark.
Back in the car, onto Dragon's tooth... but this drive is tough. Its not very long, though still long enough to see your legs cool down and tighten up. Getting out of the car was going to be rough.
Time was no longer our friend and when we arrived at Dragon's Tooth's lower lot, we were acutely aware that hitting our 12 hour goal was going to be tight. New socks, shorts and shirts and we were on our way up; this time, running from the start.
Dragon's Tooth is a tricky hike. Its short, but the final mile is very rocky. Like, significant rock scrambling and climbing, rocky. So we ran as best we could up to where the smooth dirt gave way to rocks and began picking our way through. The run up to that point was the first sign of weakness in my legs. My heart rate was way up for the first time of the day and my legs felt heavy. My typically underused hip flexors were shouting at me a bit from all those long/fast strides on the first peaks and getting my feet up over the rocks was becoming more challenging. Gordon led the first section, which was helpful so I could just focus on my engine and not the pace.
We scrambled up the rocks and took in the view from the top of the tooth. We met some barefoot hikers and Gordon got very good a compliment on his mustache; our spirits were good and we were having fun despite the beginnings of protests from our bodies.
Back down we went, GINGERLY. If ever there was a place you COULD NOT misstep, Dragon's Tooth is it. If you trip, you're falling on another rock. So down we went, pretty fast all things considered, and the groaning muscles continued. These descents were becoming harder than the climbs. At the car, the drive to McAfee's is short, but still long enough for the legs to cool down again. We knew the drill by this point and both decided getting out of the car was the worst part of each hike.
The hallmark of the Appalachian Trail in Virginia, McAfee's knob is a classic. With an iconic shelf that hangs out over the valley, this view is always worth the energy you put into it. Except maybe today, I thought.
Once again, we hustled. We ran anything that wasn't steep or technical on our way up the AT to the summit. Our fine motor skills were sliding but the engines were still good, so we pressed forward strong, careful to walk through root balls and rock gardens.
I was very grateful for the gentle slope of this one, as I knew coming down would hurt less. We reached the peak fairly easily and took a solid break. 10 minutes of relaxing at the top, eating, drinking, enjoying the view. The run down was going to hurt, so regrouping was a nice way to ease that pain. Down, down, down, back to the car and onward once again.
The name 7 peaks is a bit deceiving when you think about Sharptop, McAfee's, etc. THOSE are peaks. Poor Mountain... not exactly. This hike isn't a peak. In fact, you start at the top of 12 o'Clock Knob, and hike DOWN into the valley and back up. A reverse peak if you will. Now, to be fair, there is a great overlook on the way back up (if you do the loop clockwise) so that makes it feel more traditional.
12 o'Clock knob is south of Salem though, so the drive over from McAfee's was going to be one of the longest of the day. 12 o'Clock happens to also be one of the windiest roads in the area, so when we came around one of the final bends before the parking lot and saw a tractor trailer wedged in one of the switchbacks and blocking the entire road... that was a surprise.
Back down we went, to begin the long, 40 minute drive around the mountain to the other side. Nothing cools and tightens your legs quite like hiking 5 peaks, than sitting in the car for an hour! We finally got to the lot and started down the trail clockwise. The path down is wider and smooth, which made running easy (albeit very painful at this point). At the bottom we found Gordon's wife Emily who had hiked in to meet us and help keep us going strong! That was a great mental boost. She set a strong (and daunting) pace up out of the valley to the overlook. We were flying and got a great view of the sunset as it slid behind the mountains to the west. Sunrise to sunset, and we were still going.
Back at the car we were moving slower. One more. We knew it was doable now. But it was going to be terrible.
How could we not end with Mill Mountain? The cornerstone and icon of Roanoke's outdoor paradise, it sits right at the fringe of downtown and rises 765 ft (the only hike of the day under 1,000 feet of gain). The 30 minute drive to the base crushed our legs further and when I got out of that car, it felt like I had a different pair of legs. Stiff, rigid, unwilling to bend. This was going to be ugly.
The Star trail that takes you up the side of the mountain is great in that its direct, but it also happens to be the rockiest trail of the day. Every step you take is on rocks of some sort. Couple that with it now being pitch black, and even with headlamps, it was slow going. We were safe on time to hit our 12 hour goal, so the pace up Mill was basically an uninspired slog. My wife Charlotte met us at the bottom for our final peak and with two additional bodies, we had an upbeat hike of 4 up to the summit of the last one.
Reaching the top was great. Not euphoric by any means, really more of a relief than anything. We looked out at the whole valley lit up with lights, the black peaks we had hiked all day rising in the background of the city. It was a good moment. We snagged a picture then sat for a while.
There's nothing magical about finishing something particularly hard. I do love the sensation of feeling like I pushed past a mental barrier to do something that was exhausting and hard, as that toughness you develop can be called on for the truly significant challenges of life when you need it. But otherwise, it's just fun to go on adventures with friends. To spend an entire day outside taking in gorgeous views, even if the price is some temporary pain.
I'll definitely never forget our day of hikes. While I can't say I recommend everyone do #7Peaks1Day, I would strongly recommend getting out there and doing at least a few to push your limits and try something others might say is a terrible idea. You just might be surprised at how fun and freeing it is to push your envelope.
18,174 Feet of Elevation Change
9 Hours 55 Minutes on the Trail
1. Sharptop Mountain - 1:08 - 3.0 miles - 1,272'
2. Read Mountain - 1:23 - 4.6 miles - 1,103'
3. Tinker Cliffs - 1:47 - 6.6 miles - 1,991'
4. Dragon's Tooth - 1:14 - 4.5 miles - 1,377'
5. McAfee's Knob - 1:54 - 7.6 miles - 1,557'
6. Poor Mountain - 0:56 - 3.4 miles - 1,022'
7. Mill Mountain - 1:27 - 3.6 miles - 765'