Ascent of The Priest on 2006-08-03

Climber: Scott Surgent

Others in Party:Beth Cousland
Date:Thursday, August 3, 2006
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:The Priest
    Elevation:4063 ft / 1238 m

Ascent Trip Report

We left Wintergreen early in the morning and got onto the Blue Ridge Parkway for about 15 miles, then exited into Montebello and south onto a short road past the state fish hatchery and the little parking area set aside for day-hikers of the Appalachian Trail. We were the only ones in the lot, arriving about 7 a.m. in surprisingly moderate weather. Given our last few days of oppressive humidity and heat, we much enjoyed the cooler temperatures of the highlands and a gentle breeze. It was still quite humid but not nearly as hot.

From the parking lot, we walked a side access road about a mile to where it petered out, and from which the Appalachian Trail continued. The trail was steep in places but extremely well constructed and easy to follow. We went at a moderate pace and in short order had come out onto a small flat area, where the "better" trail went off to a lookout called Spy Rock. The Appalachian Trail went left and curled up to the summit of Maintop Mountain, with the last little bit requiring us to hop over some rocks in places. We covered this portion in an hour and 20 minutes, an uphill climb of 1,300 feet in slightly less than two miles. We stopped for a moment to celebrate then walked a little farther to an open rocky area where we sat and took our first long break.

From here, we descended 750 vertical feet in 2.5 miles. This part went very quickly, taking about 90 minutes, and we came out onto an old two-track road. We knew better to walk this, and instead went farther on the trail, up and down over a small hillock, before coming out into the open at the end of a road marked as state route 826 on the map. We had looked at this road early in the morning, but got spooked off by the sign from the main highway that warned against driving this road in pathetic little rental cars. So now here we were, about 4.5 miles into our hike, making great time. we took another break here. In the open without tree cover, we felt the heat a little more than before.

The Priest is slightly less than two miles to the top, with about 750 feet of gain. The gradients are gentle, so we made good time, arriving to the elongated summit region of the Priest after 90 minutes. The Priest summit consists of two distinct summits separated by a small saddle, and on top these summits, a handful of large rock outcrops that together give about four or five potential candidates for the highpoint of The Priest. We walked along the broad summit to its east end where it started a steep drop, then doubled back to pick off what we though were the best candidates.

Starting from the easternmost point, there is one good-sized rock grouping that can be easily accessed from the trail, with about eight feet of gain. On the top we found a different-colored rock seemingly set here by someone in the past, perhaps a marker. We found no benchmarks and felt this outcrop was the best candidate for the eastern area. Moving back west we came upon two or three groupings that all seemed viable. We carefully clambered up these rocks, each time just being there long enough to tag the top. One outcrop had a tree laying across it, with the highest portion of the rock under the tree. Again, we tagged the tops like good citizens, and after a handful of these felt we'd visited the best set of candidates.

As we hiked out, Beth spied a small rock arrow pointing to a side trail. Curious, we followed the trail about 150 feet to a grand opening: a massive rock band jutting above all the trees and allowing for some of the most amazing views I've ever seen on my Virginia jaunts. We stopped here and took a long break, almost an hour it seemed. The views were incredible! As we sat on the rocks we noted that the "brush" abutting the rocks wasn't brush at all, but the tops of trees, meaning 50 feet down to the deck if we went that route. The hike had been great, but limited in views, and this more than made up for it. We were amazed, and we highly recommend this little, obscure side trail.

Including breaks, we had covered the six miles to The Priest's summit in about five hours with about 2,100 feet of gain. For the hike out we decided to take the road "826" back to the highway, and from there to our car. It wouldn't add any mileage to our hike and would save us the necessity of regaining the 750 feet to Maintop's summit. We made good time hiking back to the opening at the end of the Road 826, then followed 826 steeply down to the parking area for Crabtree Falls.

The road portion covered less than 4 miles and was tedious, but easy. We came back to the paved highway (VA-56). From here we had 3/10 of a mile to the fish hatchery road, and another 3/10 of a mile to our car. All seemed like cake.

Then a storm came in. We had seen puffy clouds on the hike out but thought little of them. We were down off the ridges and in seeming safety (statistically speaking) back on the low roads. As we hiked the highway part, rain began to fall, and thunder could be heard. We picked up our pace. Soon, we came to the fish hatchery road. A fellow was leaving the hatchery, presumably going home for the day. He waved to us. A few moments later, the rain turned into a torrent, and lightning was hitting nearby.

A bolt hit. I thought it hit a power line because I saw some arcing electricity. The clap of thunder was instantaneous and profoundly loud and violent. It echoed for 10 seconds. In moments the guy driving out had turned around and was essentially ordering Beth into his car. He said the bolt had hit just beside her! He saw everything and was kind enough (and insistent enough) to give us a ride to our car. It was so ironic, as we were now just a tenth of a mile to the car, but given the conditions we were foolish not to take up his offer. That bolt had hit way too close to home, and there were more just like it. Beth was spooked after learning just how close she came to getting a direct zap. We got our car, thanked the guy about a thousand times, and drove up to the general store in Montebello for well-earned cold sodas. However, the lightning had knocked out the power to the region, so we had to drive on back to our condo at Wintergreen before getting some cool drinks. What a frightening, bizarre ending to a great, long day of hiking.
Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:2500 ft / 762 m
    Round-Trip Distance:12 mi / 19.3 km
    Trailhead:1563 ft / 476 m
    Route Conditions:
Road Hike, Maintained Trail, Bushwhack

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