Area Report



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Old Rag, Virginia

By: Drew Frye of Contact Climbing Gear

Old Rag offers the finest and practically only granite climbing area between New Hampshire and North Carolina.  Perhaps this statement will not impress the western climber, for all of Old Rag’s climbing would fit into a small portion of Middle Cathedral Rock in Yosemite.  However, beauty inheres in many qualities other than grandeur. 

Old Rag, it's way up there.

For texture, hardness and subtlety of feature, Old Rag granite compares favorably with that of Joshua Tree.  Climbing at Old Rag includes bouldering, top roping, sport climbing, and traditional leading.  The quality and volume of all of these are excellent.  However, the star attraction is lead climbing on flawless granite of great variety.  Because of its designation as a Wilderness in Shenandoah National Park (SNP), bolting or addition of fixed anchors of any kind on Old Rag is now prohibited. 


The mountain will continue to defend itself from crowds with a 1 hour 45 minute drive from the nearest real population centers, a 1 hour 30 minute up-hill approach hike plus sometimes significant bushwhacking, and the elements of its mountain location.  The adventurous and the fit will find wonderful climbing far from the crowds. 


Climbing in the Park began in the 1930's, with visits from local climbers practicing for trips to the west.  Visited by Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC) members on and off with some older pins and rusty bolts marking their efforts.  Most of these early visits centered on the Summit Area and the PATC Wall.  A rebirth in activity began in the 1970s, marked by the free accent of Strawberry Fields, as classic a granite hand crack as can be found.  Through the 1980s the efforts continued, with routes as hard as The The, a 5.13a/b finger crack on the Bushwhack Crag and as strange as Tooth & Nail (5.9-), requiring the star drill to be held in the leader's teeth while hand drilling a bolt!  The majority of the routes seem to fall in the 5.9 to 5.11c range, perhaps because the nature of the rock gives up passage in that range of difficulty.

"Oh My God" Dihedral 5.10c PG


Gear requirements at Old Rag are standard for granite routes.  The rock can be best described as similar to Joshua Tree, existing as domes with slabs and splitter cracks. Small Tri-cams and active cams (SLCDs) are highly recommended.  A standard rack would contain a full set of wired nuts, a dozen quick draws, six full length slings, several small Tri-cams, a full set of SLCDs, a cordalette, some extra biners, and perhaps some Aliens and Ball-nuts.  A roll of athletic tape for the hands and the knowledge of its use is mandatory for many of the saber-toothed cracks.  A single rope is what most routes require, but doubles are occasionally nice, the second rope often finding additional use in descents and hauling.  Add a couple of bail biners, quick links for anchors missing pieces, and several tied slings for backing up anchors, and you’re in good shape. You won’t need a lot of this gear on most routes, but it is a long way to the car!  Long pants and long sleeves are mandatory in any season, and bug repellent is very useful at times in certain areas.  Since the hike is long, carry more water than you think.  A minimum 2 quarts in the winter, and 4-5 in the summer.


This is a fee area.  At the Nethers end of the Ridge Trail end there are rangers on weekends.  Otherwise it is the honor system.   The fee is $5.00.  Golden Eagle Passes are good for a family or one hiker and a partner.


Camping is substantially restricted in the vicinity of Old Rag.  This is a very popular location in-season, and I would suggest that you not plan on camping in the immediate area.  Competition can be stiff, and this is no place to build a tent city.  There are many camping areas in the nearby Shenandoah National Park and surrounding areas.  However, in off season periods back country camping is practical, and the cost of the permit is included the entrance fee.  Please respect the following  updated restrictions.  Back country camping permits are available at the Ranger booth at the Ridge Trail parking lot near Nethers, at the White Oak Canyon trailhead on Berry Hollow Road, and at any SNP entrance station.  There is no additional fee for back country permits.


The season can often determine the best climbing area just as definitively as traffic law determines which side of the road on which to drive. In the winter, the east and south facing slabs and walls are often comfortable on cold days, though the cracks never seem to warm up.  The lengthy approaches to south east crags are reasonable in the winter and early spring before the local flora springs to the defense of the mountain.  In the summer, the west and north facing PATC wall is appealing, cool with a short approach.  Bouldering on the summit is brutally cold in the winter, sun or not, but the wind makes it nice in the summer.  The north and west facing areas such as the PATC Wall are brutally cold in the winter – ideal for budding alpinists anxious to practice martyrdom and pointless deprivation. 

10 of the BEST Routes at Old Rag

Summit Area

** Pure Fun 5.6 to 5.8+ depending on finish.  Scramble down a small gully on the south end of the summit; pass by a short smooth hand crack on the left, and turn right down through the bushes to the southwest face.  Several moderate lines wind through this somewhat broken-up face (though the rock is very sound like almost all rock at Old Rag).  An excellent alternate start (5.8) is possible following the right leaning hand crack 20’ to the left of Pure Fun.   Pure Fun follows cracks up the middle to a slight overhang.  One the right side, follow a difficult crack that fades away.  To the left, follow climb through the overhang using horizontals with hidden jugs (5.8).  Or belay here, and traverse off to the left through easy chimney.  A good beginner's lead.  Trad, 110’.

PATC Wall Area

**** Duck Walk 5.10c R.  A truly marvelous mixture of techniques; one bolt, large to medium gear and a few tiny wires.  Tape absolutely necessary.  Overhang move off the deck, short crack, traverse up and right to bolt, then back left.  Dead point to crack under final overhang, jam out and up right.   Know how to lead or don't start at all. 85 tough feet.

*** Dobie Gillis 5.8.  Nice hand crack leading to a bolt and a rightward rising traverse and a creepy anchor (4 old bongs in horizontal crack). Tape, medium rack and one tied runner to back up the rappel anchor. 

*** Psychobabble 5.10b PG.   Nice face climbing on wonderfully solid crystals.  Improbable crystal pinching crux right at the top.  A couple of nuts low in the right hand crack, then a trio or so of bolts.  Again, the same creepy anchor as Dobie, now to your left.  65feet. 

Reflector Oven Area

**** Strawberry Fields 5.9+ to first belay, 5.11a to top.  Probably the best known Old Rag climb, it is irresistible.  Climb obvious hand crack at center of wall, with small dead tree in crack at 3/4 height.  Traditional route takes plenty of pro from fist to small.  Many parties climb only the first pitch (75 feet) and rap from a cabled anchor.  Tape up, and expect continuous effort, as this “traditional” rating is hard for its grade.  Second pitch follows thin layback crack to top. 30 feet, 105 feet total.   Cold shut anchor at the top.  Long, complex walk off is also possible to the right.

Strawberry Fields 5.9+ or 5.11a

Scared Seamless 5.10b/c

God Crag / Bushwhack Trail Area

*** "Oh My God" Dihedral 5.10c PG. Classic overhanging lay back/off width crack.  With modern large crack cams it is merely exhausting and intimidating.  With only Hexcentrics in the good old days, it was terrifying, as the crack keeps getting bigger, steeper, and smoother.  Practice energy conservation, and keep it moving.  55 feet, gear route.

 *** Scared Seamless 5.10b/c.  Follow 2 bolts up center of slab through bulge, up vanishing seam to left, finishing with traverse to anchor on right.  Light rack including small SLCD or Tri-cams for top of seam.    70 feet. 

The Wall That Dreams Are Made Of

*** Bushwhack Crack 5.10c.  Climb obvious fist/hand crack leaning to the left. Leads up through roof (spot may be advisable) at about 10 feet, followed by continuous perfect hand jamming up perfect vertical granite.  Fortunately, it soaks up plenty of gear, upon which resting is popular.   About 100’, overhanging a little the whole way. 

*** The The 5.13a/b.  About 20 feet to the right of Bushwhack Crack there is a finger crack.  Mere mortals can get some distance off the ground.  Then it gets hard.   The first 5.13 red point in Virginia.

Eagle’s Gift Slab

*** Eagle’s Gift 5.10a+ R  A classic by any standard.  At right side of wall, climb past 4 bolts beginning at shallow right facing corner layback crack.  The 3rd bolt is hidden from view by a bulge.

The The 5.13a/b

Continue to rising traverse on bumps to grove/crack 25 feet to left. The gear placements on the route, though adequate, are strange in spots.  Not a sport climb.  The finish of the climb up a rounded flaring crack includes a 40’ run-out over initially difficult but easing rock.  Gear belay with cordalette if using 165’ rope!  Light rack with stoppers, small SLCDs, and Tri-cams.  A very long 165’.

For more information including detailed approach tips to the various areas, go to Contact Climbing Gear and Complete Online Old Rag Climbing Guide.  Printed guide due out in 2001.


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