JOHNNY ROBINSON: Running Roanoke’s Seven Summits; Fun for Fools

Johnny and Josh celebrate at the end of their Seven Summit adventure.

Descending the rock-strewn trail from our brief visit to the summit of McAfee’s Knob, the light from my headlamp is waning big-time; it’s fading fast and the sky remains, well, black. There is no moon.

Ok so I had been wrong when I thought the batteries still held plenty of juice. Josh is running behind me, flooding the scene with his high-candlepower beam, but still I’m loping through some deep shadows and I’m concerned about falling and hurting myself this early in the game. Gotta stay on my feet.

Arriving at the car unscathed as the dawn sky finally lightens we jump in and head to our next objective, Dragon’s Tooth. It’s 7:15 on a warm late-September morning, and several hours into our adventure all systems are still GO.

This day began at 3:30 AM when I jumped disheveled out of bed and finished throwing my things together. My buddy Josh Gilbert picked me up at —check the clock— 04:01 and off we went.

We’ve been prepping for this day for a while, the adventure consisting of attempting to run all seven of Roanoke’s “Seven Summits” in one continuous push, linking each peak by driving from one to another. The idea intrigued me from the first time I heard about it -Josh and I share an odd penchant for long distance trail running- and at Josh’s urging we put it on the calendar.

In an effort to promote some of the best trails on some of the Roanoke area’s stellar peaks, folks involved with local outdoor tourism designated “Roanoke’s Seven Summits” as McAfee’s Knob, Dragon’s Tooth, Tinker Cliffs, Read Mountain, Sharp Top, Poor Mountain, and of course Mill Mountain.

It’s been suggested that a dedicated hiker do perhaps one of these peaks per week, or one per month, until all are ‘bagged.’ That would be nice, but we really just had to try to do them all at once. After all, I’ve lived in Roanoke my entire life; I’ve been to the top of all of those peaks countless times…but not on the same day.

Josh and I are both nerds when it comes to preparing for such outings and we had discussed and refined most every detail. We would be running the trails and linking the peaks together by operating as efficiently as possible. Not only did we want to run all seven, but we wanted to go as fast as we could. All part of the ‘fun.’

The loop trail at Poor Mountain Preserve was our first objective. After blasting off from my house we arrived at the trail-head at 04:21, jumped out of the Subaru and proceeded to almost get lost as we homed in on the proper way to run the loop.

The predawn darkness was complete, and the webs of many a spider spanned the trail, draping the body of whichever of us was leading at the time. The leader would shriek especially upon encountering a web to the face, as the other of us guffawed mercilessly.

Anyway, spirits were high and bodies were fresh, and we made quick work of the Poor Mountain loop trail. We arrived back at the car, yanking the hydration packs off our backs as we hopped in and careened off for…the McAfee’s Knob trail-head on Rt. 311. That run up and back went well, losing my light notwithstanding.

Now it’s two peaks down and we’re in vehicle mode to Dragon’s Tooth. Time for food; the apple fritter I demolished on the way out my back door is long gone. We have a wide variety of fuel for the day stashed behind the car seats, but at this point I’m especially interested in scarfing down one of Josh’s special-recipe ‘super balls’ made of almond butter, oats, honey, coconut, and chocolate chips. Excellent! And I gulp down a half liter of water.

At the Dragon’s Tooth trail-head I fling open the car door and my feet hit the ground running almost before we stop rolling. Happy and feeling good, the ascent goes well. We can run all but the most ‘technical’ parts of the trail. At the top we tag the big Tooth, turn and bolt back to the car, reversing the ascent route. Next comes a big one, the climb involving the most vertical ascent of the bunch, Tinker Cliffs.

The Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony is playing in my head as we jog through the stunning beauty of a softly-glowing veil of morning mist blanketing the bottom-land pasture of the Andy Layne Trail. We laugh at the faces of thirty head of cattle gazing uninspired in our direction. “Excuse us, ladies!”

This halcyon meadow is a prelude to the steep climb we face. Putting our shoulders to the grindstone we hustle up the “stairway to heaven” and on to the spectacular cliffs. The turnaround point is deemed to be the USGS survey marker midway along the sandstone escarpment. We tag that, pausing to take a photo of my hand next to it, my watch showing the time of 09:37.

By the way, each ascent is done a certain way, with a defined turnaround point, so that others who might want to repeat this game will know exactly how we did it; so they can play by the same ‘rules.’ (Heehee) Each ascent is not necessarily a direct up-and-back; often there’s a longer loop involved to make it all more aesthetically pleasing. Anyway, we skedaddle down from the Cliffs, loping and occasionally sliding our way back to the car. It’s 10:20 AM. Three peaks to go.

During the ride to Read Mountain it’s time to fuel again. Riding shotgun, I’m in charge, and I’m extracting leftover homemade pizza slices and Moon Pies from our pantry. Even better, I’m mining ice cubes from the cooler to create the moment’s most desired elixir: ice water.

The five-mile ascent and loop of the fine Read Mountain trails goes well, but then again it’s now uncomfortably warm and we’re not so fresh anymore; I’m feeling more than a bit tattered at the edges. Our conversation is not as ebullient as it was earlier, but we’re still smiling, still loving this day.

Josh is ever upbeat and positive, a trait that guarantees my readiness to partner with him in this outing and helps to fuel my own enthusiasm for this crazy stuff. As we jump into the faithful Outback we try to confine our sweat-soaked bodies and clothing to the old towels with which we carefully draped the seats, but I fear that Josh’s wagon may never be the same.

In a meager gesture toward cleanliness I change shirts on the drive to Sharp Top. On the Blue Ridge Parkway a few miles shy of Peaks of Otter we run into a frustrating traffic stop due to road work. We’re held up for 25 minutes, and this drives us batty. We are anxious to keep this ball rolling and, besides, our butts hurt when we sit in the car. Gotta move.

Now we’re two thirds of the way up Sharp Top and I’m running out of gas. I’m having trouble keeping up with Josh. I eat something -half a Clif Bar- and soon feel ok again. I slap the highest of the summit boulders a few minutes after Josh does, and get back to the car as quickly as my tired body will allow. So far I haven’t stumbled and fallen today and I fervently plan to keep it that way. Crashing on these rocky trails is no fun, and can be an outing deal-breaker.

Six down and one summit to go. We swing into the Star Trail parking lot at 2:46 PM and take off, with considerably less spring in our steps as we’d had earlier. But this is Mill Mountain, our backyard. I feel like we know every pebble and stick on it.

We seemingly levitate up the trail to the star, where we high five and relish the moment, our friendship, life. But the clock is still ticking and we boot each other down the mountain via an aesthetic loop of premier Mill Mountain trails like Ridgeline and Sidewinder.

We dive into the Subaru one more time, and snake through town to my house where we stop the clock -3:46 PM- and break out into spontaneous laughter. Ahhh…we did it! Completion of another ridiculous adventure. The day’s tally is seven classic peaks, 35 miles run, 10,000 ft, climbed, eleven hours and forty-six minutes door-to-door, and a friendship firmly set in stone.

It’s later that night and I’m tucked in bed. Not quite caught up in the approaching waves of sleep, I’m awash in thoughts of dreams hatched and realized, and of those for which I still yearn. In the logical light of day I couldn’t well explain why Josh and I so wanted to do what we did today, but here in the primordial state of coming sleep I feel it clearly and naturally to the bedrock of my soul.

Curiosity, and the urge to explore in ways big and small, strange and commonplace, is just part of being human; it feels right.

Just before I drift off to sleep another thought occurs to me . . .

“I know we can beat eleven hours next time!”

Johnny Robinson