Go OutsideA Farewell to Winter

A Farewell to Winter

(photo of Blue Ridge Mountain Guide Grant Price by Shannon McGowan)

Two BRO Staff Members Reflect on Recent Cold-Weather Adventures

BRO Digital Content Coordinator Shannon McGowan and Travel Editor Ellen Kanzinger view winter very differently. Together, can the two friends and co-workers find joy in the snow of the Virginias?

Travel Editor, Ellen Kanzinger (left) & Digital Content Coordinator, Shannon McGowan (right) cross-country ski in White Grass Ski Area in West Virginia

Ellen: Spring is almost here. Although it means I’ll suffer through another hellish allergy season, I am filled with joy at the thought of packing away my gloves and bulky jackets. Ask any of my friends and they will tell you that I never leave home without wearing a minimum of two pairs of pants in the winter. In central Virginia. If I could hibernate through it, I would. 

Despite knowing all this about me, Shannon was determined to drag me out for a few winter adventures this year.

Shannon: Not to be too corny, but I love that we get to experience multiple seasons in our region. When the winter months start approaching, I get more excited about getting to try my hand at winter sports and experience new kinds of adventures rather than feeling like I just have to get through it and wait for warmer weather. 

With the pandemic still dictating the majority of our lives, I felt the drive to get outside safely and experience winter more than I ever have before.   

Ice Climbing off the Blue Ridge Parkway

Shannon ice-climbing, photo by Ellen Kanzinger

Shannon: I’ve been ice climbing only once before with a friend out in Colorado, but I never thought to look closer to see if I could do it on the East Coast. It took me living in Virginia for nearly six years to realize that a frozen waterfall just one hour away was actually CLIMBABLE. 

I am typically a very slow riser in the morning, but when my alarm went off at 6 a.m., I shot out of bed! To be clear, it was still very hard to leave the comfort of my bed, especially with the sounds of rain hitting my window from the still dark sky. But swallowing the thoughts of “just five more minutes” and replacing them with visions of driving a tool into the side of an icy waterfall helped big time. 

It felt like the sun was the slow riser that morning. Even after a 45-minute drive west to meet our guide for the day, Grant Price of Blue Ridge Mountain Guides, the sky was grey and the rain had turned to ice. 

Ellen: I’ve written about ice climbing in the Southeast a few times, and the one thing every experienced climber stressed to me is the unpredictableness of it. Here today, gone tomorrow, so you have to be able to move fast. When Price emailed on Saturday asking if that Monday worked for us, we were ready to go. Luckily, our jobs are pretty flexible. 

The morning was rough. I don’t like being outside when it’s cold, and I especially don’t like being outside when it’s cold and raining. The hike to the ice crags was a slog through the snow that blanketed the deserted parkway. But once we reached the first ice formation and started climbing, I completely forgot about the weather. The movement felt strange and clunky at first as I tried to get the rhythm of swinging my ice tools and kicking in my crampons. But by the end of the first climb, I was hooked.

Shannon: The rain kept coming all morning, soaking our gear and causing my hands to experience something called “the screaming barfies” (just as fun as it sounds). The morning weather, though, did not reflect our attitudes at all. We were all ecstatic and giggling about getting on the ice the whole time. So when the sun finally emerged after lunch, it was hard to not feel like we had a little something to do with it. 

Ellen: Oh glorious sunshine! For as much as the morning was about embracing the conditions, the afternoon was simply sublime. For me, winter is much more palatable when there’s a clear blue sky. 

Ellen ice-climbing, photo by Shannon McGowan

Cross-Country Skiing in Canaan Valley

Ellen: I’ve been downhill skiing twice before. Both times I spent each pass down the mountain worrying my weak ankles would suddenly snap, leaving me to tumble down the slope. 

Shannon: Ellen’s ankles keep me up at night. 

Ellen: Feeling wildly out of control is not a state of being I relish or embrace. So I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from cross country skiing. 

Ellen cross-country skiing, photo by Shannon McGowan

Shannon: For years I have bounced back and forth between downhill skiing and snowboarding thinking that I’ll miraculously be better at the other one. No matter how many seasons I try to get under my belt in either sport, I still find myself holding up the group and/or clambering out of a ditch. After our day of cross-country skiing, I am thinking that maybe it is the “downhill” part of these snowsports that I am struggling with. 

Ellen: After a quick introduction to the mechanics from Chip Chase at White Grass Ski Touring Center, Shannon and I were off on the trails. Whereas I felt pressure to perfect my technique skiing downhill, I found myself able to revel in the scenery and cold mountain air as we cross-country skied. I still fell. A lot. But it didn’t dampen my spirits or frustrate me in the way downhill skiing had. 

I usually think of the stillness of winter. But as we trekked through the woods, the air was alive with the sounds of the unhurried creek trickling by, the winter birds calling out to one another, and the tinkling wind chimes swaying in the breeze.

Shannon: Throughout the day, something that Chase had said at the end of the lesson stuck with me. “The coolest part about cross-country skiing is that you can go wherever the heck you want!” For me, cross-country skiing felt like a combination of hiking, but with cool glidey shoes, and skiing, but without the fear of crashing. 

When I have skied in the past, I would focus very heavily on my form, fearing that if it wasn’t perfect, I would catch edge and find a video of myself on @jerryoftheday. But with cross-country skiing, I felt more like a kid splashing around in a pool, allowing myself to flop in the snow and focus on the journey. 

The Takeaway

Ice on the Blue Ridge Parkway, photo by Shannon McGowan

Ellen: I still wouldn’t say I love winter. Bring on the heat and humidity any day. But this year, I found the joy of being outside in the winter comes when having a friend to share it with. While we found ourselves in some truly miserable conditions, from experiencing the screaming barfies for the first time to sliding down an icy trail, we were able to laugh our way through it.  

Our mantra for winter 2021 perfectly sums it up—”I can’t feel my toes when I’m with you, but I love it.”

Shannon: This winter, despite everything happening in the world, has been one of my favorite winters. Not having the same opportunity to make memories with friends while hiding from the cold indoors is what gave me that extra push to go outside and play in new ways. Finding silver linings like that has helped me stay positive and sane through the pandemic. 

If you are ready to get more out of winter, my advice is to find you a friend who is willing to head out there with you and finds the phrase, “What did you get me into this time?,” to be a marker of a successful adventure.

Travel Editor, Ellen Kanzinger (right) & Digital Content Coordinator, Shannon McGowan (left) ice-climb in Virginia

Places to Go, Things to See: