Strasburg resident John Chrisinger and his high school buddies didn’t let a little thing like age stop them from their yearly winter hike.
The friends, who graduated from Fairfax High School in 1976, have organized a winter hike every year since they were sophomores. Recently celebrating their 50th anniversary hike, they traveled from their various homes up and down the East Coast to hike the Appalachian Trail along Skyline Drive starting in Sperryville and ending in Luray.
“We always do a winter hike,” said Chrisinger, 65.
“It’s always a horrible experience,” said Curtis Clark, who lives near the town of Shenandoah.
But that’s a huge reason why he said it works for them. They hike and fish at other times of the year, too, but it’s the intensity of the winter hike that unites so many of them year after year.
“[It’s a] singular, suffering together thing,” said Clark, who remembered his mom telling him, “You guys never suffer enough, that’s why you go.”
In past years they’ve hiked for anywhere from two to four days, stopping at shelters along the way. This year, they planned two five-mile hikes and stayed at Corbin and Lambert cabins in Shenandoah National Park before meeting with a larger group that included some of their spouses to celebrate the occasion.
“There are six that have been hardcore,” Clark said. “We all do hobble along. You feel like you’re 14 until you have to get off the floor.”
The tradition started with Clark and Brian Coughlan, who were on Christmas break when they decided to spend their money on supplies for a backpacking trip along the Appalachian Trail.
“We hitchhiked to the mall in Tysons,” said Coughlan, of Wilmington, North Carolina.
There they each spent about $50 on hiking backpacks, which he recalled was a massive amount of money for two high school kids.
“It was for me, at least,” Coughlan said. But they were determined to go hiking, having no idea that it would become a yearly tradition.
“It was all about the gear,” Clark recalled. “The gear was just mesmerizing. We winter camped because of the gear.”
It was also about timing, Coughlan said.
“We did it in the winter because we happened to buy our backpacks in the winter and we wanted to try them out.”
After that, the group took on many more members from their graduating class. Each year they start planning in early fall, with a different friend volunteering each time to plan the trip.
Other winter hikes have taken them to West Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee, Mount Whitney in California and even Mexico.
But the hike that Chrisinger, Clark and Coughlan all mentioned as most memorable was when they were hiking near the Blue Ridge Parkway in about 44 inches of snow during the blizzard of 1996.
“It took us two days to walk out eight miles,” Clark recalled.
“Blizzards kill because of immobility,” he said. “You can’t move. That was really scary.”
They hadn’t realized how bad it would be since, upon arriving at their shelter, there were 3 to 4 inches on the ground, Coughlan recalled.
When they woke up the next morning, there were 18 inches.
“We have a debate,” he said. “Do we just hunker down and stay here or do we try to make it to the next shelter?”
Deciding to move on, they headed for the Blue Ridge Parkway, thinking it would be clear, but it wasn’t.
“We realized we’re kind of in trouble here,” Coughlan said. But seeking shelter under and overpass wouldn’t work either, with the deep snow blowing through, so they kept on. Eventually, they found a shelter with four walls and broke in to try waiting out the storm.
When the storm ended, they walked single file to break through the snow, until they came across a snow plow making its way up the mountain, and then they hiked into town.
“The National Guard was out looking for us,” Coughlan said.
Luckily, they were able to make it out safely, but Clark recalled that the strenuous hike alerted Chrisinger to a serious medical condition that caused difficulty breathing.
After meeting with his doctor following the trip, Chrisinger was diagnosed with cancer in his lymph nodes.
“He would have never found that until it was too late,” Clark said.
The lung cancer diagnosis was a huge surprise, said Chrisinger’s wife, Mary. For one thing, he was otherwise in excellent health.
“John has also never smoked a cigarette in his life,” she said. That was a scary time, she recalled, but the yearly hike had provided “hidden blessings.”
Though the friends have slowed down in recent years, they have no intention of quitting their yearly winter hike anytime soon.
Mid-60s isn’t so old, Clark said.
“We run into octogenarians,” he recalled.
Plus, he and his friends know what they’re doing.
Chrisinger, now retired from 30 years in law enforcement and seven teaching criminal justice at Battlefield High School in Prince William County, said he and his wife do a lot of outdoor activities, including kayaking and cycling.
“We love to be outdoors more than indoors,” he said.
“We’re very very grateful to have this experience of backpacking our whole lives,” said Clark, a retired hospital administrator who used to live in Maryland. “It’s the kind of calistentic exercise that really does reward experience.”
Whatever life throws at them, said Coughlan, an electrical engineer with a consulting company, they have the one constant each year.
“It’s like you ask, ‘Are you going to have Christmas this year?’” he said. “I think as long as we’re physically capable, we’ll keep it up.”
But the winter hike is more than a fun getaway with a challenging goal. It’s about celebrating 50 years of friendship.
“When we tell this story to people, they say, ‘Wow, you stayed friends all this time?’” Coughlan, said.
“More than anything, it’s about the friendship and the camaraderie,” he said.
“Fifty years of friendships and 50 years of hiking propelled each other,” Clark agreed. “I think we’re all more proud of the friendships than we are of the hiking. … If there was a remarkable story in this, it’s that.”