Cragmama "Not all who wander are lost…" JRR Tolkien

Anniversary Trip to Hidden Valley

Although there have been a handful of daytrips scattered here and there along the way, the last time the CragDaddy and I were able to get away together for an entire kid-free weekend was almost 5 years ago, back when Big C was 2 and a half, and Little Zu was just a twinkle in our eyes.  Considering that the latter turned 3 a month ago on the same day we celebrated 15 years of marriage, we were overdue for an escape!  Our original plan was to stroll down memory lane at the New River Gorge, a place that we have been adventuring in for over a decade.  But with snow and all day rain in the forecast for most of the days leading up to the trip, we knew that our only chance for finding dry rock would be to change our destination.  

Cheesy love selfies totally allowed on anniversary trips.

So we opted for what has suddenly (and randomly) become our 2017 stomping grounds – Hidden Valley, VA.  We decided that in honor of the occasion we would step up our accommodations from our usual norm – no tents, and no $50 motels!  Instead, we spent two relaxing evenings and two delicious mornings at White Birches Inn, a bed and breakfast run by a delightful couple that made us feel right at home.  If there are any other climbers out there looking to splurge, please give them a call!  (FYI they are very reasonably priced…I’m just using the word “splurge” because most climbers tend to be dirtbag cheapskates…it takes one to know one!)  

Anyway, we took our time hiking in to the Falcon Wall Saturday morning.  For starters, it was pretty cold, and we also wanted to take full advantage of our opportunity to explore a still relatively new-to-us place at our leisure.  It was refreshing to be able to comb over the guidebook together and stop whenever we wanted to take a closer look, without worrying about distracting the troops and losing our “kid-hiking momentum.”  We found ourselves at the base of the Falcon Wall by late morning, however, where I warmed up on Thin Shells 10d (because it looked fun) and CragDaddy warmed up on Playing With the Crow 10d  (because he could swing over and hang draws on his project as he was being lowered.)  His plan worked out perfectly, as he sent DDT 12b in fine style on his first attempt of the day!  

A rare day that we BOTH get to carry in our Trango packs!

Our next move was a change of pace from our usual – we hopped on a 5.13!  For a while now CragDaddy has been saying he thinks we might be ready, if we found the right one that suited our climbing styles.  I didn’t necessarily disagree, but have been a little less psyched about the idea. To be honest, I remember all the “route shopping” I had to do when I was first breaking into 5.12 land to find lines that maximized my strengths and minimized my weaknesses, and the thought of going through all of that again with TWO kids in tow seems more exhausting and perhaps not worth the effort.  But what better time to test the “hardman” waters than on a kid-free trip, when both parties are willing to take long, patient turns at the belay.  

Rodent’s Lament 13b Photo: Nick Hitchcock

Though we’d checked out a few along the way, we settled on Rodent’s Lament 13b, which although harder on paper than some of the other choices, seemed like a good fit because we have done really well on the neighboring routes.  Not to mention it just looked more doable than some of the other options!  We both took FOREVER on it, far more time than we would have been afforded with the kids around.  Final assessment was as follows – V4/5 sequence down low to a no hands rest, with a really hard V7? crimpy crux, followed by some 5.11+ climbing to the top.  Neither of us could really touch the crux – I came close one time, but that was it.  I initially thought I’d be able to pull the moves, since the holds didn’t seem “that bad”, but I just didn’t have the finger strength needed to get my feet high enough to make the next moves.  Perhaps that’s motivation to get on a hangboard this summer and come back next fall with fingers of steel?  Maybe, maybe not.  The jury is still out for me on whether or not a load of extra training is worth earning an extra number grade, so we’ll see!  

The only other routes of note on the day were two 5.11c’s that I was really psyched to onsight – Kestrel, because it was so good, and Last Episode, because it was such a fight to hang on!  The former is on the Falcon Wall, and is definitely worth the hike even if that’s all you do there.  The latter is on the SNL Wall, and is relatively chill until the last couple of bolts…when the intensity turns way up and the holds disappear! 

Sorry for all the selfies…it was just so rare to be just the two of us!!!

It’s also worth noting that we didn’t stop climbing until 6:30!!!!!!  Unheard of with the kiddos, as we usually aim to be hiking out no later than 5!  

Our next day was more of the same – a little bit of sending, and a lot of flailing around on stuff that was too hard for us.  Routes worth mentioning are Spurs 10c, and Rainy Saturday 12a.  The former features steep jug hauling ending at a spectacular view (so if you get on it, don’t forget to turn around and look!)   The latter is basically a powerful boulder problem right off the deck to a juggy roof and laidback slabby finish.  CragDaddy scored the onsight, while my flash attempt was thwarted by the first long move (second go send though!) 

Even though we ended up having to go with our “Plan B” destination, we still had a marvelous time…and it looks as if we’ll be back this weekend, this time with kiddos in tow!  Though we’re dying to get back to the New, we just haven’t been able to get all of our stars in proper alignment – weather, schedules, partners, etc.  With that said, however, we are thankful for this new option that is both closer to us AND wet weather friendly!  Big props to the Carolina Climbers Coalition for making this access happen!



Sending Spree at Hidden Valley, VA!

This time of year in the Southeast, planning weekend climbing trips can be a bit of a gamble when it comes to the weather.  It’s especially hard when a too-long-for-a-day-trip destination looks perfect one day, and sketchy the next.  We all had our hearts set on a round 2 at Hidden Valley, VA this past weekend, but while Saturday looked splitter, Sunday looked, well, pretty wet.  However, we’d heard from multiple people about how the bad weather often “hops” right over the mountain, even when surrounding areas are soaked.  That combined with numerous rainy day route recommendations from the new guidebook was good enough for us – and our gamble totally paid off!  

CragDaddy with his belay game on point while the kiddos play in the background.

Not only was day 1 just as gorgeous as forecasted, but it was an above average performance day for the whole crew.  After a quick warm-up on Powder 10d, we decided to make the long trek to the Falcon Wall, which the guidebook touted as the best technical face climbing in the Valley.  We were not disappointed!  Our first route there was Fledgling 12b, a stellar line with a thin crux up high, and a somewhat cryptic finish.  Perhaps a little soft (we all agreed Flavored with Meat 12a from a few weeks ago was substantially harder), but super fun nevertheless.  It was my turn to hang draws, and I was really close on the onsight, but botched it at the last bolt when I missed a hidden foot.  The CragDaddy scored his first 12b flash, fellow Cragmama Rebekah nabbed her first 5.12 send on her second go, and I sent second go as well.  Yay team!  

Cruxin’ on Fledgling 12b

Next on our list was DDT 12b, another area classic.  Definitely a step up from Fledgling; this route was NOT soft, and featured movement that was very sustained, technical and bouldery.  The crux beta was pretty intricate, and included a pretty tenuous clip, but after figuring out the beta on my first go, and rehearsing the harder moves again when I was lowering off, it felt pretty doable.  I sent second go, woo-hoo!  First time in a looong time I’ve nabbed two 5.12’s in a single day. 

Fancy footwork on DDT 12b

Next day we fought some drizzle in the morning, a random 3 minute monsoon in the afternoon, as well as our extra partner needing to leave early due to illness.  With all that said, however, we managed to make it a pretty good day.  It was the CragDaddy’s turn to hang draws, and he spoonfed me beta for a flash on “Never Seen a Man Beat the Snake Before” 12b.  Fun route, though not nearly as classic as the lines on the Falcon Wall.  Perhaps a little soft as well, but definitely worth doing if you are climbing in the Snake Garden area.  

First moments at the crag Sunday morning…(thanks for the rainsuits Biddle and Bop!)

Our day ended rather abruptly when I had to bail on the Meat Wall during the freakish rain storm.  We hiked out a little earlier than normal, but super psyched on spring climbing season.  Looking forward to spending more time in Hidden Valley this spring, as well as a…wait for it…KID-FREE weekend at the New for a belated anniversary celebration.  (Please, please do an anti-rain dance in a couple of weeks for us if you get a chance…)  Til then, where did everyone else adventure this past weekend?

…and an hour later, here’s CragDaddy sending “Never Seen a Man Beat the Snake Before” (Photo creds to Eric from TRC, didn’t catch his last name!)


Wooden Acorn People Tutorial

Stage 1…Paint.

When it comes to gift-giving holidays (Christmas, birthday, etc), one of my main parenting goals is to teach that it’s better to give than to receive.  One of the best ways I’ve found to get our kids excited about giving is to encourage handmade gifts.  To me, there’s no better way to foster a deeper connection between gift giver and receiver than rolling up our sleeves and creating with someone else in mind.  That’s why I was thrilled when my son was just as excited as I was about making this Wooden Acorn People project for his little sister’s 3rd birthday!  

I first saw the idea in one of the Wild + Free monthly bundles, and Big C just took the idea and ran with it.   (Also, FYI if you aren’t familiar with the Wild + Free Community, it’s an amazing resource for outdoor-minded parents of all types, not just homeschoolers!)  

The only real cost of the project was the wooden peg dolls, which was pretty insignificant.  I bought a package of 40 dolls in varying sizes for around $12 I think.  We only made 17 or so, so we’ll save the extras for whenever creativity strikes again when we inevitably lose some here or there.  The rest of the materials we scrounged up from our art cabinet or gathered from nature walks.  

Now they have hats!

You could make these dolls as simple or as complicated as you would like.  We dragged the process out a little, but to be honest, they’d look awesome even if all you did was add a little acrylic paint.  However, the nature items are a no-brainer, in my opinion!  In fact, my favorite part of this project was watching the meticulous lengths my son went to to find the PERFECT materials to use.  We spent weeks gathering acorns of all different sizes, to ensure we had a “hat” that would fit every doll juuuust right.  Once we’d gathered all of our materials, we worked on them over the span of 3 Little Zu naptimes – one day for painting, one day for gluing on hats, and the last day for gluing on felt and accessories – beads, scarves, etc.  

When we got to the gluing stage, I got a little more involved (Big C has seen me burn my fingers with the hot glue gun so many times he won’t go near it…probably a good thing!)  But although I did the grunt work of the gluing, my son was still the mastermind – he was very particular about who wore what color felt, who got a bead, who got a scarf, etc. If I’m being completely honest, he spent SO much time on these dolls, that I started to wonder if my plan might backfire…What if he got so invested in these dolls he had trouble giving them up?!?


We finished them up about a week ahead of time, and my son’s anticipation leading up to the big day was simply delightful.  Whenever he saw his sister playing with her little dollhouse dollies or any other type of small figurine, he’d elbow me and exchange a knowing glance.  Actually, it was usually more of a loud whispering “Just wait til she sees her you-know-whats!!!” than the subtleties a glance would afford.  

When the big day finally came, I’m not sure who was more excited – gift giver, or receiver, which of course, was the original plan all along!  Her reaction was exactly what he was hoping for, and she played with them all afternoon, separating them into family groups.  (Here’s the mommy one.  Here’s her baby one.  These are the Daddy ones.  And so on and so forth.)  

Acorn people in action!

And my favorite part?  There’s no one she’d rather play with her new acorn people with than her big brother.  She may only be three, but I think in a lot of ways she does understand the hard work he put in to her gift.  Now if only I could find something that tiny 3 year old hands could make to return the favor – because big brother turns 7 next week!  



Winter, Spring, and first 5.12 of the Season

The climbing at Hidden Valley has been on our radar ever since the Carolina Climbers Coalition purchased the land at the end of 2014.  Early reports from friends sounded appealing – short approach, winter sun, summer shade.  But somehow we never managed to get up there until this past weekend.  A couple of times we did make plans to go – but then kids got sick, or the weather was yucky, etc.  But mostly, it’s just hard to get us away from the New during prime climbing season.  I guess we’re just spoiled that way!  

Anyway, after lots of gym time, but very little outdoor climbing over the winter, neither the CragDaddy nor I had a lot of expectations going into the weekend.  We were just excited to get back into an outdoor groove as a family, and climb on some new-to-us rock with friends.  I was glad we had two days to explore, because it definitely took the whole family a while to warm-up (literally) to not only a new season, but at a new crag.  

Our first day was a little lackluster by way of performance, but still a great day out in the woods.  There was plenty of sun, but temps on the mountain never got above 40, so cold hands were a common theme on any rock that was even close to being in the shade.  A favorite moment for the cragkiddos was the group of fighter jets that boomed across the valley mid-afternoon (I’m glad it wasn’t naptime, because the sound was deafening!!!)  They also marveled at the giant icicles hanging (rather treacherously) atop many routes.  As the day went on, more and more were melting and dropping off, so we had to be be extra vigilant about where the kids could play, and looking up before we sat down!  Routes climbed: Oregon Trail 10c, Farley 9, and Spurs 10c.  

CragDaddy making a long reach on Flavored with Meat 12a

The next morning brought more warmth than we’d seen at any point the previous day, so we hiked back in to the crag in higher spirits and less layers!  At a new crag it’s often hard to get your bearings and know where to start – what’s good, what’s not, along with the adjustment to a different type of rock, so our second day was definitely a more informed one.  Group consensus was that everything Day 2 overall was far better than Day 1!  Routes climbed: Tidy Bowl 10a, Mooning 11a, and Flavored with Meat 12a. 

Crankin’ and high-steppin’

Flavored with Meat was a route that I’d had on my radar ever since I unwrapped the new guidebook on Christmas morning and saw Monica Browne styling it on the cover.  The rock was just as impressive in person.  Day 2 was the CragDaddy’s day to hang draws, and he definitely took one for the team – not only because the key holds were pretty hard to find without chalk, but because 2 out of the 3 distinct crux sequences put tall people at a disadvantage, due to the high feet and compact movement.  

I, however, truly enjoyed the chance to get put my feet at my face and get all scrunched up on microscopic holds…without having to get creative to make a crazy reach!  However, it seems like I always have a hard time summoning my “try hard” at the start of the season, so my first run was pretty lazy.  I had no trouble with the moves, but I pretty much went bolt to bolt.  When I got to the top, I rehearsed a few of the sequences on lower and linked most of it…and it was like something clicked in my brain.  My wishy-washy psych level soared, and I couldn’t wait to get back on it again.  My next go I executed every single sequence incorrectly at one point or another…but I sent.  It took CragDaddy’s tall, +3.5 ape index frame 2 more burns to send, but he snagged the tick just as the sun was turning the corner of the cliff.  

We hiked out brimming with excitement for a new season of adventures, and the satisfaction that comes from spending a weekend in the mountains with family and friends.  Hidden Valley is definitely worth adding to our arsenal of spring climbing destinations, so stay tuned for more! 




A Nature Study Focus for the Birds

Who doesn’t love digging through owl vomit to find bones and fur?!?

It’s been a while since I’ve written about our homeschooling escapades (since October, actually!) But we’ve been doing some exciting stuff lately, so I thought I would share some of it over the next few weeks.  We recently just wrapped up a nature study focus on birds.  Birds are some of the most easily accessible wildlife available for kids (and adults!) to learn about firsthand.  After all, with some cleverly-positioned feeders, you don’t even have to leave the comfort of your own home to enjoy and observe your local feathered friends, which can be a real plus on cold, winter mornings!  

While our rocks and mineral unit study in the fall involved several field trips, our Bird Study kept us closer to home.  We did have one excursion to the Carolina Raptor Center, where we got to see all sorts of owls, hawks, and falcons, and even meet a Spectacled Owl up close!  But our backyard buddies kept us plenty busy in other ways.


Our family got together with another family to dissect owl pellets (which, for anyone that might not know, is the remaining parts of the prey that the owl can’t eat – bones, fur, hair, etc.)  After the initial gross factor, everyone was amazed at how we could determine our particular owl’s diet based solely on the pellets – apparently our guy was really into rodents!  


We kept a running tally of all of our feeder birds on a giant chart in our kitchen.  Our count went on for 10 days, and at the end I was able to squeeze in some sneaky math lessons as we analyzed our results.  In case you’re interested, our most common bird was the Carolina Chickadee, and our most popular day at the feeder was January 10, when we logged 54 birds.  We had 17 different birds on the chart, and we really got to know them quite well.  We saw them often enough to learn who always fed with a mate, who ate a heavy breakfast but sometimes skipped lunch, who liked to their meals “to go” versus who hogged the feeder, and who preferred to dine on the ground.  We also got some handwriting and literacy practice in by alphabetizing our list.  

I love this display so much, I might keep it up all year!


I was inspired to introduce Big C to the world of chalk pastels after browsing through Hodgepodge Mom‘s website.  He did portraits of a few of his favorite backyard personalities – blue jay, mourning dove, and cardinal.  After observing an entire flock of Cedar Waxwings gorging themselves on our Holly bushes, he decided to add one of those to the collection as well.  


I can’t take credit for the idea (it was floating around pinterest somewhere), but we made the most adorable little snowy owls out of pine cones and cotton balls!  Super easy, super cute, and surprisingly durable – Little Zu carried hers around non-stop for about a week, and it is really no worse for the wear.  

Don’t you just love these guys’ natural camo?!?


For Christmas, Big C got a woodworking kit, and one of the described projects was a simple bird feeder.  It was a perfect way to keep the momentum of our bird watching long after our “official” unit was over.  (We have sort of always been into bird feeders.  For some other ideas, check the blog archives here.)  


Every year I try to do some sort of handprint art with the kids, usually around the holidays.  This year we went with handprint cardinals, with thumpprint snow!  The project turned out great, and since it’s “winter” than holiday-esque, I still have it up in our kitchen!


A unit study wouldn’t be worth very much without a pile of living books to go along with it, so we took advantage of our library quite a bit.  Mostly we just perused the animal aisle, and picked out what looked interesting – anything related to owls was at the top of Big C’s list.  Owls in the Family made for a charming read aloud during the quiet afternoon hours.  Another title that simply MUST be mentioned is Blacky the Crow, by Thornton Burgess.  Our first foray into Thornton Burgess works was last year with the Burgess Bird Book (which would obviously have been relevant to this study as well!).  However, I found that my then Kindergartener was getting bogged down by the very detailed, field guide-like descriptions.  But Blacky the Crow is a lot different – MUCH more story-oriented, although there are still LOADS of facts woven in as well.  The chapters are short, the plot simple enough that even Little Zu can follow it when she has a notion to sit still with us, and the personification of the animals is just endearing.  Best of all, Blacky is just one of dozens of books written by Burgess about the “little folk of the Green Meadow and the Green Forest.”  Since finishing that one up, we’ve since read through 4 more – Mother West Wind, The Adventures of Buster the Bear, The Adventures of Old Mr. Toad, and The Adventures of Bobby Raccoon.  The characters are the same throughout the series, really giving a charming depth to each story, without having any particular preferred order of reading.  I’m pretty sure Big C won’t rest til we’ve read them all….and perhaps we should break out the Burgess Bird Book next time around to see if he’s ready for it!  

Our bird study only “officially” lasted 2 weeks, but the observation habits we got into have lasted far beyond that.  We had so much fun with it that I’ve decided to do an Observation Chart each season, so we can then compare when most of our friends hang around, and when they fly elsewhere.  Then maybe we’ll do it again when we go to the beach for a week…who knows?!?  But what’s clear is that our family has been bitten by the birding bug for sure! 

These goons pretending to be owls at the Carolina Raptor Center.

Does your family go nuts about birds?  What are your favorite places to go and activities to do surrounding our feathered friends?