Rime & Reason

A few weeks ago, one of the seemingly continuous freeze-thaw cycles that have plagued yet another Mid-Atlantic winter passed through my home in the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia. The skiing here has become as fleeting as the change of seasons, and blades of grass poking through the diminishing snow cover relayed the message that I would not be lacing up the cross-country skiing boots this day nor the next.

But a low-hanging fog shrouded the tree tops above our A-frame cabin in Davis, and temperatures in the mid-teens inspired me to head into Canaan Valley in search of rime ice. When higher elevations become enveloped by stratus clouds—heavy fogs below 6,000 feet—conditions are prime for rime. This ephemeral phenomenon occurs when water droplets suspended in fog freeze on objects. While snow tends to accumulate on the tops and sides of trees, a rime-bearing fog will ensconce every conceivable surface, crafting an icy rendering of the landscape through which it passes.

As I drove up and over Canaan Mountain, I saw and then entered the frost line—the precise elevation demarking the boundary between the ordinary and the extraordinary—and was energized by the high-speed tour through an otherworldly landscape. I stopped to pick up my good friend Frank Slider at his home in Canaan Heights. Every blade of grass, every shrub, every spruce needle was encrusted in a silvery coating. After cresting the peak and heading down into Canaan  Valley, the frost line on Cabin Mountain came into view. On cue, our jaws dropped—Frank’s jaw twice the age of mine—at the striking sight of the landscape before us. It never gets old.

We pulled in to White Grass and layered up, ready to head to Bald Knob on foot. The nearly 1,000-foot ascent from the 3,335-foot lodge to 4,308-foot summit winds its way through oak and maple forest and transitions through beech and striped maple into the yellow birch and native red spruce forests that characterize the West Virginia highlands. The frost line became visible in the crowns of the beech trees about half-way up Cabin Mountain; it crept its way down the trees and was at eye level as we approached the Round Top shelter at 3,960 feet.

We took a breather at Round Top; I poured some bird seed in my palm and patiently waited as the delightfully domesticated black capped chickadees of the White Grass Realm perched on my fingers and politely pecked seeds one by one. As we continued up Bald Knob Trail, the forest became dominated by rime. While the hardy flora atop Appalachia’s bosom can resist many things—weather, disease, time—they appeared peacefully submissive to the rolling tide of the icy fog. Encased in fine ice, the air completely still below the summit, the forest appeared to be cryogenically frozen; a landscape in collective homeostasis until the energy of rapidly vibrating molecules calls upon it to breathe once again.

At the top of Bald Knob where the bones of the mountain lie exposed, the rime ice seemed to be alive. In open areas where the fog is densest and winds carry the most force, staggering ice formations resembling subterranean crystals protrude from branches, growing toward the winds that create them as if resisting the force of the storm. When the bone-chilling cold permeated our layers and overpowered our awe, we descended the mountain, passing through the frost line. Now hundreds of feet below the frozen wunderland atop Cabin Mountain, the warmth returned to our bodies—the fog would not claim us as it had the forest. But the forest is far more resilient than a human. I thought of how many rime icings have frozen the realm atop Bald Knob; I thought of how many more were to come.

I also thought about the atmospheric conditions which paint the picture. The beauty of rime ice can be as fleeting as the weather systems that create it—a rise of one degree or the opening of the clouds but for a moment can erase nature’s painting, returning the medium to its more common forms of liquid, vapor, and gas. When the next heavy fog rolls atop a cold mountaintop, drop what you must and venture into the rime-covered forests and meadows. The magic that awaits is all the reason you need.