Making Mountains out of O’Hills

Observatory Hill is a place Thomas Jefferson most certainly used for exercise, relaxation, and recreation. Today, students, faculty, and townspeople use this near-campus oasis likewise.

The Charlottesville Area Mountain Bike Club (CAMBC), has a long history of caring for this much-loved land, but cyclists actively cared for this land even before the club existed. For me, the story starts almost 20 years ago when I first set foot on, what is lovingly referred to as O’Hill …

The sign read “Trails constructed by the UVA Mountain Bike Club” and had a list of rules that needed to be followed. I later learned that UVAMBC was a group of energetic students with little experience and minimal faculty guidance. Later, they merged with the “roadies” and formed the UVA Cycling club, which still exists today.

I never saw the trails that day, as I was too out of breath by the time I got to the top of the hill to wander down the trail. But I darned sure knew I’d be back soon. I have since lost count of how many times I visited, and over time the sign faded until no one could read or even really remember what it all it said, and it eventually fell off its post. Maybe if one looks hard enough, you can still find remnants of it on the ground somewhere near there…

I’ve seen that sign a lot of times since that first day. I remember passing it, completely out of breath as I was on the 3rd lap of “The O’Hill Meltdown”, the race held in the spring by the UVAMBC to raise funds for attending other collegiate races. The race, named after the abandoned nuclear reactor, was notoriously hard as it packed in over 1,000 feet of elevation gain in a six-mile loop. And then you had to do multiple laps to get to the finish line. And a few times a version of the race was held in the fall, too, but renamed to the Grilled Cheese Heave for the collegiate circuit.

For years, Sue G. lead the CAMBC night ride on O’Hill, and we would see that sign at the start every week, all year long. I actually remember reviewing the rules at one of the CAMBC beginner rides, the few times the beginners ventured onto O’Hill. I definitely remember passing the sign on the CAMBC “Mother Nature” ride – the ride held on the coldest day of the year. O’Hill is always the choice to ride when it’s cold, as it’s so aerobically challenging, you can never get cold.

Over the years, all the visits to O’Hill gave me a lot of insight.

Of course, it taught me the need for fitness and exercise. It did that the first time I saw that sign, as it’s still not the top of the hill and I was already long passed my fitness limits. But it also taught me about how to be safe – whether that be group riding etiquette about not leaving people behind, when to walk the bike on dangerous terrain, or when to slow down and share the trail with other trail users.

O’Hill also taught me about the need to be good stewards of the land. Of course, CAMBC helped here with classroom sessions in partnership with IMBA and on-the-ground trail work sessions. I learned about things like how water running down the trails causes erosion, and that leaving the trail can form what I now call “social trails”. Social trails are prone to erosion because they do not follow good design principles.

O’Hill has taught me the need to be actively involved in building relationships. For example, CAMBC and UVA recently formalized their relationship with a memorandum of understanding (M.O.U.) This relationship has yielded some excellent opportunities. First, a master plan for O’Hill to improve safety, usability, and minimize the potential for user-caused erosion. The plan includes addressing variety of issues. One example is addressing a trail placement where the trail had been placed too-close to a dangerous cliff. Another example is rerouting and rehabilitating areas where erosion is out of control, or installing erosion-control features such as grade dips. Further, we are working on better signs and trail markings to help everyone find their way safely back to where they want to be. If you want to help our efforts, watch for upcoming trailwork days at O’Hill.

These days, I spend my efforts trying to share the things I have learned on O’Hill. I organize trail work days to get the word out about how to prevent erosion, so that O’Hill can teach its lessons for generations to come. During these trail work days, besides directly solving erosion issues, we teach these things I’ve mentioned. We start every session with a safety lecture, where we cover how to safely use hand tools and to stay out of people’s “circle of death”. The club is very happy to have such excellent trail work partners these days – the Rivanna Trail Foundation, UVA Cycling, Madison House, Charlottesville Area Trail Runners, the boy/girl scouts, as well as organizations we occasionally work with.

I am not sure what lesson O’Hill will teach me next, but I am sure the wise ole hill will at least remind me once more that there is a reason it is not called “O’Flat.”