ATOP OLD RAG MOUNTAIN, VA., AUG. 15 -- For much of the climb to the top of this 3,268-foot peak in Shenandoah National Park today, the two men were in lock step; the younger one occasionally, gently braced the elbow of his white-haired elder as they squeezed between rocks or tiptoed along a narrow ledge.

The leaders of the disparate hiking party of 40 at times huffing and puffing politicians, journalists and a few frolicking children were Gov. Gerald L. Baliles and former senator Harry F. Byrd Jr., who followed different paths to reach the summit of Virginia politics.

Today's trek bridged the generational and philosophical differences between the 72-year-old conservative patriarch of the Old Dominion's most venerable political family and the "New Dominion's" 47-year-old moderate Democratic governor.

"It's a harmonic convergence," quipped Baliles, a reference to the belief by some astrologers that the position of the planets this weekend makes unusual events likely, as he and Byrd held an impromptu press conference on a rock overlooking the sprawling valley.

Climbing Old Rag is a Byrd family tradition.

Counting the three grandchildren of the senator who tagged along today, John, 11, Gretchen, 10, and Imma, 9, five generations of Byrds have ascended the mountain, beginning with the former senator's grandfather, Richard Evelyn Byrd, whose sons included Admiral Byrd, the famed Arctic explorer, and the senator's father, Harry Flood Byrd Sr., whose conservative Democratic organization controlled Virginia politics from the courthouse to the statehouse for the middle two quarters of this century.

"My grandfather began coming up here, on a mule, about 1900," Byrd said during one of the infrequent stops during the one-hour and 45-minute, 1.5-mile, 1,500-foot climb to the top.

"It relieved his hay fever, so he'd bring his law books and stay the whole month of August."

Another stop was Byrd's Nest, a shelter near the top.

"Dad was hiking here one day with Conrad Wirth, the director of the National Park Service," Byrd said, "and they got caught in a rainstorm. So Dad offered to pay for a shelter.

"But when he made the trip the next summer, there was no shelter. So he called Connie and said, 'You promised to build a shelter.' But Connie said, 'I've haven't seen your money.'

"He wanted cash on the barrel head," laughed an appreciative Byrd, whose family has long advocated pay-as-you-go government.

His dad sent the check, $8,500, and subsequently paid for three other shelters that are scattered along the trails.

Byrd said he has climbed Old Rag at least once a year, sometimes as often as six to eight times annually, for "at least 50 years, certainly more than 100 times."

At the summit, from where assistant park superintendent Gerry Teas said he has seen the Washington skyline (about 75 miles east) with his naked eye, Byrd encountered Steve Anderson, 42, who lives nearby, who said he had just completed his 387th climb in three years.

Anderson asked Byrd if he might challenge that record.

"I can't speak for the senator," said a perspiring Baliles, "but you've got no worries from me."

The oldest member of the party was James H. Latimer, 74, who described himself as the "world's oldest surviving Old Rag-climbing political reporter." Latimer retired in 1981 after 44 years with the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

As would be expected on such occasions, politics was much the subject of discussion.

"The way I see it from here," said Byrd, "there are at least 12 or 14 candidates in the two parties."

So he said he'll wait "until it shakes down to one-third that many" before speaking out on presidential politics.

As for evangelist Pat Robertson, a fellow Virginian, Byrd continued, "the last time I saw him was at Skyland {the lodge at the base camp}. But that was four or five years ago. He's now higher than these 3,000 feet."

Byrd and Baliles agreed that one candidate they would like to see in the race is Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.).

Byrd invited Baliles last summer to join him in a climb at the 50th anniversary of the dedication of the park and the Skyline Drive. The park was dedicated a half century earlier by Byrd's father, Harry Flood Byrd Sr., and President Franklin D. Roosevelt.