10 May 2010

Laurel Knob and NC Climbing

The day starts at 5:30 with Jeff’s alarm— too early, too ambitious. He resets it to 6:00, and we go back to sleep.

The day starts again at 6:00. While water boils for coffee, we sort climbing gear: various carabineers, camming devices, nylon runners— all making clinks and jangles as it’s chosen and set in the pile. I get two sixty meter ropes in my pack; Jeff takes the weighty rack. Along with the usual for a day of climbing, I’ve got my camera with its heavy 24-70mm lens and polarizer. With our packs filled, our breakfasts ingested, and coffee savored, we start the long hike in. This glorious, long day is just beginning.

Laurel Knob is a little known destination in Western North Carolina. Its cousin, White Sides Mountain, gets more recognition and traffic with its easier access and choice of hiking trails. Laurel Knob, on the other hand, hides from visitors on private property owned by the Carolina Climbers Coalition (CCC), and requires a solid hour and a half hike in to reach the cliff bottom. And if you want to see the view from Laurel Knob, there’s no hike to the top; it takes traditional, multi-pitch climbing experience and a little thirst for adventure.

Jeff and I make a two man climbing team, and to ascend the enormous slab of granite that’s Laurel Knob, we follow a climbing route called Groover— first climbed by Jeep Gaskin his wife Julia on their honeymoon in 1980. With about 800 feet of climbing, this is one of the South East’s longest routes on the tallest cliff east of the Mississippi. As we trade pitches— alternating lead climbing and belaying— we are alone on the rock. Because of its difficult access, few climbers come here. The climbing is not difficult, but very enjoyable on wonderfully aesthetic rock. Our route follows a crack up and right, and eventually takes us through some interesting water groove formations, the route’s namesakes, further and further from the ground. Somehow amidst hauling up rope and keeping a safe belay, I manage to take some pictures that I hope will tell the story of a beautiful day out.

There’s another story at Laurel Knob though, besides our own individual ascent, and that’s the story you start to see looking out beyond the cliff. Laurel Knob is surrounded by Cashier’s numerous, private, gated developments, and large, opulent houses pock what might otherwise be a rugged wilderness. The long hike in to Laurel Knob— from the Panthertown Valley trail system onto an easy-to-miss, unmarked climber’s trail— is necessary to avoid trespassing on the private land that surrounds it. Laurel Knob would itself be off limits to everyone if not for the hard work of John Myers to secure a deal for the CCC to purchase the 50 acres of land comprising the cliff. The access granted by this epic purchase— $250,000 that was just recently paid off— is the antecedent of about thirty years of secretive, clandestine climbing while the cliff was still off limits.

Our climb was stellar. When we reached the top of our last pitch, looking out and down from high on the cliff, we showed our appreciation and respect for the beauty of this rock with some awe and silence— as well as high fives and smiles. The challenge provided by Laurel Knob was an exceptionally rewarding experience.

For me, climbing is a fantastic way to enter nature. It’s an activity that requires close attention to the moment and provides direct experience with the world around. Personally, I feel fortunate to live in North Carolina, a state where there is an abundance of high quality rock in breathtaking wilderness settings. I am grateful for the likes of the CCC for preserving this particular, unique area for rock climbers to explore, and owe my respect to the climbers who were establishing routes here before I was even born.

It’s my hope that climbing in North Carolina continues to thrive. For this to happen, our growing climbing community must take care of the land we do have access to— minimizing our impact in use areas as if we were still climbing in secret. Sometimes it takes sweat and cooperation, such as the large trail cleanup at Rumbling Bald last fall. And of course, the CCC appreciates financial support via donations and membership dues to help pay off the acquisition of climb sites it protects for local climbers, such as the very popular West Side Boulders of the Rumbling Bald, and to support its cooperative efforts with the Access Fund and government agencies like the Park Service. Go to www.carolinaclimbers.org for more information about this beneficial organization.

To all you non-climber readers who want to test your meddle on North Carolina’s many challenging rock faces, there are a lot of ways to learn. Try your hand at Asheville’s rock gym, Climbmax, with a supportive staff to teach you some skills. Western NC offers some fine guiding services, such as the Appalachian Mountain Institute, that offer a safe, fun, and qualified introduction to the world of outdoor climbing. Selected Climbs in North Carolina, by Yon Lambert and Harrison Shull, is a comprehensive guidebook to most of North Carolina’s best climbing areas, and essential reading for all Carolina climbers.

Jeff and I had a long hike out after our climb, reflectively trudging our three miles back to the car. But pink lady slippers and beautiful trilliums lined the trail, and a memory card full of color photographs waited development— these good things are best appreciated with hard work. At the end of a long day, how fantastic to be completely satisfied.

Jeff hits a steep section following the fifth pitch and trusts his shoes sticky rubber to make the move.

Far bigger than it looks in pictures, Laurel Knob is the tallest cliff east of the Mississippi.

Jeff checks a photocopied route description before embarking on the next pitch.

Blue skies brighten the view as Jeff makes his way with little protection and terrific exposure.

Double rope rappels down Laurel Knob's distinctive water grooves take us back to the ground and finish the climb. Fantastic!