To Lichen or Not: Climbing in the Carolinas

Tyler Osborne Moore's Wall Blue Chock 5.10b
Tyler Osborne Moore’s Wall Blue Chock 5.10b

By Bryan Miller—a freelance photographer, writer, and owner of Fixed Line Media based in Charlotte, NC.  You can usually find him climbing a crack in his Misty Mountain Turbo harness or dangling from a Fixed Line in his Misty Mountain Cadillac harness.

The lure of a distant place and more fertile land will always be strong. For several summers I lived and worked in Boulder, CO reveling in the shear volume of routes to climb. Yellow Spur in Eldorado Canyon, Direct South Ridge on Notchtop in Rocky Mountain National Park, and J-Crack on Lumpy Ridge, the tick list goes on and yet the to-do list is even longer. Like so many other climbers from the ‘Least’ Coast, I couldn’t resist the ‘Bestward’ migration, visiting locations like The Winds, City of Rocks, Joshua Tree, and the magnificent granite of the Sierras.

On paper, the comparison simply doesn’t make sense. Brilliant weather, grandiose summits and protectable cracks in the West compared to a constant battle of heat, humidity and long runouts in the East—one might be, in fact should be, inclined to move on to more conducive climates and locations. And yet as unlikely as it should be, I have always returned to climb in the Carolina’s, a place I have called home for the past 17 years.

Casie Cañez Looking Glass Rock Hyperbola Direct 5.11a
Casie Cañez Looking Glass Rock Hyperbola Direct 5.11a

But this is not about comparisons on paper. It is and has been more about an inward search, a journey of chalkless routes and quiet pursuits in these verdant hills, where we climb. Granite plutons—those terrifying slabtacular metamorphic domes, which seem to grow better here than the rhododendron thickets—will forever offer lessons in mind control and humility. Enduring the insecure foot sequences of friction or adjusting the fingers ever so slightly to make that granite crystal feel just secure enough—or standing 20-feet above that last horizontally slotted pink tricam, doubt building, wondering if my belayer can see my legs trembling. Begging my shoes to stick while clad in tacky, modern rubber, I think of slab legends such as Bob Mitchell and Jeep Gaskins. And how decades ago these climbers helped establish or free slab test-pieces such as Dum Dee Dum Dum [5.10c] and Legendary Nuclear Bomb [5.11R], respectively, on Looking Glass Rock. Developed in strict ground-up ethic, a style that still dominates contemporary Carolina route development, armed with little more than rattly hexes and bad rubber, these were bold ascents and even bolder characters.

Jenny Abegg Looking Glass Rock Cornflake Crack 5.11a
Jenny Abegg Looking Glass Rock Cornflake Crack 5.11a
Sam Stephens Shortoff Mountain Scream Dream 5.11d
Sam Stephens Shortoff Mountain Scream Dream 5.11d

Or perhaps one prefers the strength sapping, often overhanging Carolina quartzite crags such as Shortoff Mountain, an adventurous 400-foot cliff located in the jagged, green-carpeted Linville Gorge Scenic Wilderness– emphasis on ‘wild’. Guarded by a long, sinuous approach and one-way-in and one-way-out gorge climbing, this is a location that requires measured commitment and a penchant for suffering. And once you have made the fourth-class gully descent to the base of the cliffs, you will have the chance to stand beneath classic multipitch lines, such as Dopey Duck [5.9], Straight & Narrow [5.10a], Julia [5.10b], or Scream Dream [5.11d] — all of which were developed, in part, by Tom Howard, an instrumental first ascensionist in the Southeast, along with a small but doggedly determined group of climbers during the 1970s and 1980s. Considering that Carolina quartzite crags are laced with parallel horizontal features, it’s hard to imagine these bold, ground-up first ascents without SLCDs… perhaps even more daunting when one considers the tropical-sized lichen that most certainly covered every hold, and still does today on the lesser traveled routes. So while one can find routes ranging from 5.6-5.12 on these rugged cliffs, one must come prepared to climb hard because the gear can be cryptic, the climbing steep, and the grades generally full-value.

Jenny Abegg Shortoff Mountain Julia 5.10b
Jenny Abegg Shortoff Mountain Julia 5.10b
Alex Myers Ship Rock The Broach 5.11d
Alex Myers Ship Rock The Broach 5.11d

As Summer approaches, the ritual of chasing cooler temperatures and better dew points will begin. The choices will be limited to crags such as Ship Rock at 5,000-feet of elevation, or getting in the car, once again, to travel West in order to attempt an alpine granite classic. And I know I’ll curse the bugs, pit-vipers that lurk in the cracks and heat, as I do every year, but I’ll also return in pursuit of these chalkless Southeast lines because it’s not about comparisons. It has been and will continue to be about the quiet, inward journey.

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