Monday, May 27, 2013

Short on Linville Gorge Karma Points

Trip report

My dear friend P. Lee and I got to do something this weekend that she had been wanting to do for over a decade: climb a couple of classic routes in the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area. P. Lee is a busy gal, but Memorial Day weekend provided us with a window to meet up and do this. We hadn't seen each other since last year, and it was merely great to see each other, let alone do some multipitch climbing in this area.

We initially had hoped to camp near the trail head (see for a map of the whole area; Linville Gorge wilderness is in map section G3). The Linville Gorge Wilderness Area is a surprisingly remote area of North Carolina. There is very little cell phone signal to be had, and the nearest town (Linville Falls) is very small, with very few amenities. These factoids will be significant later in this story… Successfully foreshadowed. However, as we are both semi-mediocre Weekend Warriorand we have amazing friends in Asheville, it ended up working out better to stay in a house. Specifically, the gorgeous house of our even more gorgeous friends Jackie and Paul Langille.

Jackie and Paul's house

Jackie and Paul recently moved to Asheville, NC after Jackie landed a tenure-track Assistant Professor job at UNC. However, both she and Paul were out of town this weekend, and they graciously agreed to let us use their house for sleeping time, eating time, etc. When I asked whether there was something I could do in order to repay them for their generosity, Paul asked that I scratch their cat Samantha behind the ears. 

Samantha the cat.


I arrived in Asheville on Friday, May 24 around 12pm. After dropping some things off…

The rack

...and relaxing for a few minutes…

I met up with my amazing friends Michael and Gretchen, where we had lunch at the White Duck, where I at some amazingly-Ashevillian tacos.

The White Duck. Duck duck white duck.

Later that night (7:20 pm), Liz’s flight arrived in Charlotte. Later that night (8:20 pm), she retrieved her checked bag and picked up her rental car, a 2013 Hyundi Elentra with 3,200 miles on it. Later that night (10:30 pm), Liz arrived in Asheville. Being that Liz and I are, well, Liz and I, we immediately started darting around the house, sorting gear, and planning for the next day. By 11:30pm, we had everything packed for the next day and were in our respective beds.

P. Lee flaking the rope

It is about a two hour drive from Asheville to the Table Rock Parking Lot. To find this location on the Earth, simply go to and type “Table Rock Parking Lot, Old Table Rock Rd, NC” into the map search bar. If your internet behaves like mine, it ought to show you precisely and accurately where the Table Rock parking lot is. Again with the foreshadowing, this is significant later in the story. Because it was Memorial Day Weekend, we anticipated “a lot” of traffic in the area, at least as much traffic as such a remote area can experience. The climbs we intended to get on, The Mummy and The Daddy are “trade routes,” considered to be ultra classic for both North Carolina and the southeastern United States. Liz had been eyeing these routes for years, never able to climb them for various reasons (i.e. lack of a partner, always doing other things in Linville Gorge, etc.).

“Let’s leave at 3 am tomorrow so we are first in line for the Daddy,” said P. Lee.
“Uber alpine start!” Donnie exclaimed.
“Ultra alpinismagawea,” Liz remarked.

At 3:30 am on Saturday, May 26, both our alarm clocks chimed. We were so excited to go climbing, we weren't particularly groggy, only taking about 10 minutes to throw our things in the rental car and start driving. In my preparations for the day, I had even gone so far as to make a full batch of cold press coffee and have our travel mugs filled for the car ride.

We arrived at Table Rock Parking Lot at 6 am sharp, just as the sky was getting light out. The parking lot was nearly full, which, as I previously alluded, was not surprising to either of us. Nevertheless, we found a spot and were pretty psyched.

6 am at Table Rock Parking Lot!

We started jingling down to the trail, seeing nary a headlamp or camp light on yet as we passed numerous tents and bivy sites a few hundred feet outside of the parking lot. Apparently, no one had beat us to the trail yet. Yipee. It is 0.5 miles along the infamous Mountains To Sea Trail to the Chimney’s, a popular top rope area that Liz had previously led boy scouts to. We stopped to gawk at the sunrise, taking the obligatory yoga-pose-photograph that my friend Hannah insisted I take wherever I travel. Another half mile south on the Mountains To Sea Trail, we found the trail we were looking for.

6:30 am near the Chimneys

At this point in the story, I feel it is necessary to mention part of the reason we decided to climb “trade routes” such as the Mummy and Daddy. Part of the allure for a place like Linville Gorge is the old-school climbing mentality that, if you are new to an area, you will get lost, scared, and tired. You will not simply “find the trail,” download a G.P.S. map of your destination, or otherwise have your hand held and be spoon fed the experience. Thus, we both anticipated that something would at least go a little bit wrong. I thought about “Linville Gorge Karma (LGK) points,” such that whenever something bad happened throughout the day, I assumed that we earned a few LGK points, hopefully preventing further mishap. Disclaimer: this is my interpretation of the old school North Carolina climbing mentality that I gleaned from various conversations with older North Carolina climbers and those who have gotten lost, scared, and tired on their first trips to the area. People that know Liz and I well will understand how these aforementioned tidbits are indeed alluring to us rather than discouraging.

“The trail we were looking for” is the third tunnel through the rhododendron forest on our right past the Chimneys, “marked” by a bowling-ball-sized chunk of bullquartz. Initially, we thought this was  game trail and walked by it. However, a hundred feet later, the trail behind to descend off the ridge, signifying we had gone too far.
  Climbing beta: the approach trail to the Amphitheater area of Linville Gorge is the third unmarked spur trail on the right side of the MST, approximately 0.5 miles past the Chimneys. If you start desceding off the ridge, you’ve gone too far, but just barely. After you realize you’ve gone too far, turn around on the trail and the climbers trail should only be a few hundred feet back.

We had been told by multiple people that this descent was miserable, and a waste of time. The guidebook mentions a way to avoid the descent by rappelling a nearby buttress, and we had heard from numerous others about other ways to avoid the descent gully, but…

P. Lee: “Let’s just go down the descent gully, it can’t be that bad, right?”
Donnie: “I don’t know, I heard from Bob that it was a waste of time.”
P. Lee: “Yeah, but it will be good to just do ourselves so we can see, right?”
Donnie: “Yeah, let’s just do it. We’ve probably done a lot more questionable descents in Colorado.”

The descent gully was a waste of time. It was barely light outside and the descent gully followed an actively flowing creek. It involved some second classing (i.e. using hands), but I suppose it was best that we could learn that lesson ourselves. And maybe it will get us some LGK points.

We found the base of our climbs, with The Daddy being first up. Liz led the first pitch, which was about 140 feet of super exposed metamorphic rock.

The Prow (right), Lost Cliffs (left), and Linville Gorge (center)

I actually got pretty nervous on that first pitch. Imagine standing on a vertical rock wall with 100 feet of air beneath you. On this first pitch, I was following Liz up, and thus already had a rope running to the top of the pitch, but I was nervous because I was up next. However, that being said, we were both still pretty psyched.

Top of pitch 1 on The Daddy

I led the second pitch, which was an 80’ pitch to a tree belay. Tons of exposure, tons of opportunately to place gear, and very mellow climbing. A perfect match for a new traditional climber like myself.
The third pitch was a bit confusing: the guidebook said to traverse up and right, but that looked hard. Plus, we saw a “bail 'biner” up there, indicating that the previous climber had tried to go that was but back off, presumably because it was too difficult. I initially led up to it to scope it out, but got confused, and, for the first time in my trad climbing career, backed off the pitch. I down climbed 30’ and Liz and I switched places, with her leading the third pitch. P. Lee is a very experienced climber, albeit only being 18 years old (snort). She figured out the pitch right away, bringing me up to the top of the third pitch.
At this point, I was getting really comfortable, having found my Zen. I discovered that following a pitch was more nerve-wracking than leading. When I was following a pitch, I knew I was safely attached to the top of the pitch, as so I could let my mind wander as I climbed. My mind immediately went to the next pitch, which I was scheduled to lead. would I be scared? Would I be able to find protection? Would I be able to even do it. 

  However, when I was leading a pitch, I was so focused on the task at hand that I didn’t have the spare time to let my thoughts wander: I was in the moment, not worrying about the future.
Behold, one of the fundamental reasons why I love climbing. It is difficult for me to be “in the moment,” and climbing brings me there.
I led the fourth pitch of the Daddy, which, in my opinion, is the money pitch. I had so much fun, and I wish that pitch could have been 1,000 feet long instead of 100’. By the top of the pitch, I had written a song about the pitch, sung to the tune of 500 Miles.

I would stem 500 miles.
And I would crimp 500 more.
Just to be the man who climbs a thousand miles not to fall down.

Most clever. 

We topped out at about 1pm, and I ate a granola bar. We spent 10 minutes at the top, taking pictures and reveling in the fact that we had just climbed a trade route that P. Lee had been wanting to climb for over a decade. We found the descent gully, which was a rappel station allowing an easy way down to the base of The Mummy and The Daddy. This is the approach that other climbers had suggested we use rather than the Amphitheater descent gully.

Disorienting picture. Which is right side up! Both of them!

The rappel was surprisingly cave-like.

Short rappel on the back side (north side) of the Mummy Buttress

After getting our rope temporarily stuck, we walked the ~200 feet downhill to the base of The Mummy. About 199 feet downhill (read: just before we got there), P. Lee turned her ankle. Game over, right? Nope. Turns out, P. Lee turns her ankle about once a week. It’s a chronically recurring injury that she is very use to. And P. Lee is pretty damn tough.

“Damn, we don’t have any ibuprofen, do we?” P. Lee asked.
“Nope. Whoops... Guess we should have planned for the worst. You could go soak your ankle in the creek to bring the swelling down?” asked Donnie.
“Nah, it will be fine. It always does this,” P. Lee calmly proclaimed.
“Does what?” asked Donnie.
“It freaks out at first, then it chills out.” P. Lee stated the obvious.
“…” Donnie quietly pondered.
We climb on. It is about 1 pm at this point, and we ate some lunch. We had stashed a pack at the base of The Daddy earlier in the morning with our lunches and extra water.
Next up was The Mummy, arguably the most popular route in Linville Gorge, and one of the most popular ones in the state.

P. Lee 20 feet up the first pitch of The Mummy

P. Lee cruised up the first pitch and brought me up. Again, while following her up, my mind wandered to the next pitch, which I would be leading. I started seriously doubting my ability to climb it. However, once I started leading, I had a blast. Besides, when I was leading, I didn't have to clean the gear that Liz had placed. P. Lee has a tendency to get gear stuck. I am being sarcastic, but also not. I understand her mentality: if a person has to fall 20 feet when 200 feet up a rock face onto a piece of metal the size of fishing lure, I would want it to be good and stuck as well.
We topped out of the Mummy at around 3 pm and found the trail back to the Table Rock Parking Lot, where we arrive at about 4 pm.

Climbing beta: when approaching The Amphitheater, hike one mile south of the Table Rock Parking Lot to the third unmarked tunnel through rhododendron on your right with a bowling-ball-sized chunk of quartz in the middle of the trail. Take this trail about 0.2 miles west. Just as it gets rocky and starts to go down the creek, stay on the same elevation and turn back south. There should be a faint trail. This trail follows the rim of the Amphitheater. When you exit the rhododendron, you will be on the Mummy Buttress. Continue to scramble southwest and downhill until you find the rappel station, a slung boulder with quick links. Do a short rappel (30 feet? See two pictures above) and you will be at the base of The Mummy.

Great! We made it! We climbed The Mummy and The Daddy! But as we were hiking out of The Amphitheater, something seemed off to me. We had just climbed two very classic routes in the area, and had accrued very few Linville Gorge Karma points…
Lo and behold,


As I previously mentioned, cell service is very spotty in the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area. That’s part of the point, right?
No problem, right? Just change the tire and limp down the 9 miles of steep, rutted, whooped-out road to the highway, limp into town, and get a change, right?
The rental car didn’t have a spare. Nope, it had a space for a spare tire in the trunk, but, alas, it was an empty space. It did, however, have a “self-sealing repair kit,” consisting of a pump and some magical goo that injects into the tire and purportedly seals the leak from the inside. We filled the tire with air, and could clearly hear the leak. We could not find an obvious hole, however, despite using water to find bubbles and thoroughly examined the entire tire surface.
“No problem, let’s call the rental agency,” Donnie thought.
“I’ll call them,” Liz confidently proclaimed.

The magical position to get a cell phone signal. Don't move your leg, P. Lee.

An hour later, we found the magical place to stand in the Table Rock Parking Lot that provided sufficient signal to call Enterprise. After dropping the call a few times, we finally got a stable signal and got a hold of “Keenan” from Enterprise.

It took me 52 minutes to explain to Keenan where we were. This length was not because the call dropped, I had a stable signal to Keenan from Enterprise for 52 minutes. It took me 52 minutes to explain to Keenen, a non-native North Carolinian, where the Table Rock Parking Lot was. I provided the names of Forest Service Roads that it is located along, I provided G.P.S. coordinates, and I provided him with explicit directions to the parking lot from Asheville. It took him a while to get it. Bless his heart, right? I had him confirm the location with me, because it still wasn’t clear to me that he knew where we were. He confirmed. He had it right. I asked him to confirm again. Again, it appeared that he had the location right.

6:30 pm, he found the location and told us he dispatched a tow truck from Charlotte, N.C. He said it would be approximately two hours until the tow truck arrived.
By this time, a group of people camping at Table Rock had adopted P. Lee and I. They fed us a steak dinner (I am not joking), gave us beer, and kept us company.

8:30 pm, no tow truck had arrived.
“There is no way there are going to find us,” P. Lee declared.
“I agree, let’s call them.” Donnie offered.
We called the tow truck, who we had been given a direct line to.
“Yeah, I am almost to you guys!” Tow Truck Driver #1 excitedly declared.
“Will you confirm the address that you are travelling to?” Donnie asked.
“Um…. 141 Ford Road, North Carolina.” Tow Truck Driver #1 replied.
“No. That is nowhere near us.” P. Lee and Donnie both replied.

9:00 pm: “We have to get off this mountain,” P. Lee stated.
“Yeah, that seems wise.” Donnie sincerely replied.

By 10:00 pm, we had re-inflated the car tire, which had lost about 10 pounds of pressure from when we filled it up earlier, and limped our way down the highway. We called Tow Truck Driver #1.
“Yeah, I couldn’t make it up these mountains! Where are you guys?” he asked.

By 10:45 pm, P. Lee and I realized that this guy wasn’t going to find us until we were in the world’s most obvious location. We again limped down the road to a Marathon gas station, which closed a few minutes after we arrived, and we waited.

11:30 pm, Tow Truck Driver #1 pulls into the Marathon gas station.
“My transmission is acting up! I don’t reckon I’m gonna be able to tow y’all to Charlotte!” he stated.
“So what are we going to do?” Donnie and P. Lee asked.
“Well, we’ll hopefully wait for a ride. Dispatch told me to load up your car and try to start driving back and see how she goes,” Tow Truck Driver #1 offered as consolation.

11:45 pm, we had loaded the rental car onto the flat bed pick-up truck.

11:50 pm, we pulled to the side of North Carolina Highway 181.
“Yep, She’s not gonna go any further! Dispatch told me turn her off, wait 30 minutes, and try again” Tow Truck Driver #1 stated.
He turned off all of his lights. Including his safely flashers. We were barely on the shoulder of this rural highway. I jumped out and turned the rental car hazard lights on. P. Lee and I both climbed into the rental car.

3:30 am, after some very restful half sleep that induced multiple Charlie horses and cramps, Tow Truck Driver #2 showed up.

3:45 am, we loaded Tow Truck Driver #1’s truck, with the rental car on its flat bed, onto the back of Tow Truck Driver #2’s truck. We limped to Charlotte.

5:50 am, we arrived at the Tow Truck shop to drop off #1’s truck and transfer the rental car to a different truck to take back to the rental agency.

6 a m, dropping Tow Truck Driver #1 off (left flat bed) to load rental car (left) to another tow truck. Thanks, Tow Truck Driver #2 (right)!

6:30 am, we had a new rental car (a Jeep Cherokee. With a spare).

6:45 am, we ate eggs and toast at Cracker Barrel.

8:50 am, we arrived at Jackie and Paul’s house.

8:51 am, we called people to let them know that we were alive.

8:52 am, we slept until 2:30 pm, having been awake for 31 hours.

We then went to downtown Asheville, ate some pizza, drank some well-deserved beer, and laughed at how ridiculous the previous 31 hours had been.

Life is not too bad.

However, we got to climb The Mummy and The Daddy. I would do it all again.

Viva la climbing.

Take home lessons for me:
1.      Assume the worst is going to happen, rather than that you’ll go to Linville Gorge Wilderness Area for the first time, climb what you indented, and get off without accruing substantial Linvlle Gorge Karma points.
2.      Life is different when you have no cell phone service to call for help.
3.      The Linville Gorge Wilderness Area is very, very remote.
4.      Climbing is the best.

Lots of love to Liz. Thanks to my family and Angelyn for understanding that while something wasn’t quite going as planned with P. Lee and I, we were safe.

Next up for P. Lee and I is a climb that is twice as long as the two climbs we did in Linville Gorge. I hope that means our “Epic” will be twice as long.



1 comment:

  1. G.Hicks, excellent report of our Linville adventure. Why do all of our trips turn into "epic boondoggles"? Start working on your Red Rocks Karma (RRK) points...I have a feeling we are going to need a lot of them.

    Shout out to Paul and Jackie for letting us stay in their awesome Asheville house during the trip. Thanks guys!

    - P.Lee