The Old North State - Sam Dospoy
Amidst the hazy blue ridges of central Appalachia lie quartzite crags resembling precious jewels, the sort giants carry with them...
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“The Old North State” is home to a diverse selection of rock, surpassed only by the diversity of flora and fauna covering its steep hills and mountainsides. There’s never a dull moment in these woods; birds chirping, bugs buzzing, and the sound of running water is always near. The fresh scent of new life in the spring and dry falling leaves in autumn fill your nose.
The best time of year to get outside and climb are fall and spring, but summer and winter produce good climbing days as well. With over 50 inches of rainfall on average per year, there can be seemingly endless periods of wet rock. All of that rainfall and ample time (about 400 million years) has weathered the quartzite, granite, and metamorphosed sandstone into crags of impeccable quality. The diverse and beautiful living landscape is easy to admire and is what ends up bringing many folks, including myself, back to these hills.
In addition to its beauty, NC is known for its hard and scary trad climbing. The combination of sub-optimal conditions, tough to read gear placements and long run-outs will often evoke enough Elvis leg to think The King is still alive. Nothing has affected the climbing in NC as much as the traditional ethic, it’s still holding strong and has molded the way routes are established, and when bolts are placed.
First ascensionists didn’t regard tricky gear as a reason to drill a bolt. Mixed lines are also very common, “only drill a bolt if you have to” is something I’ve heard many times when being mentored by my old school climbing buddies. That means if there is a climb with 6 bolts and only one piece of gear, so be it. Ease of access has never been high on the agenda of traditional NC developers. However, adventure and preservation are.
Preserving or reserving?
It is no secret that the quality of rock in North Carolina is really good, it’s also no secret that there is a finite amount of this beautiful stone. These facts have led to the obscurity of climbing areas and might even have something to do with the propagation of the traditional ethic. Many classic climbs either require a steel mind to onsight or beta from a local to succeed.
Luckily for those not in the know resources like Mountain Project and new guidebooks - grounduppublishing.com - have made accessing these areas a more likely endeavor. With this new ease of access, there must also be an awareness and stewardship of our ecosystem. The cliffs here are home to many endangered plant and animal species and treading lightly around them should be the top priority.
A species to be particularly aware of is the Peregrine Falcon, with only 13 known nesting pairs in North Carolina they remain on the endangered list. This bird finds its nest on cliffsides and is easily influenced by climber presence. If threatened they may not breed or may abandon their chicks. It’s good to be aware of and respect any closures due to these extraordinary birds.
A commonly held idea is that NC rock simply doesn’t produce hard climbs. My experience is that the climbs exist, but they have yet to be established, and due to the traditional ethic require considerable effort to do so. Placing fixed protection only if there’s no other option, and going from the ground up, make it a considerable challenge to establish first ascents, especially on the faces that yield harder routes. While tradition doesn’t roll out the red carpet to developers, it does create a space to have wild adventures.
Some of the most memorable moments of my life happened when attacking a cliff ground up. Being run out on hooks, wanting to drill a bolt, and still second-guessing whether or not I should drill because there is a tiny flaring cam placement beside me that might hold a fall. I often ask myself if it’s worth the risk. Why not just rap bolt the cliff?
To me that’s one of the beautiful aspects of climbing in NC, it has given us a chance to do things the hard way when everything is saying to take the easy way out. In the midst of a fast food and streaming television culture, NC climbing seems to be heading the other way, a salmon swimming upstream.
A few years ago I visited the obscure upper wall at Hawksbill Mountain in Linville Gorge, an area known for the enforcement of (aka bolt chopping) traditional ethics. My friend Leif and I were on an adventure to find and climb Time Avengers, which ended up being a fun two-pitch 5.10. On the approach to the climb, we came across a striking overhung face with a thin diagonal crack, a true gem.
Knowing the ethical past of the area, I wrote it off as being too blank and sketchy to establish from the ground up. I wanted to rap bolt it, but I couldn’t. A few years went by and I would think of the route from time to time, and even went back out there once just to make sure it was as good as I remembered, and it was.
Having spent some time in the aiders and feeling a little more confident on hooks, I decided to go back and aid up the cliff to see if it would make a good free climb. Needing a solid belay, I tried to talk my good friend Cody into coming with me, and after some coaxing and offering to buy beer for the weekend he obliged. The beer probably wasn’t worth it. Three and a half hours and some hook placements later I finally found myself at the top of the cliff mind thrashed and psyched that it seemed free climbable. The battle was not over, it needed bolts on the face section where the hook moves were to make the free climb feasible. About a week later I went back out with my friend Mike, and hand drilled two bolts while re-aiding the line, The Roost project was born.
Maybe I’m weird, but there was something really satisfying about this process yes it was hard and scary, but I did something I once deemed impossible, something that could have been much easier and less meaningful if I had gone about it differently.
Photos by ©Bryan Miller
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