Mystery, Ad­ven­ture, and Ju­lia

A tour of North Carolina’s wild, “trad­i­cal” quartzite.

Climbing - - CONTENTS - Story and Pho­tog­ra­phy by Bryan Miller

“Why am I do­ing this?” I won­der, rub­bing my eyes. Alone in the kitchen at 4: 18 a. m., I wipe up peanut but­ter as I make my sand­wich for the day. Men­tally, I am not ready to pad up the void well above gear on North Carolina’s over­hang­ing quartzite, nor for the phys­i­cal beat- down the steep, veg­e­tated ap­proaches pro­vide. None­the­less, I wrap the sand­wich in foil, slide it into the brain of my pack, shoul­der the load, and head out my door to meet Lee Cham­pion, my long­time climb­ing part­ner, for an­other South­ern “alpine” start.

To­day, we are bound for Ju­lia, a three-pitch 5.10b on Shortoff Moun­tain in­side the Linville Gorge Wilder­ness. Linville, two hours from our home in Charlotte, cuts a jagged gash into the western NC moun­tain car­pet, re­veal­ing a con­cen­tra­tion of flinty quartzite, a meta­mor­phic rock char­ac­ter­ized by hor­i­zon­tal bands, ir­reg­u­lar cracks, large roofs, cryptic gear, and steep face climb­ing. We have walked by

Ju­lia for sev­eral years, in­trigued and ex­cited, yet in­tim­i­dated by the over­hang­ing fin­ger­tips cor­ner crux and sto­ries of climbers thwarted by the steep open­ing pitch.

Out­side my home, the predawn air feels thick, moist, and wind­less, con­di­tions NC climbers know well. Head­lights ap­proach, so it must be 4:30 a.m.: Lee is never late. As we drive, rain­drops hit the wind­shield. “Dude, is the dew point as bad as I think to­day?” I ask Lee. For Southeast lo­cals, this ob­scure me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal mea­sure­ment is an ob­ses­sion. Heat and hu­mid­ity are easy to man­age, but the dew point—that ephemeral mo­ment when wa­ter va­por trans­forms back into liq­uid, ren­der­ing the rock sur­face more slip-n-slide than climb­ing medium—is not.

Two hours later, our muddy car parked at the end of the Wolf Pit dirt road, we reach the trail­head for Shortoff Moun­tain, the south­ern ter­mi­nus of the Linville Gorge. From here, the trail grinds up to the east­ern gorge rim along steep, knee-crack­ing switch­backs through a canopy marred by mul­ti­ple wild­fires. Soon, the rain gives way to a softly il­lu­mi­nated land­scape, re­veal­ing the Blue Ridge Moun­tains all around. Time and mois­ture have shaped these moun­tains into less dra­matic peaks than those found out West, form­ing an un­du­lat­ing land­scape more hu­man in scale. On the grey lichen-cov­ered cliffs that poke through the hills,

routes as­cend hun­dreds of feet yet some­how re­main part of the for­est, form­ing a canopy that traps mois­ture and dap­ples light suf­fi­ciently to prop­a­gate yet an­other, even thicker ground layer of rhodo­den­dron and lau­rel—beloved by na­ture pho­tog­ra­phers yet dreaded by climbers.

Due to a unique geology of an­cient ocean beds, fault lines, and con­ti­nen­tal collision—bet­ter known as the Ap­palachian Orogeny—high-qual­ity quartzite crags sat­u­rate North Carolina. The ge­o­logic phe­nom­e­non re­sults in glassy, ex­posed, bul­let-hard rock of in­ter

locked crys­talline struc­ture. Stand­out ar­eas in­clude Moore’s Wall, a 200-foot crag in the flat, cen­tral part of state. Moore's boast around 150 ad­ven­tur­ous,

sand­bagged routes from 5.5 to 5.13, in­clud­ing clas­sics such as Zoo View (5.7+), with a big hor­i­zon­tal roof; Air Show (5.8+); Quaker State (5.11a), and fileto-Fish ( 5.12a), a burly af­fair named in honor of Tim Fisher, the “Mayor of Moore's" and a pro­lific lo­cal first ascensionist known for his staunch ground-up ethics. And

Ship Rock, two hours north­west of Charlotte in the cooler Western Moun­tain re­gion, fea­tur­ing short mul­ti­p­itch lines such as Board­walk (5.8); Air­lie Gar­dens (5.9); and The Broach (5.11d), a thug­gish climb known for its un­re­lent­ing 40-foot roof crack, de­vel­oped in 1985 by Doug Reed, who es­tab­lished over 600 first as­cents through­out the Southeast. Add it up and there are more than a dozen crags and over 1,000 pub­lished routes up this steely stone, all mer­ci­lessly steep, with cryptic gear, sur­real hor­i­zon­tal fea­tures, in­tim­i­dat­ing roofs, and pre­cip­i­tous faces that de­mand power, and most im­por­tantly, men­tal en­durance.

SHIRTS SOAKED and brows drip­ping, we hike down the im­prob­a­ble fourth­class gully that leads to the cliff base. The gully plunges into dense fog, the re­sult of a tem­per­a­ture in­ver­sion that formed as the sun’s ra­di­ant en­ergy warmed the cool, hu­mid air. We creep down the damp gully through “pea soup” mist, ac­com­pa­nied by the sounds of drip­ping wa­ter and shift­ing rocks be­neath our feet. Steep walls on ei­ther side of the chasm push in closer and grav­ity pulls harder as we ma­neu­ver around moss-cov­ered boul­ders. This is a mys­te­ri­ous land more suited to hob­bits and fairies than climbers.

Three hun­dred feet down the gully, we face a de­ci­sion: ne­go­ti­ate a short fifth-class down­climb that is cur­rently a wa­ter­fall or rap­pel 100 feet from an old-growth conifer. De­ci­sion made: As we rig our ropes, two climbers emerge from the fog. It turns out they’re from Asheville; soft-spo­ken and unas­sum­ing in their faded plaid shirts and tat­tered jack­ets, they ask if they can ride our ropes. “So, what are you work­ing on to­day?” I ask them. A shrug of the shoul­ders and a de­layed, non­com­mit­tal re­sponse re­veals their ob­jec­tive: The Big Arête (5.11), put up rope solo in 2005 by Nathan Brown, a pro­lific first ascensionist. The line as­cends a di­rect, over­hang­ing path up a strik­ing arête, ul­ti­mately con­nect­ing to an older, wild Doug Sword 5.10+ called Tall Or­der for a to­tal of three full-value pitches. While The Big

Arête is not a 5.15 me­dia dar­ling, it is an ex­posed, de­mand­ing climb that would be a proud tick on any­one’s list. But for bet­ter or worse, NC climbers, such as Brown, rarely seem pre­oc­cu­pied with only push­ing grades or an all-out as­sault to con­quer news­wor­thy lines. A bold, blue-col­lar men­tal­ity de­fines the climb­ing here.

Maybe it’s the heat and hu­mid­ity or the iso­la­tion in these South­ern hills, but NC first as­cen­sion­ists of­ten ex­ude as much en­thu­si­asm for not bolt­ing a sketchy gear (less) 5.11 R as they do for equip­ping a hard crux with stacked pins. The South­east­ern climber can be can­tan­ker­ous and se­cre­tive, his per­sona of­ten as diffi---

cult to breach as the rhodo­den­dron thick­ets that guard the cliffs. But with time and sin­cere ques­tions about the area, you can un­cover a shim­mer­ing en­thu­si­asm from the old guard. They are quick to share twinkly-eyed ac­counts of fa­vorite routes with near-pho­to­graphic mem­ory—de­scrib­ing a no. 5 Stop­per that should be placed with the curve fac­ing left, or us­ing a 1980s rigid-stem Friend to pro­tect a crux be­cause the stiff lever ac­tion will im­prove the mar­ginal hor­i­zon­tal place­ment. It is in­vig­o­rat­ing to lis­ten to har­row­ing sto­ries, em­bel­lished or not, of home­made-hex an­chors, bold runouts, and shots of liq­uid courage taken to steel the nerves on au­da­cious first as­cents. En­gage fur­ther and you might re­ceive an in­vi­ta­tion to one of the word-of-mouth, un­pub­lished, four-star quartzite crags that seem to prop­a­gate in North Carolina.

Off rap­pel with our feet on the gorge floor and ropes coiled, we part ways with the Asheville duo and start the fi­nal push to Ju­lia’s base. It’s only one-tenth of a mile, but it might as well be 10 miles be­cause of the wet, im­pen­e­tra­ble bush. Lee pushes for­ward 15 feet ahead. I can see noth­ing— not a sin­gle square inch of his bright-pur­ple hoody. Like so much of this gorge, charred by re­cur­ring fires, the un­der­growth is gnarled, forc­ing us to blindly plant each shoe in the loose, black­ened soil. With the fog lift­ing and ap­proach end­ing, my thoughts tran­si­tion to Tom Howard, who helped es­tab­lish Ju­lia in 1977, plus reams of other clas­sic NC climbs. I imag­ine Tom pulling a thorn from his thumb (as Lee has), blood gush­ing, near­ing the cor­ner that will soon be­come Ju

lia. Did he and Bruce Meneghin ar­gue, like us, over who would get pitch one, with its strik­ing fin­ger­tips cor­ner? Did he pause at the base star­ing, wide-eyed, ea­ger to chart a new line up this wilder­ness cliff ? What I do know, after climb­ing many of Howard’s Shortoff routes, like Dopey Duck (5.9), Straight &

Nar­row (5.10a), and Built to Tilt (5.10b), is that he had an eye for clas­sics and an even bet­ter hand at leav­ing those clas­sics in­tact, with min­i­mal im­pact. Loose rock, lichen-cov­ered holds, and lau­rels grow­ing from the nooks—we will ex­pe­ri­ence it all to­day, along with stel­lar move­ment and beau­ti­ful rock fea­tures.

Lee wins the de­bate over who’s tak­ing the first lead and steps over the lau­rel that guards the start­ing crack. My jeal­ousy quickly gives way to a fo­cused be­lay as he nears the crux, 70 feet off the ground. Uti­liz­ing his 6’2” wing­span, Lee places a tightly cammed piece, down­climbs to quiet the mind, and then fires through the mar­bled stone. One hand with tips wedged into the thin seam and the other press­ing against polished, milky quartz, he stems through one pow­er­ful se­quence after an­other to reach the fi­nal cor­ner bulge. “Watch me!” Lee yells down. He thrutches, try­ing to beach-whale over the bulge well above his last piece, then sud­denly I’m pulled up and off the be­lay. Lee

hangs there then stead­ies him­self for a sec­ond and suc­cess­ful at­tempt. Crux pitch be­hind us, we move through sus­tained 5.9+ ter­rain on the up­per two pitches, which I string to­gether as one.

LEE AND I top out just as we started: in the canopy. I sit, shoes off, con­tem­plat­ing oth­ers who have grasped the same holds and en­joyed sim­i­lar, soli­tary days. What sto­ries, by­gone and con­tem­po­rary, have played out in this lush, bu­colic place, and how will new ad­ven­tures un­fold? Warmed by the late-af­ter­noon sun, I can see again the in­ti­macy of the North Carolina land­scape through an en­dear­ing con­flu­ence of light, shad­ows, and to­pog­ra­phy. Lichen still cling­ing to our shoes and chalk on our hands, Lee and I sa­vor the mo­ment just as we have for the past 20 years climb­ing to­gether—very few words and a quick shake of the hands.

In the be­gin­ning of my North Carolina climb­ing jour­ney, I cursed these an­cient, eroded moun­tains. I would re­turn home from each trip with cuts and bruises, cov­ered in bug bites or forced to ex­plain to co-work­ers why my hands and legs were shred­ded and bat­tered. Al­ways shar­ing sto­ries with fam­ily, of­ten em­bel­lished, like the time we climbed Maginot

Line (5.7) on Shortoff Moun­tain and had to bat­tle an an­gry cop­per­head mid-pitch. Or the time we were blown off Ship Rock due to gale-force winds. But it hap­pened. These types of ad­ven­tures al­most al­ways hap­pen here—it’s raw, plain and sim­ple. Just as these rock walls grow let­tuce-leaf-sized lichen, so grows in any­one who climbs here an en­dur­ing love for this mys­te­ri­ous green climber’s playground.

CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP LEFT: April Stephens on P2 of Dopey Duck (5.9), Shortoff Moun­tain; sun­rise at Shortoff; Blake Du­vall onB.O.G. Man (5.11a), Ship Rock.

ABOVE: Sam Dospoy out for a misty-morn­ing stroll on the first pitch of Board Walk (5.8), Ship Rock.

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