There is nothing like an east coast fall. The changing leaves turn the landscape into a burst of color and the crisp nights are perfect for camping. During the day the temp hovers in the 60s and the rock bakes making it perhaps the best destination in the world for a late October rock climbing vacation.
On the other hand late fall in Alaska means freezing rain and encroaching darkness. In other words – if you have vacation time then book a plane ticket and head southeast. So across the country and into DC where my oldest brother John treated me to east coast nightlife and then into the car and 3 hours out of DC to West, by god, Virginia.
I had not climbed on the east coast for almost a decade but I had spent my late high school and college years climbing at places like Seneca, the New River and Stone Mountain. And so when my brother and I pulled up to Seneca Rocks in late afternoon my memories were flooded with images of days gone by.
My brother John used to climb in the Southeast as a college kid as well. He’s 20 years older than me so his memories were clouded by 40 years of time. But most climbers, while unable to recall things like an agreed upon 10am meeting on Monday, can recall most routes they’ve ever pulled themselves up and every area they’ve ever visited. John is no different. While he had had never actually climbed at Seneca he remembered perfectly the day, 40-some years ago, that he pulled up in the Seneca parking lot to discover his partner had left the rope back in Clemson University some 483 miles and 9 hours south.
So after a night of grilling pork-chops and sleeping under stars (after exiting the tent at midnight tent due to a very loud snorer) we shouldered the packs and hiked up the south side of Seneca to the notch between the north and south summits. Then up the all-time classic Gunsight to South Peak, a route I’ve climbed around a half dozen times over the years with many different people.
The route consists 3 pitches of 5.3 with wonderful exposure under your toes for the whole route; the last pitch a traverse of the spiny summit ridge on ledge half the width of a sidewalk.
Charlie on the 1st pitch of Gunsight to South Peak.
Me (climbing) and Charlie on Gunsight to South Peak.
Fall, 1999. Photo by Dan Williams.
John belaying the 2nd pitch of Gunsight to South Peak.
John on the spiny summit ridge..
John and I topped out, enjoyed the summit view then down-climbed and rapped and worked our way over to the southwest face for a late afternoon scramble up Ecstasy Junior – a fun 2 pitch 5.4 that features a slight roof that John huffed and puffed himself up.
1st pitch to the col.
Topping out on the 2nd pitch.
On the summit!
Another night of grilling and stars before getting up early and heading back to the rock. Since we had ascended the northeast ridge the morning prior we opted to climbed the southeast ridge to the summit and worked our way up Skyline – a beautiful 3 pitch 5.3 with big exposure to Broadway Ledge. A bit of scrambling took us to A Christian Delight, a rope stretching 5.4, that put us at the top of the 1st pitch of Old Ladies, a route I had last climbed in the winter of ’93 or ’94 when the route was coated in almost a foot of snow! It was a bit easier and warmer this time and we quickly worked up our way up the last few pitches to enjoy a late afternoon summit view. Then back down to the car and two hours south to my mother’s house in Free Union Virginia.
1st pitch of Skyline.
Last moves on A Christian Delight.
High exposure on Old Ladies Route.
John went back to work and I spent a few days at my mother’s house before renting a car and driving further south for a brief visit with friends followed by a morning drive down the Blue Ridge Parkway to Stone Mountain, North Carolina where I met up with Yvonne and her parents.
Stone Mountain is another place of memories. I lead my first multi-pitch route here in the winter of ’92. I had arranged to meet Yvonne here specifically so we could climb The Great Arch – a route I consider one of the best routes on the east coast. The Great Arch is accessed via Entrance Crack, a 5.4 offwidth that you climb via a slab just right of the chasm. You can get gear in about 50′ off the ground but then you have about 100′ of run-out. I had worked my way up it a dozen times in my college years, but 20 years later it seemed scarier than I remembered.
Yvonne on The Great Arch.
At the top of Entrance Crack you traverse left to the Great Arch; a beautiful dihedral you follow for 3 pitches. The climbing is easy (5.5.) and unlike almost every other route at Stone Mountain, there is actually gear the entire way. A wonderful route that should be on every east coast and travelling climbers list.
Unknown climber on the 2nd pitch of Mercury’s Lead (3 pitches; 5.9). The 2nd pitch features 100′ of 5.8ish slab with no gear!
2nd pitch of The Great Arch.
Rapping down .
1st pitch of Yardarm.
Yvonne and I jogged up the route and then rapped down, top roped the wonderful Mercury’s Lead (5.9, pure slab!), which we followed up with Yardarm, a spicy 5.8 that features an 80′ runout (where you clip the bolt after pulling the 5.8 crux) and No Alternative, another corner crack that actually has gear. Then off the route and back to the base where we met up with Yvonne’s dad and hiked the 5 mile loop trail before retiring to camp for more grilling and stars.
Unknown climber topping out on Stone Mountain.
Stone is fun… but all the routes feel the same so the next morning we said goodbye to Yvonne’s parents who headed back north to their home in New England while Yvonne and I drove 2 hours south to Linville Gorge.
Yvonne on top of Table Rock.
Linville Gorge was the first formally designated Wilderness area in the United States. The 1,400′ gorge is lined by cliffs up to 600′ and, unlike most of the east coast, the area feels very wild. The routes we climbed were long, had brushy and bouldery approaches and at night we slept on a knob overlooking the wilderness and serenaded by coyotes that howled just outside the tent door. We spent two days climbing; the first day on Table Rock, a distinct table-like formation that sits on top of the Gorge. Table Rock has loads of moderates including a number of well-bolted easy routes, an abnormality for North Carolina, which is known for it’s old-school runout ethics.
2nd pitch of Jim Dandy. Note the beautiful featured granite.
Our first day there Yvonne and I climbed Jim Dandy, an easy 3 pitch bolted 5.4, then rapped off and headed over to the North Ridge – a spectacularly exposed 250′ 5.5 that dumps you right on the very summit of Table Rock. There are no rap anchors though, so bring your shoes. (We discovered this the hard way after topping out and had to hike the 1.5 miles back to the base in our rock shoes.)
Looking up at the North Ridge. Note the greenbrier!
On the North Ridge.
The next day we opted to climb two classic moderate routes that are actually in Linville Gorge proper. An hourish approach through brush and boulders put us at the base of The Daddy, an excellent 5 pitch 5.6; then back down to the base for 3 pitches of 5.5 on The Mummy.
Halfway up The Daddy.
Last pitch of The Daddy.
The above 3 photos are all from halfway up The Mummy – but I can’t get enough of the wonderful buttress in the background (‘The Prow’, 3 pitches 5.4) so I included them all.
Rapping down the chasm behind Mummy Buttress.
Climber (dot center right) on an evening ascent of the Prow.
Then it was back in the car again and off to yet another destination I hadn’t visited for many years – Looking Glass Rock just outside of Brevard, North Carolina.
We only had two days left… so we chose to spend a mellow first day climbing cracks on the south face. We climbed Second Coming, a fun 300′ 5.7 dihedral and followed it up with Gemini Cracks, a wonderful 200′ 5.8 that’s one of the better routes at Looking Glass.
Ledge at base of Gemini Cracks.
Top of Gemini Cracks.
Down the South Face.
The next day we were up early and racked up at the base of the route we had come to do: The Nose; 400′ of 5.8 climbing up the famous Looking Glass eyebrows. You can climb granite slabs on just about every continent but the eyebrows, small horizontal cracks that are flat on top and sloped underneath, are what makes climbing at Looking Glass unique. Reach your hands up high and undercling the eyebrow, then pull upwards until you’re high enough to smear your feet under your hands. Then reach high to the next eyebrow. Repeat for 400′. Gear consists of tricams and small to medium sized cams that sometimes seem bomber… and sometimes act as psychological protection.
Looking up at the Nose.
Top of the 2nd pitch.
“Parking Lot Ledge” – the spacious last belay ledge with a view.
View from the top.
Yvonne illustrating proper undercling / high step Looking Glass technique.
Down the Nose. Shiny rap anchors! Thanks CCC!
We topped out on the Nose in the warm late morning sun and rapped off sad to be leaving the sunny granite behind.
Unknown climbers on Sundial; 3 pitches, 5.8.
Then once again back into the car and across North Carolina and Virginia to my mom’s home for a nice family visit before it was back into the jet airplane and across the country to the land of ice and snow where I dream of sunny granite while walking the dog at -10.