Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Climbing Linville Gorge, NC

A view of Linville

Watching John lead the first pitch of The Prow was like watching Rocky run up the stairs of the Philadelphia Art Museum.  He was cruising up with so much momentum, climbing rock as if they were merely stairs, that Ben seemed to have trouble letting out enough rope at the belay. 

 “Make sure you’re ready, watch the slack on the rope” Ben said to me.
“I got it man, I’m watching it.  I’m tied in and everything.”
“OK, lets go.”

The Prow follows the formation to the right
 The smooth clicking sound of the carabiner indicated that John was now off belay, and we would start simul climbing.  With the sun quickly dipping behind the mountains, we decided it would be faster to skip the first anchor point, hopefully taking one pitch out of the climb.  John would just climb to the next pitch, and Ben and I would try to keep up.  That essentially meant we were speed climbing. 

If you’ve never speed-climbed trad before, the experience is similar to running away from an angry dog.  You know you have to move fast, you don’t always know your next move (other than to know you have to make another move), and you hope you don’t run yourself into a dead end.  Oh, and if you fall, the results won’t be pretty.

Once we were at the top of the pitch, I looked out over my left shoulder.  The sun had set behind the mountains, leaving the horizon smeared with blue and purple pastels.  With two pitches still left to go, it didn’t look like we’d be able to finish the climb before dark.  So we put on our headlamps and prepared for the next pitch.

In front of us was a giant boulder protruding out from the rock face.  It looked like the prow of a ship, and apparently the inspiration for the namesake of the climb.  The climb went up about 15 feet, and then traversed left around the back of the prow.

John went first, a halo of light reflecting off the rock from his headlamp as he searched for holds and traversed around the prow.  With the last bit of light almost gone, I realized that my first experience climbing in the dark would be several hundred feet above solid grand, perched precariously on The Prow.

This thought didn’t immediately please me.  I was tired.  I had run out of water several hours ago, and my mouth was dry, aching for a refreshing drink.  My pants were wet from wading through a creek after we found ourselves lost in the gorge.  Sharp thorns had cut across our skin as if someone had been throwing X-Acto knives at us.  It had been a long day.

Why couldn’t I have been into interior decorating instead? 

So when my turn finally came, I grudgingly walked up to the start. Climbing with a headlamp is very different than climbing in natural lighting.  All the holds appear 2-dimensional, and the act of feeling the rock becomes much more critical to finding the holds.  Sequencing moves, especially around a traverse, is almost impossible.  

“I’m just going to take my time on this traverse here” I shouted down to Ben.
“Take your time man, I’m not going anywhere,” he laughed back.

Preparing for the last pitch of the Prow
As I traversed around the prow to the other side of the climb, I looked down.  The sun had completely set and the darkness seemed to suck the light out of my headlamp.  Several hundred feet below me I could see nothing, but I could hear the rush hour traffic that was the river roaring through the gorge.  I looked up at the canopy of stars that had recently appeared.  Across me I could clearly make out Orion, proudly holding his sword.  The wind was blowing across the rock in calm, refreshing gusts.  I looked to my left for Ben, I looked up for John, I could make out neither of them.  I closed my eyes.

“There’s no where else I’d rather be right now” I thought to myself.

I continued to climb up and met John.  Ben followed shortly thereafter.  I turned off my headlamp and watched John’s fingers nimbly work through the quickdraws, organizing them on his harness under the beam of his headlamp.   Ben’s hands were a blur, quickly flaking the rope, preparing for the last pitch. The shadows they cast seemed to stretch and bend, playing a feisty game of tag with the rock. 

I looked up across the gorge at the blackened silhouette of the mountains across from me and smiled.  This is way cooler than interior decorating.

John leading at dusk