Sunday, August 14, 2011

Laurel Knob

 For those of you who follow my life through my blog, you will know that this past spring I moved to North Carolina to start guiding.  You are probably thinking that we are getting tired of hearing this same thing being said in nearly every post.  Well another reason why I came out here was to fulfill some of the requirements for the AMGA’s Rock Instructor Course.  Some of the requirements deal with having to do a certain number of multipitch climbs.  Being from Illinois, it is difficult to get in the number of multipitch climbing for the resume.  It also requires one to have ten grade III climbs.  Grade III climbs are generally described as taking most of a day of roped climbing.  There can be other factors in that as well, such as approach length, bailing options, and of course the length of the climb.  Yesterday, I had the chance to get another grade III route on my resume.  We went to Laurel Knob.

Laurel Knob is said to be one of the tallest faces of rock east of the Rockies.  For years, Laurel Knob was only climbed in secrecy.  It’s not like Laurel is hidden in the backwoods of North Carolina in a place where only the die hearted can see it.  From highway 64 just east of Cashiers, you have a decent view of the face.  It would sit there taunting all climbers because it used to lie on private property.  That didn’t keep people from stealthily going in and climbing.  It amazes me that so many routes were put up in this stealth style.  In the guide book it talks about a prominent first ascentionist putting leather over the striked end of his drill to make the strikes with the hammer quieter.  While I can’t advocate trespassing to climb, it inspires me to read about how these men risked so much to climb this face.  

 Laurel Knob with Fathom in the center

These days, climbing at Laurel Knob is completely legal thanks to the Carolina Climbers Coalition purchasing Laurel Knob in 2006.  They were able to do this thanks to generous climbers and the help of the Access Fund.  Since then, the amazing granite routes at Laurel have been open to all climbers willing to embrace the challenges that the climbing there presents. 

The climbing at Laurel Knob is very interesting.  Like many other areas in Western North Carolina, you need to trust that certain laws of physics will remain constant.  The main one is friction.  The climbing isn’t exactly pure friction climbing for the entire route but unlike other places I have climbed, you have many sections where you are balancing over your feet on a smear that you are hoping will hold long enough to move past it.  There are also many water grooves covering the face.  These grooves offer places to stem and will have holds on them in which you can position your body in certain ways to apply force to either side of the groove so that your feet stay on the rock. 
Besides the odd features, the protection can be somewhat limited.  There are bolts throughout the routes and there are places for natural protection.  Even still, you want to bring your A game.  Blowing certain moves could lead to long falls down a slab.  If you think you are up for that kind of challenge, I would recommend going out there and giving the routes a try.  The climbing is fun, challenging, and offers a chance to really get some air under your feet.

Tracy following the third pitch
Now that the introduction is done, I can embark on my day at Laurel.  I went there with another guide here at Fox, Tracy.  Tracy is an amazing climber.  She is always motivated to get out on the rock and be challenged.  Because of this, I was glad to share a rope with her on this day.  We decided on climbing a route called Fathom.  Fathom follows one of the more striking features at Laurel, a right leaning dihedral that goes up the middle of the face.  By leaning, I mean it goes at a 45 degree angle from the left and up to the right.  It then hits a water groove that provides a path through the slightly overhanging wall above and to the left of the dihedral.  

At the base of the route Tracy and I decided which pitches we would lead.  I ended up with the odd pitches and she got the evens.  Once I racked up and had gotten everything I needed, I headed up the first pitch.  It follows the slab to the right of the dihedral up to a grass ledge where you can build a natural belay.  It was a good warm up for what would come later in the route.  Tracy led the second pitch which goes up the slab until it hits the crack again.  From there it follows the crack to a ledge.  I must clarify that even though there is a crack there, you are mostly slab climbing to the right of it.  When you want or can get gear you take a step left and pug a piece in the crack.  We now have two pitches down, a 5.6 and a 5.7 respectively.  
Me following the fourth pitch
I then led the third pitch.  It is given a 5.8 rating.  Though that is well within my comfort zone, there were some tricky moves that I would not have wanted to blow.  I think I was only able to get a few pieces of gear for the entire 130 foot pitch.  When I reached the belay anchor, I started to realize that this was going to be a serious route.  Tracy then led the fourth pitch.  It was a 5.9 pitch that had to go around a bulge.  She did an amazing job on that pitch.  She knows how to keep it together when the gear is limited and you have to climb through some tricky terrain.  After the bulge you come across some white, horizontal dikes that allow you to traverse over to the anchors.  Those were a blast to climb on.  Four pitches down, four more to go.  
Me at the end of the fourth pitch wondering how much more slab climbing I have to do
The beginning of the fifth pitch makes an odd move into a massive flake then follows it back up to the crack.  Once at the crack you have to traverse to the right, passing a bolt before reaching the belay.  This pitch is rated 5.9.  As you may have read, I injured my right foot earlier this year taking a fall on a traverse.   Also, last spring when I was out in central Oregon, I took a fall after a traverse that resulted in me hitting my forearm on a sharp corner while swinging.  Because of these two instances, traverses are something that I do not like.  As you can imagine, this section of the climb was not that comforting to me.  I remember that upon reaching the bolt, I felt a bit of relief but I still had to keep going right.  I managed to find a horizontal that took a .5 camalot.  That made things a bit better.  After a few more tricky moves to the right, I made it to the belay.  It was good to do something that challenged me like that.  Too often I stay in my comfort zone.  Coming out of that zone was a great way to build back that confidence.
Tracy leaving the belay on the fifth pitch
Once Tracy joined me on the ledge she prepared for the crux pitch.  From the belay you go right a few feet and enter into a water groove.  After one bolt, you hit the overhang.  You clip a high bolt, then make some awkward moves to move past the overhang.  The entire pitch has amazing climbing.  Just beware, it can be a little slick in spots.  I ended up falling on the overhang.  As the second, I had to carry the rope which was in a pack that also had too much water in it (my own fault).  The pack kept me from getting my body the way I wanted it on the wall and my feet slid out from under me.  The second time I tried, I just pulled on the draw to get through it.  Then later on in the pitch my foot slipped out from under me and I came off once again.  This pitch was super humbling but amazing at the same time.  Tracy had done all of the route up to this point on another trip but had not done the last two pitches.  Today we would tackle them.
 Tracy getting ready to belay me on the seventh pitch
The seventh pitch takes off right across this very low angled slab to a water groove.  At the base of the water groove you clip a bolt then make some steep moves up the groove.   About fifteen feet later I found sweet stopper placement.  From there on up, there was no more gear.  This put me in a mentally challenging place.  I had to climb very well above that stopper or else I would come down and hit the lower angled slab.  Luckily, I didn’t fall and make it to the belay praising Jesus.  Tracy then took off up the last and final pitch.  It starts in the same water groove as pitch seven but move right to another groove to finish.  The last two pitches were a bit dirty but still fun.  We had a great time climbing the route.  So after 1010 feet we had to rappel back to the ground.  The rappel follows Fathom Direct most of the way down the wall.  It looks like an amazing climb and I cannot wait to come back again to try it.
Tracy coming up the last bit of the seventh pitch
So now, I need only one more grade III to complete the requirements for the Rock Instructor Resume.  I am hoping that I can get back out to Shortoff to do some more routes there.  If anyone would like to join me please let me know.  Hopefully, I can come up with something amazing for my 50th post.  Be looking for it.

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