For decades, wealthy retirees have been buying up mountain property in the Cashiers, NC area and building massive, opulent cabins and homes to escape the noise of the city and wake up every morning to beautiful mountain views. One such development, Lonesome Valley, is at the foot of what is arguably the tallest cliff east of the Mississippi River - Laurel Knob, a 1,200 foot granite dome that is a great representation of what Yosemite will look like after several million more years of erosion.
Access to Laurel Knob for a long time was illegal, and the ongoing development of Lonesome Valley (which you can be a part of for the neat sum of about $300,000 per acre), threatened to destroy all future potential for climbing this regional treasure.
However, due to the valiant efforts of the Carolina Climber's Coalition, which in 2008 purchased the cliff face itself and a thin strip of land that connects it to freely accessible National Forest property, the "best rock in North Carolina" is now open to climbing. (The interesting tale of how the CCC started with $1,000 in their bank account and ended up buying a cliff for $250,000 is here).
My first experience climbing Laurel Knob was this past January, when my climbing partner and I left Cincinnati around 5:30 AM for the 7 hour drive down to Cashiers. We arrived at the Salt Rock trailhead at 2:00 PM, and strapped on our extremely heavy packs and started down the trail.
The hardest part of the trip in a lot of ways was carrying so much gear in - because of the combined need for both winter backpacking gear and trad climbing gear. We had, in no particular order: a tent, two sleeping bags, ground pads, stove, food, 4 liters of water, filter, two 60M ropes, double set of spring loaded camming devices, 50 or so carabiners and slings, helmets, boots, climbing shoes, winter clothing, climbing packs, and various other assorted gear. All in all, each of us had about 80 pounds on our backs - by far the heaviest load I've packed.
Also, it was COLD at that trailhead, and along the trail. The wind was whipping through and it had to be close to 20 degrees out, so it was chilling to the bone - especially during the quick "deck change" from car clothes into hiking clothes.
One downside to Laurel Knob is that getting there is difficult. You first hike down into the Panthertown Valley, through a bear sanctuary, and across several creek crossings for about 2 miles. This part is all downhill, and isn't too bad - though seeing all the bear tracks in the snow all around us was...interesting. We would be camping in this same area that night, and did I mention we had pre-cooked bacon in our packs?
The main trail through the valley then dead-ends into a development - which is off-limits - and skirts uphill to the right along a thin strip of land that the CCC purchased to connect the cliff face to the National Forest property. This trail eventually takes you across a mossy slab rock face, and then dumps you out right at the base of Laurel Knob, in view of the McMansions. We made the mistake of thinking that there might be some camping opportunities nearer to the cliff, so we humped our packs all the way uphill just to find no level areas, and had to take them all the way back down so we could camp right at the edge of forest property, just on the border of illegality within eyesight of McMansion-ness.
Along the hike, and the drive, one topic of conversation was the fact that when asking for directions and information online about Laurel Knob, somebody had told us to watch out for "ice bombs" - this had to be a joke, right? We would soon find out.
Upon reaching camp, it soon got very cold to the point that our water supply got supercooled and froze upon any shaking of the bottles - something I had never witnessed before. Evidently what happens is the water cools beyond the freezing temperature, but cannot form a crystal if the sides of the plastic bottle are clean enough and the water pure enough. So as soon as we disturbed the balance - boom - it crystalized before our eyes.
Dinner that night was dehydrated spaghetti and meat sauce but was made much better by the 1 1/2 pounds worth of lamb/bison meatballs I had trucked in so we'd have plenty of protein and power for the next day. These also conveniently served as bear bait - or so we feared.
In the morning we got up, had the previously mentioned bacon and eggs (dehydrated) so we'd be all fueled up, and headed out of camp a bit late, maybe around 8:45 (alpine start = fail). It was quite cold, probably 15-20 degrees or so, so that slowed us down, and again, all of our water was frozen solid, so running out of water was already a concern.
After we had geared up for the climb, we headed up the trail towards the cliff, and then down the extremely steep switchbacks to the first part of the face. We originally had hoped to climb the route "Groover", but another party had passed by our camp in the morning and said they were going to climb it, and we didn't want to crowd them.
By the time we got to the wall and got oriented, and found the route we wanted to do, it was pretty late, being almost 11:00 AM (we had some difficultly finding the route). We ended up deciding to climb the route "Seconds", which is a 8 pitch 5.8+ slab climb that is around 1100'.
Upon first walking up to the wall, we soon found out that the ice bombs warning we got was no joke at all. The frozen water seeps that run down the face in grooves start melting at dawn, even in the dead of winter (because the rock soaks up so much warmth from the sun), and all that ice falls down the face. The falling ice wasn't big enough to be dangerous, but we definitely saw a few bucket-fulls of marble-sized ice fall here and there that we wouldn't want to have been hit by. As it turned out, all day as we climbed, even when we were way far up, we'd get pelted by the occasional storm of ice as it fell down. This made for some interesting conditions to watch my partner lead in, as he would have to tuck back into a crack to avoid the pelting ice, and I heard a few choice words float down in the wind occasionally.
(Sidenote: For this trip I purchased a ripoff GoPro camera, so this was the first time I was able to film a video of a climb I was on. For the recording, I had the camera strapped to my chest - looking at the video, I wished I had put it on top of my helmet - but it still captured the moment.)
The first pitch of Seconds was uneventful except for a challenging roof move, and the rock was a very "crystally" granite that we both found very interesting.
Water grooves on granite cliffs are a fascinating thing. Surface granite is normally somewhat impervious to water, and most younger granite cliffs, such as in Yosemite, are formed through exfoliation - layers of granite peeling off and collapsing from the face as the freeze/thaw process strips them away.
However, as the millenia go by, and water flowing down the face runs the approximate same path tens of millions of times, some erosion does occur - mainly because minerals in the granite are affected by the chemistry of the water and come out in solution.
So while you won't see many water grooves out west on younger cliffs, there are massive ones in ancient North Carolina. Our route, Seconds, climbs up and follows a thousand-foot long water groove that is a great example of this geological process.
When we started the route, I was standing next to a dry water groove on the ground. When my partner was about halfway up that first pitch, a little tiny snake of water wormed its way down the face towards me, and by the time we were up on the second pitch, water was in full flow down the groove. By the time we were on our last pitch of the day, the groove was dry again. I thought it was cool how this small amount of water started way at the top of the cliff, made it's way all the way down, and then when it was done, dried back out.
At the end of the second pitch, there was an uncomfortable belay where you had to sit in an awkward crack the whole time while you were waiting for your partner to climb. We had to stop and eat a quick and bracing lunch in this crack, so I was glad to leave that belay station before I got "harness sores".
The last pitch of the day was probably the most challenging. There was a hard bouldery move that required high feet and small hands, but luckily it was bolted with 2-3 bolts. My partner took a lead fall onto one of those bolts, which caught him off guard a bit (I mean, at this point we're 500 feet up, so an unexpected fall can jar you), but he was no worse for wear. Naturally, a fall onto a bolt is always better than a fall onto removable protection.
At the end of that pitch, we really wanted to continue up, because we still couldn't see the top of the cliff from where we were at - it arches up as it goes, so it's always out of eyeshot. We could however see the point where the water groove turns into a chimney that marks the beginning of the end for this particular route, but it was still another 4 or so pitches away. The day was drawing to an end, and we were out of water and pretty dried out to the point where our lips were chapping, so we bailed and rapped down.
We regretted not doing the whole route, but in the future, perhaps we'll eat less bacon and get our butts moving earlier. Realistically, we'd need to be on the wall by 7 AM in order to do the whole route with the short winter days.
Overall, we found the climbing to be quite stout for the grade, which was supposed to be a moderate 5.8+. It seemed a lot harder than the 5-pitch 5.8 that we had climbed in Squamish, BC in the fall. I should note though that my physical fitness since the Squamish trip has improved significantly. Because I felt pretty limited in my ability to climb well on the Squamish trip, when I got home, I hired a personal trainer and started training hard. In that time, I've dropped about 10% body fat, and have put on a lot of muscle mass. So even though the climbing on this route felt a lot harder than "Skywalker", I was able to climb much harder without flaming out.
The hike out was hard, especially with no water and all our gear on our backs. We arrived at our camp, packed up the tent and made the hike out and up the hill.
As I often say, the most dangerous part of climbing is often the drive home. In this case, that proved particularly true, as we found ourselves driving through a full-on blizzard, starting at 6 PM and not getting home until 2 AM. It was a white-knuckle drive on bad roads with swerving salt trucks, and far scarier than any granite monsters lurking in the woods.
In the end, the only casualty of the trip was while changing at the car, I somehow ended up leaving my brand new Scarpa approach shoes in the leaves and didn't notice they were gone until we were two hours drive away...free shoes for some lucky North Carolinian, who also is lucky to live close to this beautiful wall.