Things nobody really cares about but I'll comment on them anyway

Sunday, January 18, 2009

EPIC (A Story of Appalachian Alpine Adventure)

I have lived in North Carolina (more appropriately the mountains of NC) now for longer than I have lived anywhere in my life. Although I grew up in California and spent all of my memorable childhood there, it is really these mountains and the experiences I have shared with good friends here that have shaped me as a climber and outdoor enthusiast. I started ice climbing in college, as just one of the many new and challenging outdoor experiences I gained since moving out to NC over sixteen years ago this past December. I have really grown to love the sport of ice climbing even if it is not an activity that is always readily available to climbers in the South. Maybe that is something that ads to the attraction of each experience you get out here. Climactic conditions as well as a schedule coinciding with those conditions makes for a normal ice season of anywhere from 0-10 decent days of climing any given year. I am very fortunate to live within relatively easy driving distance of at least a couple of enjoyable ice crags. Talking with other climbers there are a lot of stories out there about ice climbing in the South. Some are true and some are the stuff of myth and legend. So when I heard the tales of a 2000 foot ice climb in our very own Western NC, I was more than a little skeptical.

My friends Lynn and Jasyn have spent the last three years trying to find this elusive beast and after last year's experiences had narrowed the location down with a little helpful beta from a climber in Asheville who had actually done the climb and some verification from a few other reputable sources I was feeling pretty good about the validity of the claims. Weather conditions this past week had lows in the low single digits and even subzero range for a few days in a row. Rather conveniently this weather window happened to time perfectly with the weekend. A plan was formed mid-week that included Lynn, Jasyn, another friend Pace, and myself. I was told to expect a very long day. Headlamps and extra warm clothes were mandatory as it was likely we wouldn't top out until the very end of the day and would be descending in the dark. All of us showed up at Lynn's house at 6 a.m. Saturday morning well prepared and psyched. We made it to a church parking lot in the community of Celo Knob the northernmost high point in the Black Mountain Range which includes Mt. Mitchell the highest peak east of the Mississippi. After a quick scout of a local waterfall on private property that was for sale, we headed back to the church to sort gear and do the final load of packs. We were out and walking on the trail by somewhere between 9 and 9:30 a.m. Although we traveled over terrain mostly devoid of trails, the going was not too bad. We made good time and were to the base of the gully we were to climb by 11, and although there was already a party of two not far ahead of us (one of whom happened to be the guy who had given Jasyn and Lynn the beta) we were climbing by 11:30. We roped up in teams of two each team tied into a single 50m 8mm line doubled over. That left about 80 ft. of climbing before you were simul-climbing with your partner. The terrain was like a very steep frozen creek bed with mostly low angle thick ice that poured over drops of 10-20 ft. every hundred or so feet. As the lead team passed gear they simply unclipped and allowed the following team to sport clip the in-situ gear. It was a great system that had all four of us about a third of the way up the climb in a couple of hours of sustained effort. Jasyn who lead the first mega-block with me following, cruised like a champion moving very efficiently. Lynn and Pace followed quickly behind us and those first two hours were a very satisfying feeling of continual movement over good ice with enough vertical steps to spice things up just enough. The temps were perfect probably in the high teens although none of us felt cold under the constant movement. After somewhere between 600-800 feet of climbing Jasyn began to run out of gear to place and the flow became extremely thin to where we needed to walk around to reach the next section of ice. There we switched team positions and Lynn and Pace took the lead with me in front with Jasyn trailing. Another 4-500 ft. up we caught up with the party above us who were bailing at about 4 p.m. for a commitment in Asheville. We decided to continue on and up not knowing the next time any of us would have the opportunity to be on such a magnificent climb. We had been well warned about a heinous bushwack to eventually reach the top but all of us agreed that we had come to do the climb, felt we had the time to continue, and were prepared to finish the descent in the dark. An hour or so later our progress had slowed considerably and as the sun departed the temps began to drop making the ever thinning ice to become increasingly brittle. At some point as Lynn led a steep and sustained section Jasyn and I decided that we were running out of time to continue and that it was questionable how much longer the gully would hold climbable ice. We decided to unrope stash most of our gear in the packs and scramble up the side of the gully in the woods trying to keep up with Lynn and Pace.

Begin Epic. While in the woods which were a steep collection of rododendron thickets and other small brambles growing out of a 45-50 degree slope of frozen turf mixed with sections of slabs thinly iced over or covered with old powder snow, I was lured further away from the gully trying to make vertical progress. Jasyn remained alongside the gully trying to stay within sight of Lynn and Pace. My forray ended up committing me to some pretty exposed turf and ledge link-ups that I had no interest in trying to reverse. Long story short I was now committed to my own personal rodo-grovel bushwack hell. And of course I had no-one to blame but myself. Jasyn decided to drop back into the gully with Pace and Lynn following their own sketchy turf climbing nightmare albeit he was now unroped with a nice precipitous tumbling drop below him. The next two hours were spent battling upwards with fully loaded pack through surprisingly resilient and springy underbrush between exposed steps of sketchy turf climbing. About every fifteen minutes or so one of the others would yell at me to make sure I was still ok and near them. I began trying to angle up and to the right hoping eventually to meet the gully they were in but it never happened. By 6:30 the rest of the team had abandoned the gully and was now heading up and left to intercept my path. In the failing light I was able to calm myself enough to find a small clearing, sit down, take stock, eat and drink a little, find my headlamp in the growing dark and even get fresh batteries into it albeit at the end by feel. About 45 minutes later I could see Jasyn's glowing headlamp approaching from below and to the side from the gully. I could also hear him battling the same style of thickets I had been fully enmeshed with for the past hour or so. Lynn and Pace were not far behind him. As I waited I started to get a little cold, so it was difficult to not want to launch onward and upward as soon as he got there just to get warm again. Did I mention the snow had started to fall? Nothing big just a light but steady stream of small flaked that glinted dazzlingly off our headlamp beams.
By 7:30 we were regrouped and I was happy to turn over the route finding to anyone willing. Jasyn first and then later Pace would weave us through the thickets with a seeming sixth sense, that still involved the occasional grovel but a much less intense battle than I had performed on my own. Of course maybe it was just that I now had three companions to share the misery with and just follow blindly. After a seemingly endless hours of weaving ever upwards I took over the lead again and within about 15 minutes heard the wind roaring as I approached the ridge and summit of Celo.
After a brief celebration we noticed that although there was a trail or make that trails now before us, none of them were marked and most seemed to disappear into thickets of you guessed it underbrush and rododendron. We spent the next hour bumbling around finding the marker for Young's Peak which we now know to be the summit of Celo Knob, although Youngs Peak was not on our map. We had now been on the move for the better part of 9 hours, it was cold, dark, and the bushwack climbing had taken its toll. An hour later we finally had discovered the official ridge trail and quickly arrived at the marked intersection with our descent trail. It was now 9:30 and I finally felt we had a moment worthy of the celebration flask I had stashed in my pack. This would be tantamount to the enduring image of president Bush standing in front of the mission accomplished banner.
The descent trail although a well blazed was its own special slice of epic fun. It followed a relatively steep ridge straight back down to the base with pretty much a fall-line direction. At some point all of us busted it on this trail. It was brutal on the feet and more so on my quads constantly trying to control my descent. At least each of us had a treking pole to stay mostly in balance. The technical nature of the trail and my wasted physical and growing mental deterioration was forcing a pretty slow pace. And the real kicker was that our descent trail would dump us out on a road over 8miles by road away from where we had parked. Jasyn had previously scouted out a series of logging roads that would get us back to our car. But that was about a year ago and he had done this previous travel in the daylight in much better conditions than any of us were now in. Lynn and Jasyn had met a lady that lived at the base of the trail we were on but we quickly realized that it would be midnight at the earliest before we would reach her house. The likelihood that she would even answer her door was pretty slim. In the end we opted for throwing ourselves on the mercy of the Yancy County Sherriff's Dept. We told them our predicament and they graciously offered to send a deputy to give one of us a ride to our car.
We popped out at the trail-head at 1 a.m. knowing that the calvary was on the way and indeed two minutes later headlight rounded the bend with our saving chariot. Before we knew it Pace was back with his truck and we now knew it was over. Or so we thought.
Twenty minutes later as we approached Spruce Pine, the cars belts started screeching for no apparent reason. They eventually stopped, though their silence was accompanied by the loss of power steering. Pace pulled over at a closed gas station. Turned the car off and then back on. We drove on now with a battery warning light glowing on the dash. 10 minutes later the headlights were beginning to dim and we all knew our night was not over. We almost made it to Crossnore before the truck just conked and Pace pulled over in an empty parking lot. Thanks to Jasyn's AAA membership we called at 2:30 and a truck was there by 4 a.m. We got towed to Boone, where Pace was able to get his fiance's truck and shuttle us all back to Lynn's house. I crawled into the warmth of my own bed at 6 a.m. snuggling up against a deliciously warm Amy who had been wondering just what had happened. We had actually kept all the significant others in the loop throughout the evening thanks to excellent cell reception on the mountain, so she knew at 1 a.m. that we were safely off the trail and would soon be headed home. I decided not to wake her again with news of the tow truck issue. In the end we all made it home safely to our families tired but uninjured with a great adventure shared. We all agreed it was some of the most stellar ice climbing any of us had done, but hardly worth the bushwack to the summit followed by the steep technical trail descent. If we go back and I hope to some day we will probably rappel part of the route and walk off like the party in front of us did.

Waterfall for sale.

Our objective the prominent frozen drainage on the left.

A great sequence of Jasyn heading up one of the steeper sections during the first block.

Lynn and Pace following us on the fun part of the day.

Lynn with Table Rock in the background.


The Fabulous Hiatt Suites said...

It's always those near-death experiences that let you know that it was an Epic time, eh?

Steve Ahn said...

OK, that was freakin cool. Well done. The car failing was an especially nice touch. I'll call later

Bones said...

I learned a long time ago to follow Brandon´s lead, you should have rapped like him:) That climb looks RAD! What a grand adventure, I miss ice climbing!!!!!!!