We were dilly dallying, procrastinating on packing, wanting to be there but not wanting to do the 6.5 hour drive to actually get there. So we farted around, took dogs for a walk, got some dinner, took dogs for another walk, and finally around 6pm we were ready to go. We were headed to Looking Glass Rock in southwest North Carolina, closer to Birmingham, Alabama than to Richmond, Virginia. We had deliberated for a while on where to climb. We knew we wanted something the trees, something south facing, some place warm-ish for late December, and ideally some place for trad climbing. Stone Mountain in NC had been our original goal but highs in the low 30s thwarted our desire compared to highs in the low 40s at Looking Glass Rock. So we committed to a longer drive for warmer temperatures and cruised southwest.
We slept in a rest stop 45 minutes out from the crag and drove in the next morning. With Bojangles in our bellies and a warming up car we caught faint glimpses of the massive Granite dome in the distance, glistening with streaming water like it’s looking glass comparison. But it wasn’t until we had packed up with two 60m ropes on our backs, a full trad rack, and began huffing it toward the wall that we truly grasped the expanse of rock we were about to attempt to climb. We took the wrong trail from the gun and bushwhacked for a while before eventually stumbling on the proper trail, a well groomed nice stroll through the woods compared to the briars we had been combatting with for the last hour.
The sun beamed down on the wall and with our sweat drenched clothes we began stripping down and racking up to work up the first pitch of The Nose. At only 5.5, a tamer rating for most of the climbing we do, the first pitch was only a little over halfway to vertical and had plenty of holds. It should be easier climbing but we had read many warnings about the grade being deceptive. One commented on Mountain Project wrote, “Speaking of which, don’t let the 5.5 rating on P1 fool you, it’s got some interesting moves on it.” And sure enough when I set off the ground I found some good old four limb smears on the wall working my feet up one by one. About fifteen feet up I managed to get a couple cams in which I double up due to my inexperience and not wanting to blow them and deck.
The climbing at Looking Glass Rock is marked mostly by features called eyebrows which are essentially upside down climbing holds. So you get your feet up on little indentations in the rock or smear up the wall, grab the underside of the eyebrows, and leverage up. It’s different from anything I had ever done so despite the 5.5 rating, it was an interesting pitch. I made it to the anchors about 120 feet up in this little bowl in the mountainside. Erin and I called to each other, exchanging commands and I gave her the go ahead to begin climbing when she was ready. She worked her way up the wall but about fifty feet up I started violently shivering. I hadn’t added any layers since I reached the belay and was freezing my buns off with a gentle cool breeze that was picking up. The sun creeped around the side of the wall but only barely reached me. I called down to Erin asking if she could hold on for a second and I tied her off and added layers. But just a few minutes later when she had completely cleaned the pitch and made it up to me I was back to shivering.
We both agreed that between the clouds, the wind, and the cool temps it would be dumb to keep going. We simply didn’t have enough clothes. So we rapped off, hiked back, took the dogs for a nice walk, and then in classic post-climb fashion, hit up the local Mexican restaurant for some fajitas and margaritas. We found an awesome little place called El Ranchero in the cute little town Brevard. We feasted and then drove a little ways to warm the car up and then went and hit up a local brewery in downtown called Brevard Brewing Company which served some of the best beer I’ve ever had for nearly half of what we pay in Richmond and Norfolk. Erin asked to open a tab and the long-haired, bearded bartender looks at her and says, “Sure, what’s your name.” When she told him he responded, “Great, you’re all set Erin.” And that’s when I fell in love with Brevard, NC.
After much deliberation with an almost destined outcome we decided to have another go at the wall again in the morning. It was supposed to be colder but we would wear more clothes, and would shift our focus to the south side of the mountain, aiming to top out on a three-ish pitch 5.8 route called Gemini Crack. We left our three pups in a warm car bundled up in sweaters and sleeping bags and began the approach in 22 degree temps. But the sun shone more brightly than it had the day before and by the time we made it to the rock it had warmed and we felt comfortable roping up. But as we stood at the base of the first 5.0-ish pitch we were pelted with shrapnel of ice shards falling from the summit. The melting ice calved off and plummeted down to the base, crashing all around us and occasionally splattering on our helmets. We decided to proceed hoping the ice cubes didn’t turn to chunks while we were up there.
I lead the first non-pitch which the guidebook reported as a class 3 scramble but I felt was as hard as any class 5 climb I had done. After belaying Erin up, we stood at the base of our route and saw a small creek flowing down it. We opted to wait to see if it would dry up and sure enough fifteen minutes later it had turned to steam and another fifteen minutes it was perfectly dry. I tied into the sharp end and started working my way up.
Trad climbing, unlike sport climbing, is where there is nothing man-made on the wall. You carry up gear to slot into cracks that is supposed to catch you if you fall and the person who climbs after you cleans all the gear you leave behind on the pitch. It’s much scarier and takes longer than sport climbing but if done right, shouldn’t be dangerous. We picked Gemini Crack because it’s easy to protect, meaning there are many places to put gear. So I did what any new trad climber does and I sewed it up. The longest runout between pieces was maybe ten feet, meaning if I fell I would still take a good twenty foot whip onto my gear. But on the crux moves, or the hardest sections, I placed five pieces of gear in a little over ten feet. With a compression crack I was crapping my pants and wanted to just come down. But each time I slotted a bomber piece of protection in, I knew I was safe, and kept climbing.
Eventually, nearing the top of the pitch, I realized I had used nearly all my gear and needed to set up an anchor or downclimb and retrieve some of my lower pieces. I looked over and there was a set of bolted anchors just on the other side of a huge jug rail. I could easily climb up a little ways further and shimmy over to the huge holds and traverse another ten feet over to the anchors. As I slowly worked over across to the jugs, I held my breath until I felt both hands wrap around the top of it. Only once I had clipped the bolts did I breathe again and relax.
I put Erin on belay and she started working her way up the pitch. When she made it to my sketchy traverse she popped the last piece and slipped and banged her hip into the wall and pendulumed over to beneath me. She laughed-cried for a minute before making the last few moves up to the bolts. We sat for a minute and had some snacks while resting in our harnesses on the hanging belay.
And then I stepping out to commit to the easier final pitch. I made the traverse again, placed a couple of pieces and then made it up to where we were supposed to belay from and set up a two piece anchor their. I lowered to retrieve my last couple pieces which created an unholy kink in the rope with some epic rope drag and then climbed again to the anchors. People had said the last pitch was hard to protect but with a full rack it was fine. I sewed it up again and made it to the anchors. Erin once again cleaned and I lowered her the whole way back to the ground and set up a rappel with a tagline to extend it.
Epic trip and writing this now is just making me itch to get back out there. I have a wealth of knowledge about trad climbing with little experience so it’s nice to add to the repertoire with my first multi-pitch trad lead. The amazing thing about it is that it can allow me to climb anywhere in the world on nearly any mountain so I’m absolutely thrilled about future adventures.