Close To The EdgeAs I stood on the cliffs staring across Razor Canyon, I wasn’t feeling very optimistic about our chances for success. We were on what I figured to be Razor Rock, and we could see Razor’s Edge right in front of us. There was just this minor issue of a large canyon between us and our goal. All I could think was that I was now going to be 0 for 2 on my attempts at the Razor. I had been in Linville Gorge two weeks prior and never even made it onto the spur trail. My nephews and I blew right past it and ended up pretty far south on the Rockjock, finally stopping at T-Shirt Point. We only had three hours that day to explore and we were unsuccessful. Today was beginning to look like a repeat performance!
Starting at the beginning...after my first visit to Linville Gorge last year I knew that I needed to get back. I was intrigued with the idea of completing a loop, where I would hit both the east and west sides, and I made plans for a two night backpack. Due to the great views it offers of the entire gorge, I included the Rockjock Trail on the agenda. Actually it would be the first trail we hit. Of course, the Rockjock also happens to be the trail used to access Razor’s Edge. And a successful hike to the Razor was my biggest priority on this trip!
My son Andrew and friend Rob were joining me on the trip, and we started the 10 hour drive to Linville Gorge on Thursday afternoon. Wanting to get an early start on Friday morning, we left early enough so that we could stop in Johnson City, TN and grab a roach motel for the night. This would leave us with just over a one hour drive in the morning to the trailhead. We were up early Friday and made the obligatory stop at Louise's for breakfast. A western omelet and biscuits and gravy! We knew it was going to be our last good meal for the next two days so we made the most of it.
We arrived at the Conley Cove Trailhead around 9:30 AM. We followed Conley for about 1000 feet where we hit the trail junction for the Rockjock. Our first stop was Hacker’s Point, which is about a 30 minute hike south. The views from there are excellent and it makes a great place for a short break.
We rested for about 15 minutes and then took off with our next stop hopefully being Razor’s Edge. During our break, Rob took a look at the topo map and proceeded to take the lead. He was hiking pretty fast and we lost sight of him, until we saw his backpack at the spur trail to the Razor.
We dropped our packs at the junction and headed down the spur. And we dropped pretty far on the trail, farther than I think Rob and Andrew were expecting. At this point Rob commented that “this better be one special rock”. We found some red ribbons marking a split in the trail with the left going to Zen Point and the right going to the Razor. We continued to descend further and further down the trail and eventually it petered out into a bushwhack. A few feet back I saw cliffs that I recognized from some pictures so I knew we were in the right general area. We backed up a few feet and realized that where we needed to be was just to the left of where the trail petered out.
We stepped out onto some cliffs and had mixed emotions. The views were incredible, but we weren’t on Razor’s Edge. We were on what is probably referred to as Razor Rock. We did have a great view of Razor’s Edge below us, but I wasn’t where I wanted to be! I couldn’t help but think “Not again!” We were so close. I didn’t want to have to wait for another trip for a third try. And I had no idea when I would be returning to the gorge. Plenty of seasons could pass me by before I returned so I wanted to make this work today! We looked down to see if we could figure out a route.
Rob’s tone initially didn’t make me very optimistic. Rob questioned me “Do people really climb out there?” I knew the answer was yes and I pointed towards the back of Razor Canyon and tried to explain to him what I thought looked like the route to the other side. After he examined from afar what I was pointing at he easily found where we made our mistake and he was all in.
On our way back Rob found the side trail we had missed. There was a small metal sign posted on a tree that indicated the way to Razors Edge. We headed down a few steep gullies that made for some fun scrambling, and then we reached what appeared to be the crux of the climb. There was a rock tower blocking the way. Initially it looked like it could be a problem, as it was very exposed on two sides and definitely required some climbing. Closer examination revealed a pretty straightforward climb of maybe 20 feet using a series of three or four small ledges. It definitely was exposed, but the climbing was straightforward. Once on top of the tower it was a simple walk to the edge of the Razor.
The views from the Razor are impeccable. There are great views of the sheer vertical walls of Razor Canyon to the south and Zen Canyon to the north as well as great views of the gorge itself. I was now very happy that we had finally reached the Razor. Having to wait for a third try would have been very disappointing.
We stayed out on the cliffs for about 20 minutes or so and then headed back up to the Rockjock Trail. Of course getting down the rock tower is a little interesting. Climbing up it was definitely easier. As hard as we tried not to, we all made the first move down facing in. It was a long reach down to get good foot placement, and the only way to do it was facing in, unless you wanted to risk falling forward and making a nice face plant far down into the rocks and trees! After that it was a piece of cake.
A Change of Plans
After what is about a 250 foot climb out from the Razor, we were finally back on the Rockjock. The hike out to the Razor took longer than I had planned and we needed to get some miles under us or it was going to be a hard day on Saturday on Shortoff Mountain and the Mountains to Sea Trail (MST). We still had to ascend over 600 feet to reach the terminus of the Rockjock at Kistler Highway. And climbing out the Rockjock proved to be tougher than expected. More than the climb, the biggest problem was the heat. The Rockjock is a pretty open trail, with plenty of direct sunlight. It was well into the 80s and it was humid and we had been in direct sun for the better portion of the day. The heat took its toll on all of us and by the time we reached the end of the trail we were all pretty tired. It was hot enough that I was worried about heat exhaustion. We found some shade right by the road where we took a long but necessary break. Andrew and Rob napped for a while and I found some shade and a comfortable seat by the road and read The Linville Gorge Hiker's Guide that I had picked up at Louise’s earlier that morning.
It was about 3 PM when we stopped for our break and Rob said we’d take off at 4. Knowing how far we had to go I started thinking it was time to rethink the itinerary. I really wanted to get over to the MST so I could hit Shortoff Mountain and the Chimneys. The views from there are supposed to be outstanding. But the MST also happens to be open so we would be dealing with direct sun again most of the day tomorrow. I had info on two water sources available on the east rim trails, but I wasn’t 100% positive of their location. With how hot it was supposed to be and if we were unsuccessful finding water we could be looking at heat exposure issues and serious trouble. Besides, we would have to get some hard miles in yet tonight with what little daylight we had left. I wanted to get to the east side trails, but I also wanted us to be able to slow down and enjoy our experience. I decided to wait until we descended to the Linville Gorge Trail (LGT) before deciding anything final.
Everyone felt a lot better after our long break and we had a 15 minute walk down Kistler Highway to the Pinchin Trailhead, which we would use to connect to the LGT. And although we were descending, it was still a tough hike down the Pinchin to the river. The trail descends 1,700 feet in 1.5 miles. I couldn’t believe how steep it is! It also happens to be very rugged, so finding good foot placement at times was tough. Fortunately the views were outstanding.
We reached the LGT and stopped at a small stream just north of the Pinchin/LGT junction so we could filter water. It was here that I gave Rob and Andrew my suggestion for changing the itinerary. I explained my concern about the heat and water and told them that we could hike the LGT north on Saturday and grab a campsite in the Conley Cove area. This plan had two benefits; it would give us the afternoon on Saturday to go climb a peak on the east side, probably Table Rock, and it would make for a very short hike out on Sunday morning since we would be right at the Conley Cove Trail junction. Rob had already indicated that he wanted to get an early start home on Sunday so this plan made sense. They were fine with my suggestion. They just wanted the opportunity to get to the east side of the gorge and climb something.
Since we no longer had to be in a hurry we could relax. We headed south on the LGT. There were three or four campsites close by and we figured we would grab one of these. When we saw the first campsite we knew we had a winner. It was right on the river, had a big fire pit and a good swimming hole. The ground could have been a little flatter for pitching tents, but other than that, this was a prime piece of real estate. We spent a very relaxing evening at the river. We stayed up late into the evening and found 101 good reasons to finish off the Wild Turkey. We celebrated a successful and beautiful day in Linville Gorge and had a great night in the backcountry!
We finally made it to bed about midnight. We probably should have hit the hay a little earlier knowing that we would end up making a hard day out of it on Saturday. And oh what adventures we would have Saturday evening. But that is another story…