So there we were with some left over vacation days that needed a burning. We both felt as though we’ve had our fill of lonely Christmases somewhere in the deserts of the southwest sitting around some random Chinese buffet on Christmas Eve…and most especially those lonely Christmas trips where shitty weather had prohibited much (sometimes all) actual climbing. We checked the guidebooks and the forecasts, packed the presents, grabbed a rack and headed for my parents’ place in western New Jersey . A great family fun-filled Christmas followed with its usual heavy doses of overeating and oversleeping interrupted by much sofa surfing. Shirley kept herself in shape with the usual running regimen while I worked my liver extra hard. Though we all managed to get in a nice family hike a short distance up the Appalachian Trail , that apparently was not enough to keep me from growing an extra ass. The post Christmas week forecast to the north was calling for shitty weather while the forecasts to the south looked a little less shitty.
Following a quick 8 hour drive, Tuesday morning saw Shirley & me hiking up the iced over road to the base of Stone Mountain in North Carolina. Despite the guidebook’s enticing phrases:
Pitch 1: Tie into the rope and solo unprotected slab to the anchors. 5.10X, 70 feet….route was established by the slab masters at the height of their game…or their insanity
Ref.: Selected Climbs in North Carolina by Yon Lambert and Harrison Shull
…we picked Stone for its low altitude and southern exposure which we thought would make it climbable despite the freezing temps. It was also the first crag we’d hit on our drive down south. And I always wanted to see the place, esp. after seeing The Chief’s photo of the runout slab climbing there.
With an ambitious (very shortly, we would call it “naïve”) ticklist, I led the White Way Direct (5.9, ) pitch to the Tree Ledge. Other than a 40 foot runout on 5.easy to the first bolt, the line was reasonably well-protected where it counts. “Hey this shit is not bad!”, I recall exclaiming. Twenty minutes later I was wishing that I had curbed my enthusiasm and kept my mouth shut on the previous pitch. I was thirty feet above the last bolt on a water-polished slab. I was two moves away from the safety of the next clip but my left foot kept failing to find a smeary purchase. Every attempt to put weight on it would end with a minute skid that threatened to blow my right foot off of its very tenuous smear and send me into a 60 footer that would put me on a lower angle slab below. My mind screaming profanities in my skull, my right calf beginning to burn and tremble…”F**k!!!” I dug my fingernails into the microcrystals of the slab above and stepped onto my left foot then quickly moved my right foot onto the next smear….”Clipping!!!” I yelled with a trembling voice. Above me, lay a stretch of slab visible for 40 to 50 feet with no sign of the belay. I knew not to expect more pro based on the topo. I hung on the bolt craning my neck trying to see the belay bolts. No luck. They must be there above the slight bulge. My mind was failing me. I couldn’t do it – I couldn’t commit to the fright fest above despite being certain that the belay must be up there somewhere. If I could only see it – I could mentally chop up the slab above me into manageable sections. I knew the pitch was runout but I expected the difficulties to ease where the bolts were sparse. That wasn’t really the case. Defeated, I lowered off.
Defeated (& shaken!) we quickly climbed up the The Great Arch route (5.5, ). A very aesthetic, natural line that I’d guess is one of the best trad climbs of its grade (5.5) in the country. Afterwards, we also climbed the three pitch Yardarm (5.8, ) off the Tree Ledge…sparse bolting (P1: 2 bolts/~120 feet; P2: 2 bolts/ 140 feet; P3 150 feet, one cam...) but easier terrain.
Next day’s forecast looked shaky even for Stone and so we got up early and drove further south to check out Looking Glass Rock. Snow-rain mix greeted us in Brevard , NC . The occasional pause in the precip made us drive up to the trailhead with an optimistic gleam in our eyes. Occasional views of the crag through the trees were bleak though: running water and largely socked in a thick fog. No luck.
We were back at Stone Mountain on the following day to find more rivulets running down the slabs. The classic Great Funk Railroad was running with water and so we finally zeroed in on a drier (and easier) Pulpit (5.8, ). After some sweating and cursing on the opener of pitch one (wet slab), five pitches of moderate fun followed with one interesting crossing of a running water groove high up on the face.
Just as we thought we’re finally beginning to find our “slab feet”, an arctic blast moved in over the area and so we headed back to New Jersey.
An interesting place. Perhaps an eye opener as to how much terrain can be covered with two or three bolts worth of protection. The routes we saw typically had their first bolt 25 to 40 feet up the slab with the second one usually being at twice that height and the third one (if present) at an even longer interval. I would guess in some cases the difficulty eases but in many it’s sustained from belay to belay. Possibility of decking from 70 feet up looked commonplace (a running belay from an attentive second is I’m sure assumed by the FA-ists) and in some cases decking due to a screw up near a very high third bolt was not out of the question I’d guess. A crazy place – perhaps…definitely unique. As I type this, I somehow find myself itching for more…a rematch with the mindf…k that sent me packing, a classic or two more…Don’t know if I’ll have the nerve. Shirley thinks that getting the preschool level taste of it was enough: possibility of a 60 foot slab slide onto your belay & belayer (not to mention the ground/ledge) is enough to keep your second well engaged too. I think we’ll come back.
Two days later we’re in Newark airport headed home. As we’re about to board our flight, TSA agents & cops come swarming in and clear the terminal. Mass exodus from Continental’s Newark hub on a super-busy holiday weekend – great fun! A security breach apparently. We spend most of the night camped out with thousands of other travelers before being rescreened and then informed that our flight was cancelled. A mad scramble to find alternative ways home begins. Two and a half days later – having spent an extra day at my folks’ – we finally find our way home via Philly and DC. Almost as stressful as Stone’s slabs but without the fun factor or the views.