What started out as a foiled climbing trip...Since being hired on at Alabama Outdoors shortly after I moved to Birmingham in July of 2006, I had been trying to find a common weekend off with Paul Wheeler, a co-worker and fellow climber. Somehow our plans to climb together "this weekend" were always foiled by weather, women, or work (mainly work -- see, it's funny how when you start working at an outdoors store, you don't have the time to do anything outdoors anymore, ...ah, but I digress...) So, when I became the manager (aka schedule-maker) for the Greystone, AL Alabama Outdoors, we put it in stone. No matter what, I was off Friday through Monday, and come hell or high water we were going to camp out for the weekend at Sandrock. In fact, about ten other people were making plans to join in the climbing revelry. Even the weather outlook said it was going to be the nicest weekend of the year. (This is all a preface to explain that going to Sandrock this particular weekend was a pretty big deal.)
About Wednesday, I happened to ask another co-worker if he'd like to join, he informed me that he was already going, since it was going to be a clean-up weekend, but that he wouldn't be spending the night because there were supposed to be like a hundred people, and all looking for a campsite. Then about ten of the people who were going to come backed out, and there was a rumor that a final winter cold snap was headed our way. Pretty much, it seemed things were going to go they way my weekend plans usually do.
Then Paul suggested switching destinations to Cheaha Mountain. I quickly browsed the summitpost article on Alabama's highest point, and wasn't very impressed. Incredulously, I asked if there were rocks to be climbed. Summitpost certainly didn't have any pictures of any substantial rocks, but the Dixie Cragger had some info (however limited) on the existence of "a few nice cliffs, outcrops and boulders for the curious and adventuresome climber." hmm... well, we'll see about that. In the end I agreed to Cheaha over Sandrock on the expertise of Paul (who grew up climbing in Alabama), and besides, why not get another state highpoint out of the way?
...things are starting to look up...I went down before everyone else to secure a remote enough "primitive" campsite and scope the mountain out on Friday afternoon. The drive was surprisingly brief and painless from my house in Vestavia Hills. It took a little under an hour, and I had plenty of time to stop in the camp store for s'more ingredients (minus graham crackers, because there's an unwritten law mandating that camp stores be out of one of the three key ingredients), register for "primitive" camping, pick up a map, and make the obligatory stop at the high point and observation tower.
|The actual top of the mountain isn't terribly exciting, as it's covered with trees. Fortunately Cheaha is a geological oddity in that it is a large cliff-sided butte that towers over a sea of rolling Appalachian foothills, and the quality of view increases exponentially as you travel away from the actual highpoint. In actuality, I was already impressed during the ride up the mountain. There are two scenic pulloffs where the park road crosses balds that afford views over probably 30 miles of low, rolling foothills.|
|Anyways, the map I snagged from topozone.com indicated some vertical bluffs at Bald Rock and Pulpit Rock, so I decided to check out some trails before my friends arrived. Bald Rock is the first right turn you encounter on the one-way park road, and from the parking area a wooden wheelchair accessable "trail" leads you half a mile through the woods to the end of the northern arm of Cheaha Mountain. Though it takes the wild out of the wilderness, the half mile wooden ramp is actually pretty neat. Upon reaching the end, I was suprised not only the amazing view, but also tons and tons of boulders, so I ran back to my car and grabbed my Evolv's for some evening bouldering. Pretty sweet.|
|I realized the sun would be setting directly off of Pulpit Rock, so I jogged back to the car and drove another half mile to the next pulloff on the right, just after the entrance to the "improved" (read: "RV") campground. The trail to Pulpit Rock is definitely not handicap-accessable, but it did meet my needs for a wilderness feel...especially since I accidentally followed the wrong trail and ended up bushwhacking through a thicket and scrambling over boulders and under trees along the northwestern cliff line. Fun, but definitely not the way I had intended to go. On the way, I stopped at nearly every outcropping and took a photo before realizing that I had a way to go to the end of the southwestern arm. In the last 30 yards, I came across the actual trail and kicked myself for losing it in the first place. The views were beautiful, and from Pulpit Rock you can see a huge panorama and maybe fifty miles of rolling hills. The final sunset rays on the landscape and rocks were amazing, so I took a number of self-timer portraits with the explicit intention of updating my facebook profile (haha). I followed the easy trail on the way back and figured out where I had gone wrong on my way out. Turns out you're supposed to follow the RED blazes, not the blue ones farther up the hill that I had been following until they ended in a scree gully.|
...car camping in the dirty south...Upon returning to the campsite which I had chosen because it seemed to be far enough away from other sites had been surrounded by a burning campfires, 6-man dome tents, and a sea of trucks fresh from muddin'. Needless to say, I'm not much for car camping--especially when the Alabama good 'ol boys are you next door neighbor. I decided that the impressively large and rowdy high school group to my right, the medium sized and slightly less rowdy college group behind me, and even the new-to-camping guy who talked very loudly to his wife on my left weren't all that bad when I laid back in my hammock and counted the stars. In fact, the acoustic rendition of Hansen's "Mmmmmbop" was pretty entertaining, even if the djembe was being played more like a hip hop back beat than a traditional African drum (so maybe I am a percussion snob... lol). When my friends who were supposed to arrive around 7pm called me at 8:30 and told me they were stopping in Anniston for "those bricks that make the fire burn", I almost started worrying if they would also be bringing MikeyLPT's Wal*mart special "plenty vent". After scouring the entire campground for dead and down wood, I resorted to dragging a dead tree tree trunk weighing about 70 pounds about 75 yards down a trail (this was the only wood larger than tinder that I could find). I then fueled the fire, ate a tuna packet, and took a fifteen minute nap in the hammock. My compadres arrived with the food around 9:30pm, and we immediately cooked some hobos over charcoal. I reveled in the fact that after a day alone amongst groups of happy campers, we could now cause our own ruckus into the night.
...wow, Alabama DOES have more than boulderingSaturday we woke up, warmed up, sorted our gear, and stuffed ourselves (five people, a trunk of gear, and a crashpad in the backseat) into a Corolla. After signing our lives away at the campstore (You must sign a waiver to climb or rappel), we hit the Lake trail (just past the Pulpit Rock trailhead, at the parking for Cabins 1 and 2).
Now, in the last 9 months of living in Alabama, I've done a lot of climbing (2-3 days a week at Moss Rock Preserve, trips to Horse Pens 40, Boat Rock, unknown local crags...), but it's all been on gritty, slopey, southern sandstone. Cheaha is a whole new experience for Southeastern climbing: quartzite. Paul and I hopped across boulders to the large stubby pillar to look for a spot to set up shop.
|A six foot wide shelf extends the length (about 25 feet) of the right side of the pillar. It is roughtly flat, and a flake above overhangs just enough to give you shade while still allowing upright travel. Even if you're not going to climb or rappell, I recommend at least scrambling out to it and enjoying the view. Since most everybody else stops to rest in the clearing at the cliff edge, the rocks provide some degree of sight and sound blocking, and it feels more like you're the only one there. Additionally, there are some relatively simple anchor placements for rappelling or top-roping.|
You'll find a pair of slightly rusty 3/8" bolt hangers about a foot back from the edge, but we elected to girth hitch a number of boulders. After we made some personal anchors on sliding 6 foot tethers, the newbies were much more comfortable moving around near the edge. We made the system uber-redundant and explained the safety of the system to make everybody feel good, then rapped down to the base of the cliffs. The rap is down a bulge of 15 vertical feet, then the rock is overhanging, so you're free the rest of the way down. I have to say it was a pretty fun rappel, and I'm not much for rapping.
After regrouping at the bottom, we hiked back around the left to meet up with the blue blazes of the Lake Trail to get back to the top. On the way we scouted the cliff for fun routes, and found that there is a plethora of steep craggy routes, even some long and straight cracks, and everything is super-positive because of the quartzite. After letting everybody rap to their hearts' content, we set up a top-rope in the corner of the wall and the pillar.
The climbing was not spectacular, but still good. Pretty similar to other routes I've climbed in Alabama: sort of a conglomeration of slopey and craggy features. The first route we sent everyone up began as a pretty slopey leaning face (maybe 5.7 moves) that ran into a dirty, brushy section which forced you into a choice between going over a pretty blank bulge (making the route a 5.10?) or a wet but positive chimney (5.9?) where the pillar separates from the main wall. The climb is finished by a short series of small ledges, topping out at about 75 feet.
We spent most of the afternoon teaching the newbies how to move and feel comfortable on the rock, and, to my dismay, we didn't have enough time to move to another more exciting face. We'll have to leave those for another day. I did manage to sneak a fun varied crack climb. To the right of where everyone else had climbed, there is an offwidth crack that begins above some thorn bushes (actually, I threw it in after being lowered off almost all the way to the ground to avoid the thorns). After about 15 feet, the crack squeezes into tight hands and follows out of an overhang past a rusty piton and over the bulge and past a small tree. It was delightful, and put me in a better mood after everyone told me they were ready to head back for dinner. A decent crack always puts you in a better mood...
After a brief rendezvous back at camp to back up and jetboil some dinner, we all headed back to Birmingham. My long-awaited climbing weekend with co-workers was over, but I actually ended up driving back out on Monday afternoon with my family because the sunset view from Pulpit Rock was something that I told them "they just had to see."
I hope that you state highpointers out there don't demean Cheaha as a "drive-up" summit, as I once did. Please, please please make the time to really see how awesome the top of Alabama is.