North Carolina's Slept-On Trad Climbing Heaven
I slot a pink tri-cam judiciously into the slanted eyebrow feature and clip a long alpine draw from my protection to the rope. The hardware rustles and dings across the rock as I move upwards, smearing my feet across course granite and crimping on a shallow rail. I peer down the rope line created by the extension, forming a straight feature despite the highly zig-zagged nature of the climb. Satisfied, I continue up to the anchors, quickly clove hitching myself into a masterpoint. “Off belay!” I shout down to my partner.
Wisps of white clouds flutter formlessly against an azure backdrop—we couldn’t have asked for a better day to climb the Nose, a moderate North Carolina classic. As we rappelled the four pitches back to the ground, I felt elated. It’s an amazing feeling to have such phenomenal multi-pitch climbs in our own backyard.
The East Coast’s Best-Kept Secret
Everyone talks about Yosemite’s captivating big walls, the alpine playground of the Tetons, and the stunning Cascade mountain peaks. The East Coast is either left off the list or forgotten. But North Carolina stands its own in the ranks of North America's best multi-pitch trad climbing. From the terrifying run-out slabs of Laurel Knob and Stone Mountain, to the boldly overhanging Whitesides Mountain, and the quartzite cliffs of Linville Gorge, North Carolina is renowned for its quality rock, tradition and atmosphere of unabated adventure.
The first thing to note: only the seriously adventurous need apply. North Carolina adheres to strict tradition, which aside from a few small bolted crags including Pilot Mountain and Crowders—a.k.a. Crowded—Mountain, this means limited fixed anchors, even less bolting, and the need for a solid lead head.
Recommended Routes and Crags
Searching for quality moderate climbing or elusive backcountry cliffs? Linville Gorge is the place to go, with Table Rock offering ample easy and protectable routes for new trad leader, airy moderates in the Amphitheater, and awesome adventure climbing on Shortoff Mountain.
- The Daddy, 5.6, 5 pitches
- Maginot Line, 5.7, 4 pitches
- Dopey Duck, 5.9, 3 pitches
- Built to Tilt, 5.10a/b, 3 pitches
- Supercrack, 5.11d, 3 pitches
- Turkeybeard, 5.12a, 2 pitches
If you like slab climbing, prepare to adapt to North Carolina’s stoic bolting traditions. Bolts are placed only when absolutely necessary on lead and most of the best routes at Stone Mountain and Laurel Knob are unavoidably run-out, R-rated, and eye-bulging. Cut your teeth at Stone Mountain, which offers a close approach and a few protectable moderates that will give you a taste of this particular run-out style. If you’re looking for something mellow, the “Great Arch” is a beautiful lie back feature that goes all the way up the mountain—the most well-protected route at Stone Mountain. Step up your game on “Groover” before you hop on heart-pumping classics like the “Great White Way” or “Grand Funk Railroad."
If you’re ready to hike and bushwhack your way into Cashier’s Valley to the imposing granite dome of Laurel Knob, plan for a three-hour approach and descent, and take note there is no legal camping nearby. Warm up on “Groover” before you attempt to tackle the classic “Fathom.”
Looking Glass Rock is the epitome of what makes North Carolina so formidably unique: aid climbers will find grade IV and V lines reminiscent of Yosemite on the North Side while free climbers embrace the eyebrow features of the Nose Area and the Sun Wall. Note: Bring pink and brown tri-cams. Although you may not use them anywhere else in the world, they will come in handy here.
Classic Free Climbs and Awesome Aid Lines:
- The Nose, 5.8, 4 pitches
- Sundial Crack, 5.8, 4 pitches
- The Seal, 5.10, 4 pitches
- The Womb, 5.11a, 3 pitches
- The Glass Menagerie, 5.13a, 7 pitches
Pisgah National Forest encompasses most of North Carolina’s epic climbing areas, including Looking Glass Rock and Linville Gorge. Camping is allowed anywhere you can find a clearing or a pull-out for your van. Table Rock has plentiful designated camp spots with privies near the trailhead. If you prefer glamping, there are family-friendly establishments like Davidson River Campground that offer heated showers and hook-ups for RVs. The only downside is that most of the year you’ll be fighting over spots with mountain bikers, so be sure to make reservations.
North Carolina prides itself on craft beer, eclectic eats and boutique coffee shops. After a day on the Glass, grab a beer and a bite to eat at the Oscar Blues brewery. Climbing in Linville? Nearby Morgantown is home to Fonta Flora, offering microbrews in a rustic setting and alternatively Boone boasts the hip, casual Black Cat Burrito.
While you’ll find plenty of southern hospitality in North Carolina, attempt to place a bolt and you’ll find it chopped the next day. Climbers in North Carolina hold strong to their ground-up, leave-no-trace traditions, and visiting climbers are expected to show respect. Think you’re ready to take on the wild, rugged, and unexpectedly high-quality, high-stoke North Carolina cliffs? Leave your drill, bring your best lead head, and—of course—a handful of tri-cams.
Photos by Amanda Ellis.