I’m trying to capture the beauty and joy of a recent climbing trip in words. It was a short one–I drove to Table Rock, NC on Friday night and came home the next night. While driving home I was so overwhelmed with joy that I cried. I’ve lived 39 years. I’ve experienced ups and downs and love and friendship and fatherhood and teaching and transformative learning and none of these beautiful things have ever brought me tears of joy. I laugh at myself because climbing is what did it. As I was crying and laughing I thought about the fact that I was driving in my car alone and couldn’t think of how to share my joy. Song? No. Poem? No. Storytelling? That would have to be my attempt.
Sharing the beauty might be easier. The Linville Gorge is a place that, particularly when it is shrouded in fog, reminds me of Japanese prints–the vertical ones that use a lot of negative space. All you see are the walls rising up on the edges of the greyness with some spindly pines, moss hillocks, and rhododendrons poking into the air. The forms get shrouded and revealed as the sun burns through or the wind whips around the mist. If you zoom in on the rock, the gnarled gneiss can enrapture you, and I can only imagine what it might be like to examine it with psilocybin. Even without, while belaying I stare and stare. Undulating waves and swirls of black speckles and white crystals in grey, holds so big and sharp you could guide your granny up some of the routes. The rock is covered with lichens: papery and black, sea-green and foamy. Water streaks are complimented by obvious streaks where the climbs are, each offering openings amid the lichen and moss. This time I got to see a Carolina preying mantis, my son’s favorite insect. It’s smaller than your typical bright green mantis and blends in with the black, grey, and white of the rock. It navigates the extensive tufts and lumps of lichen. And in the fall when you look down, it’s like fruity pebbles with the leaves turning.
My joy comes with history. This marks the tenth year for me climbing there, and as I was driving and crying memories of all those trips were evoked and I relived them. I compressed time and it sent me into tearful reverie. Linville, like a second home. Refuge from overhanging sandstone sport climbing and family strife; reunion place for friends and family from Colorado College, my home in Kentucky, my cousin from North Carolina, and new friends in Knoxville, TN; playground for all-day birthday challenges. The joy is airing out your body up to 700 feet off the deck, looking down at the river running through the valley, looking over to the Gold Coast and imagining the adventure to be had there, grabbing and running up routes with unbelievable holds every few feet. 5.5s that overhang for most of their length.
So the climbing is part of the joy. But the people are how the joy is multiplied. Going back to 2007 with Joe Forrester, I’ve been there Fall, Spring, and Summer in the years since. Joe and I went once in March and had to hike an extra mile and 1500 vertical feet cuz the road was closed. We soloed up a 5.7 and I remember shivering, huddling on a ledge 200 feet below the summit trying to warm our hands up. Our comedy of errors over the years, from sleeping in a crash pad to forgetting stoves to our finger-frozen soloing have added up to the point that my wife, from trips to Linville alone, has surmised that I just barely survive every climbing outing I take. For my birthday challenge at 34 years old, Jesse Weber and I did 3400 feet, most of it simul climbing. We began before dawn and when we finished around 7:30PM, the rain came down like I had never ever seen it. Torrents of rain for hours on the drive home. Rain rain rain rain windshield wipers full blast couldn’t do anything to see the road. All the water, all that emotion and power and love and joy coming out, coming down as I came down off the mountain.
And most recently with a former student of mine, Dustin, and his friend, Russell. Rusell, who had never climbed a trad route. Russell, who had never been up higher than a pitch. We did The Daddy, The Mummy, and The Prow. The Daddy, his first trad climb, 500 some feet long. At the top of the third pitch, we were admiring the clouds getting blazed by the rising sun across the valley. “Do you believe in God,” he asked me. I didn’t know where he was going with that and I was quite worried. “Yes,” I said. “Kind of hard not to!” he replied, and we laughed together at the jaw-dropping beauty around us. He busted his elbow rappelling down to The Mummy, stayed positive. We hiked around to the treasure that is the Carolina Wall only to find our objectives soaked. Climb after climb.
He stayed positive as we bushwhacked through thorns over to the base of the Prow. He was up for trying simul-climbing. His positivity spread to Dustin and me. Of course I would have had trouble being sour considering how long it had been since I’d climbed anything over 1 pitch myself, but, again: partners are joy-multipliers. At the top of the Prow, after around 650 feet or so of low angle 5.4, the entire route drops out beneath you as you traverse left. Russell arrived at the last super-hero move in which you must cut your feet over the wide open air. He paused. Asked for advice. I told him what was required. I had a nice perch from which I saw him awkwardly attempt to avoid the inevitable. As he realized what he had to do, he thrutched around until he could cut his feet. As he weighted his arms, feet dangling, his eyes bugged out of his head from intensity of focus and fear. I was so psyched as he pulled the move and surmounted the belay ledge. His first day of trad climbing, first simul climbing, and about 1700 feet of climbing. I was so psyched for him and for all of us.
As we finished up, all aglow in our day, the hike out harshed the gloriousness momentarily. Perhaps due to the recent Climbing Magazine feature, the ever-growing popularity of the sport, the social mediazation of outdoor pursuits, the increase in popularity of slack lining, or just plain bad luck, our hike out was crowded, polluted with the noise of a drone and the lines and pulleys of slackliners, and hammock-lounging preppy-dressed college kids blasting, of all things, Mariachi music. I made a quick attitude adjustment to preserve my high—these folks are out here enjoying this place just like me. But I’d be willing to bet you a hundred dollars not a single one of them cried from joy as they went home.