Well, I'm back in NC! The big Pan-American adventures are on hold for a while as I work on finishing up my bachelor's degree at UNC-CH. That won't stop me from getting my adventures in as I can, though! This climb is pretty indicative of the kind of adventures I'll be getting up to while I'm back in North Carolina, but I also hope to do some caving, packrafting, and maybe even a little backpacking! It may not be as big as some of the adventures Kelly and I were getting up to on the Pan-American Highway, or even before that, but it's what I've got ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
My friend Phil and I camped out in the Stone Mountain campground the night before the climb so we wouldn't have to get up before dawn to make the ~3 hour drive. We slept in a smidge to wait for it to warm up a bit, but the forecast didn't have it getting any warmer than mid 30s, so it was only going to get so good. We were on the trail heading for the base of the climb by about 10am. On our way up we passed a man wearing pajama pants and a hoodie with a little remote controlled Jeep slowly making his way up the somewhat rugged trail. It looked like a ton of fun, I could absolutely see myself doing that one day!
Eventually we came to the base of the climb and started racking our gear and getting ready for the climb. As we were preparing, a guy walked by to scope out the climbs further up the cliff face. He and his friend were preparing to climb The Great Arch, an easier climb with one pitch of slab climbing to access it. Stone Mountain always requires a sacrifice to the slab climbing gods!!
Phil led Pitch 1, which was totally fine as I had already led it once last year. We chatted briefly about placing gear, as Phil is new to leading trad, then he was off! I just stood at the base for perhaps 20 to 30 minutes working on staying warm and belaying Phil as he made his way up. Pitch 1 depends on cams to protect the first half, then the climb continues up a slab section protected by 3 bolts. Phil, being pretty new to slab climbing, took a while to get through the second half of the climb. It takes a lot of getting used to trusting footholds that are entirely based on stepping on the roughest section of rock and hoping that it sticks!
Once Phil made it to the top and had me on belay, I scampered up to him at the belay. It's a hell of a lot easier to climb slab while following, that's for sure!
While we were exchanging gear for me to lead Pitch 2, we saw a guy rappelling in our direction from the summit. I waved, he waved back, I commented to Phil that I hoped that was Paul Phillips, as I'd seen tons of awesome pictures he had taken of other climbers on the Western North Carolina Climbing Facebook group. As he got closer, we were eventually able to communicate, and it turned out to be the very same Paul Phillips! Phil and I quickly sharpened ourselves up just in case he took any pictures, then I headed off on Pitch 2. I was pretty excited to start this portion of the climb, as it would all be totally new to me after this point. One of my favorite aspects of rock climbing is the necessity to think on your feet and meet whatever unexpected challenges that might arise! It follows another climb, No Alternative until the base of this long corner that marks No Alternative. At that point, Another Alternative (a little confusing, right?) moves on top of the corner then continues up on pure slab, protected by two bolts and two shallow small cam placements to an anchor. Overcoming the corner was by far the spiciest part of Pitch 2. It took place at a tree, where I was able to put one leg on the tree, rest the other on the slab, and hang on to a hold at the base of the corner. However, the slab had absolutely zero perceptible holds. There was nothing to actually grab to make moving on top of it easier! I stood there, leaning on this tree for a couple minutes, staring at a bolt a mere couple feet from me on the slab, but I couldn't reach it until I'd moved entirely onto the slab and forsaken all holds.
Eventually I had to face the facts that I would have to put my weight onto the roughest looking portion of rock and pray it didn't skate down the rock face, taking me with it. It payed off! I made the clip and breathed a sigh of relief. I climbed higher through the sea of blank rock, placing my feet on anything that looked even slightly more rough than the rock around it. As I climbed I made some intermittent small-talk with Paul, who asked my name, if I was okay with having my photo taken, and some chit chat about where we're from, how long we've been climbing, how we like climbing at Stone Mountain, pretty run of the mill climber chat. Before I knew it, I'd made it all the way to the anchors after clipping another bolt and placing two cams! I let out a whoop of joy, that pitch had easily been the most natural slab pitch I'd ever climbed, and I had always felt in control and pretty comfortable!
After I set up my anchor and put Phil on belay, he headed up my way. When he got to the part where he had to overcome the corner, he also hesitated for a while. This part was like the 3 bolt line he led in the previous pitch, but on steroids. The rock was utterly imperceptable for actual holds, it all just comes down to the friction. He eventually made the move successfully, and he made his way up to the belay and locked himself in.
Pitch 3 started with a 20-30ft unprotected traverse to the right. Gulp. Ya gotta do what ya gotta do, so I set out. Phil didn't lead this pitch because he was a little sketched out by his lead on Pitch 1, and by the insecurity of slab climbing. The traverse was, once again, fairly inscrutible for holds. I just focused on my breathing, moved slowly, one step at a time, and tried not to think about how every step brought me to a bigger and bigger fall should I slip. When I was about 2/3rds of the way through, starting to get pretty sketched out, Paul commented that my Arc'teryx jacket looked pretty nice and he'd hate to see any holes in it if I fell. Thanks Paul, same here! I finally made it to the first bolt and gave a "thank the good lord in heaven!!!" Stone Mountain slab climbing can make anybody religious, seriously. Anyway, after that there was another, smaller corner for most of the rest of the pitch, offering actual handholds and pretty ample cam placements, which made for a nice reprieve. Towards the top of the corner, it had to be overcome to the right, then a couple slab moves led to the end of the pitch and a nice bolted belay in a little bowl of rock. Phew! I brought Phil up, and he did very well on the traverse. Despite following, the traverse was still very sketchy, as if he fell towards the beginning, he was going to swing very far due to how far away the first bolt was. He pulled it off with some mindful breathing and, presumably, some prayers!
As Phil came to meet me at the belay, he came to the move to overcome the corner. He was none too happy with, once again, having to transition from featured climbing with holds to slab climbing with friction. As he went to move out, his foot slipped and he let out a "FUCK!!" and a "Shut the fuck up!" presumably directed at the extremely silent, impassive rock he was attempting to climb. Luckily he didn't fall, and on his next attempt successfully made it to the belay!
The next section had to cross a water groove... that was currently a small creek. It was only about two feet wide or so, but was still quite worrisome, as wet shoes and/or hands do not do well on friction climbing! Luckily there was a bolt on our side of the creek, making crossing it a little safer, as we could make the cross right at the bolt. Well, there was nothing for it but to give it a shot! I made my way to the bolt, made the clip, then tentatively found the best footholds to make the move over the water. It worked! For some reason the rock on either side of the water groove was extra textured, which made for good friction and even the occasional handhold! After crossing the water groove the climbing became a bit easier, and I made my way up past one more bolt, then a 60-70 foot runout to the anchors. Whooo!! Towards the top I was starting to feel the runout a little bit, when I came upon a shallow constriction about 8 feet shy of the anchor. I knew it was a little silly to spend time placing gear when I was so close and the terrain was relatively easy, but I wanted something there, at least as a mental piece. I managed to place a red tricam passively in the constriction, and it seemed like it had a 60/40 chance of catching a fall! It was very shallow, but set nicely. After I clipped it, I made my way quickly to the anchors and locked in. Safe!
After I got him on belay, Phil made his way up. I think this might have been his favorite pitch, since probably 70% of the holds on the entire 5 pitch route were on this pitch. He made it up to me with no issues, and we prepared to tackle the final pitch, which was said to be only 5.5, so in theory, we were out of the woods!
Pitch 5 made its way up the water groove, which had started to widen by this point. For the most part I was able to stick to dry rock, but here and there I had to step on damp rock or use a damp handhold. Not fun! At one point, at a good stance, I wiped off my shoes on my pants in the hopes of drying them off a bit. The only protection for this 130 foot pitch was two thread-throughs, a circular hole in the rock in which you can thread a sling through and girth hitch it for protection. I only found one of them, so I just had one piece the whole way! Luckily the ground had become significantly less steep, but the water still worried me greatly. I carefully lmade my way up the damp rock at the top, dove into a thicket of trees, then made an anchor out of one of the trees. I had made it! I belayed Phil up, who had no issues, and we made our way through the trees up to bare rock behind them, near the summit, to organize our gear and get ready to hike back down to the parking lot. We had done it!
Note: All photos are courtesy of the great Paul Phillips, who was nice enough to take some action shots during the climb!