Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Underworld- Linville Gorge


In August, Leah had a six week surgery rotation in Asheville, North Carolina.  She stayed there all week which meant if I wanted to see her (which I did), I had to make the two hour drive from Knoxville every Friday evening after work.

This didn't really bother me because I like Asheville.  Prior to Leah's stint in Asheville, we had only been there for a quick fourth of July weekend last year.  We got a brief tour of Looking Glass (we did Sundial Crack and some single pitch stuff on the North Face), and ate at a few nice restaurants.  Plus, the elevation makes it a good 10 degrees cooler than Knoxville during the Summer.

Thinking about The Last of the Mohicans
So I scoured Mountain Project for information on sport climbing in North Carolina, while Leah investigated which restaurants she wanted to try(our priorities are very different).  Unfortunately, I found way less information about steep, hard climbing than Leah did about places to eat.  However, one of the spots that kept catching my eye was the Underworld at Linville Gorge.

Can't stop thinking about The Last of the Mohicans.
I had heard of Linville Gorge through various people.  Most mention how beautiful it is.  Others rave about the long, traditional routes.  So when I found the Underworld, with it's Northern exposure and challenging sport routes, it seemed like a great option.

Although North Carolina is known for being tight lipped about it's climbing areas, the morale was high after using the information on Mountain Project to easily find Cathy's Creek the weekend before.  So we studied the Underworld page on Mountain Project and drove 1.5 hours Northeast to the Gorge.

Immediately things went wrong.  We arrived at sunset, and all the roads seemed to have different names than what the directions indicated.  This would have been fine except there is almost no 4G in the area.  So using Google Maps was not an option.  We drove down a winding dirt road for about 5 miles looking for specific trail markers, but never found them.   Lost and tired, we set up camp. Despite being frustrated, the free camping(very rare in the South), deafening cicadas, and remoteness made it completely worth it.

Nice campsite on the wrong side of Linville Gorge.
In the morning we packed up and decided to ask for directions.  Eventually, we ran into some folks that told us we were on the wrong side of the Gorge.  Oops!

It took us about an hour to get to the other side and then our troubles started again.  The online driving instructions were for approaching on the road from the South- not the North.  With no internet, our only option was to try to find the Rock Jock trail head without specific directions.  So we drove down another dirt road for about 4 miles until we came across the Rock Jock Trail.

Lost and consulting Mountain Project.  
This seemed like a good start!  The instructions promised a 30 minute hike so we packed up, looked at the time, and started down the trail expecting pink markers to help up find the turns.  What we found instead was nothing- just a million unmarked, random trails that offshoot from the main trail.  Unfortunately, I got obsessed with finding the area, and somehow convinced Leah to trudge on for an hour despite intense heat, humidity and a continuously deteriorating trail.

Don't you see the trail?  Totally obvious!
Eventually, I came to my senses, and we headed back.  Two plus hours later, we arrived back at the car completely wrecked.  This was the second time in 20 years of climbing that I hadn't found a climbing area.  I was annoyed, and vowed to return and find it.  Time to start researching...  But first, some soft serve at McDonalds- Asheville style!

Don't all McDonalds have vaulted ceilings and pianos?  Classy!
The next weekend I talked Leah into trying to find The Underworld again.  Armed with photos of landmarks visible from the Underworld we made a good guess at the correct parking spot.

Faint trail into woods.  A large rock 15 feet left of trail(can see part of it in photo).
Just across the road a faint, overgrown trail cut into the thick forest.  There were lots of fallen logs that had ax marks to help you find the way.  After about 30 minutes of hacking our way through downhill switchbacks in the thick forest, we hit the Rock Jock Trail.  We took a right and hiked another 10 minutes- keeping an eye out for a burn zone.  As the trees thinned at the top of a small uphill section, we saw a narrow, but distinct, trail on the left that headed towards the rim of the gorge.

Example of burn zone. 
This section was much less overgrown.  We headed down and left for about 10 minutes until we came to a rock outcrop at the rim.  This is the top the of Underworld.

Leah at top of Underworld.  Probably humming the theme song to The Last of the Mohicans in her head.
Anchors at top of Underworld.
On the left side of the outcrop is an obvious two bolt anchor.  It has been claimed that you can rappel to the base of the routes with a 60 meter rope.  I started this rappel, but stopped about 30 feet down because my 60 meter rope seemed about 15-20 feet short.  In the process of hauling myself back to the top, I dropped our stick clip, and accidentally dislodged one of the biggest blocks (maybe 200lbs) I have ever trundled.  It was terrifying!

With rappelling out now out of the question, we were left with option B- the down scramble.  Neither of us were excited about this because the description sounds a little scary, but it ended up being reasonable.  We walked left past the anchors and pushed along a very faint trail through some rhododendrons.  Eventually the trail heads downhill and you come to a large tree with a tattered rope tied around it.

Fixed rope.
Lower yourself down a few slippery sections of muddy, steep, overgrown slab and you will find yourself at The Underworld!

Leah lowering down easy slab approach on fixed ropes. 
First view of Underworld.
My general impressions are...

The views are amazing.

The feel is almost alpine.

Colorful lichen at base of Underworld.
The routes are steep, fun and shady.  However, the routes are still shedding choss- so beware.

First look at wall when approaching from slabs.
The effort to fun ratio was a little too high for a day of sport climbing.

Not having fun.
I am glad we went, but I am not rearing to go back anytime soon.

So, the directions are:

Driving South on Kistler Memorial Highway(dirt road), go about 6 miles.
1.  Pass the Rock Jock Trailhead, and head up a hill.
2.  At top of hill, look for a grassy pullout on the right that is big enough for three cars(pulled straight in).
3.  Locate a faint trail on the opposite side of the road.
4.  Hike downhill for about 30 minutes, following the occasional ribbon, and ax marked fallen tree until you hit the Rock Jock Trail(might be a good idea to break some branches of your own for getting back).
5.  Take a right and hike another 10 minutes.
6. At top of a small hill, look for burn zone on left.  Take left off of Rock Jock Trail towards gorge rim.
7.  Hike down and left for 10 minutes.  When you see a large rock outcrop on the rim with anchors on the left side you are at the top of The Underworld.
8.  Rap with a 70 meter rope or walk left of outcrop for 100 feet through thick foliage until you see a tree with a rope tied around it.
9.  Lower yourself down dirty, but mellow, safe terrain to the base of The Underworld.

Entire approach is about an hour.  The return trip is about 80 minutes.

***Keep in mind that trail is rarely used and the plants grow quickly.  So expect tough trail finding.  Bring pants, long sleeved shirt, a machete, and some ribbon to help you find way back more easily.

Hope this helps other people avoid the epic that we had.

Here is a link to Mountain Project info for The Underworld.

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