Cameron Shook

Why climbing rocks isn’t as crazy as you’d think

Cameron Shook
Why climbing rocks isn’t as crazy as you’d think

Fear of heights is something that I share with my grandfather, besides the gift of gab and love of British literature. An early memory of my fear in the outdoors was in the 2nd grade my family took a weeklong vacation to the Smokey Mountains, and one day we went to Clingmans Dome. I ran up the path ahead of my family and climbed the tower, looked out over the edge, and promptly screamed and shrank back to the center of the platform in terror. I say this so you understand how incredible it is that my dad, somehow, knew I would like climbing rocks and encouraged me to start doing that the same year. I climbed competitively through my teenage years, and while I haven’t been active the past few, I still love the sport and the variety that you wouldn’t expect.

There are several sub disciplines to climbing, and each has its own unique flow as it changes the way you climb. The most common form that you see at birthday parties and recreational climbing is what is called Top Roping. There is an anchor point at the top of the wall and the rope is run through it. At one end the climber is tied in and at the other, the belayer (who has a locking device to catch you if you fall and to safely lower you when you’re done). All the climber has to do is focus on the climbing, and it is easier because the falls are very short and if you’re belayer has a tight rein on the rope some of your weight is being pulled up the wall by him making sure you’re not going anywhere if you slip.

Sport climbing is where you clip quick draws, 2 carabiners joined by stout webbing, onto hangers bolted to the face of the wall; as you climb you clip in the carabiners, you then clip your rope in as well. This makes the climb much more difficult, but it also increases the distance you fall making every slip that much more dramatic.

Traditional, “trad”, or free-climbing is when you use no preexisting gear at all but instead place protection into cracks and fissures in the rock, which takes the place of preexisting hangers, to clip your quick draws and rope onto. If that doesn’t sound scary enough, you should look at the gear they use. On the one end, you have “cams”, which are highly engineered devices that lock in the smallest places and on the other you have wedges that come in sizes so small they’re about as thick as the edge of a dime. Very rarely do you know exactly what sizes of gear you need so you then have to carry an enormous amount up with you to make sure you’re able to adequately protect yourself and that means climbing with an extra 15-20lbs of gear hanging off you.

Aid climbing is no longer socially acceptable in most situations, but for a long time if you came across a route that you couldn’t climb it was acceptable to basically hammer in ladders made of webbing to climb through the tough bits. This leaves permanent scars on the rocks and damages and weakens the rocks, and like many things, the sustainable movement put this practice to death in undeveloped areas.

Bouldering is the least gear intensive of all the disciplines, with no ropes or carabiners, and your only protective gear being a crash pad (think portable mattress) that you use to cushion your fall. Thankfully you only climb boulders, not cliffs, so falls are usually in the 12-15’ range or less, but that doesn’t make the fall less scary though. Bouldering was always my preferred method because it was the simplest and required the least amount of gear and setup. The older I get though, the more I find I want to tackle bigger climbing routes with more panache and drama.

Many of the good climbing walls in SC do not allow climbing for one reason or the other. Table Rock has the biggest and best granite face in the entire state but climbing there is limited to only one month out of the year due to the nesting peregrine falcons that live on the cliffs. There are a few scattered bouldering areas, but otherwise SC doesn’t have any good established climbing walls. I’m hoping to change that. I’m going to keep the exact location a secret for now, but there is a 300’ granite wall that I have had my eye on for quite some time. It is located in the Mountain Bridge Wilderness area, right off Highway 276 and is accessible from the Raven Cliff Falls Parking lot via the Cold Springs Branch and Bill Kimball trails and is called “El Lieutenant” in all of the guidebooks.

I have attempted to scout El Lu previously, but icy conditions and then fatigue caused me to turn back before. So last weekend I got together a crew to scout the wall and try to figure out the logistics of making an attempt at a free climb after getting all of the necessary permissions/permits. Part of the problem is that the wall is a minimum of a 3 mile hike from the nearest parking lot and some of the sections are steep, treacherous, and no fun at all to hike if you’re hauling all of the trad gear needed for a free climb of the wall. We came in on the Cold Spring Branch Trail and then descended the Bill Kimball trail, one of the toughest in the entire Mountain Bridge Wilderness area. It was extremely steep and narrow, and I would not look forward to doing it with a heavy pack.

Finally though, we came to the base of the cliff and I realized very quickly there was only one possible route that was within my ability to climb, a very obvious crack with large handholds and plenty of spots to place protective gear. It will be a 2 pitch climb, meaning 2 full rope lengths, but it will require a lot of cleaning as we go, getting dirt and lichen off the usable holds.

Very rarely does climbing make the news, so I was glad when last month Tommy Caldwell’s attempt at the Dawn Wall of El Cap gained national news and not in a “Ha ha, look at the crazy man doing the crazy thing” way. He had spent years on the project before finally finishing it after 18 straight days on the wall. It inspired me to dream big and to try again and again in pursuit of something big; and the biggest thing within reach is El Lu.

Amish in the sense that, at one point, my family helped others raise barns.
Now I build websites to help others build their businesses.