I had just made the joke last week to a friend, “When you hike the Linville Gorge, you usually come out feeling like the Linville Gorge hiked you!” It turned out, that would be our story.
Saturday morning, Steve, Chris, Josh, TJ and I headed toward the Linville Gorge. Old Highway 105 (a.k.a. Kistler Memorial Highway) was in as good of shape as I’ve seen it on the south end. We arrived at PinchIn parking and met up with Chad and Luke. This was my first time hiking with Chad, and second time with Luke (who hiked the big waterfall day at Panthertown with me earlier this year). We all piled in the van and shuttled up to Conley Cove, where we would start our hike.
The plan was to hike Conley Cove to Rock Jock, descend to the Lower Original Scrambler’s Trail (L.O.S.T., which was the original route that Rock Jock when created by Bob Underwood), visit One Bat Cave, The Balcony, Little Seneca, climb out of Zen Canyon, scramble Zen Point, Razor’s Edge Rock, Razor’s Edge Point, back to Rock Jock, hike further south, bushwhack to Crevasse Creek Point, and then at the decision point, decide whether we would ascend Dogback Mountain up to the road via Rock Jock’s south entrance OR bushwhack along the cliff edge to PinchIn and back to the car from there.
Before going any further, let me describe scrambling for anyone who may not be familiar with the term. I’ve heard scrambling described as a sport for those too tough to hike, but too chicken to rock climb. Basically, it’s low level climbing over rocks, boulders, downfall, without the need for ropes or other protection. It’s like hiking in four-wheel drive.
We head down Conley Cove to Rock Jock with no problems. Before long, we were at Fern Point, our first big view of the Gorge. The tops of the Chimneys and Table Rock were obscured by the low lying clouds, but it was clear beneath them. We stopped at Hacker’s Point for the next overlooks, and I had a pang of sadness over the pine tree that was so identifying to the point. All that’s left is a broken off stump in the rocks. The view is still nice.
We slowed down at Split Rock, and I climbed up on top to get a couple pictures of Josh and TJ coming through. The other guys had gone ahead. Not before long, we were at the turn-off for L.O.S.T. and the frontward guys weren’t there. The entrance is pretty obscure, so I didn’t guess they had followed it. I hollered to the group, they didn’t answer. I blew my whistle, they didn’t answer. Josh went up to get a look to see if he could see them, and they weren’t in sight. I dropped my pack and ran Rock Jock until I could hear them and they answered a holler. As we figured out later, they had gone nearly 3/4 of the way to the Razor’s Edge trail.
Once we were all back together, everyone had their good laugh about not knowing how they possibly missed the turn. That’s complete sarcasm. It basically looks like someone pushed a branch out of the way and let it fall back in place. The bush push lasted for about 20 feet and we were back on trail again. Very clever disguising of the entrance to L.O.S.T., whoever worked that out. Good reason, too. These ledges became a puzzle even with a GPS track to follow, let alone without one.
We did some back and forth and looking around and we came to a spot where the path seemed to end. Looking at the GPS, we were too far to the west of the prior track. Making our way back, we searched for a way further down the ledge but never came to one. I took it to be signal variation due to the reflective characteristic the rock faces seem to have on GPS signals, and we went back to the seeming dead end. Climbing up a little, the path was at the top. I scrambled up a rotten dead log that broke under my weight, and stood at the top. I had forgotten what stuff like this was like in Linville. This was one of those “no way the trail is that close to the edge” moments. It was. Clearly, I’d been away for too long. The guys took their choice of the “too close” route vs rotten log route, and we kept on keepin’ on.
I knew we were going to have a descent coming up, and that there was a technical rocky scramble in there somewhere. As we came to a dead end in the trail, I looked down and saw a hole that would be our route. It was steep and dirty. I went first, and crab walked down the path using the shrubbery as hand and footholds to keep me from any unwanted acceleration. It leveled out some, and I hollered up, “The first part is the worst part!” The path was rocky but with careful consideration of footsteps, not difficult. Then came the scramble. Apparently, the first part wasn’t the worst part. The trail stops at a rock ledge, and begins again 6 feet below. The rocks had some wet moss on then as well, so that added an extra level of interesting. With some moves I’d been waiting for all day, it was a fun chimney down the side. We helped the other guys down, and then Chad and Chris skipped that whole ordeal and just climbed down the face of the rock. They are taller than I am. Our group ended up splitting again after this, but before long, I was hearing wind chimes. I knew where we were, even though this was my first time through here.
The Balcony on L.O.S.T. is a rocky overhang, with freedom to scramble around the fallen rocks and rock walls. A couple guys went through the tunnel and stood out on Little Seneca, a blade of rock maybe 5 feet wide that stands out from the cliff face. I love going out and standing on the edge, but for real, watching guys dangling their legs off makes me anxious. Walking out there myself, I snapped a pic of the guys settling down on the Balcony for our lunch break, then took a break myself. This was the last big rest area before our difficulty ramped up and we would have to climb out. It was also at this point where I realized I had completely forgotten about visiting One Bat Cave. We were so close.
Before long, we were at the base of Zen Canyon, looking up at Razor’s Edge Rock. The canyon is amazing. It’s a big rock pile of fallen rock, some of them loose and shaky when you step on them, with a mix of deadfall, Princess trees, Devil’s Walking Stick, and Zen Creek trickling down the south side. Though I didn’t measure it, I estimate it to be at least a 45 degree angle coming out. Trying to get a picture to capture the steep roughness of Zen Canyon is an effort in futility. Truly, the only way to understand Zen Canyon is to climb out of it yourself. If you’ve been in the Amphitheater on the east rim of the Gorge, it’s similar but the rocks are smaller. Where climbing out of the Amp is a non-stop scramble, climbing out of Zen is an effort in keeping sure footing so you don’t twist an ankle. An injury in Zen Canyon would end a trip early and turn into a bad situation. We found this out first hand.
Fortunately, we didn’t experience anything as bad as a twisted ankle or broken leg, but TJ did succumb to a condition that bites hikers at one time or another. I’ve had severe leg cramps on at least two occasions, and they’re brutal. The last time I went to Crowder’s Mountain was to go rock climbing, and my forearm cramped and gave out on me before I was 10 feet off the ground. They hurt, and hiking with a charlie horse is not fun. Our group had separated into 3 parts at this point: Steve and Josh in the lead, Luke and I in the middle, and Chris and Chad helping TJ ride the charlie horse 600 feet in elevation over rough terrain out of Zen Canyon. The slippery rocks eventually gave way to slippery mud, where God conveniently placed rhododendron to use as handholds to haul yourself further up. I say it every time, “Thank God for rhododendron.”
Even though Zen Creek seemed like only a trickle as it wound its way down the rocks of the canyon, there were a few small pools tucked away that made for a perfect spot for purifying water. Further up, we were rewarded with the beautiful Zen Falls greeting us with the soft soothing sound of its flow as if it were the balm to sooth the wound created by canyon itself.
Steve and Josh had made it to the top of the canyon before we did, and we knew we had some time before the others made it up to where we were, so we searched around for the way out. It had been a while since I looked at the GPS. I had it in my mind that we would exit right at Rock Jock, despite having been down to Razor’s Edge a few years ago and knowing the Zen Trail was a spur off the Razor’s Edge Trail, which itself is a spur off of Rock Jock. We made it to Steve and Josh, and found that the bushes had become thicker than anything we had been through so far. We poked around, and that’s when I decided to look at the GPS again. Hey, I’m the group leader after all. Looks like we missed the exit from Zen Canyon. We only climbed about 40-50 feet too high. Turns out the exit was a hard left from right about where Chris, Chad and TJ were by then. Chad followed the trail, or better described as the path that a few people might have walked at one point in time that was thinner than any other area, to confirm that we were at the right spot. Score! They didn’t have to make the rhododendron rope climb, which as it turns out, we didn’t have to make it, either. Steve and Josh had climbed straight up out of Zen Canyon not realizing there was a hard left to the side really added to the whole moment since they had to now climb down from what had seemingly been an impossible climb up. Steve took the opportunity to give me the kind of encouragement that every group leader needs: “You’re killing me!” I know it was all in good fun, buddy! That canyon is gonna get steeper every time we tell the story, isn’t it? Good times.
Chad and Chris went up first this time, TJ and I next, Luke and Josh and Steve behind. The dirt trail here is on the edge, and it’s eroding away. A perfect spot for another cramp to lay hold of TJ, so with one cramped leg bracing against a sapling and me holding his other hand, we waited it out. Once at the top, we stopped at the campsite (which is great!) and let TJ take a much needed rest. We went out to the edge of Zen Point, looked at where we had just come from, the Gorge all around us, and Razor’s Edge Rock below us. There are many good outcrops and overlooks in Linville Gorge. Too many to count, even though many of them have been named. Surely, Zen Point is among my favorite. We made it back to the camp and TJ seemed to be feeling better, although I can imagine there had to be some serious soreness going on in his legs. We decided to save Razor’s Edge for another time. Not too much of a sacrifice, because Zen Point was really the crown jewel of the string of pearls clustered in this area. Uphill, back to Rock Jock.
Even though we were back on trail, and it was far less rocky, the ascent was not kind to TJ. By the time we made it back to Rock Jock, it was decision time. Option A) follow my ambition and hike Rock Jock south, as originally planned, and try to visit Crevasse Creek Point, then climb the 500feet in elevation up Dogback Mountain to the road or Option B) do the right thing and hike Rock Jock north back to Conley. When presenting the options to the group and what each would look like, the question came up, “If we go north, is it going to be less difficult?” I offered the helpful crucial decision making tidbit which would follow me the remainder of the day: “It follows the contour.” It’s good to have friends who can laugh and joke on you. It keeps you humble. Looking at the map, it was at least another 500 feet of elevation gain to exit the south end of Rock Jock. Though going back to Conley Cove parking wasn’t flat, it DID follow contour as far as getting out. We went north.
It was slow going, and the leg cramps seemed to be seizing in TJ’s legs more violently. At first we encouraged him through them, joked with him, and so on. We had separated again, and as we passed the newly labeled “BEES” tree from the last work day on Rock Jock, we stayed put to warn them of the yellow jackets that had been reported there. Here the mood changed. Chris said, “We’re gonna have to drag him out. I’m not playing.” Of course, we didn’t drag out anyone. Chad used a combo hatchet/machete that TJ had been carrying in his pack, made quick work of a sapling, and looped the Grand Trunk hammock TJ had also been carrying around the ends. Chris took the front, Chad and Luke took turns on the rear, and they carried out our injured friend. They were awesome. For half a mile, they heaved and grunted man noises until we came to the campsite just below Old Conley parking. “How close is it?” To which I replied, “Closer than if we went to where we parked.” Chad gave me his insight: “You’re the king of divergent answers.” Apparently I’d been giving them all day. This is what I contribute. We all made it to 105, Luke and I ran up the road to get the van, and we made it back to PinchIn parking. We all had a good stretch, and it was good for TJ to get off his beaten legs.
We said our goodbyes and hope-to-hike-with-you-agains, and we left the parking area to Chad fixing his dinner and Luke running down PinchIn Trail to get a view from the cliffs before the daylight completely closed its curtain. We were in search of our own dinner.
Chad and Chris stayed with TJ almost the entire time he was injured. They kept a pace where he was able to safely maneuver the difficult terrain we covered. They are for sure the heroes of the day. It really was great to have both Chad and Luke out there with us that day. Positivity really emanated from both of them, and they contributed hugely to keeping spirits high. Really, everyone did. Except for me. I just made sure we all stayed on contour.