October 2012 was my first trip to the Sphinx in Linville Gorge. I had heard about this wild place called the Lower North Carolina Wall, and how it led to the rock formation known as The Sphinx which keeps watch over the Gorge from its perch below the cliffs. A year prior, I had hiked Rock Jock on the opposite side of the Gorge, and knew I wanted to stand on the Sphinx. A year of research and planning made that a reality. Accompanied by friends from my local church body, we stood on the Sphinx. It was like a holy grail moment of hiking.
In October of 2013, I made a return trip with friends from local hiking groups.
In November of 2014, I made my first hike with Waldemar (or Wally, as his American friends have come to call him). We hiked in snow in South Carolina’s Mountain Bridge Wilderness, and that was where I first began to get to know Wally. In that time, I found out that our first trip to the Sphinx was when he first arrived at the church. He would have loved to be on that trip, to climb on those rocks, to see those sights, but I barely knew him then and it definitely wasn’t on a level to know he loved to be active.
As life happens, the path that our friend Wally and his family will be taking has them returning to Germany. In celebration of our friendship with him, and the fellowship God has given us, I wanted to take him on that first hike that he wanted to go on but did not.
Here is what happened in April 2018.
In Greenville, our crew met. Wally, Stan, Matt, Jared, Nathan, and myself. After being stuck in arrival delaying traffic for longer than we would have liked, we arrived at the event campsite below Hawksbill Mountain at the Linville Gorge. With a full parking lot, we were surprised to find that no one was camping at the campsite. After we selected our spot, pitched our tents and hammocks, and gathered firewood, we decided to hike to the summit of Hawksbill to see the sunset. It turns out that a lot of other folks had this idea, too, and were camping up there instead of at the base like we would. It really is glorious up on the highest peak in the Gorge.
Back at camp, we fixed our dinner. Jared hung a lantern which gave our site a very Narnian feel. Chris and Michael arrived just after our first round of hot dogs, and we all got to catch up. After eating, we splintered off to explore some of the nearby paths, to find rocky outcrops to stand on and see shooting stars in the darkness. As midnight approached, I closed our evening with a reading of A Liturgy for those who Camp in Tents from Every Moment Holy by Rabbit Room Press. The fire died down, the food was secured, and we retired to our shelters of nylon for the evening.
I unzipped my bug net just before 7:00am, thinking about how I’ve got to get a fire going. To my delight, Jared had risen before me and had the fire built to a healthy size. As Chris got out of his hammock, he said, “Hey, there’s a dude over there.” Jameson had come in during the night and was cowboy camping nearby.
My wife Jenny had prepared a hoard size supply of foil wrapped breakfast burritos for us, and they started to go into the fire. Jared took on coffee duty with beans he had roasted himself, and it was a great morning. Honestly, I can’t recall a better camping experience I’ve ever had. The site was great. The food was great. The temperature was great. The fellowship was great.
At Table Rock Picnic Area, we met up with the Three of Epicity: the Badger, Kitty, and Jill. This would put our group size over 10, which is the limit the USFS asks. We would meet up at intersections along the way, but mostly our groups were separate. In the Chimneys, we passed through a group of slackliners and a separate group rock climbers. The Mountains to Sea Trail was seeing all kinds of adventurers today.
Heading down the Mossy Monster Trail, I noted a camera just above the descent gully, and wondered if the USFS is tracking the traffic that is going down into this dangerous area. It is dangerous down here, really. Falls have happened. Any injury at this point would put the injured in a world of hurt, if they survived. Extraction by search and rescue would be extremely difficult, arduous, time consuming, and costly.
Carefully selecting our footholds, we spotted for each other as we climbed down the cliffs to and through the Mossy Monster separation crack. Next comes the Talus Field, where every rock can shift under your weight, and eventually the tree climb area. As of this writing, the tree is not dead, but the branches used to aid in climbing the cliff face are. Do not count on climbing that tree. Climbing the rocks to access the higher ledge comes with the looming empty space below, as a fall here could be fatal.
As I was learning the Linville Gorge, Bob Underwood, the Linville Legend wisely counseled me, “You will see two entities on your hike: God and Linville Gorge. If you bite off more than you can chew, God will forgive you. Linville Gorge will not.” For those who have ears to hear, let them hear.
Once on top of the ledge, we looked back to see the Three of Epicity eating lunch on an outcrop. We kept going. Hugging the cliff walls, I was surprised to see how much the last wildfire had cleared out. Pine trees that used to raise over my head were now just above my knees. The bushes had been burned away. Charred logs and scrub were everywhere, but the briars were reclaiming what was theirs. For now. There is a curse over this earth and all its inhabitants that will one day be lifted. With echoes of Isaiah 55, violets and rhododendron prophecy of the coming day when death dies and all will be made right. If you’ve never read this awe inspiring passage of Scripture that makes every delight a shadow of what is to come, it is a wonderful hope.
In a roundabout way that kept us grounded and skirted risks, we finally approached the Sphinx. That iconic and mysterious tower that juts out of the cliffs like some twisted slalom welcomed our group through its wretched gates of char and thorn. Many scrambled up the final climb, but I did not. I have stood on that rock twice prior. I don’t have any fear of it. I am confident in my physical ability. I’m not bored with it. The thrill of standing there has been wrung out of me, and as I was guiding a few to the path to take up that final scramble, I decided that I would not return. This would be my final hike to the Sphinx. It is time to move on.
It was a surprise to see Kitty and Jill show up at the Sphinx. In a game of “Where’s Badger?” I was amazed to see him nestled up onto a Badger-perch on the side of the cliffs. We don’t call you the Badger for nothing! Hint: look for the orange, and it’s still going to be difficult to find him. This would be our final parting ways with Badger, Kitty and Jill today. As we looked back, it was clear that Spencer and a friend of his had caught up. It was commented that among the Team Waterfall hikers, even though our groups will often separate, taking different routes, but we always seem to end up at the same location. It’s like we are in some kind of adventure-sync.
A victim of our group that this hungry tangle would claim would be a wedding ring. One of our group had it flung from his finger as a charred log gave away beneath him on our approach to the Sphinx. We looked again as a larger group on our exit. With sadness, we moved on. Even though a ring is only a token, a small symbol, we hold with great esteem the unending covenantal love which the ring points to. It is a shadow of the covenant God makes with His bride. The covenant is not lost, even if it’s symbol is.
We fought the hills and thorny tangle through to a group of boulders colloquially referred to as the Icebergs, which we would scramble between as we stood at the foot of our final obstacle. The leg crushing Amphitheater.
Words don’t describe getting out of this place. Keep going up. Aim left. It really is trying to follow a path of least resistance, which changes as trees fall, rocks move, and scrub burns. I think this is my favorite part, though. A strep boulder field like the Amp is difficult to navigate on several levels, but this meat grinder doesn’t carry a risk of falling with it. You’re free to relax and give yourself over to complete physical exertion climbing out of here. Our group of nine was staggered at exit, but we all made it and rested at the top. Somehow, Matt and Wally were full of energy. I’m not saying I’m not still in my youth, but I did feel my age more this time around. They were excited to summit Table Rock back at the parking lot, so they took Jared and ran ahead while the rest of us slowly trickled in to the picnic area.
Thanks Wally. You’re still here for a short time. Here you go, brother. I’m grateful to have been able to put this together for you. With a mixture of hope and sadness, we wish you Godspeed. We love you are grateful to our Father to have given us this time with you, and entrust you into His care as your journey takes you and your family beyond the Upstate South Carolina. These stops are only pleasant inns on our paths to our eternal homeland.
The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.
– Numbers 6:24-26