We arrived at Table rock parking approximately 8:30pm, and it was plenty dark already. Camping just south of the picnic area was not exactly what I thought would be the greatest spot to camp, but with our route in mind and not wanting to carry all of our gear on that route, I opted to sacrifice on our campsite. I remembered there being campsites south of the parking, but in our haste to make camp we mistook the ones just prior to the Linville Gorge Wilderness signs for being the ones we were looking for. We picked a site with a fire ring on the southeastern most space, and set up our campsite.
After setting up camp, we chose to headlamp hike up to the Chimneys versus Table Rock, since we were unfamiliar with the TR trail and had no desire to mess ourselves up in the dark. We made our way south on the Mountains to Sea Trail until the first rock outcrop and clearings. The sky was so clear, the stars were really vibrant and we were dazzled with sights of the Milky Way spanning it’s way across the night sky. Even with it being so dark, we were able to make out the silhouettes of the Chimneys and the west rim of the Gorge, and then the ranges beyond. Further south in the Chimneys, we were able to spot the campsite Dave and I found last December beneath the sky bridge, as it was given away by the occupiers headlamps.
It was slightly unnerving as I hung my hammock only a yard or two away from a tree bearing the sign “North Carolina Bear Sanctuary.” As I had prepped for this trip and the prep overflowed out of my mouth, most people questioned my hammock plans as making myself a bear snack, which I dismissed; however, as I laid in my hammock for its maiden overnight voyage away from the circle of the guys in my group, I felt somewhat like a bear snack. To release the suspense, dear reader, I did not become such a snack. Our sleeping was impeded by the noisy campers in the vicinity. At last watch check, one group had a loud repetitive guitar player singing off-key until at least 1:15AM. He wasn’t crooning Jack Johnson-esque tunes either; he was belting them out like some drunken combination of Kurt Cobain and Homer Simpson, hollering and hammering the same 3 chords over and over and over despite our mocking and Josh’s yell of “shut up!!” Beyond our serenade, we found clear skies beyond this hour to be a double edged sword. The stars are beautiful, but up on the ridge the 75% illuminated moon directly overhead turned on all the lights for us. Hanging in an ENO DoubleNest became a blessing, as the extra fabric served to shade my eyes.
We started stirring and moving about around 7AM, witnessed a vibrant and neon sunrise, broke camp, stashed our bulk in the van, and headed south on the Mountains to Sea Trail (here on out, MST) around 8:40AM. We kept on through the Chimneys, and actually didn’t scramble around much. We were pretty set on getting to the Mossy Monster trail , so while we enjoyed the scenery, we didn’t stick around. By 9AM, we were on the trail to the Mossy Monster.
I was keeping my eyes out for a right turn for the descent gully, and took the first one. I had forgotten about Zak Kuhn’s photo of the dead tree with the white tag remnants, so I took the wrong one. The trail we were on took us to the cliffs between Apricot and Mossy Monster, where a couple had pitched there tent and spent the night. What a spot! It was great to bring all my guys to the cliff edge, point down to the Mossy Monster separation crack, and say, “That’s where we’re heading. We’re going DOWN that crack.” We took some obligatory pictures and headed back up to the trail, found the right descent trail, and headed towards the gully.
We surveyed the first scramble and found it to be quite wet. There was steady water flowing down the rock, although the volume wasn’t that high. With careful foot and hand placement, we got down the first scramble with out much problem. If you make your way out to this scramble and decide it looks too sketchy, I promise that this is the point you should turn around. If this were icy, it would be extremely difficult if not impossible to make it down safely without crampons. We are now on high adventure.
The trail beyond the first scramble was easy to follow, albeit steep. Someone has definitely been using it. The Mossy Monster separation crack is awe-inspiring and impressive. Some posting got us down the initial entry, and I was glad to be wearing approach shoes with sticky soles. The separation crack, unlike the first scramble, was free of any water and totally dry. The photos I took down here were all blurry, so most of them didn’t turn out. The descent through the separation crack was one of my favorite parts of this trip, and it was over way too soon. Once we exited the crack, the trail (which was easy to follow) turned north, down a ledge, and circled back around to the beginning of the NC Wall and shortly after entered the Talus Field.
The Talus Field is tricky footing not only because the terrain is so uneven, but because every now and then we’d find slabs that shifted under our weight. Committing to a step with full body weight only to find your step shifting down under your feet is kind of unnerving. Like the Mossy Monster separation crack, this was over way too soon. We took a few pictures as some of the outcrops before we got to the tree climb area.
There has been some discussion as how to get to the ledge from here. It’s obvious where the tree climb is once you make it there. Some bark is worn off the step branch, which is a nice handle to hold at the crux of leaving the tree for the ledge, but the tree seems alive and solid enough. Still, I chose the free climb to the ledge about 15feet beyond the tree. There are plenty of hand holds, but with a slight backwards lean to the free climb it looks much easier to climb the tree. I vote for making the free climb the “official” path, although people will inevitably choose whichever they deem easiest/less risky in the moment of decision.
After we were all on the ledge, I knew we would be faced with the option of staying on the ledge or choosing the Brute Force Route (from here on, BFR). Shortly after the tree/free climb, there is an obvious break in the bushes on the right with a rock staircase heading down. I’m assuming this is the stair steps to the BFR. Knowing we did NOT want this route, we steered left to stay against the wall, and within a few short scrambles found ourselves at The Cove, back on the ledge, and overlooking the Sphinx. The ledge is very scenic with great views every step of the way. It is fantastic to see how the perspectives and viewing angles highlight the Sphinx in different ways. With each step, that awesome rock formation seemed to change shape.
With the Sphinx’s spine coming more into view as we progressed south, the question of when we leave the wall arose. We had seen the giant boulder along the ledge, as well as the downed tree which can be seen in Google Earth. I had speculated this being a direct traverse down to the base of the Sphinx, but going with my gut and listening to advise, I chose to keep heading toward the Amphitheater. There was never an obvious right turn to head towards the Sphinx. Once at the Icebergs, I was able to climb to the top of the first one for a survey of the area, and climbing to the top of the second Iceberg confirmed at least the general direction and wall we needed to be heading for.
The bushwhacking along the LNCW was thick and had plenty of briars and brambles, but at least there seemed to be a faint and general path towards the Amphitheater. Not so with the Sphinx. Whereas before we were allowing a “path” to guide us, once we made the northern turn off the ledge and back towards the Sphinx, it was all trial and error. In some sections, we were able to stick to the wall; however, frequently that was overgrown and the path of least resistance pushed us back out into the bush. The brambles out there are beyond scratchy, and seem to have the highest concentration of thorns at ankle level. Every patch we went through insisted we would be held back, and a number of times I had to stop and “untie” my feet from the thorny vines. Also along the wall, there was a good amount of water trickling down and off the wall. We got into some mud here, but really none of it was so slick to lose our footing. We kept an eye on the Sphinx, not really knowing where the ascent point was, hoping it was not at the base of the spine. That joker looked long and steep. We made it into the pines, and this is a good indication of when to really bear west until you run into some rock. Where we ended up was a rock face about 10ft high directly in front of us, which The Spire formation was on. Two of my guys climbed up and over that to ascend, but the rest of us worked our way south along the wall and came to what we knew had to be the right point to start working our way up. There’s an easy incline with a burned tree that is perfect for posting your foot on to make it up the first step. I doubt this tree will last forever, but if it doesn’t, this route is still what I saw to be the best option. From here, it is a very easy walk (similar to the UNCW) to the Sky Bridge. At this point, there’s two options. (1) An easy spot to rest, with fantastic views, and no more scrambling involved. (2) The final scramble to the top of the Sphinx. What makes the final scramble intimidating is the crevasse below it. The scramble itself is not difficult, as there are some decent sized jug handholds, and decent ledges for footholds. (Let me interject here: I was wearing FiveTen Guide Tennies, which are approach shoes with sticky C4 Stealth Rubber and dot tread. These give great grip on rock surface, and I’ll review them in another post. For the purposes of this report, just understand I wasn’t wearing sneakers and the final scramble may be more dangerous than I’m judging, based on the shoes I was wearing). There are plenty of spots for good hand and foot placement up to the top. Just go slow, keep your wits about you, and do your best not to look down if that kind of thing bothers you. It also helps if you have a spotter on the first level, at least when you’re coming down. If you’re unsure and you have someone suggesting foot placements, it’s a great help.
The Sphinx! We made it to the top! As we were getting closer to the Amphitheater on the ledge, I was beginning to wonder if this would happen. I was not about to miss the Sphinx after all the effort and planning. Here we stood. The Sphinx. Friends, that is what victory tastes like. Sitting up there with some of the most magnificent Gorge views to be had makes any lunch you stuffed in your sack taste good, although my homemade trail mix with bacon and orange cranberries was pushing the limit of “everything tastes better in the bush.” Anyway. We arrived at the Sphinx pinnacle at 11:30AM, and we ate, rested, and hung out there until around 12:15PM. So we descended the Sphinx and…
Here is where we got split up.
I didn’t realize we had decided to split up, so I was running around in the bushes by myself like I don’t know trying to keep my group together. Didn’t work. Erich and Josh had taken the proposed direct climb up to the LNCW ledge, and everyone else had taken the wall back to the Icebergs. I thought I had just lost the other guys and went back for them, but since they yelled they were OK, I figured I was too far behind to be safe following them so I rejoined the wall group. What they reported was a wet but not overly difficult time, climbing up about 4 or 5 ledges to get to the main ledge. They encountered the first snake, a baby rattler, and came away unscathed. In the thought of route making, it would be more difficult than following the lower wall. Realize though, that the ferocity of the briars and brambles between the Amp and Sphinx is what caused them to take the direct route up the ledge. If this were cleared out, it would solve a lot of problems with this path.
We descended between the first and second Icebergs, and towards the lower mouth of the Amphitheater. For whatever reason, I gave very little study to this area in the planning stages of this trip. I suppose I just assumed there would be a well used climbers trail all the way to the bottom (that would be OBVIOUS from the bottom as approached from LNCW). Instead, it was a giant scramble through prime snake territory. As we came in, we angled right/south and stayed closer to the side (not hugging the wall by any means) of the Daddy and the Mummy. About 5 minutes into the Amp, I heard Josh start singing and whooping and scrambling at a pace that could only have been attained by a snake sighting. At least the fat 2″ diameter Copperhead was more interested in traveling down than Josh was. This is probably why we kept towards the right side. Eventually we worked our way up and over to the site that looks up into the Mummy’s rappel gully. We took a break here and watched as a couple climbers set up to rappel. We moved on before watching them make it down, but as Zak had said from his previous report… It’s steep. From here we kept towards the south end, and the bushes got thick. We could tell where the descent gully to the Amp was from the UNCW, so we eventually just made a straight cut north to get there. Lo and behold, a path that was way better than what we took to get there! Our group had split into two in the Amp, and by the time I got there (2nd group), the first guys had gone up. Apparently they didn’t see the trail to the left and thy climbed up the creek. When we got there, we heard them yelling, “Don’t climb the creek!!” I guess not!
Once at the top, it was decision time. The MST or UNCW back to the car? We had votes going both ways. I really wanted to summit Table Rock after the LNCW, but judging on how worn out my guys were, I figured UNCW was a great compromise, so that’s where I cast my vote. I don’t know if the aye’s or nay’s won, but we did the UNCW anyway.
I’m glad we did! It was fantastic to see the Sphinx from the UNCW cliff ledges, and to trace where we had gone. The best part about the whole thing was that we were on the ledge the same time a group began climbing the Sphinx! It must have been Kurtis and his guys from Tampa. It was only a few minutes after 2PM when we saw someone up there. I took a few photos and a couple videos, and then we moved on. The views of the Camel and Apricot were nice and really made me wish for some more adventure, although…the Gorge had taken pretty much every ounce of energy we could muster. Fighting bushes and briars and scrambling ledges all day takes it out of you, but it’s so worth it. If you want to play, you gots’ta pay…and indeed we did. On the way back to the car, I noted the Twin Towers and Catbrier Point. That looks like a mess getting out there, but tons of fun!
And what better way to conclude this trip than dinner and a slice of Strawberry Rhubarb pie at Louise’s? Nothing concludes a day in the Gorge like a slice of pie. I can’t wait to get back out there.