On Saturday, September 19, 2015, my nephew Robert Parker organized a rock climbing trip to Holloway Mountain. This cliff is located off the north side of Holloway Mountain Road, in Watauga County, between the Blue Ridge Parkway and NC 105 in Foscoe. It was a family affair. Fellow climbers were Robert’s dad Larry, his wife (and my sister) Ann, Robert’s wife Meredith, and their three children Kara (5 years old), Kate (3 years) and Karly (1 year). Yes, everybody but Karly rock climbed and / or rappelled!
When we arrived at the mountain in mid-morning, we had the cliff to ourselves. By the time we left in mid-afternoon, there was a crowd. Ropes hung from every crack and face. Each climbing group had its divisions of talent. There was an obvious leader, who knew the route (or quickly learned it…) and several followers, who took nearly constant instructions, encouragement and safety advice. Despite the obvious dangers of potentially falling off a cliff and getting killed, most climbing groups are highly focused on being careful and using redundant backup equipment and procedures.
Robert, Larry and I hiked up the trail around the mountain to the top of the cliff. There Robert and Larry set up the anchors and safety straps with multiple large nylon straps to hold our climbing rope and separate rappelling rope. This job is harder than it sounds. First, you have to know a great deal about angles, sliding and static dynamic forces and knots. Then, somebody has to hang out over the edge of the cliff with little protection and handle the rope. Robert did most of the exposed work. After setting the anchors, we all rappelled down to the bottom of the cliff to start climbing.
We were doing what is called top roping, as opposed to lead climbing. With top roping, a rope is anchored to the top of the cliff in the middle of the rope. The climber's harness is tied to one end of the rope and the belayer grips the other end of the rope and runs it through a mechanical belay device tied to his harness. That way, if the climber falls, he cannot fall more than a few feet. And unlike top roping, the climber does not have to depend on sometimes sketchy climbing devices set into cracks in the cliff to hold his fall.
Our cliff measured about 60 feet tall. When thinking in terms of big mountain ranges, like the 29,029 foot Mount Everest, 60 feet does not sound like so much. But when you are leaning out over the top edge of that cliff and looking straight down, with nothing to protect you but your own grip on a rope strung through the rappel device tied to your harness, the view can tighten your sphincters.
Climbing routes are labeled with numbers, like whitewater rapids, with the larger number signifying more difficulty. A hike up a steep trail would be graded Class 4. Anything that is vertical or over-hanging is Grade 5. From there, the larger number means smoother rock, fewer holds and smaller rugosities. World class climbers get written up in magazines for doing routes like 5.13 (c). The route that we did most of the day was 5.9. Robert was the only one in our group who got the top. Larry came the next closest to the top. Meredith and I made it up the shortest portion.
Kara and Kate showed great spunk and climbed about 10 feet high. When they were finished climbing, both girls bravely and correctly sat back in their harness, kept their balance on their extended legs and let the belayer lower them on the rope. Later, most of the group hiked to the top of the cliff and rappelled down. Astoundingly, even tiny Kate was willing to rappel off the mountain. She could not do it by herself, so she was tied to her Dad’s harness and came down the vertical slope grinning and swinging her feet.
Then a neighboring climber on harder route saw Robert’s skill and offered to let Robert climb the neighbor’s rope. It was a 5.10 (a). Robert made it all the way to the top his first try. Not having tried that route before – called “on sighting” - shows even more talent. Robert said that was the most difficult rated climb that he has done. This same neighbor said that our anchor system was the best he had ever seen. More safety.
We all had a late snack lunch. Then the girls headed home while we guys stayed to do some more climbing. When we called it a day, we repaired back to Larry and Ann’s house near Meat Camp in northeast Watauga County for a wonderful home cooked meal featuring meat loaf and fresh green beans prepared my Ann.