Pilot Mountain NC

Frigid Weather thwarts the sole climbing item of our trip to North Carolina

Looking out at the upland plateau from Pilot Mountain's ridge

Looking out at the upland plateau from Pilot Mountain’s ridge

A few years back, Ra and I made our first trip to North Carolina. With family now ensconced there, it is likely we will be visiting the state more frequently each year, so we figured it wise to get to know the climbing options available in the region. After visiting with our kin for a few days, we set off in search of vertical playgrounds. Our second stop placed us in the town of Pilot Mountain, near its namesake prominence, a location we hadn’t known of but had spotted from the highway. After spending the night in town, I’d garnered one significant fact: there is climbing on the mountain, but it is strictly verboten on the outstanding summit promontory itself. At the time, this was a big turn-off, enough to send us onward, looking elsewhere. We never even drove up the road to the upper ridge to glance at the permitted climbing area.

On this trip, we gave it a second glance. What a glance it was, revealing how very shortsighted we’d been. That main promontory still beckons – and it’s a shame climbing isn’t allowed there – but the scraps left us vertical crawlers is well worth the trip.

It’s a shame too, that on this trip, the weather would prevent climbing. We’d been dogged by freezing and near-freezing temperatures the entire way from our icy abode in the Adirondacks, through a subzero windchill at Gettysburg, snow flurries as we peaked the final Appalachian crest before dropping to North Carolina’s upland plateau; and the bad weather continued to haunt us as we drove up to Pilot Mountain’s summit parking lot. Posted on the Park Agency’s bulletin board was the latest forecast: Winter Weather Advisory for freezing rain, sleet, and snow in and around Pilot Mountain, beginning this afternoon.

We would not be staying long, and what little time we had there wasn’t going to include ropes: with cloudy skies and below freezing temperature, the rock was, well, stone cold. While we’d left behind the terrific winds of Gettysburg, frequent gusts still snaked up the mountain slopes, cutting through our jackets and making any ungloved rock handling an icy affair.

The actual summit of Pilot Mountain. Climbing is NOT allowed on this formation.

The actual summit of Pilot Mountain. Climbing is NOT allowed on this formation. Seriously edited photo, btw.

This would be a preliminary excursion, then. Beyond the parking lot, that summit tower still beckons, still plays sour grape-song in my head. But as a consolation prize, the surrounding cliffs more than make up for the prohibition. There appears to be some fantastic climbing opportunities: corner systems, arêtes, faces and cracks abound. While loose rock and vegetation are also common, these appear to be relatively manageable – though the locals tell of plentiful copperheads in the talus and deeper horizontal cracks, so when we return, it will be early or late enough to avoid those particular denizens.

One of several tempting aretes hanging on the climbing area of Pilot Mountain, NC

One of several tempting aretes hanging on the climbing area of Pilot Mountain, NC

The climbing starts within moments of leaving the parking lot. A gate, clearly marked for our ilk only, leads to the cliff top, where I reckon people can set top-ropes before heading down one of the safer gullies or rappelling to reach the base. I noted a memorial, flowers lying on a boulder near the entrance, messages painted in remembrance of Pilot Mountain’s main climbing proponent, Lloyd Ramsey, who died here in 2012.

Walking onward, I began catching sight of what drew and kept him here: the marvelous cliffs. Certainly, like me, he must have glanced often at the summit crown and salivated over its lofty, steep ramparts, but then with a salutary shrug, turned to the task and promising terrain at hand.

And promising it is. We are already planning a return trip to Pilot Mountain.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.