‘America’s Footpath,’ a plane crash, and first ascents in the Blue Ridge

June 30, 2014 · 5 minute read

The land, seas, and skies have been crossed time and time again, but there are still mountains we have yet to summit. Climbers will battle earth and ice for years to have their name forever attached to a line of rock. In our world, first ascents are one of the last forms of genuine exploration. It takes the creative and daring artist to look up at a rock face and go for it – the adventure is not found at the top, but in the fear and unknown route to get there.

pic1As spring crept into the Blue Ridge this year, my girlfriend and I drove out to Dobie Mountain in George Washington National Forest next to the popular Humpback Rocks. The plan was to welcome the changing of the seasons and for me to take the opportunity to climb on something real. As we began the hike, the wind ripped through the neighboring peaks until we dipped down below the ridgeline, making a sharp u-turn onto the Appalachian Trail, “America’s Footpath.”  Many boots had passed along this white-blazed trail and I felt a sense of reverie every time I travelled on it. About a hundred yards into the A.T. a few small boulders hugged the trail. I threw on my climbing shoes and began working out sequences. I ticked a few little guys off and then went off-trail and up the mountainside. About fifty yards up was a classic Virginia bluestone boulder. The chossy rock broke in burly lines and most of the underside had snapped off creating an epic roof. I set my feet and with the first move my left hand ripped a brick-sized chunk out. I fell back hard on my wrist. Spiders and millipedes came crawling out from the empty spot and I brushed them off creating a new handhold. There could have been a hundred different routes on that boulder, ever-changing as it broke away over the years. I was determined to get one of them. After a few more attempts, the rocks held, my feet stuck, and I was able to pull up and over the lip of the boulder.

pic4 (1)Back on the AT, we weaved through the barren forest and trounced over matted leaves.  The trail held a story at each of its 2,181 miles, and I thought about a time in the future when I could travel each one with her. About a mile further we came to Glass Hollow Overlook. Hundreds of pebbles, fallen from their former peaks, had leveled trees, revealing the patched valley floors stretching east.  Behind them, the rolling mountains blended from earth to sky.

I hiked down to the bottom of this outcrop and began looking for climbable routes on the twenty-foot face. Unfortunately I had forgotten to pack crashpads, ropes, or really a suitable spotter.

I found a vertical crack along the left side that ended on a small ledge about 12 feet up, leaving the last eight feet for some basic rock scrambling. I cleaned some crisp lichen off the crack and then started my ascent. A lay-back and small finger jams gave me enough to get off the ground and a couple reachy crimps allowed me to pull up onto the ledge. From here I had one more level of rock to climb before I was on easy street. I stretched, looking for anything to grab but only found sloping terrain and patches of moss. I looked down for any footholds. There was crumbling lichen all over the ledge but one thigh-high pocket to my right. I lifted my foot up and wedged my toes into the pocket but immediately put it back down – it was too high to trust. I doubted I could shift my weight onto it.

pic5 (1)The panic hit immediately. I looked back down at my girlfriend taking pictures, and she knew something was wrong. I shuffled back and forth on the narrow ledge fearing my foot would slip on the brittle lichen. “Could I turn around, sit down, and jump off?  This didn’t look as high from the ground,” I thought. I kept stalling, chalking up my hands and searching for any decent handhold to pair with my shaky foot.  It was a typical climber reaction, as if more chalk would eventually turn a sloping hold into a jug.  My girlfriend shouted, “Should I be spotting you?” “That’s probably a good idea.” I said, “just try not to let my head hit first.”  She paced back and forth on the ground, arms high, trying to guess my landing zone.

Hesitation, uncertainty, the fear of falling. I had no other choice. I dug my right toe into that lone pocket and shifted all my weight onto it praying the sticky rubber would do its job. I stood up, leaned forward, and lunged for the top. An immediate rush coupled with relief. Another send. Maybe the first for this line, this rock? I would never know. I realized then the personal connection that was different in each climber: some climb for exercise, others to compete, some to achieve a higher grade, and a few climb to create.

Back in one piece on the A.T., we hiked towards the Paul C. Wolfe shelter. As we approached, we could see a granite bench out of place in the Virginia woods. The bench was a memorial for John Donovan. A member of the Old Dominion Appalachian Trail Club, he had disappeared attempting to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail back in 2005. Exactly one year to the day later his abandoned campsite saved two lost hikers. His self-centered trek ending in purpose.pic6

Even farther on along the hike we came across an old plane crash site from 1964. In the darkening forest it was eerie standing over this wreckage. I’d like to think that the pilot bailed into the Blue Ridge and escaped to live the quiet life in the woods with only the streams and the birds and his mind.

After having my own scare, I contemplated John Donovan, that pilot, climbers, and pioneers. Those that spend their lives pursuing what they love and whose lives end in that pursuit. Pilots dream of flying faster, higher, farther, of seeking freedom in the skies.  Hikers are constantly traveling thousands of miles to embrace nature one step at a time. To climb is to explore vertically. Those that choose to stand on that ledge daily, hearts racing and palms sweating humble me. We all had our own reasons for the journey. I was still unsure of mine. All I knew, sitting at Blue Mountain Brewery that night having some suds with my girl… I knew I was a little bit luckier.