in pursuit of excellence

As soon as I stepped off the plane coming back from sport climbing for two weeks in Mexico with the Petzl RocTrip last November, I embarked on a journey to find the best 5.9 trad climb in the Southeast, which I hinted at here. As often happens when I think I have more time than I do to get things set up, the week-long road trip was, to say the least, poorly planned, jammed packed with unneccessary backtracking and full of twists and turns. But isn’t that the pure definition of a road trip?

The week started when I picked up friend and photo extraordinaire Keith Ladzinski from the airport in Louisville, KY.
I had traveled to France with Keith in 2008 for a Rock and Ice story on the Verdon Gorge, and we had been plotting another story since.

We scanned the city for a couple of hours looking for a camera shop to get a new battery, then drove to Lexington, KY to pick up Dario Ventura, who was joining the trip and who had the trad rack that I had forgotten I needed.

We  then headed to Asheville, North Carolina where we would set up shop on some friends’ living room floor and base out of for the next few days. All in all, from Mexico to Asheville, is was a solid day’s worth of rushing. What followed over the next five days was an asinine amount of driving and hiking and a few routes scattered in between.

The three of us, along with Pat Goodman and Jessa Goebel as the NC tour guides, journeyed through some of the areas most classic gear lines.

Old school, sandbagged and full of history, we got a glimpse into the sandstone that makes this one of the most amazing climbing areas in the country, and not only because of the bullet rock, breathtaking backdrops or stellar routes. Though we don’t have the drastic elevations gains of the Colorado Rockies or the seemingly endless expanse of sky of the Las Vegas desert, we have the bubbling expanse of the Appalachian Mountains, older and more grandfatherly than so many bigger ranges. Bigger is not always better, and the simplicity of age, time and history can teach you just as much about yourself.

As I have come to learn on many things, I need to always double what I think I need. Perhaps much of this has to do with the lack of preparation necessary for sport climbing, my style du jour, that I have gotten accustomed to. I thought five days was enough, we could have easily worked with 10. I thought one #4 would have worked, I would have been psyched with two. Regardless of my pathetic ability to judge the correct time, gear or preparation necessary, we made our pilgrimage. While our list of 10 routes was cut to 8, mostly because of time constraints, we hit Rumbling Bald, Looking Glass, Linville Gorge, Tennessee Wall and Sunset Rock in five days.

What followed was not only great routes, but a lesson in history and personal meaning of climbing: how what we do can help us measure up in a bigger world.

During the writing of the story, I gathered this Jeep Gaskins quote from guidebook author Harrison Shull, who had interviewed him years before.  “If you have depth to your soul and insights into life’s lessons and you didn’t get them from risk, then congratulations, but I can’t relate. Climbing can be deltoids or it can be Zen; it can be runout or short, safe falls; it can be skies filled with lightning or crisp air ahead of mare’s tails. It is never standing in a grocery line.”

The poignancy of his quote, its simplicity and force, sticks with me even now.

So what happens when this sport climber goes trad climbing in the Southeast? Find out in the Rock and Ice July issue # 195, which just hit newsstands.