My First Grade III Climb – Groover at Laurel Knob in North Carolina
I don't remember the first time I tied a figure eight and roped up to tackle the vertical world. I don't remember my first multipitch route. I don't remember the first time I picked up a trad rack to lead a clean line but I will remember my first Grade III climb because on Groover at Laurel Knob I matriculated from being a mini-epic'er to a full grown epic'ist.
On paper Groover doesn't sound all that tough and as far as Laurel Knob goes it isn't. 6 pitches, ~900 feet, of up to 5.8 trad slab. Sounds simple. What the stats don't tell you is that after the first pitch you are committed to finishing the route because the route wanders so far right that you are above blank slab leaving you without the option to build leaver anchors even if you wanted to part with gear. The stats don't tell you that 5.8 friction climbing is no longer 5.8 climbing when the rock is wet. The stats don't tell you that you need to be mentally prepared for the shit to hit the fan because at places like Laurel Knob it can hit the fan fast.
Getting to the start of Groover can be tricky but Ben and I had done it twice before and we had the approach dialed. It takes about 2 hours to get to the base of Laurel Knob. That 2 hours involves going barefoot through a river, tip toeing across a makeshift fallen tree bridge and descending ~700 feet of narrow, bushwacky climber's trails. Once you're at the base of Laurel Knob the immensity of the cliff hits you because damn this thing is huge. The trick to getting to the start of Groover without true bushwhacking is to stay along the edge of the cliff and not follow the trail that wanders away from the face after a little log bridge. Follow the base of the cliff for a helluva long time and find the one large pine about 200 feet up that marks the end of pitch 1.
This was the third time that Ben and I had attempted Groover and I decided that I had been a pansy long enough and that I'd take the first pitch. I racked up with everything we had and 15 pieces of pro later I proudly sat on the tree ledge because I just had moved better than I ever have on lead. The rock was sticky and even when there weren't dimple for your feet to stick to if you committed to the smear Laurel Knob would reward you with a foothold. When Ben got up to the tree ledge he wanted to know what I did with the old "skurred" Jon and if this new impostor was going to keep climbing like, well, a climber. After that first 5.7+, 180 foot pitch things seemed to be falling into place and it felt like Groover was going to go smooth like butta.
Ben took the second pitch which was a more awkward than difficult 5.7. On lead it was tough because all of the pro was buried in an off-width-ish overhang but if you stayed out on the face and trusted handless foot smears the climbing was fine. Now that I think about it, on the second pitch was the first time I have used the technique of two friction palms on the rock solely for balance while my feet did all the high angle slab climbing. The rock was sticky and I was loving it. The guide book references two ledges with the second ledge being a better belay ledge. I will completely agree with the guidebook in that the second ledge is a better belay ledge. The only problem is that when Ben reached the first belay ledge he had exactly zero feet of slack left in our 60m ropes so he made due with the first, less than ideal belay ledge.
From here on out Ben took every lead and on every lead he looked more and more like the crusty, North Carolina, trad, slab-master he is. Pitch 3 was the first high attention, slab experience required pitch. There is a short section of vertical slab that must be overcome. It looks like you could skirt it by leaving the crack and running it out but where's the fun in that? Luckily there is pro to be had above and below this crux and Ben sent it like a champ and continued moving in good form up the face to the "terrace" that the guidebook mentions.
Terrace is a bit of a stretch because while it is a large belay area, it is definitely not even close to being flat. You can stand up without hands but not particularly comfortably. At this point we were making good time and took a break to apply some sunscreen and refill our water bottles. There was no escaping the sun but it was mid-day and we were making good time so we did not even think about rationing water.
The 4th pitch is the one that scared me after reading the beta but in all honesty I should not have been scared by it because Ben was soon going to be worrying about it enough for the both of us. Using the beta, Ben climbed as high as he could in the crack and built an absolutely bomber two piece mini anchor. After down climbing on the low angle slab he made his way over to the first water groove and found the quartz dike that the guide book mentions. The white quartz dike is about the size of a keg and is actually in the first water groove that just happened to have running water in it when we were climbing. Even with water literally running over the quartz dike there is still an absolutely bomber #3 camalot placement. We had brought up cowbell hexes but ended up not using them because I would let my mother drop on that #3. It is a damned good thing that this piece is bomber because the next piece of pro is where you build the anchor 80 feet later above a set of bowling ball sized solution pockets. The rope drag on this pitch could get wicked without doubles. I would highly recommend checking them out. (link)
I think the best way to tackle this pitch is to down climb pretty far below the quartz dike to where it is a little easier to get into the first water groove and then climb up to the dike and then pop over to the second water groove. There are absolutely no obvious lines of attack so go with your gut on this one. Once you're in the second water groove the climbing is the definition of run out slab and Ben's inner hardman was making an appearance 80 feet above the last piece of pro. I really think the CCC should install one or two bolts on that second water groove because there is NO pro and there is nothing cool about unprotectable climbing especially in a full commitment, wilderness setting where when things go bad they go really really bad.
For the 5th pitch you can either go the original way, which the guidebook says is a 100 ft 5.8 slab pitch protected by four bolts followed by a scramble to the descent anchors, or you can have a 5.7 pitch and then another 5.6 run out pitch. At this point Ben and I were mentally and physically ready to get off that rock. We talked about getting a steak dinner when we got back into town because it couldn't have been past 3PM. We figured that the fastest way out would be up the "clip up" 5.8 and the quick scramble. After the run out on pitch 4, four bolts over 100 feet sounded like a bolt ladder.
Ben committed to the 5.8 and up he went. He had been moving damned well the entire climb but slowed down on this pitch which made me nervous. The water groove had a river running down it but it seemed that the route stemmed across and I have learned that on slab just because you can't see places for feet doesn't mean it's impossible. So I did all I could do and waited for my turn. Besides, I lead the first pitch which was 5.7+ and this was 5.8, I mean how hard could it really be?
As soon as it was my turn I quickly found out that answer. It is about a 15 foot traverse to get back into the water groove and I think I managed to find the hardest way possible. Somehow I found myself down traversing/stemming on completely vertical, completely devoid of all features slab. If you know anything about slab climbing you know that you need to drop your heel and push into the wall. If you know anything stemming you know that you need to use opposing force to stay glued to the wall. Somehow I was doing both of those at the same time. It was like traversing on verglas with monopoints. If that doesn't mean anything to you just read it as hard.
Once I got into the water groove, I figured that I somehow had gotten off route and was ready to relax on nice moderate 5.8 slab but with each move up it got progressively harder. All the hands and feet were underwater and the crystals on the edge of the groove were making the stem-smearing move even harder. To make matters worse the route kept getting steeper and steeper 'til finally it was straight vertical. I have no idea how I managed to get to the third bolt besides thinking light thoughts. A little after the third bolt my left foot got wet and on blank vertical slab that is a kiss of death. My attempt to hold myself up via a gaston (aka spread the elevator doors) failed miserably and 800 feet off the deck I flew free.
Numerous four letter explicatives and what felt like an eternity later I came to a stop smack dab in the middle of the water groove. While the running water felt good on my feet I had no idea how I was going to get back on the rock. After what felt like ages of struggling to get back on the rock I gave up and pulled out my trusty set of prussik ropes. I was pleasantly surprised to find out just how well prussiks work on soaked rope in running water. That was the only thing pleasant for the next 30 feet of inching up the rope in the slimy groove. The sense of failure was overwhelming but there was no way I was getting up vertical slab with wet shoes.
I prussiked up to Ben at a tree ledge and realized two things. One is that the fourth bolt is not until the belay and the second is that the pitch is more like 160 feet and not the 100 like it said in the book. Once again Ben's inner hardman had made an appearance because the run out above the third bolt was somewhere in the mid 5.10s or at least it was that day with water running down it.
The sandbagged pitch 5 was the start of the greatest epic of my young rock climbing career and I didn't even know it.
I was ready to get off of Laurel Knob and get back down to the car so I didn't even bother to dry myself out. I just put Ben on belay and he 4th classed his way up to the right a full ropes length to a gigantic tree island. With out any rope left to search for the descent anchors he brought me up so we could look together. I looked for the anchors the entire way up but two sets of eyes didn't prove any more useful than one set. After pulling out the guidebook topo we thought we had to go a little further past the tree island we were on and the anchors should be there. Two hours of searching to the left and to the right of the largest tree island and we were still coming up empty handed and the sun was beginning to set... fast. We contemplated descending the route we came up and climbing the 5th pitch of the variation which leads to the anchors on Forbidden Fruit. It would've sucked but we knew we could get off this rock if we did that. In a last ditch effort I rappelled off a tree on the largest of the tree islands and hoped to either find the anchors or another way to get to the top of FF.
One the way down I saw the most beautiful anchors I had every seen hidden behind a gigantic clump of moss. So you don't have to go through the same anxiety driven search we did, the anchors are below the largest of the tree islands and about 15 feet to climber's right of this odd pyramid shaped boulder. A silent prayer was sent up to the climbing gods and I thought we were actually going to make it to the car my nightfall.
With the sunlight and our energy rapidly dwindling Ben and I started down the first rappel. The first rappel went relatively smooth but took a while. Being that far off the deck and not knowing exactly where the anchors were was kind of spooky but finding the top of Forbidden Fruit was actually not a problem. The second and third rappel down Forbidden Fruit followed the water groove that just so happened to have running water in it. Not only was it soaking us but it was soaking our ropes and making them heavy, slippery and all around hard to rappel on. But hey this was Laurel Knob and that was part of the adventure. The second rappel took even longer than the first because the wet ropes became extremely tangled as they slid down the mossy water slide. I was very glad I backed up my rappel because working those tangles with out it would have been a pain in the ass. (How to back up your rappel)
Ben took the third rappel and this is where the real fun started. After my experience on the previous pitch we took extra precautions to keep the rope from balling up and this time the ropes slid down the face beautifully. Ben smoothly rappelled and clipped into the anchors. I was actually a little peeved that his rappel "lead" was so easy while mine was such a pain. Such is life and down I went. I got down to the anchors and mentioned that the sun was moving fast and we needed to make haste. We started pulling the ropes and watched as the knot made its way down the water groove. Then all of a sudden it stopped and I felt like my stomach dropped the remaining ~600 feet to the deck. We could see the knot and it wasn't stuck on anything but it looked like the rope had twisted up on itself. Unfortunately we were at a hanging belay and couldn't walk it out on a ledge to untwist them. As the sun kissed the horizon I knew what I had to do.
With an exhausted humph and a couple mumbled explicatives I started prussiking up a wet, mossy water groove. Luckily we had access to both ends of the rope which allowed me to I put myself on rappel with an extender to back up my prussiks. The back up gave me a little comfort as I moved up the dirty groove inch by inch, foot by foot. I was hoping that once I got to the knot I could untwist the ropes and rappel back down. This was not to be and I wound up prussiking ~130 of wet rope to the anchors. I don't think I have ever experienced that level of misery before. I was exhausted, dehydrated, sun burned and soaked and all I could do to keep from cursing the climbing gods was repeat the mantra "slow is smooth and smooth is fast."
Over an hour later, and well after the sun set, I reached the anchors, pulled the rope, retied the knot on the other side of the anchors so we would be pulling the internally twisted rope and slowly rappelled to Ben. The best way I can explain what happened was that one rope became internally twisted and when it started passing itself on the way down it created a friction knot on itself so that with every pull we were actually tightening the knot. Almost needless to say we were very nervous when we pulled the ropes but this time everything worked.
Between the two of us we had one Petzl eLite which puts out quite a lot of light for something about the size of a quarter but in absolute terms it was not the Las Vegas strip club spotlight that we wanted. The half moon helped but it was still flat out dark. I gave Ben the headlamp and he became in charge of leading the rappels. I say leading the rappels because much to my dismay the remaining ones were not straightforward and included quite a bit of traversing. On a blank wall, in the dark and with questionable beta it was almost as nerve racking as a hairy lead.
Maybe it was my exhaustion or maybe Ben is just that good but he made phenomenal time finding the various anchors especially considering that time usually creeps when you're uncomfortably hanging in a harness. I was particularly impressed on the second to last one which was 130 feet with a 40 foot traverse. Maybe it was easier for him but that length of a pendulum traverse on slab with minimal hands was damned tough. I couldn't see my feet and it constantly felt like I was going to slip, fall and take an exfoliating pendulum across the sticky rock.
Somehow we made it to the last set of anchors with out any major problems since the stuck rope fiasco. But the adventure was not nearly over. On the very last rappel we pulled the ropes from above and heard them zip past us and hit the ground. We both looked at each other and grinned because we were nearly off the rock. I started to pull up the ropes to situate them and almost immediately let out a "you have to be shitting me" because they were inextricably stuck. It sounded like they hit a tree or something below and "we thought we knew" that there was enough rope to get down. Ben managed to rappel to within 15 feet of the ground only to realize that the rope had snagged something above him and now he was stuck on a U shaped piece of rope. He tied off to a conveniently placed tree and waited as I started down. I wound up traversing 40 feet to find that the rope had found a shark's tooth flake to get stuck behind. When I got to the flake I was in utter disbelief at our bad luck because the rope had managed to find a deep fingertip slot to wedge itself into. I mean the rope was barely small enough to get in the crack and on the massive slab that Laurel Knob is what are the odds of my 9mm rope finding a 10mm slot. After some desperate laughing Ben and I were down on terra firma and in the pitch black of the forest.
We had decided not to take our shoes and fleeces up with us even though the rappel does not drop you at the base of Groover. Our logic was it would be a short hike to get them and why carry them all the way up when it will take 10 minutes to grab them once we were down. In the light of morning that sounded great but in the dark of night I felt like a foolish newb. With only one light between us Ben went and retrieved our shoes and fleeces via a third class scramble while I stayed put.
Sitting alone in the dark after an ordeal like that really gave me time to absorb what just happened. The day had dragged on and exhaustion had broken down every preconceived notion of what climbing was and for that matter what "life" was and I sat there marveling at the simplicity of it all. I got down that face simply because I had to. It wasn't a choice, it just had to be done no matter how tired I was. In doing something that I had absolutely no choice in it made all the things that I thought I had no choice in seem trivial. Working, "getting rich", saving for retirement and all the other BS that sometimes feels overwhelming all fell into their place which was secondary to "living".
And with that I end my metaphysical ramblings. The hike out was eventful in the most boring way. I fell over maybe 100 times as I stumbled over third class rock and bushwacky trails in near darkness. At one point I sat down on the trail, leaned back on a rock and started snoring. What should have been a two hour hike out took at least four with our one headlamp. We were the living dead and took as many sideways steps as forward ones but in the end we kept moving and eventually made it to the car.
Up until this point all times were guesstimates because neither of us had a watch. I was guessing that it was somewhere around 2 AM which with the 3.5 hour drive home would put me in my bed somewhere around 7 AM. I was determined to get home because damnit! I was not sleeping on the ground after an epic of that proportion. When I pulled out my watch I was floored when it said 4:40 AM. We had woken up at 6 AM, started on the trail by 7 AM and it took us 22 hours car to car to climb Groover, of which maybe 9 hours was actual climbing.
In retrospect I am proud that even with everything that went wrong we were never stumped at how to get down. Things could have gone a helluva lot worse but barring dropping the ropes I am confident that Ben and I had the skill set necessary to get ourselves off that mountain. I do not believe that it is the grade that a person climbs at that makes them a good climber, I believe that what makes a person a good climber is that no matter how epic the climbing gets a good climber will always knows what to do and how to do it safely. Groover on Laurel Knob is a great climb and I would highly recommend it to anyone that understands the commitment level and possesses the skill set necessary to get safely up and down that mountain.