The Bite of the “Tarantula” – Linville Gorge

My good friend Tonya recently climbed Tarantula at Linville Gorge.  She has kindly written up a trip report and I have to say that it sounds like it was a grand adventure.  It is trips like these that make climbing in North Carolina world class and makes me miss it all the more. Note: the above photo is an old photo and is not on the way to Tarantula.  -Jon

We set out this Saturday morning, August 27, 2001, for what we knew would be an extended adventure in Linville Gorge, North Carolina.

We met in the Table Rock parking lot at 9:30 am … an eclectic group of six climbers:

  • Me (Tonya) the newbie of the bunch and the only girl,
  • Ben – my fiancé and regular star,
  • Wesley – our tattooed teddy bear,
  • Barry – aka the Nature Boy
  • Buddy – Old-time hard man who has put up many lines around North Carolina, and
  • Les – world-traveler, originally from Canada, and Buddy’s trusty partner for over 10 years.

Our target was a beautiful, but little climbed line in the North Carolina Wall of Linville Gorge called Tarantula.  The 3-4 pitch route was downgraded to a 5.9 in the newest guidebook, but the original 5.10a grade seemed much more appropriate (I’ll explain that later).

If you’ve ever climbed one of the moderate routes in the Amphitheater like the Mummy, the Daddy, or the Prow, you are familiar with at least the start of the descent into North Carolina Wall.  I knew I was in for a long day, because Wesley and Buddy kept asking me if I was “up for it.”  Plus, they all let me lead the pack as we headed out from the Table Rock parking lot.  (I am the shortest and tend to struggle to keep up on the approaches.)  Since they were letting me set the pace, I knew they were concerned I wouldn’t be able to make it!

Now, I’ve been climbing 2 and ½ years, and I’ve been lucky to climb very frequently and have been exposed to more multi-pitch traditional climbing than many climbers ever experience.  I’ve been following trad consistently, and am pretty confident up to grades in the 5.9, 5.10a range.  However, if you’ve ever climbed multi-pitch in North Carolina, many of the routes are sandbagged since they were originally years ago when 5.10 was the hardest grade possible.  So, I’ve learned that ratings can be deceiving …

We took the trail out of Table Rock toward Shortoff Mountain, but then we turned right at the 2nd turnoff point, and followed the trail down.  The descent gully is steep, has a few scary unroped down climbs, but was familiar to me as I’ve been down it several times.  However, when we reached the point where we stood under Bumblebee Buttress, we moved left and began bushwhacking through barbed brambles and ivy trees, and tromping through waist-high brush as we moved left along the bottom edge of the rock face.  Eventually, we came to a 50-60 ft rock face that we had to climb up, again unroped.  It was easy climbing, but we were already high up on the side of the Gorge and it felt very exposed.   The views from that remote point across the Gorge to the Gold Coast and the Linville River are breathtaking.

Once we reached the top of the rock face, we hit another section of bushwhacking through briars. (I was glad I wore pants and I still don’t understand why Buddy insisted on shorts – you should have seen the bloody scratches on his legs – you’d think he’d learn after doing this for 30+  years!)  Then, suddenly we came into a little clearing and found ourselves in front of the route.

So, the intention was to lead off in teams of two climbers – Wes and Barry, Buddy and Les, and Ben and me.

The first pitch is definitely 10a in my book, but it’s a very short pitch.  It’s a traverse left under a roof, and it’s easier if you stay low.  It’s about 3 strenuous moves in a row, then eases off and you’re suddenly on the belay ledge.  It didn’t seem too bad on 2nd (although I did weight the rope once on those first strenuous moves), but on lead it is heady.  Part of the intimidation factor is that the strenuous section has some very loose rocks above you, and you have to be VERY careful where you pull.

Barry was the first to lead off, and he placed a piece of gear, proceeded to climb above it, reached for a hold that turned out to be no good, and took an immediate leader fall.  Wesley made a great catch, as Barry’s piece held and luckily Barry didn’t come smashing into Wesley who was standing on top of a huge boulder at the start.

Then Buddy decided to do the harder, more direct start to the left of Barry – and he struggled, made an aggressive down climb, and we all decided we’d follow Barry on his rope!

The 2nd pitch is some of the best crack climbing you’ll ever see in North Carolina.  It’s definitely a stemming problem, but there are two distinct sections where you absolutely have to fist jam and hand jam, as there are NO other holds.  Wes led this pitch for his team while I brought Ben, Buddy, and Les up to the belay ledge for the first pitch.  Les did climb the direct start on 2nd, and he sailed through it.

Wes moved efficiently, but definitely stopped to take a long rest at the top section where you get a great “butt” rest.  He even stopped to drink water!  As Barry followed after him, the Tarantula ate the first piece of gear of the day – a nut that was the first piece Wes placed (which, of course, belonged to Barry).  Barry, Buddy, and Ben all tried to get it out.

So, the belay at the top of pitch 2 is a small hanging belay, so the plan was for Wes and Barry to already be leading off the 3rd pitch by the time Les arrived at the belay.  Les led off on Pitch 2 once Barry was out of site, and he moved efficiently.  Pretty soon, Ben, Buddy, and I were left at the top of the first pitch – and we could hear Les at the belay talking to Wes and Barry, who seemed way closer to the belay than they should have been by that time.  However, we couldn’t understand what they were saying, so we weren’t sure what the problem was.  Ben walked off left and could see that Barry hadn’t gotten very far on the first pitch, which was rumored to be a 5.7, but we couldn’t see what the problem was.  Buddy followed Les, trailing our rope and then put me on belay.

I headed up the 2nd pitch, supposedly 5.9+ (the infamous +), and it was super hard and super fun!  At one point I had to get a fist jam in all the way to my wrist and hang my entire body off it while I moved my feet up.  It was hand over fist over ring-lock, and I definitely hung on the rope a couple times.  But I made all the moves and got out of the crack and over the roof – and then made the awkward traverse right and up to join Buddy and Les at the hanging belay where I would spend the next 3 hrs! (Yes, I did say 3 hours.)

I belayed Ben up, and while he definitely stopped frequently, he never weighted the rope and joined us at the belay.  (He’ll probably want me to confess that he arrived parched with thirst and when he asked for a drink from the water I was carrying for us, I had drunk it all.  I am atoning for this by publishing my shame to the climbing community – so HA!)

By this time Buddy had led off – sort of.

Now, I need to explain a few things.  First, Buddy has been leading trad for over 30 years.  Second, Buddy is typically the one in our group who will lead something that someone else has backed off of.  I have seen him lead 5.11a/b trad.  Buddy is a very solid leader.  However, part of why Buddy has survived so long is that he is very good at mitigating risk.  As an example, when Buddy gets up to a gear anchor, it’s not uncommon for him to add 5 other pieces to the anchor.  In fact, the belay at the top of Pitch 2 must have had 12 pieces of gear in it.  Additionally, Buddy is very good at finding and placing gear – even in tricky situations.

This pitch, which was supposedly 5.7, had Buddy stumped.  And, he had climbed it before.  Buddy climbed straight up, placed a piece, and down-climbed.  Then, he went around right, climbed up, placed a piece, and down-climbed.  Then climbed up again, got past the initial piece, and down-climbed.  He came back to the belay.  He finally led up straight, and very, very slowly, with much down-climbing, moving left, then right, then finally going straight again, he got moving.  Ben, Les, and I stood at the hanging belay for hours watching this delicate dance.

Finally, Ben decided to lead off behind Buddy on our rope – he decided he would clip our rope into the gear that Buddy’s left-running rope (they were using double-rope technique – another Buddy stand-by) was running through.  At this point, Buddy was so far above that gear as to make it no longer needed.  Les and I determined that I would belay Ben, tie into Buddy’s left rope and our rope, and climb on both, cleaning the anchor and all gear on Buddy’s/our rope.  Les would climb Buddy’s right-hand rope, as he needed to traverse waaay right in places to get gear Buddy had placed as he had searched for the path of least resistance (which was not to be found!).  Ben moved quickly, pink-pointing the route and adding gear where he could, and soon Les and I were alone.

Long story short – too late I know – I found myself alone at the belay, unable to communicate, with my kind belayers repeatedly pulling both ropes tightly on me while I took down the monstrosity of an anchor.  I finally started climbing.  The route had significantly overhung sections, most of which had good feet, but not always great handholds.  I came to one gear placement where Buddy had placed two TCU’s side-by-side in a horizontal crack.  The left-hand piece came out easily, but the blue one stubbornly refused to budge no matter what I did.  I hung on the rope, and beat on it with my nut tool.  As by now I was keenly aware of the sun getting closer to the other ridgeline, I finally left the piece.  Tarantula had taken another bite!

I kept climbing and reached a section where you had to make a huge step up to a shelf, but there were no real hands to pull up on, and it was extremely awkward.  I finally made the move, but I pretty much just flung myself up there.  When the pitch finally eased up as I hit this left, upward moving ramp, I found myself at an entry to what looked like a bush tunnel. This was the end of the route?  I had so much gear on me at this point that I could hardly drag myself through all the bushes.  Somehow, Buddy and Ben together had found plenty of gear on the pitch, as I cleaned about 15 pieces.  As I fought gear and slings hooking on branches left and right, I reached my climbing partners and stated that obvious, “That was no 5.7.”  It had to be at least 5.9.

You would think at this point that we were done, but we had one more little pitch to get through.  By the time I followed up an easy scramble of rock, and bushwhacked to the base of the final section of vertical rock, Ben had already let the section and Les was getting ready to follow.  This section was supposed to be 5.4 – but as I watched Buddy make the move around the big jutting flake, smearing with his feet on no footholds, I decided Tarantula had once again sandbagged.  Buddy left me two pieces of gear, but before I started to climb the first of those two popped out and slid down the rope – not exactly making me feel confident.  I calmly cleaned the piece and started up.  I decided NOT to make the move Buddy made, and instead climbed the mossy face.  There were tiny feet and tiny hands, and before I knew it I was up and back to bushwhacking and scrambling, and then, voila! I had topped out on the ridge.

We changed out of our climbing shoes and started the work of getting home.  Dusk had fallen and we needed to get back to the main trail before real dark.  We headed left, scrambling over deadfall and bushwhacking through the brush.  Ben led, then Les, then me, and then Buddy.  Wes and Barry were long gone by this point.  After about 10-15 minutes of moving steadily up and left, we hit the main ridgeline trail.  We followed that trail all the back to the main descent trail, and found our backpacks just in time to put our headlamps on.  Just about 10 more minutes uphill and we turned left onto the main trail back to Table Rock.  I checked my phone, as I heard it ringing (yes, Verizon works out there), and had a missed call from Wes.  It was 9:00 pm – so I called and left the message that we were back at the main trail.

Finally, we trudged into Table Rock parking lot and met up with Wes and Barry about 9:30.  I will say that it could have been a longer day – we did not get lost finding the climb or hiking out, and that is a definite possibility for anyone attempting that climb.

Tarantula makes for a very fun adventure – with varied climbing.  Pitch 1 is very short, but is a strenuous, left-moving traverse.  Pitch 2 is an awesome crack that never lets up (think Triple S at Seneca, but with less feet and longer).   Pitch 3 is hard to protect and overhung, with much stiffer climbing than the rating suggests.  And the little Pitch 4 is worth protecting and roping up for.  If you’re up for an adventure, Tarantula will deliver.  Just beware of the bite!!

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About Tonya

Hey there! I'm a friend of Jon's based in Charlotte, NC and a fellow climbing devotee! I've only been climbing a little under 3 yrs and am definitely a newbie trad leader. My adventures are largely in North Carolina, but I've climbed ice two years in a row in Ouray and I've traveled to Red Rocks for some awesome rock climbing. I also made my first foray into alpine with a climb up Mt. Hood two years ago in October. There's so much to learn and do in climbing! These days, I climb year-round -- as there's rock in NC most of the year, and when it's too cold for rock, the ice is in!

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