Cracking the Southern Pisgah Ice Climbing Hiatus

By Elaine Elliott

Ice climbing at Roadside 215. All photos courtesy of Mike Reardon.

Ice climbing at Roadside 215. All photos courtesy of Mike Reardon.

Slick Rock Falls is a humble waterfall right off Headwaters Road. The free-flowing spill is occasionally admired by a passerby, but oftentimes hastily hiked past by climbers who are anxiously en route to Looking Glass Rock. But one day in January, things were different.

It seemed like any other morning when Mike Reardon stopped by Looking Glass Falls with his two kids in the back seat of his family wagon. It was already 50 degrees and balmy, but an unusual weather pattern from the previous week had graced the Southern Pisgah landscape with more solid climbs than normal. While sipping hot chocolate with Zinnea and Jack, Reardon noted how frozen the waterfall had become. Maybe, just maybe, this meant Slick Rock Falls was too. Reardon returned the next day and hiked the mile-long dirt road to find out if his predictions were true.

“The nice thing about ice in the South is when it grows thick and then [the weather] warms up, the ice remains in plastic condition,” says Reardon. “Here plastic seems to last a few days even if it gets up to 50 degrees. Although my days of leading Southern ice are limited, I had a hunch after seeing the falls frozen that other rarely frozen features would reveal themselves climbable.”

And Reardon was right. A week of heavy winter rains and sub-freezing temperatures scattered about 70 seldom-formed ice climbs throughout the region, juxtaposing the snowless scenery with their beaming alabaster sheens.

Like many rock and ice hounds from the state, Reardon was on the hunt. He knew the escalating heat would allow only a small window of time for ice climbing. After praying year after year to see Slick Rock Falls freeze over, he was finally witness to the natural anomaly.

Thick scales of ice tapered into stalactite icicles, the two distinct textures converging to form a striking hourglass pillar replacing the usual steady stream. The structure’s shape symbolized the fleeting time an axe-yielding climber has before icy edifices surrender their marvels to the earth.

Reardon lacked a partner for this particular outing. So he decided to use a tree as a top anchor and rope solo the pillar, which continues into a 50 foot ice curtain. It was likely the first time Slick Rock Falls, roughly a WI4- grade, had been climbed in years.

Ice climbing Slick Rock Falls near Looking Glass Rock.

Ice climbing Slick Rock Falls near Looking Glass Rock.

Apart from Kentucky’s overhanging waterfalls, ice pillars are a rare formation in Southern ice climbing. Fortunately, Pisgah National Forest has a few. Besides Slick Rock Falls, there is Cedar Gem, a 400-foot WI4-5 at Cedar Rock, which features a 50-foot pillar on the second pitch.

More common formations in the area include frozen faces and drainage seeps. Local Southern Pisgah classics include Dorothy Hammil’s Slightly Soiled Panties (WI3+) and West Face Sam’s Knob (WI3-). These evanescent wonders make long approaches and wintery bushwhacking worthwhile.

Topping out  West Face Sam's Knob .

Topping out West Face Sam's Knob.

Bushwhacking is a common occurrence for Caroliniers seeking ice. Tarheel ice explorers may find themselves scouting ice for several days without any success. Throughout the year, ice enthusiasts scour the seeping rock faces from atop panoramic pitches to locate what might become ice during a fortuitous winter. For example, from Looking Glass’s Sun Wall, Cedar Gem is visible to the southwest about 4 miles away. This well-trafficked vantage point is most likely how potential ice routes were identified back in the 1970s, when ice climbers first started picking out finds in the area. “I’m always looking for north-facing rock that gets wet,” says Reardon. “Many wet grooves can be worth getting out to when it gets really cold.”

But it’s not that simple – the weather needs to be more than just cold. Some climbers turn to the Farmer’s Almanac for predicting weather patterns in the East. Typically, a wet autumn means rock slabs have a better chance of freezing over in early winter. Weather conditions for waterfalls need to be very dry in order for heavy water flow to freeze. Multi-pitch ice climbs require more patience to completely solidify, and leaders must possess a keen eye to ensure the entire route is thick enough to scale.

Thanks to the help of generations of Pisgah ice pioneers, Reardon will be including ice routes in the newest Southern Pisgah Rock and Ice guidebook through Ground Up Publishing. During the 7 years of working on the guide, this past January “solidified a lot of questionable ice routes being added to the book.” Right before the final copy of the guide was sent off to the press, Reardon was able to double-check last-minute details on certain ice flows that seldom form, and added other formations which received FAs this year. Corey Winstead’s Lynx Bait, a 100-foot WI3 in the John Rock/Cedar Rock region, was one of the notable “firsts.” A handful of potentially unclimbed drainages in the Highway 215 region were also uncovered. All of these newly discovered frozen ventures will be outlined in Southern Pisgah Rock and Ice.

Much of the ice climbing history of Pisgah has been classified within the confines of brittle winters. Southern Pisgah Rock and Ice will be the first publication since Michael Crowder’s 2003 Southern Fried Ice to document Southern Pisgah ice climbing. The Crowder guide listed a handful of ice climbs in Pisgah; now Reardon’s unveils 70.

However, knowing when these structures will appear again is uncertain. “To tell if it’s gonna be good next year? Who knows,” says Reardon. “That’s what makes it more special.”

Reardon following up Heath Alexander's lead of  Flyin' Shoes  - the tallest ice route at Looking Glass Rock to date.

Reardon following up Heath Alexander's lead of Flyin' Shoes - the tallest ice route at Looking Glass Rock to date.

The 2018 ice season was one of the best in years, and it came at the perfect time for one of the region’s major conservationists – John Myers.

Climbing in the area since 1998, Myers paved the path, literally, for many North Carolina crags. He also helped establish Chimney Rock State Park and secured the $250,000 purchase of Laurel Knob for the Carolina Climbers Coalition.

The organization worked to officially open Little Bearwallow Falls to climbers in December 2017. The crag sits about 30 miles from Pisgah and is home to North Carolina’s largest display of moderate ice climbs. The area was dedicated to Myers for all his efforts to conserve the land and open it to public recreation.

In December 2017, just before the great cold snap, the CCC and Conserving Carolina worked together to create a climbing management plan, solidifying climber access for future generations. The marriage of conserving the land, ice climbing, and public access was celebrated through a tribute to Myers. Myers passed away after a battle with Lou Gerhig’s Disease in February, shortly after watching groups of ice climbers excitedly approach the frozen cliffs of his namesake crag.