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Linville Gorge, NC – Developing Boulder Problems

by Lisa Hummel

There seems to exist a sort of incredulous disposition about climbing in the southeast—vast amounts of land harboring equally prodigious amounts of bullet hard rock, that are safeguarded by one or more thwarting groups; the infamous “Billy Bob,” his hound dog and a sawed-off shot gun,  a stuffy old country-club member, a state or national park service, or other climbers who fear your big mouth is going to ruin it for them and their secret area.  These are all valid arguments, and are integral to why there is no printed guidebook to any specific area.  Several boulder fields are access sensitive, and could be closed if high traffic becomes an issue.

 Enter Linville Gorge: wild, free, and totally accessible.  Linville Gorge is known as the Grand Canyon of the east, which encompasses about 12,000 acres of virgin wilderness. Riddled with rock cliffs and boulder outcroppings, the possibilities are truly endless.  For the last five years, give or take, a handful of dedicated climbers have been traveling down to the river bed at the bottom of the Linville Gorge.  With a thirst for new boulder problems, what they have found is miles of river, dripping with boulder field after boulder field.  This deluge of boulders has, and will continue to quench any thirst for a new and rad bouldering experience.  I was lucky, or unlucky enough (in the beginning), to witness and experience it all.  Lucky enough because I did not realize at the time, but I was part of the most recent Golden Era of bouldering in Boone, NC.  Unlucky, because at first, I was only reluctantly following my boyfriend through labrynths of rhododrendon thickets and free-style walking over sketch river crossings, to scratch his itch.

Yet, I endured.  I sucked it up and hiked down into the gorge, and stuck it out with all the “real men,” time after time, year after year.  Developing a new area is tricky, especially being a lone wolf female.  There are no chalked boulder problems, no guides to revert to, and no boundaries defined.  All that existed between this 12,000 acre wilderness and me were two to ten salivating Appalachian Hardmen , with that wild look in their eyes, closing in on one prize line after another. Let me clarify that now and again through the years, a stray female would find herself in the gorge, at the mercy of the pack—I wasn’t totally alone; and the whole pack heard my cries of frustration.  But alas, at the end of the day, I could not stop thinking about the perfectly set up boulder problems on the kindest, finest grain metamorphic sandstone, polished smooth by eons of river flow.

While I cannot claim many rad FAs, I did snag a lot of ultra classic FFAs, including “Red Dawn”, “Like Water for Chocolate”, “A Whale’s Vagina”, “Little Scoop”, “Helter Skelter”, “Ephervescent Elephant”, and “Spence Ridge Fin”, to name a few.  And I also took it upon myself to name some FAs, where there was a need, such as “Zipper”, “Helter Skelter”, “A Whale’s Vagina”, and “Bull in a China Shop.”   All of these problems are truly classic, and don’t even scratch the surface of development that has taken place.

And every heinous hike,  every fall into the river, every rainy night camping without a tent was worth it!  Developing and test driving the Linville Gorge for the past five years has opened my eyes to some of the best quality and quantity rock climbing out there.  And the best part about it, is that is actually super accessible, now that the hard work is done, and wide open and free!  So gals, grab your guy and make a real man out of him—tell him you want to go boulder on the Linville Gorge Riverbed.  I’ve got all the beta you need.


There are several resources to get you down on the river and get some climbing done.  First, Linville Gorge has its own maps, GPS, directions, beta, etc., as it is a National Forest and Wilderness area, so check them out online.  I recommend

You can pick up a detailed black and white sketch of Linville Gorge Boulders at Footsloggers in downtown Boone, NC.  Joey Henson, who is one of the main developers, took all of his knowledge and experience and drew a very detailed map of lots of the boulders and problems.  You can also check out Mike Stam’s blog at  Mike Stam, another main developer, has taken photos and added lines, grades, descriptions, and names to boulders and problems in Linville Gorge.  And most importantly, use your imagination, and have an open mind…put up your own problems!

Spence Ridge Trail is the route you want to take on your first bouldering experience down to the gorge.  This is on the other side of the gorge from Linville Falls, accessed by 181.  Again, look for a smaller brown sign pointing you towards Table Rock, which is on the second Gingercake Rd.  Spence Ridge trail pull off is about six miles down the gravel road on the right.  The trail is just under 2 miles downhill.  The trail is super casual, my grandma has hiked it, but start early or plan to camp on the river bed to maximize your day.  Spence Ridge Bridge area bouldering encompasses both sides of the river, upstream and downstream a quarter mile each way from the bridge.  Using will help you seek out problems around the Spence Ridge Bridge.

I recommend two areas upstream and downstream of the Spence Ridge Bridge.  First, Red Dawn area, which is downstream of the Bridge.  Hike about 2/10 of a mile once you have crossed the bridge downstream.  There are several steep fishermen’s trails that cut down to the river.  You want to take the third most obvious one on the left.  You will be above the river, so you want to get down to the river.  You will see a big blank slab with one hueco above water across the river, and there are a series of small roofs on yourside of the river.  Look for these as landmarks.  Direclty to the right, or downstream, of the big blank slab is the Red Dawn Roof.  So when you get to the river you will be looking directly across the river at it.  Essentially, you will have to hike a few hundred yards further downstream to the most accessible river crossing, and then cut back up to the roof.  Red Dawn is a classic V5 and tops out.  The Glass Rail is the left to right traverse that ends on Red Dawns same topout.  From here just hike downstream, back across to the roofs, and upstream to climb.

The second area I recommend will be upstream from the Spence Ridge Bridge.  There are about 6 different problems, one of which is “A Whales Vagina,” that I included the Vimeo clip of.  Instead of crossing the bridge, continue straight on the path beyond the bridge on that side of the river.  You will traverse across rock cliff ledge, and hike the length on top of two fallen huge trees.  Further upstream here you will see an obvious huge triangle boulder coming out of the river with a little beach under it.  This is the Spence Ridge Fin Boulder: ultra classic V3 all the way up the arête left.  Keep skirting the river to a couple of ledges with a fallen small tree.  You want to use the tree, and get up over these ledges.  Continue approximately 100 more yards on top of the rocks.  It should spit you out at the roof with a large platform built of driftwood under it.  “A Good Days Work” V8, “A Whales Vagina” V6, “Bull In a China Shop” V8, and many more variants are here.

Don’t’ let the big numbers scare you, there are always boulders to just play around on.  Most of all, just get down there and take advantage of this wild and free area!


Lisa Hummel climbing in Linville Gorge from Carl Stam on Vimeo.

One Response to “Linville Gorge, NC – Developing Boulder Problems”

  1. November 27th, 2011 at 1:56 pm

    Cheryl McCutchan says:

    Nicely written Lisa. My husband is from North Carolina and has been telling me about the pleasures of Linville Gorge for years. Even one incredibly rainy backpacking trip that would make a man out of anyone. Now I’ve got a REALLY good reason to go!

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