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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.

Topping Out

Kristen Kirkland on the top out of “Return of the Jedi”

The transition from gym bouldering to outdoor bouldering can be difficult and there are a great deal of subtleties involved that take some time to adjust to. An important and necessary component of outdoor bouldering is topping out, which is one of the hardest aspects to learn for someone who is new to the sport.

Before you climb:

After you have read your problem, (see our previous article on reading a route)  determine how you can get on top of the boulder to examine the top out holds. Bring a chalk bag and brush with you or have someone toss them up to you once you are safely established at the top. If possible, brush, chalk up, and tick mark holds as necessary. Get a finishing sequence together that you are comfortable with. This will give you the confidence to commit to finishing the problem once you are at that crucial point of topping out the boulder.

During the Climb:

As you reach the end of the problem you have to decide if you are going to complete your project or drop off and try again. Once you realize that you are going to commit, you must start to execute your top out. Take a deep breath, relax for a second, then start the top out sequence that you have worked out in your head already. Topping out requires a lot of trust. Trust in your hands and feet, trust in your spotters, and trust in your crash pads. This type of trust can only be developed through experience, so it is important to work trough the process of topping out.

Trust yourself and go for it. Pay close attention to how your body is positioned on the rock. Sometimes a shift in hip position can allow you to comfortably assess the next move. Once you have established the last holds at the top, it is time to shift you center of gravity up and over the edge of the boulder.


Climber: Kristen Kirkland. Photo taken by Jamison Burt.


The most common way to do this is to put a foot on the lip of the boulder and drive your hips up by pulling in with the hamstring. Your arms will change to a pressing position (also known as mantling) once you drive your hips up. At this point you will be pushing away from the hands. Keeping your body close to the rock, extend a hand to the next hold, bring the low foot up and pull yourself safely to the top of the boulder. Success! You have completed a rock climb.

What truly matters in the sport of  bouldering is completing a problem, not just the ability to do hard moves. At the end of the day mental toughness, experience, and strength will get you to the top of the boulder.


Climbing Naked

I awaken to find myself naked in public. Iʼm in a bouldering competition and I am exposed before my eyes. Who I am is revealed, the way I handle success and failure and how much I support my fellow competitors. All these questions are answered in this competition. Iʼm on an emotional roller coaster and this ride doesnʼt end until the climbing has stopped. I take notice of a pattern amidst all the chaos around me. I climb a problem, I rise to the top, I’m strong beautiful, I’m unstoppable. The next climb I fall ( I watch the other girls send it ). With each failed attempt everything has fallen, my confidence, my individuality, hope of making finals. The pressure is on me full force. How I respond determines who I am. What do I do? I look outside myself and see I’m not the only one on this emotional ride. I lend a helping hand and forget my worries. I pull myself together now humbled, yet confident and complete my score card. I persevere with a new found hope and a quiet mind. We are all climbing naked.

 Vertical Girl Athlete Sarah Heath

Reading a Route

Nina Williams reading the finals route at “The Gun Show” SBS.

Route reading is not exactly easy to pick up when you start climbing. It can however,  be a huge factor in sending your project. A route that should take you a few tries to complete could end up taking a few days to tackle if you miss a simple foothold or have an incorrect sequence. Here is a pre-climb routine that only takes a minute, but could end up saving you lots of skin and energy. When you walk up to the climb you should choose to do these things:


  • Take an overview of the route by identifying the start holds and the finish holds (or top out).  Locate all the hands and feet on the climb. Find what “Line” the route takes. Does it traverse, go straight up, or zig zag?


  • Now its time to mimic the movement of the climb from start to finish. Put your hands up in front of you and run through the entire climb, “miming” the hand sequence. Try to use the body tension required during the climb. This will let your body know that you are about to try hard. Be specific with each grip. Is it a pinch, full crimp, gaston, undercling, etc?


  • Work though the crux section a couple times, until you feel confident you can do each move. If leading a route, look for clipping positions and rest holds.


  • Now read the route a final time start to finish. Think about the crux moves, clipping positions, rest holds, etc. Visualize succeeding on the route.

With this preparation you are ready to climb the route. Route reading does take practice, so be consistent and patient with the process.



Static Trapeze Artist: Jenn Q

Psychedelia 2011: Spot Bouldering Series

This years SBS sponsor, Vertical Girl “Jenn Q”, performed her static trapeze act during Psychedelia. Her routine, in the bouldering world, would equal a V8/V9 ascent. It was an impressive display of dynamic movement, tension and control. Take a look for yourself!

Thoughts on the evolution of women’s climbing

Some wise words from the great Paige Claassen.  Paige comments on the rapid acceleration of women’s climbing.  As an elite female climber, her perspective is very eye opening. I found her thoughts about failure to be quite inspirational.

Jen Vennon: Stockboy’s Revenge (5.14b/c)

Wow! First female ascent of Stockboy’s Revenge in Rifle. Great job Jen!

Jen Vennon: Stockboy’s Revenge (5.14b/c) – Rock Climbing & Bouldering Articles.

Dorothea Karalus – The German Crusher

Climbfind Hero: Dorothea Karalus

You’ve probably heard of the big guns in US female bouldering—Alex Puccio, Alex Johnson, Lisa Rands, and Angie Payne, to name the best of the best.  But how about all those other girls in the world who are pulling down?  Thanks to the World Cup circuit names like Anna Stöhr, Jain Kim, Juliane Wurm, Melissa Le Neve and Akiyo Noguchi are becoming more household in the States, at least if you follow comps.  What about hardcore outdoor climbing women though? Read More!

OBSESSED: Living a Double Life

By Jeline Guiles
For those of us who don’t make a living by climbing at the most beautiful locations in the world, it’s a difficult life to live when you’re absolutely obsessed with climbing. I’m talking about the nine to fivers in the rat race, trying to make their way up the corporate ladder, who climb for recreation but can’t think of anything else when they’re at work. And by they, I mean me.
Read more here:
Climb On, Sister!: OBSESSED: Living a Double Life.

Outdoor Retailer Show, Salt Lake City

This August, Vertical Girl had the opportunity to showcase their clothing at the Outdoor Retailer Show in Salt Lake City. Vertical Girl is a very young company, and they take pride in their athletes and products. As an athlete for Vertical Girl and the creator of Girl Beta, my main role at the OR was to get to know more people in the industry and promote our products. As an added perk, I got some free products from other vendors. I’m here to tell you about some of them. (more…)

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