Written for: Hooked on the Outdoors
By: Michael Crowder
No, this has nothing to do with Sweet Tea. Southern ice is for the pick and crampon-handy who know that the short, yet quality, ice climbing season indeed exists.
Southern ice climbing has long been an almost unheard of sport. Except for the same small group of “old hands”, we just don’t see many newcomers to the sport. Every year we do have a new crop of fledgling’s show up but the demands of being a dedicated ice rat in the South is generally too rigorous for folks to endure.
Our Southern latitude and relative low elevations make for inconsistent conditions at best. Yet we still get several weeks of good conditions every year and even some years have better conditions than many more popular regions—last season my partner and I blew off a scheduled 10-day trip to New Hampshire because conditions in North Carolina were actually better.
In the South you must be willing to climb whenever the conditions are good. You can’t wait until the weekend, or to be in the right mood. You climb as soon as conditions are reasonable because a warming trend is always just around the corner.
Finding written information on Southern ice climbing is almost impossible. Current conditions are usually posted at www.seclimbers.org or www.coolclimbing.com though. If you think you have busted most of the good ice in North America but haven’t come down South then you are missing a lot of fine ice climbing.
From vertical road cut climbing to multi-pitch giants we have it all. Here is a rundown of the South’s most popular ice climbing areas. Have no doubts this is the real deal.
The Road Cuts
Much of the South’s ice is found along D.O.T road cuts. Ice climbing right next to passing traffic may not be very esthetic, but hey, it beats no climbing. Hogpen Gap located just north of Helen, Georgia, is one of the South’s most consistent areas. This north-facing cliff is a vertical paradise. Climbable ice has formed here as early as Oct. 10 and as late as end of March. Either way, favorable conditions can be found here at least 30 days out of the year. Pretty surprising, considering it is only a 1.5-hour drive from downtown Atlanta.
From highway 75 Alternate, take the Richard B. Russell Scenic Highway to the top of the gap. Parking lot on right just across from the ice.
Highway 215, located just north of Balsm [SP?](correct) Grove, N.C., is also very consistent. With several cliff lines in the 4,000 to 5,000 ft. of altitude range it produces a high concentration of steep routes. When conditions are good you can find twenty parties or more top-roping here. Remember our Southern rules say the leader has the right-of-way so if you do your thing on the sharp end just brush these “gummers” aside and let it all hang out. The opportunity to lead is so rare here that it is impolite to camp out under a climb with a top-rope when someone is waiting to lead the route. Ask them to flip their rope to the side and politely “play through”.
From highway 64, take highway 215 north through the town of Balsm Grove and to the top of the gap. Do not block the road when parking.
In addition to the road cuts at Hwy. 215 there is a 1,500 ft. gully climb called Welsh Gully. The center and most often formed sections can be accessed using the Flat Laurel Creek Trail. If the entire route is formed then access is obvious from the road. While only grade 2+, it is the longest route in the South. Also the Graveyard Fields road cut area is just a short walk up the Blue Ridge Parkway from here.
Winding Stair Gap located just west of Franklin N.C. is the tallest road cut around. Most of the routes are a full 200-ft. tall. While not as steep as the other road cuts, the overall height makes for challenging climbing. Topping out on most of the routes here is pretty scary, so be sure to bring a solid lead head. This road cut is also very consistent about forming and consistently crowded.
From Franklin take highway 64 west for about 15 minutes to the top of the gap. Park along side of road.
Whitesides Mountain, located on Hwy 64 just outside of Highlands, is the Mecca of southern ice climbing. Consistent conditions, a high concentration of quality routes, and good access make this a very popular destination. Starshine, grade 3+/4-, is the South’s most popular route. At 365’ it sees hundreds of ascents every year. Located just left of Starshine is Mother Russia at grade 5-. This route forms rarely but the upper pitch can be surmounted in even poor conditions with a little 5.11 dry tooling.
Many other single pitch climbs can be found here. Cinderella and Pinocchio, both at grade 4+/5-, will stretch your 60-meter rope to its limit. Climbers looking for more casual routes will love Scotch On The Rocks and the surrounding climbs. All go in the 3- range and are only a five-minute walk from the parking lot. There is a 20-ft. headwall with many top-rope and bouldering options at the top of Scotch. I have personally climbed over two dozen different routes on Whitesides, so there is plenty to climb.
From Highlands take highway 64 east. Then take right at Forrest Service sign for Whitesides Mountain. There is a two dollar parking fee.
Rabun Bald, in the extreme northeast corner of Georgia, is a simply amazing. This cliff is just 10 minutes from Sky Valley, Georgia’s only alpine ski resort. Bimini Blue, at grade 4+ and two pitches, is Georgia’s premier ice route. The steep first pitch would even make Popeye’s forearms scream. Every year someone seems to push the envelope here with sketchier and sketchier climbs. Thin Man at grade 5 is a prime example. If you’re not willing to climb vertical verglass to free hanging sickles, then just stay away. There are no beginner climbs here. If you feed off of fear then this place has your name written all over it.
Too much involved let them break out a map for this one. By the time I figured in side roads, dirt roads and trails it would take two paragraphs.
Somewhere in N.C. lies several of the finest ice climbs in the World. Yes, I said the entire World. Unfortunately this ambiguous area lies on private property and is marked for residential development. Homes are already going in along the top of the ridge and as soon as they run out of lots in other areas this will become someone’s back yard. If you have some change to spare contact the Access Fund at www.accessfund.org. Tell them you want to save southern ice climbing and to contact me for the details.
Solid Liquid Gas at grade 5 is the South’s most difficult route. Pitch one begins with a free hanging sickle reminiscent of the Rigid Designator in Colorado. Pitch two gives a 50 ft. vertical section as its crux. The final pitch is another free hanging sickle and is generally so unstable it strikes fear into the hardest of hardmen.
Rhapsody in Blue contains the hardest single pitch of ice climbing in the South. Pitch one at a full 60 meters, starts out dead vertical. You quickly encounter an overhanging section of huge and fragile cauliflower ice formations. After pulling these you then hit a short section of overhanging candlesticked ice. Breathing hard, you are now into the crux which consists of 40 feet of vertical to overhanging ice that upon close inspection is free hanging and not attached to the cliff. After finishing the first pitch, the second is a cakewalk at grade 2+/3-.
Several other huge routes exist here reminiscent of the Tablets at Lake Willoughby in New Hampshire. These other routes are two pitches and wide enough to support multiple parties at the same time (it is truly a shame we cannot share the location with every climber).
Michael Crowder of Gainesville Georgia has been climbing for over twenty years. When he is not busy attempting to defy gravity then you will probably find him at work or on the back of his bicycle. Any sport that attracts lunatics will usually find him among their ranks. You may e-mail him at email@example.com