Challenging the Linville Gorge

For years, the Linville Gorge has been heralded as one of the crown jewels of the High Country. The incredible vistas of the distant rocky escarpments, steep ridges and the ancient river gorge have been drawing adventurers to the area for centuries. These days, the Linville Gorge is explored by those looking to get off the beaten path and out into the wilderness to test themselves and their abilities against one of the wildest places in North Carolina. The area is a popular destination among hikers who seek a challenge by pushing deep into the unforgiving landscape as they explore the densely forested hillsides and intricate trail systems that wind throughout the wilderness of the Gorge. The miles of towering cliff faces, high-quality quartzite stone and the cool, high-elevation setting have been drawing rock climbers to the area for years, due largely in part to the reputation of the Linville Gorge as being one of the premier adventure climbing destinations in the Eastern United States. The raging whitewater found in the mighty Linville River has been revered for decades as one of the most unruly sections of whitewater in North Carolina. In the past twenty years, the advent of plastic boats paved the way for a few strong paddlers to rise to the challenge of paddling through the wild waters of the Linville Gorge – a feat of strength and stamina reserved only for the best. While the rugged nature of the Linville Gorge makes it one of the most exciting playgrounds in North Carolina for those geared for adventure, the wildness of the place is unforgiving, and more than a few adventure seekers have lost their lives in the Linville Gorge. But in spite of the many dangers of this area, an increasing number of people are visiting the area each year – many of whom come to the area on a mission to challenge the Gorge – and themselves – with adventures that are redefining what is possible in such a rugged place.

linville falls 2

The Linville Link Up

Rock climbing in the Linville Gorge is legendary. For years, rock climbers have been seeking out the area’s unexplored big walls and steepest cliffs for their climbing potential, offering those who seek adventure climbing a chance to explore high-quality stone in a wilderness setting: a combination that forces climbers to be certain of their skills and abilities before committing to the challenges that lie above on the vertical walls of the Linville Gorge.

The early instructors of the North Carolina Outward Bound School played an integral role in developing the seemingly endless climbing potential of the area, putting up countless routes on the prominent rock formations that accentuate the walls of the Linville Gorge. Many people credit those instructors with coming up with the now legendary idea of the Linville Link Up, a brutal ridge traverse that merges trail running with rock climbing with the end result being more than 17 miles of hiking with around 2000 feet of climbing mixed in.

In 1999, Jay Young and Kris Versteegen set out to challenge themselves by undertaking what they considered an audacious idea: climb all of the major rock formations on the East Side of the Linville Gorge in a day without the aid of motorized vehicles. As far as they knew, no one else had ever completed the link up in a day, so it seemed like the perfect challenge. With a bit of preparation and planning the two set out to test themselves on what has become alternately known as TheLinville Crusher. Little did they know that 12 hours after they started out they would find themselves at the other end of the Gorge with their mission accomplished and their bodies totally and thoroughly exhausted.

“At the time we didn’t think anybody had ever done it before,” Young said. “And we were just looking for something fun to do. It wasn’t anything like, ‘We’re going out to do something amazing,’ it was more like, ‘wouldn’t it be fun if we were able to do this in a day,’” said Jay Young.

According to Young, a large part of the appeal of doing a variety of climbs on different rock formations is that it gives you a sense of the larger picture of the Gorge than just going to climb at one crag for the day. But it is also the sense of wilderness and the allure of the unknown adventure that drew them in to attempting the climb.

“The Linville Gorge is considered to be about as remote as adventure climbing gets in North Carolina,” Young said. “Even though you’re never really more than a couple of miles from your car, if there is an accident there it takes forever to get the accident victim out. Because the terrain is just so rugged and so harsh that any kind of rescue operation becomes incredibly difficult because of the danger of the terrain. An accident in many of the places of the Linville Gorge would have disastrous consequences.”

The main dichotomy that climbers face, especially climbers in the Linville Gorge, is the fact that there is the risk that something could go wrong, but it is up to the individual to mitigate those risks and put themselves to the test and find out just how capable they really are. Climbers are well aware of that risk before they head off into the unknown vertical realm that waits above, and Young and Versteegen were well aware of that before they began. “At the end of the day we were utterly and thoroughly exhausted and we had one route left to do, Lost in Space. When we got to the base of the climb I began racking up the gear and getting ready to do the first pitch when Kris looked up at me and said, ‘I’m going to take a nap.’

“He just fell asleep on a rock in the middle of the Linville Gorge and at that point I wasn’t sure that he would even wake up in time for us to do the route. But after a short time he woke up and we did the route and finished the Linville Link Up in just under 12 hours.”

Pat Goodman Linville Gorge Solo
Pat airs it out without a rope on the 5.11 route, Angry Fathers, located above the Amphitheater on the Reggae Wall

One of the most notable successes in the recent history of the challenge came at the hands of Pat Goodman, a full-time climber who lived in Banner Elk for many years and completed the Link Up on several occasions. His fastest time on the Linville Link Up came in 2009  while solo (without ropes and without a partner). Over the course of a day Goodman linked 32 pitches of climbing routes up to 5.11 on Sitting Bear, Hawksbill, Table Rock, the North Carolina Wall, the Amphitheater, and Shortoff Mountain. In between the most notable rock formations Goodman ran and hiked the steep terrain, going from his starting point back to his starting point – a total of 23 miles – in 11 hours and 23 minutes. *as far as I know, Goodman’s time is the fastest linkup ever recorded.

More recently, climbers Zachary Lesch-Huie and Eric Heigl did a one day linkup from Gingercake Mountain to Shortoff Mountain in just over 13 hours. During their “hike” they climbed routes up all of the notable rock formations of the East Side Linville Gorge, including Sitting Bear. “We envisioned the linkup as a ridge run, with rock climbing thrown in for good fun,” Lesch-Huie said. “We trained for it by doing a run from Gingercake to Shortoff in the wintertime and when it came time to do it, we were ready.”


Paddling the Gorge

For kayakers, the Linville Gorge was heralded as being one of the last great challenges in whitewater boating in North Carolina. The continuous barrage of massive holes and dangerous rapids of the 17 mile Gorge section left many of North Carolina’s early kayakers wondering if a descent through the Gorge was even possible. Among the first boaters to ever challenge the tumultuous rapids of the Linville River Gorge were Tom and Jamie McKuen in 1974. The McKuen Brothers were leading the charge in advancing the sport of kayaking at the time, and were quickly becoming known for their daring attempts at running new rivers. When they first took on the Gorge in their fiberglass kayaks, neither quite new what was in store for them on the river, but they were determined to give it their best. After two days they emerged from the Gorge with two beat up and busted fiberglass kayaks and wild tales of their harrowing experiences.

These days, the new school of kayakers – young boaters who are pushing the limits of what is possible in a kayak – often make several runs down the gorge in a single day. For Spencer Cooke, an avid kayaker and film maker who helped document what paddling the Linville Gorge means to him and his friends in their recent film The Eddy Feeling, the Linville Gorge is one of the only rivers in America that offers such an incredible wilderness setting with an endless barrage of rapids. The end result being an adrenaline-packed paddle that affords those who are willing a chance to check out the world-renown views of this incredible place from their boat – a rare opportunity seen only by a handful of the world’s best paddlers.

“There’s no place around here for kayaking, or probably for any outdoor excursion for that matter, where you feel so remote and you feel so immersed in the outdoors,” Spencer Cooke said recently. “When you’re down in the Gorge it’s just an unbelievable feeling of being out there. One of my favorite things is paddling down the Gorge and looking up and seeing Table Rock. There’s nowhere else in this region that you have that type of long distance view from a river gorge.”

In the years since the McKuen brothers first attempted the Linville River Gorge, a lot has changed in kayak construction. Instead of the 13 foot fiberglass kayaks they paddled then, modern boaters are charging the river with short, buoyant boats made of hard plastic that offer greater protection, control and maneuverability through the churning whitewater – important aspects to consider when faced with the decision of whether or not to paddle the Class V rapid of Cathedral Falls.

Pat Keller makes a jedi-like descentout of the pillow and down to a safe landing for the first descent of the Linville Falls
Pat Keller makes a jedi-like descentout of the pillow and down to a safe landing for the first descent of the Linville Falls

“The whitewater [in the Gorge] is some of the most technical that I’ve ever paddled, and certainly some of the most technical in this area. There are definitely a handful of rapids in there that are really difficult and really dangerous. But, the majority of the rapids aren’t that difficult, but the consequences, even on the really easy rapids, are really great, so you have to stay on your toes.”

One technique that is regularly employed by kayakers on the Linville River is to get out and scout each rapid, a task that can be grueling, especially considering the number of notable rapids found in the 17 mile section of the Linville Gorge.

Cooke relates something that a friend of his, Tom McKuen, who was one of the first paddlers to ever attempt the Linville Gorge, told him recently. “I recall talking to Tom about paddling the Linville, and he told me that before he had paddled theLinville, he had never been so exhausted mentally – even more so than he was physically,” Cooke recalled. “You could be paddling a Class I or II rapid that has an undercut or sieve in it that could kill you if you went in the wrong spot. And when you have numerous rapids like that in a one day trip, it gets mentally exhausting. And the biggest physical challenge of paddling the Gorge is the hike in and the hike out with a 50 pound kayak. So you add the paddle together with that and it’s a good workout, to say the least. It feels good, it feels rewarding, when you get to the top.”


The Franklin Challenge

For most people, a short day hike to one of the many overlooks of the Linville Gorge for a view of the river below is all the challenge they need. But for a small group of avid hikers and backpackers, the Linville Gorge is the perfect place to challengethemselves to go farther, and faster, in one day, than most people prefer to hike in a weekend. They do so by racing from the far southern terminus of the Linville Gorge near Shortoff Mountain to Linville Falls in a 16.7 mile jaunt that has become known as the Franklin Challenge.

According to Chris Blake, the author of the recent book on the Linville Gorge, River of Cliffs, the Challenge was first inspired by a mountain man named Franklin.

A mountain man named Franklin, well known for his reckless as well as other spirtis, took a dare and a bet that he could go up the Gorge in one day…a trip that usually takes three to four days. Well, he started at the Beach bottoms, just above Lake James; tied his pants legs to his boots; stuffed his pants with dried leaves until he looked like a Dutchman in pantaloons; drank a pint of white lightning and started up the Gorge.

A companion who followed him said that before he go 2 miles up the Gorge, he had 3 copperheads and 1 rattlesnake stuck to his britches like barbed wire around a fence post. But he won his bet…with his leather boots and pants full of leaves, he didn’t have to worry about snakes.”

After the publication of Blake’s book, the legend of the Franklin Challenge took hold, and inspired a renewed interest in long-distance hiking in the Gorge. First organized in 2007 by Alan Hyde as a hike among friends to see who was up for the challenge, the event has taken on a life of its own and is regarded as one of the latest adventures to be summoned in the Gorge.

For Nathan Buchanan, an avid hiker of the Linville Gorge, the Challenge presented a great way for him to experience some seldom seen areas of the Gorge, but little did he know the extent of the challenge he was in for.

“The first time I met Alan Hyde, author of The Linville Gorge Hiker’s Guide, was on race day in the first year,” Buchanan recalled. “It was still dark and I couldn’t see his face and he couldn’t see mine and he said, ‘First off, we’ll need the make and model of your vehicle so that if you’re still in the Gorge when we’re out we’ll know that you’re still there because your vehicle will still be at the finish line; and, secondly, we need a phone number for the next of kin so that somebody can identify your body if you fall.’ I think that’s a pretty good way to sum up how dangerous it really can be down there. Especially during the race when people are going as fast as they can, but on any given day it’s slick on a whole number of spots down there and one fall could bust you up real bad or end your life, truly. Of course it’s dangerous and there’s a risk involved, but I think it’s worth it.”

Linville Gorge Hiking
The Linville Gorge is known for its rugged terrain and unrelenting challenges.

Buchanan went on to hike the entire Gorge in seven and a half hours that day, finishing the 17 mile race in third place.

“The first year I ever did the race was a completely new experience for me,” said Nathan Buchanan. “I hadn’t been in the Gorge a great deal and thought it would be a great way to see a whole lot of it in a day. It turned out to be a very challengingrace – I nearly crawled to the end I was cramping up so bad.”

Last year, in 2009, Buchanan bettered his time by more than an hour, and won the Franklin Challenge. And while racing up the Gorge with a group of friends is something most people might not have the desire to ever attempt, Buchanan believes it is something most people would really enjoy, given the proper training and preparation.

“It’s important to be prepared and know the trail when you’re going into the Gorge on a hike like this,” Buchanan said. “Take a lot of food, and a lot of water, but more than anything just have a good time. As tough as the race is, it’s still fun. And, in the end, it’s still about enjoying the natural landscape and seeing everything that’s there because some of those views that you can see from the middle of the Linville Gorge trail you just can’t see from an overlook.”

“I think the Linville Gorge is so special because, unlike many other areas that are so easily accessed, it just feels very pure, very pristine – like you’re in a place that, truly, has stood the test of time. It’s just a truly beautiful place.”


The Adventure Collective

The Adventure Collective publishes a series of outdoor adventure sports guides to adventures in Asheville, Boone, Brevard, Chattanooga, Charleston and The Great Smoky Mountains.

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