Despite the slightly chilly conditions that had finally overtaken North Carolina midway through December, we decided a climbing trip to the Bald was in order. (Well, to be fair, we had initially driven to Looking Glass — when we realized we had only brought one rope between us and the rappel stations there require two to get back down) In spite of our mistake, we were determined to climb on this lovely, frost-licked morning, and drove on from Brevard down to Lake Lure, letting the sun burn away the morning and hopefully bless the granite with some notion of warmth.
Rumbling Bald is a beautiful, Yosemite-like climbing location — a prominent cliff band of tempered granite situated on gorgeous Lake Lure rising up out of Hickory Nut Gorge. The Bald offers the only real, traditional granite crack climbing on this side of the country. Just a few weeks before, the entire Lake Lure area was ablaze in one of the many devastating North Carolina wildfires that had scoured the state — spanning from the depths of the Smokies, through Pisgah National Forest, and down across Hickory Nut Gorge. From the pictures seen on social media of Lake Lure choked in blackened plumes, smoke encompassing the entire cliff band interspersed with bright orange tongues of raging flames running along the top of the face — it was amazing they had reopened the place already. And surprisingly, little traces of the fires remained — at least from our perspective. There were charred trees and the muddy bottom of the exhausted, drained Lake Lure — but apart from that, not much evidence suggested a devastation of that kind. I suspected the majority of the blaze occurred along top of the cliff line which was just not visible from our vantage point down below. We were grateful, nonetheless.
Our interesting experience began in the parking lot. Rumbling Bald is a state park, often chock full of hikers, boulderers, and climbers, and frequently to maximum capacity. The main parking area is up on a steep hill about a mile and a half from Lake Lure. There is no parking along the roadway and the overflow lot is located a mile down the sharply graded asphalt hill.
Surprisingly for this kind of weather, the lot was completely full. This was an accustomed ordeal for climbers, however, one that was usually handled deftly by the cooperation of friendly, fellow outdoorsy people. Oftentimes, carpools were arranged from the lot at the bottom between parties with multiple vehicles. Most of the time, when a group of people were leaving they would kindly pack up and hustle out to allow one of the vehicles waiting at the top a parking space. We were in such a foray of cars; us, our climbing packs, wet and frosted camping gear, and two dogs, neatly bundled in coats, quilts and extra sleeping bags across the back seat. Being mid afternoon, there were not many people arriving, but surely plenty leaving and we waited with one other car to grab a parking spot from the next party out. We chatted briefly with the group in front of us and on queue a couple of boulderers came up from the trail, slapped their enormous pads into their hatch back and traded their parking spot with the quietly waiting camper van.
We moved up to the middle of the lot and were the only waiting party remaining. A group of four people came out of the woods and across the gravel and we thought surely we were in luck. They broke off into groups of two and headed for separate vehicles. They were all kids, none older than twenty, with skinny jeans and hipster clothes, one of them wearing a megadeath t-shirt. Ten minutes passed. We waited. There was unpacking and repacking throughout the cars. One of them pulled a boulder pad out of the back of their vehicle, closed the door, and walked down to join the other party, who to our surprise were camped out in the back trunk — like they were staying awhile. One of the girls had retrieved hula-hoops and proceeded hooping in the middle of the parking lot. The guy from the other car laid a boulder pad on the ground, spread a Grateful Dead blanket across it, and set up — camp?? The other couple proceeded to share snacks with each other, and there we were, left face to face with these adamantly disrespectful kids. They pretended not to notice us and went on with their charade, their imminent ‘hippie’ facade leaving us baffled and confused. Our frustrations rising, we kindly pulled up and asked if they were leaving anytime soon or perhaps would at least move ONE of their two vehicles so that we could park.
The hula hooper whirled around and loudly replied, “At least not for another 48 hours!”
I was appalled. I just couldn’t understand the audacity of these kids — whom did not know us, obviously had less interest in exploring the nature everyone else came to see and instead came to put on a parking lot festival? Whatever their issue was, if they were waiting on someone or needed something, they could have at least easily moved one of their vehicles, let us know what the hold up was, how long they were going to be, or asked for help if they needed help in any kind of way. For appearing to be ‘hippies’, they were the most disrespectful and unhelpful kids I had met in my lifetime.
A state park ranger pulled up and tried to alleviate the situation, but the leader of the carnival group instantly sobered and assured the officer they were leaving as soon as they could. The ranger drove off shaking his head, relaying to us that he could not physically force them to leave a state park.
At that point my anger was boiling over. We had driven all this way to enjoy some time in nature and were now being hampered by these ungrateful, annoying kids. We knew our only remaining option would be to park at the lot at the bottom of the cliff and hike the mile up the hill then back down into the gorge and hope there was enough daylight remaining to get in a climb or two. We didn’t even think about asking these hooligans for a ride and being so late in the afternoon weren’t too hopeful about finding another party headed up either.
Something about this particular situation left me overtly fuming. It wasn’t something I could just shrug off and move on about. I just could not understand how disrespectful people could be. It made no sense whatsoever NOT to help out your fellow human, especially within the usually extraordinarily supportive climbing community.
We parked down at the overflow lot and shouldered our packs, weighted with our rope, water, and climbing gear, and began the grueling hike up. I knew it wouldn’t be constructive, but I thought about what I was going to say when we made it back up to those kids in the parking lot. I wanted to yell at them, to cuss at them, to make them — see the folly of their ways? Then I realized that confrontation was probably exactly what they were seeking. Why else would they set up such a flamboyant charade, if not precisely to garner attention? I was lost in the midst of these unhelpful, productive, and instigative thoughts that I was startled when I looked up to see the SUV pulled over on the side of the road.
“Need a ride?” asks the older climber and his son, who were obviously on their way out, but graciously picked us up and transported us back up to the parking lot, thankfully passing by the hippie carnival before dropping us off. The driver shook his head and tapped his giant fingers on the steering wheel at the scene. “And I thought hippies were all about being peaceful.” His statement stuck a chord, summing up the unfortunate facade of an up and coming generation imminently spoiling the image of a wonderfully peaceful people. If these kids were any indication of the future to come, we would all need to be concerned.
But as we were walking on to the cliff, again surprised and comforted by the undeniable warmth and support of the climbing community, I knew this wasn’t the case. It was just one group of kids — of people — in this wide and wonderful world.
We ended up having a fantastic day climbing — my mind soothed on a beautiful lead of the classic climb Fruit Loops — a 5.7+ hand crack encompassing perfectly cut arching flakes across textured granite. It was one of those great leads when your head works with you, not against you, and I purposefully placed in protection above my stance in intervals without fear, moving effortlessly above my gear, quickly ascending the granite face lost in the simple joy of climbing.
At the top, I stopped to think, and admire the beauty of Hickory Nut Gorge sprawled out before me. We had listened to the new episode of the Enormocast on the drive down, a favorite climbing podcast, and an interview of the famous icon Conrad Anker. He touched on the concept of mortality as he talked about all the friends he has lost to climbing — but not in disdain. He simply stated it was one of those things about climbing that needed to be accepted along with its inherent risks. Within the climbing community, it is inevitable you will lose someone you know at some point — but no matter when they go, it is important to remember, we all go at some point. The purpose of his speech was to analyze the value of climbing and remind the community that it is better to go doing something you love than just to go.
The take home message, I thought, was to embrace every moment with them in the interim. We are all human beings, and there is not enough time for negative thought processes.
If anything, I learned a little bit about people this weekend. I quickly regretted and rejected my angry thoughts about the kids in the parking lot. There is not enough time in the world for that. Do what you love and shrug off the hatred and disrespect. Although people might fail you again and again, the only way to respond is to open up your arms even further to those that still remain in good faith. After all, that would be the only ‘hippie’ way to respond. Perhaps ironically this interaction served as a perfect reminder.