The way I see it, there are three scenarios in which we could die today. One: We fall off a cliff, landing on rocks 500 feet below. The fog is thick, making it hard to determine where ledges end and a free fall begins. Two: We’ll be bit by a rattlesnake. The boulders we’re scrambling around are huge. Rattlesnakes love boulders. And three: We’ll get lost and spend the night on the edge of the gorge. This isn’t life threatening in itself, but considering we’re wholly unprepared and kind of idiots, we’d surely resort to eating poisonous berries.
The Lower NC Wall is a seldom-visited granite cliff perched almost halfway down the Table Rock side of Linville Gorge. Some of the most impressive features in the gorge don’t have trails leading to them. Caves, slot canyons, fingers of rock hanging 1,000 feet above the earth—these goodies are hiding on the side of this 2,000-foot chasm waiting to be discovered. You just have to navigate near-vertical boulder fields and briar thickets to find them.
The three of us drop off the Mountains to Sea Trail and slide down a fissure in the middle of a broad cliff band. I can stretch my arms and touch both sides of the narrow canyon. Dusty finds a massive toad hanging out on a wet rock.
“Lick it,” Jeremiah says.
Add ingestion of poisonous toad juice to the list of ways we could die today.
We have a vague notion of how to get to the wall based on landmarks called the Camel, Sphinx, and Mossy Monster. This is real Indiana Jones stuff we’re into here—jungles, cliffs, and snakes. OK, maybe Indiana Jones is a strong comparison. The Mummy? The Goonies?
Finding the wall is a piece of cake. In less than an hour, we’re boulder hopping at the bottom of the cliff. Side note: These bathtub-size boulders used to hang from the rock face above us. Death possibility No. 5: crushed by a falling boulder.
Next, we hunt for the Sphinx, an odd granite protrusion on the side of the canyon. A briar field of epic proportions stands between us and our destination. Picture head-high bushes and millions of tiny daggers blanketing a steep slope. We periodically slip and fall face first into pillows of briars. The profanity is loud and frequent.
We emerge from the briars onto a skinny ledge with a sheer drop-off. We have two options: backtrack through the field of a thousand tortures, or climb a rain-slick tree and jump to a shelf 15 feet above the ground. Fall off the tree and we’ll plummet to certain death. We take one look at the briars and opt for the slick tree and certain death.
If my wife is reading this: it wasn’t as precarious as it sounds. For the rest of you: We totally cheated death.
The fog has lifted by the time we reach the Sphinx, rewarding us with an incredible view of the river 1,000 feet below. The PB&Js we eat while sitting on the spires of gray, layered rock taste like success.
We exit through the Amphitheater, a narrow canyon that demands hand-over-hand boulder scrambling, and reach the top of the gorge just as the rains start. Suddenly, Dusty’s metal trekking poles don’t seem like a good idea. Add struck by lightning to the death list. We run for the car, giggling every time there’s a thunder-lightning combo. The rain turns to hail during our three-mile jog to the car. The ice gets bigger and more painful, but it isn’t life threatening, so it’s the most comfortable I’ve felt all day.