A Beginner’s Guide to Ice Climbing in Western North Carolina
Ice climbing in Western North Carolina is like going on a hunt for a rare, wild animal. The season is unpredictable, anywhere from mid-November to early March. Climbers must prepare by researching weather, local ice condition reports, and the amount of rain that has fallen in the last few weeks. With too much flow, it won’t freeze; with too little, there won’t be enough ice. While on the hunt, you will encounter much bushwhacking, and you’ll likely spend at least a couple days coming up empty handed. When you do find the ice flows in good shape, you’ll feel like you’ve cheated the hills out of a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
You’ll want to keep a close eye on the weather. It’s usually best if the high temperatures don’t rise above freezing for a few days. Clouds can also help the freezing process. It’s important to remember that rain is needed for forming ice, but it’s really bad if ice has already formed. There are a few pages on social media, like the Southeastern Ice Climbing Conditions page on Facebook, where folks post ice conditions.
Ice climbing takes a lot more gear than regular climbing, so you gear junkies will be in heaven. At a minimum, you’ll need a harness, helmet, boots and crampons—that’s assuming you will be going out with a friend who has all the rest of the supplies. You may notice there are no ice tools on the list. This is the first thing everyone wants to buy, but it’s something that you only need one pair of because you can share a single set with a small group in a single pitch setting.
Ice climbing is not rock climbing; it is a medium that changes over minutes and hours. It takes many years of experience to understand all the types of ice and how they react to different variables. With that being said, having someone in your group who is knowledgeable, experienced, and who can manage their own risk as well as that of others is a good idea. The best way to learn ice climbing is from a professional AMGA certified guide. Most guides will not only provide all the gear you need, they’ll also teach ice climbing movement and hazard mitigation.
Local Areas to Climb
For beginners, a great place to start is off Highway 215 just west of Brevard and a mile South of the Blue Ridge Parkway 215 intersection. There are mostly top rope lines with occasional parties leading some of the pitches. The single pitch ice climbs range from beginner to quite hard.
For easier but longer adventures, one can head north on 215 about 3.75 miles from the 215/Blue Ridge Parkway intersection and hike to a moderate ice climb on Sam’s Knob. Be prepared for a longer day on this one!
For an extreme North Carolina alpine adventure, one should look to Celo Knob in the Black Mountains. With nearly 1,500 feet of ice climbing and another 1,000 feet of bushwhacking, one can reach the summit of this Appalachian 6,000 peak. There are a couple routes on this peak, but all should be considered serious endeavors.
Another area that facilitates beginner to advanced climbing is Doughton Park. This is another roadside climbing area like 215, but remember, the Parkway must be closed to traffic for it to be ok for ice climbers. It’s located near mile marker 240 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. This area offers top roping as well as some multi-pitch climbs.