I had always been intrigued by the 315-foot high granite monolith known as Chimney Rock. My curiosity was piqued each time I saw a photo of this solitary rock column protruding from the floor of Hickory Nut Canyon. I wondered about the geologic forces that had formed it and about the family that had painstakingly built a wooden walkway to the top. But it was reading about the elevator that had been blasted through 258 feet of solid rock in the center of the pinnacle that finally made me get in the car and drive to Chimney Rock Park.
My reticence was unusual; normally I am up for a road trip on the spur of the moment. In this case, however, I was avoiding Chimney Rock because once there I would have no choice but to climb to the top. I am not afraid of much, but because I once fell down a 25 foot cliff, I am shaky about climbing rocks, especially where there are no guard rails or precipitous drops. The elevator changed things, though.
When I arrived the rock shrouded in fog. “That doesn’t look so intimidating,” I thought. The white mist swirling around the towering monolith fooled me into thinking that the climb would be less intimidating than I had imagined and I opted for the stairs rather than the cowardly elevator. Initially the path was easy. Wide steps at the bottom of the valley led up a gentle slope through thick green forest. When I reached bare rock the going got rougher. Wooden walkways spanned chasms and stairways hung precariously from vertical rock faces. I clutched the handrails and kept climbing.
Leveling out, the trail followed a long arc around a giant granite dome and then seemed to end. “What on earth…?” I wondered. Just then, I noticed a narrow crack in the rock that was barely wide enough for a person to squeeze through. Rough wooden planks had been crammed between the rock walls, leading up through the crevice. There was not a handrail in sight. I started to hyperventilate. “Calm down, you can do this,” I told myself. I tightened the straps of my backpack and started up, placing my palms flat against the rock walls on either side to maintain my balance. Halfway up, the crevice narrowed and curved at the precise spot where an overhead boulder jutted downward. To get through, I would have to let go of the rock walls while simultaneously twisting to the left and ducking under the boulder.
Taking a deep breath, I crouched down and tried to get through, but my backpack was in the way. Terrified, I steadied myself and tried again. And again. Until I was shaking like a leaf. “I’ll just go back and take the elevator,” I thought. Carefully, I braced myself against the rock walls and turned around.
Until that moment, I was unaware that my ascent had been nearly vertical. But now, looking backward, the steps beneath my feet were not visible and the sensation was one of hanging in mid-air. I froze. There was absolutely no way I could go back down; I would have to find a way past the boulder. Turning again, I removed my backpack and shoved it around the boulder, balancing it on an upper step. Slowly I ducked and crawled, stopping every couple of steps to push the backpack ahead of me. Finally, I felt the earth under my feet and breathed a sign of relief. After that, the rest of the trail was a breeze. At the top, as If rewarding me for my tenacity, the fog parted to reveal amazing views of the valley. I was gratified and immensely proud of my accomplishment. But I took the elevator down.
Photos not otherwise credited courtesy of Barbara Weibel
Article by Barbara Weibel of Hole In The Donut Travels