Two men are standing on a mountain slope above Lake Lure, N.C., shivering as the sun begins to creep toward the horizon, trying to work out the secret of the Shaolin Wonder Palm. This isn’t a mystical kung fu move; it’s a bouldering problem in Rumbling Bald’s expansive boulder field. There’s a big move right out of the gate that forces the climber to plant and hang from his right palm, then the line gets cryptic with some tricky heel work. Both of the climbers have sent the solid V7 problem before, but it takes a bit of strategy to work out the exact sequence of movements, so they take turns, getting a little higher up the gray rock with each attempt. One of the climbers, Ron Funderburke, thinks Shaolin Wonder Palm is one of Rumbling Bald’s classics. The other climber, Eric Eigner, has never been impressed with the problem.
“I just don’t like the whole thigh-master thing,” Eigner says, referring to the crux move where you have to pull your whole body up by flexing your right hamstring.
In between attempts, they do what climbers do and talk about other climbers. Specifically, they talk about “mutants,” that rare breed of man or woman with a superhuman ability to send rock that is simply out of the realm of possibility for even strong climbers like Eigner and Funderburke. We’re talking about Chris Sharma and Daniel Wood…climbers who actually have groupies.
The question on hand is, “Will any of these heavy hitters ever grace Rumbling Bald with their skills?” It may sound like a silly question that’s impossible to answer, but what they’re really asking each other is, “Will Rumbling Bald ever get its due?”
Rumbling Bald is a mountain in Western North Carolina’s Hickory Nut Gorge with a massive collection of metamorphic gneiss boulders (think granite with some pretty white streaks of quartzite running through it). The jagged, gray rocks sit in clusters at the base of an expansive cliff line known for hard trad routes and the occasional fissure cave. Some of the boulders are 30 feet tall with mature trees growing from their caps. The bald has been a local bouldering hot spot for more than a decade, but thanks to the recent “discovery” of a new cluster of boulders lying outside the well-known field, climbers now have 1,500 different known problems at their disposal. The addition of the new field makes Rumbling Bald the third largest bouldering field in the country, behind Hueco Tanks, Texas and Bishop, California. But Rumbling Bald is rarely, if ever, mentioned in the same sentence as these two legendary pebble wrestling destinations. It isn’t even as well known as smaller Southern destinations like Lily Boulders or Horse Pens 40.
Ask local hard-men—the guys dedicated to the craft of bouldering—and they say Rumbling Bald is world class. It’s just waiting for a world class climber to come and validate it.
“It’s one of the best bouldering fields in the world,” says Funderburke, head guide at Fox Mountain Guides. “When you look at the density, as in one boulder right after the other, and then the range of problems, it has that sort of all-star quality.”
Chris Dorrity agrees. Dorrity is the author of the Rumbling Bald Bouldering Guide, which details more than 900 established problems in a range of grades from V0 to V11. He’s working on the second edition of the guidebook, which will include the problems at Hanging Chain, a newly discovered boulder field that’s just a 10 minute walk west of the better known clusters of boulders. Dorrity is spearheading a fury of route development in that area that will increase the size of Rumbling Bald by a third, bringing the local crag on par with Hueco Tanks and Bishop, at least in sheer volume.
“You park in one spot and you have easy access to 1,500 established problems. That’s rare,” Dorrity says. “The movement and the texture are amazing. And the lines are pure. These boulders don’t have jumbled holds where you can choose your own way to the top. A boulder at Rumbling Bald has only one way up.”
The lack of holds on the boulders actually helped keep the field from being developed for decades. Ned Dowling is credited with the majority of first ascents at Rumbling Bald, most of which he put up during the winter of 1998 while attending UNC-Asheville.
“I had been climbing at Rumbling Bald for years before I realized the potential of the boulders there,” Dowling says. “The holds aren’t obvious, so traditional climbers didn’t bother with the boulders much. But after a six-month road trip across the country where all I did was sleep in my car and boulder, I came back to Rumbling Bald with new eyes. The field was a blank slate. I started putting up a new problem just about every day.”
Even with Dowling’s furious development, it took a while for bouldering to catch on at Rumbling Bald, largely because the area was privately owned. In 2001, The Nature Conservancy purchased the majority of the cliff line and boulder field. Then in 2007, the state took over ownership of the area as part of the new Hickory Nut Gorge State Park.
According to Dorrity, what Rumbling Bald needs to enter the canon of Great American Bouldering Destinations, is a really, really hard problem.
“Right now, the high-end extreme grades aren’t there,” Dorrity says. “The highest grade problem that I’ll put in the second guide is a V12.”
Lily Boulders, in Tennessee’s Obed River basin, only has 150 or so problems, but is known by most boulderers because climbing superstar James Litz established Chinese Arithmetic there, a 5.13 that has only seen one second ascent.
Because of Rumbling Bald’s obscure holds and pure lines, climbers say it has the chops to support super hard grades that will set the climbing world a-twitter.
“There’s potential for 513 and 5.14 in here,” says Eric Eigner. “There’s so much rock in here, it’s inevitable that those high grades will be discovered. It’s just there’s never been anyone in here that could establish a problem like that. We just need a mutant to come in here and establish our own Chinese Arithmetic.”
Rumbling Bald Uber Classic
French Maid (V7) is considered to be the quintessential bouldering problem at Rumbling Bald. It’s an arete with clean holds and a sketchy top out in the West Side Boulders. Here’s what Ned Dowling, the man who first sent (and named) French Maid, has to say about the one boulder every climber should try to send:
“I named this one for an ex-girlfriend. She was trying to get back together over Halloween one year and she invited me to this halloween party. She was wearing a really sleazy French Maid costume. I decided not to go to the party and the next day I went out there and put up that problem. I’d spent days working on that problem, then just laid my pad down and did it. Once you know how to climb it, it’s not that hard.”
Boulder it Yourself
Rumbling Bald Mountain is an 1,100-acre collection of cliffs and boulders inside Hickory Nut Gorge State Park, roughly 30 minutes east of Asheville. The estimated 1,500 bouldering problems are divided into a few main areas (Central, West Side, East Side, and Hanging Chain).
The Central, West, East and stray satellite boulders are in relatively close proximity, a short hike from the new parking lot off of Boy’s Camp Road. But Hanging Chain is a 10-15 minute hike farther west, a distance just long enough to keep most boulderers from exploring it.
To reach the most established boulder fields, park in the new parking lot and hike the rutted-out trail straight up the steep slope until you start to see giant rocks. To reach Hanging Chain, hike west past the West Side boulders along the base of the Hanging Chain wall. According to Dorrity, there are 100 boulders with more than 350 problems, some of which are still waiting to be sent for the first time.
The Bald is a highly seasonable crag with a short climbing window from November to March. “In the summer, it’s unbearably hot and there’s poison ivy everywhere,” says Dorrity.