North Carolina- Rock Climbing and Asheville

February 25, 2010

Today, I took a break from the saddle to explore downtown Asheville's arts, restaurants and shopping and spend the afternoon rock climbing at Chimney Rock Park. No, I have never gone rock climbing before, and yes, I am still in one piece. It was a lot of fun and certainly a challenge.

Asheville is a nice mix of urban culture in a small area. We used the Chestnut Street Inn as our jumping off point. The Chestnut Street Inn is owned by a young couple, Eddie and Jesse, who had great recommendations for the Asheville area. It was also neat to stay in a smaller place. At breakfast, I got to hang out with other visitors, many of whom had been to Asheville several times and had some good suggestions.

After a breakfast of sorbet, zucchini bread, apple French toast and steaming coffee, I headed into town, stopping first at the visitor's center to get a couple of maps. Asheville is pretty small, so I was excited to explore on foot. I thought that I would start out doing the urban trail, which is about a two-mile loop around the city with about 30 works of public art that tell the story of the city of Asheville. I sort of started the trail, but then got sidetracked starting on North Lexington Street.

North Lexington Street is a street of funky shops, tattoo parlors, vintage record stores and restaurants. I stopped in a sustainable clothing store that sells clothes that are recyclable and made in a socially and environmentally responsible way. I also dashed into a vintage record store. I had already gotten a few restaurant suggestions. Everyone had said to go to Tupelo Honey Café for good southern food, which I was up for. We had eaten at a Thai place the night before, which had great food and a super friendly staff.

We got an outside table at Tupelo Honey Café and I ordered some sweet tea, a salad and shrimp and grits. Mmmmm. I also consumed a couple of small biscuits, which were very good.

Asheville has a neat arts scene, and we stopped by Grove Arcade and a couple of other galleries, including one in the old Woolworth building, where there is still a soda fountain.

For the afternoon, we drove about 40 minutes outside of Asheville to try rock climbing at Chimney Rock Park. Asheville is a big town for adventure travel activities. There is great hiking, biking, whitewater rafting, fishing, horseback riding and more all nearby.

We drove the long and windy road to Chimney Rock. Along the way, I began to feel a little nauseous, not used to all of the turns.

I was taking a lesson in rock climbing with Ron from Fox Mountain Guides, who I would highly suggest to anyone. I had never tried rock climbing before, but Ron would have me scurrying up a sheer incline by the end of our lesson. Fox Mountain Guides is the only American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) accredited outfitter in the Southeast.

Chimney Rock Park is a 350 foot tall monolith in Hickory Nut Gorge. A doctor discovered the rock in the early 1900s and dreamed of making it into a destination. The views from the top are spectacular and to get there you can either take a 30 second ride in an elevator or walk up a series of planks and stairs for about 20 minutes.

We took the elevator, as we would be rappelling down the rock to start out. When we reached the top, I had second thoughts about rappelling down. It looked a little daunting, as Ron clipped some ropes onto my harness. We would be going down together and countering each other's weight.

Once I looked down, I got a little nervous. I asked Ron again about his experience and if the ropes were steady. They apparently were, so I took the chance of leaning back all the while asking Ron for some tips.

Some good ones are that you sit back, like you are sitting in a chair almost, as you rappel down. It sounds a little counterintuitive to lean back into nothingness and trust the ropes will catch you if you fall, but that's what you do.

Another good tip was that a straight arm is better than a bent arm because you'll be able to hold it longer. Ron also suggested using chalk. Your hands do get sweaty as you climb, so the chalk is vital.

Ron and I stepped out and took our first hop down. It was a great feeling to be scaling down this rock face. I was stingy with letting out the ropes at first, but after a minute I got a little more comfortable with it.

By the time we reached the bottom, I was ready to go again and ready to climb. As we rappelled down, Ron had shown me a few places in the rocks where there were natural cups that I could hold onto and a few places where I would have to wedge my hand in a crevice as a hand hold.

Here we go with the trust again. Sticking your hand into a small dark space, akin to a cave, in a rock is a little unnerving. I wondered what may be inside one as I began my ascent, free climbing up the rock.

Ron was on the ground, holding the ropes in case I fell, but by no means was he pulling me up. I was scouring the rock to find little indentations where I could shove my little fingers.

As I approached a more sheer place in the rocks where I didn't see anything to hold onto, Ron called up that I would have to reach for the cup that he had shown me earlier. I wasn't sure that I could reach it, and I slipped a little on the first attempt. On the third try, my hand frantically grabbed the cup, and I pulled myself up to where my feet could stick.

Slowly, I made my way up the rock, sweating and getting dirty and looking down every once in a while to make sure that Ron was still holding those ropes.

I can see how people can get into this sport. Ron wanted to know from me more about what attracts people to horseback riding, and I wanted to know about rock climbing. I had experienced what attracted people to his sport. Ron would have to come riding with me to see why we all love it so much.

I reached the top and began to rappel down again. I felt really good about my climb. I didn't fall and scrape my face against the rocks, like I thought I may. I was hot and dirty, but also rushing with adrenaline. I felt great. Good enough to climb up one more time and take one last view of the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains.

Darley Newman is the host of the Emmy Award-winning Public Television series Equitrekking®, which takes viewers on horseback riding vacations around the world. Equitrekking is broadcast on PBS stations and on international networks in over 30 countries.

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Learn about equestrian vacations in North Carolina at the Biltmore Estate and book a horseback riding vacation at EquitrekkingTravel.com

Topics: Adventure Travel, Asheville, Darley Newman, equestrian vacation, equestrian vacations, Equitrekking, EquitrekkingTravel.com, horseback riding vacation, North Carolina, Rock Climbing, United States