This hike has been a year in the making. Last year, we only scouted out the top of the area. This year, we would complete the route.
Brandon, Erich and I left Greenville early Saturday morning and headed up the mountain. We were running early, so we stopped at Bynum trail and walked out a little ways to get a view. We still had some time and Erich hadn't been to Wiseman's View yet. Kistler Memorial Highway / 105 was in as good of condition as I've seen it (save the giant rut that is only a few feet south of Pine Gap parking), so we made the drive to Wiseman's in only a few minutes. It was overcast and hazy, so while we could make out all the distinctives of the area, nothing was exactly crisp, other than the 30°F temperature!
Getting back to our trailhead, we met up with Billy and Lonnie. After waiting a few minutes past our meet time, we decided no one else was coming and headed down the Babel Trail. We made it down in pretty good time, and the trail was in typical conditions: good views at the cliff, roots and talus on the ground, and an erosive ditch at the bottom. Coming out of the ditch, though, is some of the best scrambling the Linville Gorge has to offer. You honestly don't even have to go very far in to see a lot of very cool features. We, on the other hand, would be going very far in.
Climbing up Babel Tower requires maneuvering down beside of the rocky spires until coming to a trail that turns sharply right and uphill. It gets rocky toward the top, and you'll have to scramble the last few feet. This time, a tree had fallen down over the top, so we had to do some working around it, but nothing too bad. Views from the top of Babel were as good as ever. Walking towards Avatar's Rib, there is a rather large crack splitting the top of Babel. The distance is easily jumpable, but the other side is sloping and the bottom of the crack is far enough to at minimum be painful if you slip. Climbing back down the way I came, I scrambled up to the other ledge. From here we had GREAT views of Avatar's Rib, Henson Canyon, Westface, and all the surrounding areas, not to mention a straight shot south of the Gorge. From here, there's two options: climb back down the way you came up, or shimmy down a fallen tree to the base. Safest way is to just climb back down. A little scrambling brought us to the next peak, upper Avatar's Rib. It's accessible and very easy to get to, and you don't have to do the steep climbing that is required to getting to the top of Babel. But before we moved on to Avatar, I had some other intentions..
Hell's Ridge Camp offers views to the north of the river, Island Ridge, Henson, and the area that Hyde's Ledge runs across. Part of this excursion was to do visual recon for the suggested "Two Saddles" loop, which has Island Ridge connecting to Henson Creek via Hyde's Ledge. Another part is that last time I was out here, we bushwhacked straight down from Avatar, and on the way back we stumbled across a cairn. I wanted to find the cairn, mark a waypoint for it, and attempt to follow trail out to Hell's Ridge Camp to get a track for the Linville master map. Let me say that there are only scarce amounts of trail out there. The cairn is easy enough to find. Hell's Ridge Camp is not difficult if you do the research and don't go in blind. The connector between the two proves well enough how the area got its name. This ridge had burned in one of the previous fires since 2000 (I'm not sure exactly what year, but I believe Lonnie said it was the Brushy Ridge Complex Fire), and has since grown up thick with brush and briars. The views from the plateau camp are nice, but there doesn't seem to be much place to hang a hammock. Camping would require backpacking in with a tent, and to be honest, with the "trail" in the condition that it's in, going in with a pack would likely only be worth it to the most determined camper. The views of Island Ridge and the Linville River below are nice, though. It's just very scratchy getting out there, and unless you know what rock formations you're looking for, you may end up frustrated. We tried to follow trail back up to Avatar, and it was much easier to find from the Hell's Ridge Camp side, but we still lost it in a few places. Eventually, we came back out right at the cairn and headed to the main portion of our day.
Avatar's Rib. I find the name along with the other names in the area quite ironic and interesting. Biblically, the Tower of Babel was built by men trying to ascend to heaven on their own (you can read about it starting in Genesis 11:1). An avatar is allegedly God in human form. In my studies of Linville, there has definitely been influence of such a person, although that person is now dead. So that tribute of someone claiming to build themselves up to be God on the same peninsula named after a tower that men built trying to get to God is very ironic to me.
Avatar's Rib is a very rocky spine on the east side of the Babel peninsula. I anticipated the descent down the many shelves of the Rib would be difficult uptake require a lot of sketchy down climbing. We were about to find out. Last year, Marshall Weatherman and Matt Perry had made this trip, and a map was made that traced out roughly the route they took down the Rib. This map was excellent, and we used it a lot as we determined which way to descend. (You can access it here: http://m.flickr.com/photos/33252703@N08/8350576464/in/set-72157632444717814/) Upper Avatar's Rib extends out to Point A, and is simply a walk out to the edge. Some backtracking and descending on the north side will drop you below to Point C and Point B. From here you can either climb down the face of Point C, or as I went over to Point B for pictures I could see the gully between the two offered good holds to scramble down. Much safer. Much better. Once here, we had to work our ways backwards (west) on the south side of the Rib only to work our way back east. This was probably one of the more difficult areas of the descent. We split up into 3 groups at this point, but all eventually found each other on Point D and Point E. There are great formations here, and this is referenced as Lower Avatar's Rib. We decided to break for lunch here, plenty of places to sit and rest, a large rock with a tree to sit under, and what may be my favorite views of the whole Linville Gorge. I had stood on the Sphinx twice at the time of this writing, and while spectacular, doesn't match Lower Avatar's Rib to me. Being so close to the river, hearing the road of its whitewater, and the northern corners of the Gorge swallowing you to one side while the ridges frame an open and sweeping view to the south is magnificent. In all honesty, this point takes less work to get to than the Sphinx, as well.
After lunch at my new favorite place in the Gorge, it was time to finish this puzzle. Moving back to the north side, we found the route below us we wanted to take, but the climb down to that route proved to be the most difficult and dangerous aspect of Avatar's Rib for us. Standing on a ledge, the ground was probably 10 feet below us, and there were a couple rocky shelves to stand on. Unfortunately the ledge we were standing on is inverted once you climb over the edge, and there is very little to hold onto while climbing down. The rock ledge is smooth, and there was some mountain laurel growing there but most of its branches were dead and crumbled when we'd grab them. There's a large root across the ledge, but it didn't feel trustworthy at all. Slowly carefully, we came down one by one, facing out so we could keep our backs to the ledge trying to hold on. Suck it in, stick out your belly, and toss your pack at this point! There's a rootball off hanging over the ledge to hold onto, but who knows how long that will be there. Once down on the ground, it looks like there may have been a better route down if one we had backtracked some a little higher up, but that'll will have to wait for another trip.
We were now in the Avatar descent gully. Once in the gully, we had the added benefit of live trees to use as handholds and help. William noted that it reminded him of Zen Canyon, further south in the Gorge off of Rock Jock. Noting that on Marshall and Matt's trip report they had missed Point F and G, I wanted to try and get to those. Point F looks very difficult from the gully. Maybe there's a way to get up there from the south side. It may have been possible to climb up from the gully, but a climb down was no way. At least a scramble down was no way. Hanging on the north side of Point F was a huge icicle, that if let loose could really give one a headache! Point G wasn't too bad to get to but I impressive thanks to the obscured views. Erich and Brandon were able to knock down those big icicles so they weren't a hazard, and we kept on descending.
Point H was easily accessed and there was a cool cave there and a hole to climb up out of. The downside is that there was a lot of loose rock that would have hurt worse than an icicle should any of it slide or let loose. Deeming it dangerous, we didn't stick around long. Point H followed a side wall, which was a giant briar tangle. We got another good look at the river, Henson, Big Hole Point, etc. Back to the gully, and down to the river.
Avatar's Rib? Check. It really was not half as bad as I anticipated it to be, and anyone with off-trail experience in Linville Gorge and Marshall's map should be able to do it. The one physically difficult section was the rootball climb down off of Points D and E. In all honesty, though, Points D and E are the highlight of Avatar's Rib, so only going that far would not be bad. You would only miss the river walk and the steep climb out, which we were about to figure out.
Having the three-tiered waterfall and green pools at the bottom of Henson Creek in our view almost the whole way down, Henson was on all of our minds. I didn't know the area very well at all, so I wanted to scout and see if there was any possibility of a rock hope river crossing to the other side so we could access Henson. We walked up the shore, which is ankle twisting territory. It's all rock. It's very uneven. It's spectacular. Unfortunately, it was also icy. Even though it had warmed up to 50°F, blue skies and sunny, the north face of Babel is still in the shade. A lot of water had run down the sides, forming huge icicles that connected to the ground forming pillars in many places, and coated the already slick moss with ice. It wasn't everywhere, but there were quite a few places that were hazardous, especially where the river rocks lessened, and we were between cliff side and the river. We rockhopped upstream several hundred feet until we got to two side-by-side waterfalls on the river. There's a lot of whitewater in here! So much of the area was covered in silt from when the river was at a higher level. We took our pictures, found what looked like a piece of old distilling container beaten up by its tumble down the river, and had a good time scrambling these rocks. It's definitely a fun time to be here when it's lower water. At this point, we turned back. I didn't see any way of crossing the river while staying dry, and if we did manage to cross, the only way to Henson would be on Hyde's Ledge, which looked thick and nasty.
Up this close to get a good look at the area, I decided to abandon (at least for now) the suggested Two Saddles loop. It could be a thrilling hike, but it also looks very dense and with what I'd anticipate to be majorly obstructed views, I don't see the effort worth it for me. Maybe there are other explorers out there who want to give themselves to that, but my time in Linville Gorge is too limited to spend in that direction.
Finding our way back to the overhung campsite below Babel Tower near the Linville Gorge Trail proved difficult from a navigation standpoint. The river rocks turned into river boulders and to deeper water. We were forced off the rocks and back into the dirt, which meant back into the bushes. Using GPS, we tried to stay on the same contour as the campsite, and just pressed on. For anyone who has been to the overhung campsite and is wondering: the broken cot and old cookware is still there, and it wouldn't provide much shelter in a storm. William spotted the Linville Gorge Trail not too far off, and we worked our way up the switchbacks. This is where our physical work really began. We all seemed bright and in good spirits, but I think we all began to fatigue here. And we were at the bottom of the Gorge.
Those switchbacks below Babel really seem a lot longer in person than they do on the map! After climbing those, we were all showing signs of wear. There's a wonderful flat spot at the top near where Babel and LGT intersect that provided a nice spot for us to elevate the feet and recover from the grind uphill. We headed west on the LGT.
The last time I was hiking on this section of the LGT was in 2011. It was in August, and the trail hadn't been trimmed at all. We couldn't see where we were placing our feet, praying we wouldn't step on any snakes being so close to the river. Fortunately, the trail was very easy to follow this time around. It wasn't overgrown, and we didn't have any snakes, not that we really expected any this time of year. The Linville Gorge Trail is very rough, rooty, and rocky. The footing is very uneven. One if my bucket list hikes for this year was to hike the entire LGT by coming in at Pinnacle and hiking to Linville Falls. I believe I'm abandoning this plan as well, hopefully in favor of moving Shortoff Cliff Base up the list. One thing about hiking in the Gorge, each hike is really only your scouting and planning for the next one. At least it seems to go that way.
Finally, we make it to our last trail in the Linville Gorge, which was my idea. I said, "This will really be icing on the cake to make it a memorable day." So once we came to the post in the ground that looks an awful like like "Old Sandy," we started up Cabin Trail.
Ascending 900' in about 3/4 mile, and extremely rocky, Cabin is, in my opinion, the one official trail that is most representative of the terrain in Linville Gorge. It's steep. It's brutal. It requires scrambling. It will exhaust you. It's awesome. The only thing Cabin IS missing is the exposed views, but it also doesn't have the fire devastation that Shortoff or PinchIn have. We hauled ourselves up Cabin, slowly but surely. Erich and Brandon moved faster than the rest of us, and I found them lying down on the parking area boundaries when I got there. Wow! Everyone should experience going up Cabin Trail, at least once. Just don't do it when it's icy or sweltering hot out!
A short road walk back to Babel brought us to our cars and the end of our hiking adventure in Linville that day. We met for dinner all together and parted ways. One of the reasons I love Linville Gorge is not merely for the rugged terrain and wild views. It's also because there's a great community of hikers that like to head out into that wild country together as a team in effort to conquer it. Really though, the Gorge always proves that it's tougher than anyone who hikes in it.