Written and Photographed by Hayley Swinson
Dangling from my left hand, toes digging into the cliff, my fingers clutched the trigger on the number-five cam, a toothy metal apparatus smaller than my fist, designed to bite into the rock and protect the climber from a fall. I finagled it into a crevice, debating whether it fit. My left arm began to shake; I didn’t know how much longer it would hold.
After a couple failed attempts, the cam expanded in place and stuck. I fumbled for my rope, clipping it into the carabiner attached to the cam before moving on. As I climbed, I glanced over my shoulder at the scenery behind me. The trees surrounding Pilot Mountain looked miniature, the tilled fields an orange and green grid. In the distance, a donkey brayed.
It was my first time attempting traditional climbing. Luckily for me, this was just a training exercise. My instructor, Lindsay Fixmer of Wilmington Rock Gym, stood below, belaying me from an anchor at the top of the route. The rope I clipped into the carabiners was an extra one, a “mock-lead”. This way, I could learn without the added risk that comes with a lack of experience.
Pilot Mountain lies thirty minutes north of Winston-Salem, jutting out of the Earth like a lighthouse, a natural landmark the native Saura and Tutelo Indians had called “Jomeokee” or “Great Guide.” Rising 1,400 feet and surrounded by over 3,500 acres, the mountain is the focal point of North Carolina’s 14th state park, Pilot Mountain State Park. The park is home to species of flora and fauna both common and rare.
From the wide red deck of Airbnb hosts, Mark and Kari Barbar’s vineyard, the mountain is framed by grapevines and trees just starting to bloom. French double-doors lead out to the deck and down to the turquoise swimming pool. We were only six minutes driving from the base of the mountain.
Friday morning was clear, the sun shining over the mountain and surrounding valley; hawks circled in the air. Over breakfast, the Barbar’s asked questions about rock climbing. They were middle-aged empty-nesters, who had recently retired to the countryside.
The routes at Pilot Mountain, I had explained, are between fifty and a hundred feet in length, all single-pitch. The mountain has over eighty climbing routes, primarily top-rope (fixed anchor at the top of the route), though there are also a few sport and traditional routes too. Their difficulty ranges from beginner to advanced and everything in between.
Over the last few years I’d learned top-rope and sport leading in gyms, and now I wanted to take the first step towards learning traditional, or “trad” climbing. Trad climbing involves placing your own protective gear into the crevices of the rock and clipping your rope into the gear as you climb past and is the riskiest type of roped climbing, but also the most adventurous. Theoretically, a climber could create their own route this way, giving them the greatest amount of freedom and creativity.
You don’t have to be an experienced climber to enjoy Pilot Mountain, but it’s important to go with someone who knows what they’re doing. With over 7,000 climbers visiting each year, there are usually five to ten serious accidents at the park per year, and most are easily avoidable. If you’re new to climbing, go with a class or hire a guide like Lindsay. She also emphasized how important it is to know your limitations as muscling through pain or fatigue can put you and your entire crew at risk.
Climbing at Pilot offers many advantages. “It’s the perfect venue to have an outdoor climbing experience,” Lindsay says. “Whether you are new or a developing climber honing skills, Pilot offers a range of difficulty as well as an accessible learning environment.”
For skilled climbers with experience outdoors, swing by the ranger station at the base of the mountain and ask for a climber-specific guidebook. Inside the guide, you’ll find a map of the local routes as well as their ratings. Don’t forget to register on the trail before you embark.
For non-climbers, Pilot Mountain State Park has plenty to offer. Book a campsite (they have both family and primitive sites) and go for a hike along the numerous trails. Try canoeing on the Yadkin River, or take a horseback riding tour in the countryside. Stop for lunch at one of their picnic sites and look for rare species of birds and frogs among the foliage. Take a day trip to Mt. Airy AKA Mayberry, the small southern town where the Andy Griffith Show was filmed.
Winston-Salem is only thirty minutes south, where you’ll find restaurants and shopping and other tourist attractions. In the Old Salem Historic District, you can experience living history—and the famous Moravian sugar loaf. If art is more your speed, check out Reynolda House and Gardens, the former estate-turned-art-museum of tobacco magnate R. J. Reynolds and his wife Katharine.
Packing to leave, I was already planning to return. One last stroll around the vineyard, looking more closely at Mark and Kari’s little fruit orchard, I tried to guess the spot on the hill where Mark said they’d soon be arranging a table for two. They’re adding another dinner option, he’d explained, a secluded romantic dinner with a view of the mountain.
As we drove down the long hilly driveway from the vineyard, a few remaining daffodils swayed along the side of the road, and the house slowly disappeared from sight. But Pilot Mountain, that great guide, lighthouse along the historic Wagon Road, stayed in sight for days to come.
What: Guided Rock Climbing Trips Through Wilmington Rock Gym
Where: Stay at Pilot Mountain Vineyards through Airbnb or camp on-site
When: Spring and Fall for the best weather, park is open year-round
Pilot Mountain State Park
1792 Pilot Knob Park Road
Pinnacle, NC 27043