The stars are still bright in the sky and a tiny sliver of new moon hovers as, just before sunrise, Ron Funderburke trudges through the freshly fallen snow with a backpack full of climbing gear. The record-breaking cold means conditions should be perfect for leading an ice route he’s been itching to tackle for weeks.
Funderburke is the head climbing guide at Fox Mountain Guides, one of the Southeast’s premier climbing instruction centers. Today’s his day off, though, and he's headed for a little-known climbing area near Linville Gorge with fellow Fox Mountain guide Jeremy Devine.
In recent weeks, Funderburke has been making regular trips to the area, doing a few of the easier routes while scouting a series of more challenging-looking possibilities that he believes have never been climbed.
At 8:30 a.m., Funderburke and Devine shoulder their backpacks and begin the steep, technical approach to the ice-covered crag. The 10 inches of fresh snow blanketing the dry creek bed’s boulders and rocks make the hike itself a challenge, yet the two climbers move swiftly, reaching the first frozen waterfall 30 minutes later.
At the base, Funderburke drops his pack and examines the 50-foot-high mass of glacier-blue ice, crystalline in the early morning light. Listening closely, he discerns the sound of running water behind the thick column: Despite the frigid temperatures, the route still isn’t fully frozen.
After some consideration, though, Funderburke concludes that if he doesn't climb it today — and soon — he probably won't be able to this season.
He begins by wielding his ice ax like a hammer, each swing creating a barrage of falling ice chunks as the ax bounces off the frozen wall. After several tries, a satisfying thud testifies that the ax head is solidly entrenched. Gripping the curved handle, Funderburke starts to pull himself up, simultaneously kicking his crampons into the ice. Meanwhile, his free arm swings a second ax as high as he can reach, enabling Funderburke to slowly work his way up the frozen cataract.
About 20 feet up, he unclips a 6-inch-long ice screw from his harness and quickly works it into the glittering surface. After clipping the climbing rope into a carabiner attached to the screw, Funderburke continues with methodical precision, stopping every so often to place another screw. Eventually, he executes a series of difficult, tenuous maneuvers before pulling up and over and out of sight atop the icy cliff.
The sky overhead is a brilliant, cerulean blue, and the blazing sun illuminates the icy mountainside. This is a very ephemeral sport, Funderburke observes while removing his crampons: What's here today may be gone tomorrow. The frozen route he and Devine have just ascended is already beginning to melt, and the sound of running water grows louder as the day begins to warm.
Over the next few hours, the two move from route to route, chasing the shade in an attempt to hit as many routes as possible. Eventually, they’re ready to pack it in.
“At the end of a good ice-climbing day, the biggest thing I feel is gratitude and satisfaction,” Funderburke explains. “It's a special thing, to catch good ice: I have to have a day off, the ice has to be good, and I have to have a good partner. If all those circumstances come to pass, I feel damn near euphoric about the whole thing.”
The descent to their car takes the two climbers back down the steep, snowy creek bed, forsaking the unforgiving world of icy waterfalls and cliffs for the warmer, softer comforts of home. As much as Funderburke savors the physical challenges of ice climbing, he emphasizes, returning to his family safely is paramount — something he never loses sight of.
— Asheville resident Eric Crews is a freelance writer and adventure-sports videographer.