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Deep in the North Carolina mountains stands a wall of immaculate quartzite. This prominent mile-long cliff, which reaches heights up to 450 feet, is Shortoff Mountain, and the classic Shortoff route is the sustained 5.9 Dopey Duck, a 350-foot, three-pitch jug route established in 1981 by the Royal Robbins of Linville Gorge—Tom Howard. Steep and airy, with perfect rock and solid protection, it is many Carolina climbers’ favorite route in Linville Gorge, and certainly one of the best of its grade in the state.
The wildness of Shortoff Mountain (by East Coast standards) will become apparent by the time you hike up to the rim of the gorge. Long pants are recommended in all seasons because of the fierce underbrush, and watch out for rattlesnakes. Shortoff is the largest and southernmost cliff in the gorge. To approach Dopey Duck, you have to hike 45 minutes to the top of the cliff, then descend a 400-foot gully.
From the dead-end turnaround on Wolf Pit Road, hike a few minutes up the trail, and then take a sharp right uphill on an old roadbed. Continue for 25 minutes until you reach an intersection, and go straight across to meet up with the Mountains-to- Sea Trail (a singletrack marked with white blazes). Hike 15 more minutes until you see a spring (pipe) in the middle of the trail, along the cliff edge. This spring marks the top of the descent gully. Near the bottom of the gully, a fifth-class chimney section (often wet) has a short fixed rope to ease the descent. At the bottom, take a right and hike 200 feet north, around a short buttress that forms the right side of the descent gully.
PITCH 1Option A (5.8, 100 feet): The original start begins after a short scramble to the top of a detached block and climbs a typically funky Linville Gorge chimney/crack. It protects well and is moderate and fun. Option B (5.9, 120 feet): A more aesthetic line is the first pitch of Toxic Shock. Follow the right-leaning crack/seam on the face left of Dopey’s first pitch. The climbing is excellent, and this alternative is solid for the grade, with good but tricky gear. Regardless of which start you choose, run the pitch to a small ledge and belay alcove in the chimney/crack about 10 feet above a small birch.
PITCH 2(5.9, 150 feet): From the belay, continue up the blocky crack for another 15 to 20 feet, then ape left for 10 feet across solid orange quartzite to a shallow right-facing corner. This leads to the lichen-free main line of steep, juggy horizontals, which is split by a shallow seam. Fight the pump past the gear-swallowing horizontals, aiming for a small roof with huge jugs above. Belay higher up on a big, sloping ledge with moss hummocks. This pitch will use the double or triple set of fi nger-sized cams on your rack.
PITCH 3(5.6, 100 feet): Climb straight up, over a small headwall, and then follow lower-angled rock to the top.
Guidebooks: The Climber’s Guide to North Carolina, by Thomas Kelley, third edition; Selected Climbs in North Carolina, by Yon Lambert and Harrison Shull, updated edition
Guide Service: Rock Dimensions Climbing Guides, Boone, NC, (828) 265-3544, rockdimensions.com
Equipment: Footsloggers, Boone, NC, (828) 262-5111, footsloggers.com
Season: Spring through autumn. It’s possible to climb in the summer if you get on the wall early in the morning. A peregrine falcon closure affects the south end of the cliff from January 15 to August 15, but Dopey Duck is open year-round.
Rack: Doubles or even triples of finger-sized cams and TCUs. For the original first pitch, rack up to 3 inches; for the Toxic Shock start, up to about 2 inches.
Driving Directions: From I-40 east of Asheville, take Exit 90 (Nebo/Lake James) to the north. Follow signs to Lake James State Park via Hwy. 126. Pass the park entrance, and continue around the lake for about 15 minutes. Turn away from the lake on Wolf Pit Road, which dead-ends at a small, gravel parking loop where the trail begins.