Lightning Bolts & Ornery Bolt

by Mike Fischesser

  Back in the early ‘80’s Outward Bound had an amazing basecamp at a historical lodge, built in the 1800’s out of American Chestnut logs. This magical place was called Canaan Land and it is located at the gap at the headwaters of Lake Toxaway. The story of Canaan Land is an incredible tale for another time.

   Staff enjoyed creating routes on a cliff behind Canaan Land called Cold Mountain. One day Jerry Clawges and I were working on a nice line when we spied a violent thunderstorm headed in our direction. Jerry was leading the 2nd pitch and I was yelling up trying to tell him how to place a Self-Drive bolt. Well, I neglected to tell him to occasionally tap the dust out of the hollow end of the Self-Drive and eventually it became so clogged the dust wouldn’t come out. With the tip clogged the small expander cone can’t be inserted to set the bolt. That typical Southern Appalachian wall of rain, spitting lightning bolts, that we have all seen while climbing, was moving toward us quite fast. With no other pro in sight, Jerry needed to place that bolt in a hurry so we could bail. I couldn’t just rap from my belay anchor and leave him stranded up there to get fried. Jerry was a really good climber, but there was no way he could down climb that 5.15c pitch 🤪. He needed something small and sharp to dig out the dust. He had nothing on him. I always carry a tiny knife in the zipper pocket of my chalk bag ( along with a lighter, fire starter block and chapstick). That would do the trick, but how to get it up to him 75’ away?!? I took out the shoelace of one climbing shoe and placed the small knife against the climbing rope. Using a Whipping Lashing I tightly attached the knife to our climbing rope. Amazingly, Jerry was able to gently pull the knife through all the protection points. The storm was just about to hit us. Jerry hurriedly dug out the dust with the tiny knife blade, placed the bolt and rapped back to me. We reached the ground just as the onslaught of rain and lightning arrived. Whew! Close call.

Heather Phillips