The why be­hind North Carolina’s rig­or­ous trad ethic

Climbing - - NORTH CAROLINA - By James Plun­kett

My right leg Elvis wob­bles on smears. I’m 20 feet above my bolt on Groove Con­nec­tion ( 5.8 PG-13) at Stone De­pot, a small gran­ite area in western North Carolina. No man­ner of ca­jol­ing will make my pro fit the shal­low div­ots. I’m in a typ­i­cal NC tight spot.

I moved to Western North Carolina from Colorado in 2016. When I asked lo­cals where to find bolted routes, they lec­tured me about the ben­e­fits of trad as if I had just asked for a veg­gie burger at a Texas Road­house. So I swapped out my sport draws for a rack. North Carolina—while it does have some sport climb­ing— is known for its staunch tra­di­tional ethic, em­pha­siz­ing long runouts, ground- up first as­cents, and an un­apolo­getic “Hell no!” for any­one daft enough to whine about need­ing more bolts. In a na­tion where sport climb­ing is a fore­gone con­clu­sion— and has even sup­planted trad climb­ing at one­time trad bas­tions like the New River Gorge— this makes North Carolina an anom­aly, the land that time for­got. As Yon Lam­bert and Har­ri­son Shull put it in their Selected Climbs in North Carolina ( 2002): “Wel­come to North Carolina, the best back­wa­ter climb­ing area in Amer­ica.”

Here, the lo­cal com­mu­nity puts stew­ard­ship be­fore ease of con­sump­tion. Or­ga­ni­za­tions like the Carolina Climbers’ Coali­tion ( CCC) have taken the place of more in­for­mal self- polic­ing mech­a­nisms to make sure that routes like Stone Moun­tain’s Yar­darm ( 5.8 PG-13), put up in 1972, main­tain their char­ac­ter. The first bolt on Yar­darm is 25 feet off the deck, with only one other bolt for the rest of the 150- foot route. De­fend­ers of Stone Moun­tain’s char­ac­ter­is­tic style ar­gue that fea­tured rock and a good head com­pen­sate for the runouts. This still hasn’t kept mes­sage- board beta from rec­om­mend­ing adult di­a­pers along­side Tri­cams.

NC’s ethic seems at least partly in­formed by a seren-

dip­i­tous in­su­lar­ity com­mon to small, of­ten- ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties and a si­mul­ta­ne­ous lack of out­side in­flu­ence. As Lam­bert and Shull pro­claim in Selected Climbs, “In truth, North Carolina’s ‘ tra­di­tional’ rep­u­ta­tion is due as much to a streak of pro­tec­tive­ness for the re­gion’s lim­ited rock sup­ply as it is to a cadre of climbers still cling­ing to old- fash­ioned ideas.” And why shouldn’t they be? The hazy azure com­mas of the Blue Ridge Moun­tains are over 1 bil­lion years old and, as most na­tive North Carolini­ans may tell you, thus some of the old­est in the world. You can climb in mul­ti­ple eco- sys­tems— the Ap­palachian tem­per­ate rain for­est, the hard­wood forests and sand hills of the Piedmont plateau, and the pine sa­vanna of the coastal plain. Per­haps this is why pride and preser­va­tion are es­poused so ef­fu­sively by the lo­cals, and why climbers have de­vel­oped an ethic all their own; they’ve known for a long time that there’s no rea­son to go any­where else. Now fac­tor in that many of the crags were orig­i­nally on pri­vate land where the de­vel­op­ers set the ethic to their lik­ing.

Take Lau­rel Knob, a crag in the Cashiers Val­ley that was a rel­a­tive se­cret for 30 years and just hap­pens to be the tallest rock face in East­ern North Amer­ica. The CCC bought the 47 acres that Lau­rel Knob sits on in Fe­bru­ary 2006 from a real- es­tate hold­ing com­pany after two years of ne­go­ti­a­tions and much com­mu­nity fundrais­ing. Lau­rel is sug­gested mainly to ex­pe­ri­enced climbers due to the com­mit­ment de­manded from its of­ten scantly pro­tected wa­ter grooves. It’s not out of the or­di­nary to be stand­ing amongst a group of hard­core lo­cals only to hear mur­murs of sim­i­lar un­der­ground crags and see hand- drawn topos cir­cu­lat­ing like trea­sure maps.

“The rock lends it­self re­ally well to pro­tec­tion,” says Brian Payst, pres­i­dent of the CCC, who’s been climb­ing in North Carolina since 1987. Payst ref­er­ences the ver­i­ta­ble choose-your- own-Tri-cam ad­ven­ture of Sun­dial Crack ( 5.8) at Look­ing Glass Rock, Board Walk ( 5.8) at Ship Rock, and Golden Ear­ring ( 5.7) at Moore’s Wall where Payst says you could “throw your rack at the wall and pieces will fall into place.” Payst ar­gues that NC has some of the best mod­er­ate trad lines to learn on in the Southeast, and that adding

bolts would be un­nec­es­sary. And then there’s the bonus, as Payst puts it, that “you’re not go­ing to see lines” like you might with sim­i­lar grades at nearby sport mec­cas. But where does one draw the line be­tween pro­tec­tive­ness and ex­clu­siv­ity?

“Ev­ery Stone Moun­tain sea­son, I get emails say­ing, ‘ Why can’t we put more bolts up?’” Payst says. “And I say, ‘ That’s not the way it was done.’” Payst ex­plains that in ad­di­tion to Yar­darm, al­most ev­ery other route at Stone Moun­tain gets this an­nual ask. He of­fered that “Stone Moun­tain is a great ex­am­ple of where if you don’t feel up for the climb­ing … you have other op­tions within a short dis­tance.” Payst has a point: Rum­bling Bald and Stone De­pot near Asheville, Boone’s The Dump, and Crow­ders Moun­tain near Charlotte all have plenty of sport lines.

Mike Rear­don is not in­ter­ested as much in pri­vacy or bold­ness as he is in cre­at­ing solid, self- suf­fi­cient climbers. A mid­dle- school art teacher by day, Rear­don has climbed in Western North Carolina for 14 years and co- au­thored, via his com­pany Ground Up Pub­lish­ing, Cedar Rock and Satel­lite Crags ( 2012), Rum­bling Bald Rock Climbs ( 2014), and Hid­den

Val­ley Rock Climbs ( 2016). Af­fa­ble, with the in­tense stare of some­one who’s spent long hours look­ing at both can­vases and rock, Rear­don says that he “al­ways leaned more to­ward rock climbs that look doable and mod­er­ate, but some­times they turn[ ed] out harder.” Stand­out Rear­don lines in­clude Danc­ing

on the Ceil­ing ( 5.10+ A1) on North Cedar Rock, put up with Heath Alexan­der, and

The Handrail ( 5.11a) on East Slate Rock. He told me that the NC style cre­ates more self- suf­fi­cient climbers due to the leader hav­ing “mul­ti­ple prob­lems to solve … not just the climb­ing prob­lem.” He con­tin­ues, “Runouts aren’t about su­pe­ri­or­ity; they’re about learn­ing more.” I. e., there are al­ready places where you can climb 100 feet with bolts ev­ery body length. There­fore, not all crags need to be this way.

The fo­cus, then, is less on safety, or a po­ten­tial lack thereof, but on com­mit­ting to the un­known. Es­tab­lish­ing first as­cents in this vein pro­vides a way to pass along the tra­di­tion and in­still in climbers a re­spect for this ad­ven­tur­ous style. CCC Board

Mem­ber Laura Boggess calls this a “lin­eage” in which men­tors pass down their knowl­edge, con­jur­ing vi­sions of climbers shar­ing sto­ries over a fire that’s burned for decades.

No one has quite the same per­spec­tive on fu­ture gen­er­a­tions as Pas­cal Robert, a leg­end who has climbed in NC for over 35 years. An en­gi­neer by trade, Robert’s sig­na­ture con­tri­bu­tions in­clude long­stand­ing test­pieces like the dizzy­ing Glass Me­nagerie ( 5.13a PG-13), of which he, Arno Il­gner, and Kris Kline made the FFA in 1980, and the 1990 Green Eggs and

Ham ( 5.12b/c PG-13) with Tripp Hal­bkat and Mark Owen.

“When you drill a bolt, you’re drilling into a mil­lionyear- old ob­ject,” he says. And: “Once the bolts are set,” you can’t re­verse that process. For Robert, re­spect for the re­source goes to­gether with re­spect for as­cent style: One can­not ex­ist with­out the other. Tall, wiry, and sport­ing a con­stant wry grin, Robert teeters be­tween school­boy gid­di­ness and on­to­log­i­cal de­ter­min­ism when talk­ing about ad­ven­ture climb­ing in North Carolina.

“When you do [ a first as­cent] ground- up, you don’t know what’s go­ing to work, what kind of holds you’re go­ing to find,” he says. “All you know is what you dis­cover in the mo­ment … and it sharp­ens your en­tire ex­pe­ri­ence.”

The prob­lem that Robert sees at sport cliffs is that they be­come ster­il­ized, and thus the routes have lit­tle emo­tional con­se­quence. Sport climbs, he says, have a place for newer climbers learn­ing to lead, “but it’s ba­si­cally like walk­ing down the side­walk.” He wants the routes in North Carolina to stir a sense of dis­cov­ery and ad­ven­ture within the climber, one that’s been buried be­neath the crea­ture com­forts of daily life. The fo­cus should be on the risks that the climber must take to raise her­self to the level of the route.

My con­ver­sa­tion with Robert epit­o­mized so much of the climb­ing ex­pe­ri­ence in North Carolina. Climbers here are will­ing to fight for their sport as a sym­bio­sis of ex­pe­ri­ence in­clud­ing stew­ard­ship, self- suf­fi­ciency, re­spect for one’s pre­de­ces­sors, and, as Robert puts it, “forg­ing into the un­known with only what you have.”

Oh, and if you don’t like it? Here’s a map to the Red.

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