The why behind North Carolina’s rigorous trad ethic
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.