Why do people put themselves up high on a steep and challenging rock face? Why would anyone want to do something that appears so challenging and dangerous to overcome and with no apparent practical use? Are rock climbers just adrenaline junkies, using natural areas to simply scare themselves or impress others?
Many questions such as these often surface when watching a climber for the first time. With centuries of climbing history behind us, we have discovered that the roots of why people choose to climb are much deeper than adrenaline or ego.
In his new book Why We Climb, author John Burgman investigates the physical, mental, spiritual, and historical underpinnings of climbing. He writes, “I would encourage the skeptic to find a pristine morning, tie into a rope with a willing and knowledgeable partner, and give climbing a shot. See if it stirs the human spirit the way it has for me and for generations.”
Rock climbing is a constant physical and mental puzzle that forces you to focus on both minute geologic undulations and grandiose views. You find yourself grasping onto one small handhold, breathing deeply as you shift your balance onto a foot ledge, reaching a thankful rest between physically and mentally demanding movement.
The next moment, you peer over your shoulder at a 30-mile view spanning a vast forest canopy. You look down at the rope below you to see your partner cheering you on and giving you a secure belay.
After taking in the view, you peer up the rock face like a chess master, planning your next series of moves and rests, deciphering your most efficient path to the top of the climb. After finishing, you yell to your partner “ready to lower,” as you rest back onto the rope and are lowered to solid ground, ready to switch turns and belay your partner so that he or she can have a similarly challenging yet gratifying experience.
When reflecting on the day’s adventures, you think about the camaraderie you had with partners, the challenges that you had or had not met, the sweeping landscapes and ancient geology, the flowing climbing movement, and the comforting rests when they were most needed. You talk to other friends about your climb, and then discover there are hundreds, even thousands of climbing routes and areas within a reasonable distance from your home. Each boasts different geological features, varied climbing styles and difficulties, and interesting climbing histories.
As you climb more, you realize the list of climbing routes you want to ascend or climbing areas you want to visit grows much faster than it shrinks. You create new friends from climbing and introduce old friends to the sport. You learn safety mechanisms and better techniques from more experienced climbers, and share some of your own tricks with novices. Welcome to the lifestyle that is climbing.
Here in the Southern Appalachians, we are graced with a bounty of climbing opportunities. Our forests are teeming with textured plutonic granite domes, such as Looking Glass Rock, that beckoned even George Vanderbilt to ascend its face (via a ladder, but the intention was the same). Looking Glass Rock itself contains more than 400 climbing routes suitable for beginners, Olympic-strength rock mutants, and weekend warriors alike.
Nearby Cedar Rock offers an equal amount of diversity. Rumbling Bald, located within Chimney Rock State Park, contains another 400 plus climbing routes, offering a variety of gneiss features such as cracks, roofs, slabs, edging face climbs, dihedrals, and arêtes. Rumbling Bald is also known for its 1,500 boulder problems strewn in the forest below the rising cliffs.
Linville Gorge’s bullet hard quartzite walls are graced with giant holds with routes ranging from positive angled moderates to severely overhung challenges. Climbers come from all over the United States to climb at these destinations. Luckily, here in Asheville, we are only 45 minutes away.
Are you interested in climbing but don’t know where to start? A great way to begin is by hiring a guide. ClimbMax Mountain Guides in Asheville offers a number of climbing options for novices and advanced climbers alike. The company also runs the Smoky Mountain Adventure Center on Amboy Road in the River Arts District, equipped with 50-foot lead climbing walls. For more information, visit climbmaxnc.com.
Or perhaps you’d like to get connected to the climbing community in the area? I suggest becoming a member of the Carolina Climbers Coalition. The CCC has 20 years of experience safe guarding access to area cliffs via purchases and conservation tactics. Their website (carolinaclimbers.org) is a great resource for climbers new to the area.
Mike Reardon owns Ground Up Publishing and is the coauthor of Rumbling Bald Rock Climbs and Cedar Rock and Satellite Crags. John Burgman’s Why We Climb was just released by Ground Up Publishing and offers a wide-angle view into the lifestyle of climbing. Learn more at grounduppublishing.com.