The geology of sport

When protohumans first wandered away from home in search of a meal — or beat a hasty retreat, pursued by something that saw them as a meal — sooner or later they came to the mountains. (The first mountain sports festival, in fact, may have spontaneously occurred when a primitive bear chased a family of australopithecines over the rim of Olduvai Gorge.) Fanning out from the African savanna, our ancestors eventually encountered slopes wherever they didn’t hit water first.

By the time they made their way to the world’s oldest mountains — the Appalachians — they’d had 3 million years to develop both the skills and tools needed to tackle the multifaceted challenges posed by those stony obstacles. And in the 14,000 years since then, not a lot has changed (other than a few minor substitutions, like switching from chipped flint to titanium).

Somewhere in the even-more-distant past (like, maybe, 270 million years ago), colliding tectonic plates created these mountains. Immediately, however, they began to erode, due to the varying hardness of their constituent minerals and the meddling of occasional pesky earthquakes. Soon enough, in geologic time, the sportscape was ready to challenge kayakers and climbers alike.

Of course, the earliest mountaineers weren’t out for fun. Survival was the primary order of the day — followed, surely, by curiosity. Anyone who hikes knows the lure of that next crest, where another unseen piece of this world may be revealed.

But whatever the impetus, physical reality remains unyielding. Feet need a way through the terrain — and, as it steepens, a step up, another, then a handhold, now a toehold. The scramble thus becomes a series of painstaking reaches and grips, stretching for a stoney knob that’s nearly out of reach, putting weight on a toe that barely finds purchase. In a while, looking down, you realize it’s a considerable drop to the boulder field below, making each protrusion that much more precious.

On a downhill journey, flowing water almost invariably provides the clearest path. Likewise, in a trackless wilderness, water is always the easiest way to move materials. For a hunter upstream from home, floating a dead woolly mammoth would have been far preferable to coming and going a couple of dozen times while the wolves and mountain lions were making off with hefty chunks of an unguarded carcass. And somewhere on the time line, clever Native Americans invented the canoe, further enhancing river travel.

As civilization made its mark, the easiest routes through the mountains became permanent paths. By the time Europeans arrived on the scene nearly 500 years ago, there were well-established trails through the gaps we now follow on Interstate 40 between Black Mountain and Old Fort, U.S. 74A between Fairview and Bat Cave, and Interstate 26 down the Saluda grade. These proto-highways made faster travel possible for bipeds and quadrupeds alike. And with the introduction of the horse, even mountain miles slowly began to shrink.

Imagine a fellow with an urgent message for kinfolk on the far side of the ridge. He runs as fast as he can until he’s ready to drop; a friend along the way, seeing his plight, loans him a horse. Leaping to the saddle, our intrepid traveler soon crests the gap and starts down the other slope; but at this point the faithful steed is utterly exhausted herself, and the messenger leaves her with another friend. On foot once more, he races to his destination, completing his mission.

And, incidentally, inventing the duathlon.

From cave to couch…

Today, of course, survival rarely requires such strenuous exertions — in developed nations, anyway. If anything, our survival is now threatened because our machine-driven liberation from physical drudgery has left us with free time, which we tend to spend holding down sofas rather than getting off our butts and getting physical.

Happily, Asheville is ideally situated to offer its denizens endless opportunities for stretching themselves physically while actually enjoying it. Whatever sort of outdoor sport takes your fancy, you can probably practice some form of it here.

Climbing is arguably the first and most specifically “mountain” sport. And while it may still involve scaling local precipices like Looking Glass Rock or the pinnacles on Shumont, these days, most participants train (and often compete) on artificial climbing walls. These ingenious structures have the distinct advantage of being rearrangeable, enabling pitiless instructors and event planners to set different problems for students — and spectators can see all the action without having to scale cliffs to gain a vantage point. The Asheville area is home to a number of such edifices, not to mention an abundance of outdoor destinations for folks who really want to rock.

Or maybe paddling’s more your style? As Newton sagely observed, what goes up must come down, and that applies to all the water running off these mountains. Ours is an area rich in white water — from gentle, scenic, family-friendly stretches to rapids that’ll make your heartbeat, well, rapid when you run them.

And speaking of running, 4 million years after we first stood erect, it remains the basic mode of fast transport over hill and dale. In case you hadn’t noticed, we’ve got hills and dales to spare, and a host of local enthusiasts maintain that running over, under, around and through them is as good as it gets.

In the modern era, cars have largely replaced horses for most functions. But out where the pavement ends, it’s mountain bikes that pick up where the saddle horse left off. The Asheville area boasts hundreds of miles of trails that have helped place Western North Carolina among the top cycling destinations in the East. There’s even a dedicated mountain-bike park in Alexander, which opened several years ago on the wooded buffer surrounding the Buncombe County Landfill.

But you don’t have to venture beyond the city limits to savor the pleasures of a wheel good time. Local road riders find plenty of fun just sampling the area’s scenic thoroughfares. And the Town Mountain Hill Climb, now in its 22nd year, launches its torturous five-mile route from the heart of downtown Asheville.

Urban cyclists who hanker to escape the bounds of Earth altogether may favor freestyle riding. Using tools such as bridges, ramps and teeter-totters, these intrepid pedalers sail through a repertoire of seemingly impossible stunts that seem to merge rider and bike, leaving spectators scraping their jaws off the pavement.

Freestylers aren’t the only ones who leverage technique and technology to vanquish gravity, however. (OK, so gravity always wins in the end — but don’t tell that to the folks who frequent one of the city’s newest sports facilities: the Food Lion SkatePark.)

Some might argue that skateboarding isn’t really a mountain sport, since it emerged in the 1960s as a land-bound simulation of surfing. But lacking the kinetic energy of ocean, steep slopes are what make skating something more than simply scootering without handlebars. And anyone who’s watched modern boarders for even a few minutes knows that today’s version of the pastime has as much in common with flying as with riding waves.

In recent decades, the astonishing proliferation of new materials and high-tech designs has spawned innumerable new sports and refinements of existing ones, as these precision tools have been enlisted in the service of humans’ relentless quest to push the envelope. Witness the fast-growing popularity of another recent immigrant to our mountains: disc golf.

The unlikely offspring of college kids’ infatuation with flinging pie plates at one another for fun, disc golf takes the Art of the Frisbee several steps further. There are now more than 200 types of specialized flying discs, and adepts can send their saucers curling between trees, gliding gracefully over glades, and dropping neatly into a waiting basket. The disc-golf course at Asheville’s Richmond Hill Park sees hundreds of rounds of play each week, by hard-core hurlers and family enthusiasts alike.

Not all nouveau sport involves high-tech trickery, however. Another trend in recent years relies more on good old-fashioned sweat and fret. Adventure racers blend traditional skills like biking, canoeing and orienteering in a grueling, team-style confrontation with nature and an unrelenting clock. And duathlons, triathlons and other combination challenges likewise encourage individual contestants of all ages to reach deep and push on through.

Clearly, we’ve come a long way since those hairy ancestors began discovering all the wondrous things a human body can do when it’s stretched to the limit — and how sublime an experience that can be. Increasingly, people of all ages and tastes are making their way to WNC — for a weekend or a lifetime — to take advantage of the extraordinary opportunities for sport the region offers. And as spring greens the trees and lights a spark in sluggish blood, the whole marvelous landscape croons a subtle come-on to winter couch potatoes sick of watching reruns — and there’s no need to speak Neanderthal to get the message.

[Additional reporting by Sammy Cox, Stuart Gaines, Jack Igelman, Frank Rabey, Steve Rasmussen, Tracy Rose and Brian Sarzynski.]

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About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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