Local knowledge

Laurel Knob, that mammoth dome of granite near Cashiers, isn’t necessarily distinguished within the climbing community by its size or the roughly two dozen routes traversing its face. What sets it apart is the way those routes came to be: first ascents marked by tales of adventure, boldness and ingenuity, the very substance of a purely North Carolinian climbing style.

Taking shots: Harrison Shull’s camera work has brought much attention to North Carolina’s climbing culture. Now he hopes to preserve something of the sport’s local ethic. photo by jonathan welch

In other parts of the South, “sport climbing”—that is, drilling anchors into rock along a route to support climbers’ ropes—has come to dominate. But local climber Jeep Gaskin says, “There’s not a lot of mystery in clipping bolts.” Gaskin is credited with establishing dozens of classic routes around the state, including one at Laurel Knob, in the ground-up style embraced here. Much like a game of sandlot football, the house climbing rules, such as using bolts responsibly and refusing to preview a route before an ascent, evolved organically, over time and by word of mouth. And while the game remains much the same today, some fear that the subtle variations in climbing etiquette that distinguish one neighborhood from the next are at risk of being lost.

That’s what troubles Harrison Shull the most about the state’s climbing heritage. Shull, the co-author of Selected Climbs in North Carolina and the author of Southeastern Rock, believes that securing climbing’s past in the region is the key to preserving its future. “To me, climbing is about adventure and the ethic that embraced it,” he says. “If we want the younger generation of climbers to respect and enjoy the traditions of the Carolinas, then we need to connect them to [those traditions].”

Shull is no stranger to the kind of bravado that arose among the state’s pioneer climbers. As a gifted teen, he was groomed by some of the Southeast’s boldest climbers and exposed to a purist ethic that’s been defended to an uncommon degree in North Carolina. At age 36, he’s been climbing for more than two decades and continues to establish challenging new routes.

Shull’s interest in climbing took on an added dimension in the mid-‘90s, when he was working as a guide at West Virginia’s Seneca Rocks. Up till then, climbing magazines had seldom featured stories about the Southeast. Shull saw that as a potential opportunity, and he began capturing the terrain and feats of Southern climbers on film. Soon the Western-based magazines were taking notice of the region and names like Seneca Rocks, the New River, the Tennessee Wall and Looking Glass entered the sport’s lexicon.

Since moving to Asheville in 1998, Shull has become as much a fixture at crags with a camera slung around his neck as with climbing gear. His photos have won nationwide respect for the South’s varied and abundant climbing opportunities, yet that attention hasn’t always been appreciated. Shull doesn’t deny the impact his photographs have had by attracting folks to the area, but he hasn’t surrendered to his critics, either. “Some say the best way to preserve the tradition is to shroud it in secrecy,” says Shull. “I don’t agree with that.”

Unlike the West, where there are abundant climbing opportunities on public lands, access to Southern crags, many of which are privately owned, is often dicey and can sometimes be lost altogether. Little wonder that many climbers are tightlipped, guarding their crags the way a bear protects its cubs, leaving little chance that a crag can be exploited or restricted. A case in point is Laurel Knob, which was closed to the public several years ago but has been bought by the Carolina Climbers Coalition for $250,000, restoring access.

Awhile back, the late North Carolina climber Doc Bayne suggested to writer and fellow climber Yon Lambert that the state needed a new guide.  The last edition of Thomas Kelley’s Climber’s Guide to North Carolina was outdated and lacking in some of the color that matters to climbers. Lambert contacted Shull, and the two agreed to collaborate on a new guide that was published in 2002. They’re now poised to release a second edition, which will include the first published guide to Laurel Knob.

“From the start we never intended to make money,” says Shull. Anyone who’s ever written a guidebook probably understands what he means: The paycheck seldom matches the effort. Rather, Shull saw his contribution to the guidebook as an extension of his work and his passion for preserving and conveying to younger climbers what he sees as the region’s threatened climbing tradition.

These days, North Carolina’s climbing culture may be less guarded than it was in the past. Still, some would prefer that published information be kept less than comprehensive. “There’s no doubt the guidebook has caused an increase in climbing activity,” says Gaskin. “That said, I think Harrison has worked hard to preserve the tactics and climbing style that make the Carolinas so unique.”

[Jack Igelman lives in Asheville.]

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