A Climber Looks at Forty: The Legacy of Protecting Southeast Climbing
By Paul Morley
For those of you who don’t know Jimmy Buffett, you won’t get the play on the title of this article. For those of you who do, you’ll understand why I was listening to “Trying to Reason with Hurricane Season” as I was driving to Little River Canyon in February with a high of 75 degrees. It seems to me the song title certainly relates to the ever dynamic spring season in the South. But I digress. About a month ago, Elaine (Steep South website guru) came to me and asked if I would be willing to do a story for the new website, so here you go.
I have written many pieces about community psyche and personal development, both of which came altruistically and naturally from my chosen professions. I decided to go in a different direction and write something personal: how it feels to be a climber who just turned 40 and has watched the climbing scene in the South evolve over 19 years. Of note, this article has nothing to do with my development as a climber. I feel as strong as ever, psyched, and motivated to keep on that upward slope of progression, but the words below represent what I struggle with in terms of what I have never had to address: a generation gap.
It is borderline comical to look through old climbing magazines and find articles of the generation before mine relating frustrations of how change was coming to climbing. I sit back on the couch and laugh about the irony and absurd hilarity that is the struggle of continued ethics and perceived morality for a piece of rock, especially when you consider that our great-parents’, grandparents’, and our parents’ struggles were out of the necessity to sustain life (Great Depression), our way of life (World War II), or total annihilation (the Cold War). We live in a time where our concerns, for many of us, show how high on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need we really are. We are lucky.
Up until now, I haven’t actually considered this topic too much. I just want to climb hard and enjoy talking with folks at the crag. I remember when I basically knew every person in the Southeast climbing community. Now, I know maybe half of the people at the gym. I remember when my friends Sean Kearney and Adam Henry were discussing the Rocktown guidebook when it was released, and the discussion revolved around the concept of the “train that was coming to the South” and that train being the influx of new climbers. What wasn’t said, but was implied, was the sustainability of our climbing resources, and also what we consider as Southern in the Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia climbing region. As stated in another discussion, “we bitch, we argue and complain because at the end of the day, we care about our climbing areas.”
One thing that I want to make clear is how ridiculously good newer climbers have it. There are multiple opened crags in the South that are climber owned and climber managed (or include good landowner relationships), all the way from my hometown of Tuscaloosa, AL to Kentucky and North Carolina. You can come to the South and spend the entire time at street legal climbing areas and never climb them all out. We even live in a time where the State of Tennessee is helping with access (Denny Cove) and non-profits, that never had anything to do with climbing, now own a cliff line (Castle Rock). It is absolutely amazing to see how diversified these efforts have become. Access was possible thanks to a significant amount of teamwork, and during my earlier years as a climber, it was consistently impressed upon me the responsibility to care for the crags we love. To protect them and to keep them safe, and at times, put the access before your psyche. We had to protect these areas because no one else would.
I feel pretty lucky to have experienced a very significant time period of access between 2007 and 2012. During this time, several changes were coming to Alabama. One grassroots effort, unrelated to climbing (well, maybe), was changing the face of all beer laws that would eventually raise the legal ABV in Alabama from 6% to 13.9%. All the while, many trails days were occurring in all three states. Some included up to eight hours of intensive labor just to keep good relations with the landowners. A road was blazed through an easement to ensure parking was secure for Jamestown. Another full day of work was performed at Sunset Park for erosion control. That effort took two weeks to stage equipment and materials.
A precedence of working for our crags was set for our generation, and the challenged was passed to down to us. Castle Rock was successfully leased. Kings Bluff was donated to the Southeastern Climbers Coalition (SCC). Closed crags were continuing to open when the real estate market was favorable. In one year, over $85K was raised for two crags, both being closed for over 20 years. Our recreational user group was starting to become recognized by landowners as a legitimate user group and resource. We policed ourselves. When someone was not in check, they got a phone call and an opportunity to correct their actions. “Under the radar” areas were kept just quiet. You went in, did the climb, and walked away without everyone knowing where you were that afternoon. And if you were doing actions that could danger that good ole Southern, word of mouth, access by a handshake, well, you also got a phone call. To many, the access was more important than the climb for that day.
In addition, climbers were seeing issues that needed to be addressed and took it upon themselves to handle them in a diversified means outside, or in partnership, with the SCC. A huge rebolting effort was passed down to my generation of climbers. This effort was by climbers who not only FA’ed routes, but also wanted to ensure that existing routes were safe. On any given Saturday, you would find climbers hammering in new stainless steel at your favorite crag. Those Climbtechs, hangers, and bolts that everyone clips in the Bunkers at Foster Falls? Well, we replaced the rust and multicolored tatter. We held fundraisers. We wanted to work. We wanted to give back to the crags and to the not only our community, but for future generations. All the while, we wanted to send. And did. There was an intoxicating sense that folks, from all over, were throwing in the efforts to preserve what we love. It was a group effort, and it was accomplished by us and for us.
Concurrently, these same efforts were happening by our brothers and sisters at the Red River Gorge and in the Carolinas. Because of that, the SCC, the Red River Gorge Climbers Coalition (RRGCC), and the Carolina Climbers Coalition (CCC) started helping each other with their initiatives. The Eastern Tennessee Climbers Coalition (ETCC) was going full tilt boogie at the Obed. Even the vibe at the Triple Crown was different. Competitors were just as invested with the initiatives the Triple Crown supported as they were with trying to win. All of these efforts were backed by the Access Fund. The momentum was high. It was local and regional to us, but also National in such a bigger picture. Eyes across the Country were looking towards the South because we did it right.
And then in 2012, many of the Alabama scene vacated and moved on to the road, to new careers, or both. The SCC continued to do hard work, and its network grew, resulting in unprecedented access victories. But today, as I write this, something seems missing when I go to events or speak with climbers: a loss of the specific momentum we had as a community. More importantly, as loss of ownership in the South. I don’t see or hear the sense of pride that was very contagious. At the same time, there is no rally cry. It is my impression some climbers feel that access is just handled by the SCC, and the access engine runs itself. There is no apparent threat right now. Climbtechs are hung, and routes are rebolted. It seems some feel that advocacy is going to an SCC pint night event. Drink some beer, lay down $10. Argue over the grade of a route or who is screwing who. Forget about it after you leave, and go put up your latest post the next day. Hashtag #vanlife. Live out the #narcissticlife. Am I hating? No. Am I challenging this? Yes.
To me, the main threat to what we love is the sense of complacency. Unbridled Instagram spray and entitlement have replaced a somewhat sense of humility amongst some climbers. We came up in a time period of significant access endangerment. I remember when Horse Pens 40 was closed. Our user group wasn’t always seen favorably by the National Park Service (NPS). It is my opinion that part of our rallying was because we saw firsthand the effects of not taking care of our crags, imminent threats, and closures. This time now is far from where the South was during the time period I mentioned. Much of this is due to the fact that there is now so much rock protected (Hell yes). I get this.
But what I fear is this looming complacency will result in major issue down the road. There needs to be a return of the momentum and our sense of ownership in our climbing community and in our lives. And what I advocate is for newer climbers to the region to take hold of the reigns. For the newcomers in the South (even if you boulder V10), I speak directly to you here. The generation before you fought for (y)our crags, preserved them, and fought for what you have today. This is absolutely the heart of Southern climbing ethics, for which much pride is held. With that in mind, I firsthand know your talent. I know your ambition. And I know the psyche that rests in many of you. You all have a wealth of opportunity in front of you to step up and make the South yours.
The gauntlet is passed, and it is now the responsibility of this newer group to carry on the legacy that has been passed down. I advocate that the “old guard” continue (or start) to mentor the new generations and speak of how Southern climbing came to be. At the same time, I know there are many who would step up the game, if they knew where to start. Start simply by going to trail days. The boulder problem or route will be there the next day or day after. Put your back into it. Want a route rebolted? Find someone who is experienced and learn. Not happy with the SCC? Contact them and see how your talents may be able to better this (your) community. They need folks who can manage, write grants, and reach out into the community. Less talk. More action.
Going back to the beginning of this article, how does it feel to be a 40 year old climber in the South? It is absolutely amazing. I love this area. It is haunted, and it will always be my home. Each of us has a responsibility in this region, and that responsibility is greater and just as important as the psyche to send. The South is good to all of us. Take care of her.
Oh yeah, that route you are projecting? The dude next to you in the Whole Food’s checkout line may have bolted it. Your latest top out? That quiet person on the bench at Riverside FA’ed it. And you would never know. Roll Tide.