$14,000 in 3 Months: The Story of Saving Grayson Highland's AVP Boulders

By Aaron Parlier

Hidden beneath thick vegetation in the Virginia mountains, the Grayson Highlands AVP Boulders are perfect for summer bouldering sessions. Photo by Aaron Parlier.

Hidden beneath thick vegetation in the Virginia mountains, the Grayson Highlands AVP Boulders are perfect for summer bouldering sessions. Photo by Aaron Parlier.

It was the first week of June, 2016 when I received the initial message. I was sitting on a picnic table outside of the gym in Boone, NC, drinking a cup of coffee and taking a rest after a morning of setting boulder problems.

The message was from a friend asking why all the bright ribbons and "No Trespassing" signs were blocking the access trail to the AVP Boulders at Grayson Highlands State Park.

The message was unnerving, but I ultimately dismissed it. I'd been to the boulders only a week ago for the fourth annual GHSP Bouldering and Stewardship Weekend, and it seemed impossible that such changes had been made within such a short time span. We had climbed at AVP during the event multiple times, and nothing had been out of the ordinary.

Hoping for the best, I thought maybe he had seen private property signs posted on the other side of the road. But the steady flow of emails and messages in the days following dismissed any remaining prospect that my friend was mistaken.

Nervously, I drove up from Boone to have a look. I wrote down information from the "No Trespassing" signs and the numerous, frustratingly cheerful “find your dream home” realtor signs accompanying them.

I pushed past the ribbons guarding the access trail entrance and walked up toward the boulders. A long swath of bright pink flagging tape cut a defined course through the dense rhododendron within 30 feet from the boulders, putting the AVP Boulders on the opposite side of park lands. Close enough that you could underhand toss a hefty stone and bounce it soundly off of the side of the “Distance Dyno” (V4) — yet clearly defined as off limits. Unhinged, I drove into the park to sit down with park staff to see if they had any ideas or information.

In years past, I had walked through the boulderfield with GHSP rangers, who were seemingly certain that every AVP Boulder was within the park boundary. It was mentioned they were “pretty close” to the line (hindsight, "pretty close" being cause for concern), but at the time, I asked no further questions. The southeastern part of the park had never had an official survey since the formation of Grayson Highlands State Park back in 1965, but the public access outlook was confident enough for me to never inquire about the situation. Looking back now, I see my willful ignorance.

As I sat down with the park naturalist, we pulled up the realtor listing and poured over the new parcel map. I asked if the park would be open to doing its own survey, to determine if the realtor page was incorrect. What if they had overshot their survey line by 30 feet?

Unfortunately, the Virginia State Parks system moves slowly, and the bureaucracy involved would’ve taken way too long. Not to mention that funding was already minuscule, and getting a survey done for the sake of three boulders would be at the very bottom of the list.

To make the issue even more frustrating, the park indicated that since the AVP Boulders were now on private property, Grayson Highlands could no longer recommend the guidebook as a source of information about local bouldering.

Alexander Tighe climbing  Parliers Problem  (V8) on the AVP Boulder. Photo by Jeff Nicholls.

Alexander Tighe climbing Parliers Problem (V8) on the AVP Boulder. Photo by Jeff Nicholls.

As Vice President of the newly formed Central Appalachia Climbers Coalition, I knew I had to do something. But I had never navigated the waters of a private property boulder field closure before.

The logical progression with this kind of access challenge is to work with your local climbing organization and possibly the Access Fund if necessary. So we linked up with the Access Fund’s very own Zachary Lesch-Huie and Joe Sambataro and went to work.

Both Zachary and Joe recommended I continue discussion with the landowners in hopes of parceling out the boulders from the rest of the land.

Over numerous conversations and meetings with the owners, I learned a lot about the history of how the property came to get on the market. The land changed hands from the original park ranger who owned the large tract and largely considered the property to be an extension of the park, to the then-owners of the property who never minded hikers or climbers. These owners decided to sell this particular tract of land through a local realtor company, who then surveyed and flagged the property after seeing the access trail.

With that understanding, I asked if there was any chance of partitioning out the boulders so the CACC could put in an offer — we certainly couldn’t afford to buy the whole lot. The owners agreed.

With the idea greenlit toward parceling out a small tract around AVP, we needed to have the boulders surveyed and appraised in order to make an offer. We had to act fast because at any time, another party could provide an offer on the whole plot and we would lose our opportunity. As we choreographed the survey and appraisal, we gained a visual idea of the property’s size.

A long, thin, triangular 1.3 acres would be enough to include all three of the AVP boulders, a beautiful and rugged sliver of oak and birch as a forest buffer, and room for an access point to Highway 58 and Grayson Highlands State Park.

Price negotiation and discussions with the landowners were open and positive, and once the final prices were factored in, we realized the total cost we would need to raise for land acquisition was $14,000. With the purchase agreement formed and letter of intent signed, it was time to start fundraising.

While we had covered a lot of ground, the hardest and most nerve wracking process still lay ahead. With more than a year’s worth of effort behind us, now the tempo would jump to an even higher gear.

We networked with as many gyms, media outlets, social media platforms, and advocacy groups as possible to spread the word on fundraising. I drew a landscape map of the AVP Boulders that would be sent out to anyone making a $50 donation or more. I mailed out the landscape maps of the AVP Boulders from Florida to Washington State. Now all we had to do was wait.

Donors who gave $50 or more toward the AVP Boulder land purchase were given printed maps for their generous contribution.

Donors who gave $50 or more toward the AVP Boulder land purchase were given printed maps for their generous contribution.

To my surprise, the level of support and encouragement was both overwhelming and spectacular. We reached our fundraising goal quickly, and we were able to close on the property well within our target date of January 1st  2017.

This past Memorial Weekend, we were able to celebrate the grand opening of the boulders during the GHSP Bouldering and Stewardship Weekend. With a large crew of motivated volunteers, we finally removed the "No Trespassing" signs after a year and a half of seeing them blockade AVP.

The author posting Central Appalachia Climbers Coalition and Access Fund signage during the GHSP Bouldering and Stewardship Weekend this past May.

The author posting Central Appalachia Climbers Coalition and Access Fund signage during the GHSP Bouldering and Stewardship Weekend this past May.

Without support and donations from all over the South and across the country, the AVP Boulders wouldn’t be open to climbing today. As the final land purchase agreement was officiated and the stewardship weekend wrapped up, I found myself supercharged with optimism about our collective potential as a community.

Grayson Highlands and the multitude of other secluded boulder fields of Southwest Virginia and North Carolina have long been my bouldering grounds. Upon returning from Afghanistan, these areas were my querencia and place of solace. Appalachia, America’s Back of Beyond, is where I grew up. The landscape gave me a deep and permanent reverence for the outdoors.

I took it as an unspoken agreement that if I were to promote visitation to an area, access would be secure, and a foundation of stewardship and advocacy work would be available. I knew other people cared for AVP bouldering, but I didn’t expect such an instant and widespread enthusiasm for protecting a small section of land in southwest Virginia.

It’s my stance that if a guidebook is written or the effort is taken to develop and promote public

climbing in an area, that those involved in the promotion should take thoughtful, measured efforts to offset the impact of inherent increases in traffic on the natural environment, and also the impact weighing heavily on the land managers and property owners involved.

Efforts should not lie solely in the hands of the guidebook author or climbing area developer; there should be a concerted effort to coordinate stewardship events and climbing management plans alongside guidebooks and public promotion. In doing so, stress on the natural environment and land managers can be lessened before an issue arises.

In the case of AVP, if the CACC had not been preemptively formed, the outcome could have been drastically different. Without a collective unit, our voices and efforts could have been lost in the void.

The AVP Boulders are open again, and the CACC plans to donate the property to Grayson Highlands during the next General Assembly. The CACC will travel to New York City for the Access Fund’s Climbing Advocacy Summit this weekend, where the team will be awarded the 2017 Sharp End Award for work on the AVP Boulders and numerous other advocacy projects in Central Appalachia. With the AVP project still strong in our minds, the outlook and scope for further projects is promising.

Thank you so much to everyone who donated, volunteered, or sent an encouraging email or message throughout the AVP project. These collaborative efforts define us as a community.

The CACC’s purchase of 1.3 acres next to Grayson Highlands State Park has officially secured climbing to the AVP boulders for future generations.

The CACC’s purchase of 1.3 acres next to Grayson Highlands State Park has officially secured climbing to the AVP boulders for future generations.