That’s the two word answer I got over email from Will Rodgers, Pilot Mountain State Park Crag Steward, at 6:45 in the morning on April Fool’s Day. I had emailed him asking if we were still meeting up at the park with thunderstorms in the forecast. I was somewhat hoping it’d be canceled. I was eager a couple weeks ago to sign up for the stewardship day that was organized by the Carolina Climber’s Coalition, but with the day upon us, I wasn’t looking forward to moving giant rocks around in the cold wind and rain. My one rain jacket had become a pacifist in its old age – no longer fighting the good fight of keeping me dry – and I knew it was my only option. My hiking shoes were a pair of And 1 basketball shoes.
Damn. I was hoping for a way off the hook, but there wasn’t one. I got in my car with an extra change of clothes (I forgot a towel) and headed out into the dark morning.
An hour and forty-five minutes later I was in the blustery summit parking lot of Pilot Mountain, in the piedmont holler of Pinnacle, North Carolina. The wind was whipping with ease across a chilled, wet, grayscale of clouds and fog. There were a handful of other cars parked up there sporadically across the lot, but I knew these must be the people I’m hanging with for the day; no one else would be up here in this awful weather unless they really meant to be here.
We all summoned up the courage to get out from our heated cars, grab our packs, and muster up at the trailhead with Will. He looked prepared with his wool leg wraps, high and tight backpack, a working jacket, and look of indifferent determination to get through the day, rain be damned.
All together we were just a small group of eight men and women, mainly coming from Raleigh and Winston-Salem areas, wondering how wet the next couple hours were going to be. Will let us know we were going to be above the Three Bears climbing area, shoring up loose rock steps and tending to parts of the trail worn down by foot traffic and erosion. It was a short and sweet primer, as we had to hit the trail to keep warm and get a cache of tools that had been stashed along our route. We started down the trail in our bright jackets, looking like a bunch of Skittles lost in the fog, trying to make our way back to the rainbow we’d fallen from.
These small, volunteer-based stewardship projects are the simple, bread and butter solutions that the Carolina Climbers Coalition brings to the table to support the climbing communities in the Carolinas. The 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation was founded in 1995 and currently works throughout the Carolinas, with the stated mission of the CCC being “to protect, preserve, and expand climbing opportunities in the Carolinas.” Over the decades they’ve created a small but fertile grassroots network of climbers, advocates, and community locals to act as intermediaries and ambassadors between climbing communities and the landowners upon which climbing areas reside, from national forests and state parks to private landowners.
Pilot Mountain is one of the handful of parks that the CCC works with – including Stone Mountain State Park, Table Rock State Park, Chimney Rock State Park, Crowders Mountain State Park, Rocky Fork State Park, Hanging Rock State Park– to have these seldom seen but essential upkeep sessions to keep these areas looking good and feeling good for the millions of people who will pass through over the course of the year. According to the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, 22.8 million accessed the state park system in 2021, with Pilot Mountain being one of 10 sites to receive over a million. In 2022, the CCC organized over 1,000 volunteers participated in over 8,000 hours servicing areas like Pilot Mountain. Parks certainly benefit from the volunteer labor to help address issues without dipping into their budgets and climbers get to have a direct hand in the caretaking and management of the places they cherish the most. Talking with Will I certainly got the impression that the relationship between the CCC, the parks, and climbers was pretty copacetic.
“As climbers, we are not the number one users of the park, but we are the most visible. We’re the weird one’s hanging on rocks, the monkeys at the zoo. We have a responsibility to keep these areas clean. The park likes us, to be clear, we have a great relationship with the park. A lot of give in both directions and they’ve been very generous. They like the work we do and we enjoy doing it,” said Will.
We hiked for about half an hour along the rim of this mountain, the valley hidden in the clouds that surrounded us. We picked up our full get-up of buckets, sledgehammers, rock bars, and rock nets and soon found ourselves having a pretty good time fixing this step stair section that descended into the Three Bears climbing area.
In groups of two and three we began to find the loose rock steps along the trail and shoring them up with smaller rocks to create a firmer hold. Some would collect the baseball and football sized rocks off trail in the buckets, while others would pummel the piles of rocks with the hammers. Rain showered us intermittently throughout the morning. It was nice to keep warm with such rough exercise and there was a certain element of being “in the suck” together, experiencing some smash and bash Type-II fun.
That was just a warm-up though, the real work that we were going to be responsible for was setting a new step. There was a corner at the turn of a slope along the trail that had experienced some solid erosion and Will was going to mitigate it with some grading and putting in a big flat boulder he had found. It was the size of a coffee table and, of course, it needed to be moved from some brush at the very top of the bluff to the very bottom of the area we were working in.
We’d have to place a rock net underneath it and carry it by hand as a group, everyone working in precarious tandem. If someone slipped and the boulder fell suddenly, mangled hands, feet, and appendages were certainly possible. The rain had soaked me all the way through. I looked at the steep slick trail we had just spent all this time shoring up and improving. We were about to see what kind of trail we had created for ourselves and if our hard work was going to pull through for us.
Similarly, the CCC is attempting to move a heavy responsibility in challenging circumstances that requires the might of the community to achieve. In addition to stewardship, the more consequential work the organization does to benefit the Carolina climbing community long-term is working with land owners in long term climbing access agreements, or in some cases purchasing land for the sake of conservation and climbing. The land ownership aspect of the CCC’s work was jumpstarted by the acquisition of Laurel Knob in 2005, the tallest cliff in the Southeast, and it evolved into ever rotating cycles of fundraising that stretch for years. The CCC now owns five outdoor climbing destinations that are all free and publicly accessible.
The organization receives 2-year interest free loans from The Access Fund, then spends the following years throwing fundraising events and campaigns to pay back the loan, in addition to the proceeds from yearly memberships to the CCC. In 2022 it purchased a 32-acre area of granite delight in the Brushy Mountains called the Maibauer Boulders (donate at www.carolinaclimbers.org/maibauer) and has been throwing numerous events to help raise funds within the two-year cycle, including it’s 2nd Annual NC Climber’s Fest here at Pilot Mountain State Park on May 6th and 7th.
It’s a daunting task for which the CCC is definitely on the hook to accomplish for not only it’s own viability but that of climbing access in the Carolinas at large. But every dollar and cent counts towards paying back that loan, just as every nook and cranny on a wall is a stepping stone to the top of a wall. It’s a good thing the CCC is made up of climbers and rockhounds, people who excel at getting themselves up and over precarious situations with meticulous grip, gutsy patience, and an ability to comfortably embrace incremental advancements.
I really didn’t know if we’d be able to move this boulder. We slid a rock bar through the netting around the rock and had our two biggest guys grip the wet steel. With one big, concentrated heave we got the boulder hovering and moving. The weight and density of the rock jerked at my skeleton with every step, but we kept moving, step by slippery step. We had a couple slips that coulda been costly and I certainly tweaked my back part way through, my body not fully prepared for the exertion and strain.
For a half hour we cautiously made our way down the path we had been shoring up for the morning, over a distance that would have taken us 10-seconds to descend if we were just walking the trail to Three Bears Gulley. When we finally found it’s home nestled in the dirt, there were high-fives, smiles, and a well-deserved water break. As we were swigging our waters and catching our breath the clouds broke for the day and the sun shone on us with the warmth that we so desperately wanted. It was nice to take a break and bask in what we had just achieved.
But after 15 minutes we found ourselves looking for our tools and figuring out what the next steps were in this granite staircase we were remodeling. The biggest rock had been moved but there were still a couple hours left in our stewarding. Plenty of other areas could use our care and attention, though many of the millions of feet who’d pass through here would barely notice our successes in trail ergonomics. That’s ok, our little platoon of volunteers weren’t here for the glory, but for the guts to stick it out through the rain and steward over the land so we could all continue to play in it. The work wasn’t over, but at least we’d be busting rocks in the sun.