Cities To Crags

Sam Elias and Cameron Maier go on an Anthony Bourdain-style road trip to showcase climbing communities throughout the Southeast.

Photos by Cameron Maier

 

Cities to Crags was a road trip through the Southeast that Cameron Maier and I embarked upon last fall, an Anthony Bourdain-style exploration with climbing as the common thread.

The idea for Cities to Crags was in large part born out of connections and conversations with people I met at the first two Color the Crag events at Horse Pens 40, Alabama. I had felt that the very definition of “climbing” and “climber” was shifting and expanding. Color the Crag was an example. But I’ve also seen these shifting definitions play out over the years as climbing gyms have popped up and developed their own communities and unique cultures. I wanted to do a trip and tell a story that had a newer, more modern, fairer representation of climbing at the moment. More than anything, I wanted to show up and showcase some of the beautiful people I’ve met in the last few years, their homes, places and communities and, of course, their crags.

 

HP40, ALABAMA

The road trip began. Cam and I rendezvoused at the famous sandstone boulder field of Horse Pens 40, Alabama, for the third annual Color the Crag event. I had severely sprained my ankle days before leaving for the road trip—it was hugely swollen, and I had limited mobility—so wouldn’t be climbing too much. But I had other plans. 

I had prepared three different canvases as community painting projects. I’ve done so many climbing festivals and events in my days; just as Color The Crag is a different sort of climbing event, I was inspired to try to show up in a different way. The canvases were a simple and approachable “paint-a-shape” idea, where attendees could express themselves. The North Face provided paints and supplies. Cam and I were psyched to set a canvas up for the weekend, and also hang. I got to climb a little, albeit carefully. 

Rana Accawi on Redneck (V6). Accawi said the Color the Crag event has a community vibe that transcends the bouldering. “The minute we got to Horse Pens 40, it was pouring rain, but we embraced it and had a blast just playing board games and dancing in the barn,” she said.
Nina Williams on an ultra-classic V3 at HP40. Slopers abound, but the high friction of the Fontainebleau-esque sandstone means that improbable-looking lines can go at reasonable grades.
Brandon Belcher in the vicinity of the Millipede boulder in Horse Pens 40 at the annual Color the Crag event. Belcher told Gym Climber, “Color the Crag is a direct callout to the climbing industry and community as a whole. We’re saying, ‘We exist in great numbers. We are here to take space. Stop ignoring us.’ That’s not to say that the outdoor industry was maliciously ignoring us Black and Brown folks. It’s just that we were never in their thoughts to begin with; we were never even considered as part of their ‘market.’ So, for me, Color the Crag is a direct request for change and acceptance within our crags and communities.”
Elias (center) and Belcher hanging in the boulders at HP40.
Mabel, the rig that was Elias and Maier’s first trusty vehicle during the City to Crags road trip. Sadly, Mabel was not destined to make it through to the end of the trip.

 

 

Memphis, Tennessee

After Color the Crag, Cam and I headed northeast in Mabel (RV #1) to Memphis, and specifically the Memphis Rox Climbing Gym. Memphis Rox is a non-profit gym that operates on a pay-what-you-can model. 

On our first night in town, Cam and I were asked to join the Ladies Climbing Coalition movie night and discussion, and then we spent some days route setting in the gym. The highlight was creating a big figure-8 knot mural in the entranceway as a community painting project. It was the same exact concept as the “paint-a-shape” canvases at Color the Crag, but on a larger scale. Anyone could show up and fill in a small area. 

We hung tough in the evenings, and were shown around town by a few of the Memphis Rox setters and staff, sometimes as a mini bike crew. On one particularly memorable night we visited the crazy Memphis Pyramid, rode the bridge over the Mississippi River into Arkansas and back, rode down the notorious Beale Street, and breathed in all the life and colors of Memphis.

Filling in a section of the figure-8 mural.
Elias cutting a paint-roller to outline the figure-8 knot community mural.

Malik Martin, the Memphis Rox staff photographer.

New Orleans, Louisiana

Heading to New Orleans, we were curious about what climbing was like so far from real rock and in a place below sea level. 

We had been in touch with Garret Mortensen, one of the owners and head route setter at NOBL, and he graciously spent time with us and showed us around. We blasted around the city on bikes, and we set routes with the NOBL crew. The humidity and temperatures are generally so high that, because of caked chalk and shoe rubber, the holds look and feel 20-years-used after only six months on the wall. It takes a lot of effort, from the NOBL staff, setters and daily climbers, to manage the conditions. The New Orleans Boulder Lounge is a shining example of how access and representation matter. All are welcome to join a flourishing community that is defining what climbing means for itself: how it looks, who can do it, where it happens. 

We had a bit of a mishap one morning when I swiped a parked car pulling out of a lot, foreshadowing troubles to come with ol’ Mabel, but we wrote it off as voodoo and took it in stride. 

The downtown New Orleans cityscape at sunset.

Garret Mortensen, head route-setter and an owner of the New Orleans Boulder Lounge, cruises around the city in Mabel with Elias and Maier. Founded in 2015, NOBL is as much about community as it is climbing. Among the values in its mission statement are, “Deconstructing prejudices of race, religion, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, or any other kind.”
Elias testing out the setting in the New Orleans Boulder Lounge.

Miami, Florida

In Florida our destination was Fort Lauderdale’s Coral Cliffs. I had met the owner, Abby Dione, at the very first Color the Crag, and I vividly remembered her unique brand of sweet authenticity. 

About two-thirds of the way there, Mabel broke down for good. We rented a truck and left Mabel at a sketchy repair shop. There’s a lot more to the story, but not for here. When we finally made it to Coral Cliffs, we met up with Matt Segal and Abby. We climbed, set routes, partied for Halloween, hit South Beach, swam in the ocean, threw a sick black-light comp, taught a clinic, and had many a great meal and moment with Abby.

Abby has created in Coral Cliffs a space of inclusion, community and nurturance. She embodies these values herself, and uses climbing as a means to connect with others; to help them learn and grow as human beings, beyond climbing ability. For her, climbing is a soul-nourishing, cleansing, artful practice as much as it is also a sport and a business. She gracefully balances these sometimes conflicting conceptions of climbing, and most often puts the community’s needs above her own. 

Abby Dione, the owner of Coral Cliffs Climbing Gym. Asked what makes Coral Cliffs unique, Dione told Gym Climber, “I am one of the few woman owners in this country. I am definitely the only black woman owner in this country. And I think that informs how I interact with not only my staff but my members. So what makes Coral Cliffs unique or different is that the prism through which we share climbing is a bit more soulful.”

Matt Segal tries to stay cool in Florida’s stifling heat and thick humidity, while Elias trains on the Tension Board at Coral Cliffs.

Sweet Carolinas

With Mabel out of commission, we invested in a new van and named him Scout. We pointed him toward South Carolina and the second-ever South Carolina Climbers Fest. 

We climbed on the main wall of the famed Table Rock—a tall granite dome with impeccable rock and bold climbing that was closed to climbing into the 1990s—and bouldered at Big Rock before heading up to Asheville, North Carolina, where we took up residence in the parking lot of Black Dome Mountain Sports. The Black Dome shop is replete with a full bar and also houses the Carolina Climbers Museum. 

We had spectacular days out at Linville Gorge, Looking Glass, Rumbling Bald, and the Cornerstone Boulder. The trip had been so beautiful, difficult and memorable to this point, that I decided to get three little maple-leaf tattoos on my arm from a shop outside of Asheville to commemorate it. 

For me, the Southeastern U.S. is a rock-climbing underdog story. The region has always been overshadowed by the Northeast and the West. It’s not a destination in the way other parts of our country are. The climbing is underappreciated. The quality and abundance of rock—developed and yet to be—are impressive, rivaled only by the strength of the Southeastern climbing communities. I’ve known that vividly since 2005, my very first year of climbing, when I lived and worked at Miguel’s Pizza in the Red River Gorge, and the areas we visited in the Carolinas only underscored it further.

Looking Glass, North Carolina, another stop.
Elias on Whiskey For Breakfast, a 5.10+ on Cereal Buttress at Rumbling Bald, North Carolina.
Wade Parker, organizer of an aid-climbing day and workshops at the second-annual South Carolina Climbers Festival.
Elias on Cornflake Crack, Looking Glass Rock, North Carolina, one of the first 5.11s in North America. “Hot” Henry Barber freed the three-pitch line in 1976.

Chattanooga, Tennessee

With my fresh ink and with the holidays on the horizon, we closed out the trip by returning Scout to Chattanooga. We hung out with some old friends—friends I’ve had since I started climbing—and some new friends. We climbed at other spots in Tennessee like Dayton Pocket and Cumberland, and Rocktown, Georgia.

These final days stand out hard. Cam and I were vibing and connected on a deep level after so many weeks together, and my ankle was on the mend and less painful. We were blessed with some of the most perfect autumn foliage, treated to the sweet breezes and crisp-air smells that one only finds in the Southeast. 

There were a couple days where it was just Cam and I. We sent some proud boulders together. We handed Scout off and went our separate ways into the holiday season, and into winter to reflect on all that we saw and did.

Matt Segal on Vapor Lock (V10), Dayton Pocket.
Lauren Conception on Blue (V6), a staple for the grade in Rocktown, Georgia.
Elias on Ace (V7) in Rocktown.

There is no “right” definition for climbing. There is no definition for who can be a climber, or where climbing is supposed to happen. A rigid mindset and resistance to change may make it feel like these definitions exist, but they are illusory. You can buy into the illusion, or you can accept the evolution—the dynamic changing of all things. By putting ourselves in different spaces during this road trip, with no plans and open minds, Cam and I were taught, surprised, elevated, enriched and inspired at every turn by the people we met. What is, is always becoming what was.

Elias climbing in Linville Gorge, North Carolina.

 


 

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