It’s not every day a motley crew of climbers buys a whole mountain, but when the biggest chunk of granite on the East Coast was in danger of development, the Carolina Climber’s Coalition didn’t have much choice.
Western North Carolina may not top your list for destination climbing. The weather is wet. The rhododendron thickets are heinous. California or Colorado or Kalymnos it's not.
But the rock is perfect.
The Yosemite-quality granite is, in fact, what Yosemite might look like a million years from now, worn down smooth like the columns of the Pantheon. It’s almost all slab here: stiff, beautiful, and run-out as hell.
“A lot of climbers show up in Yosemite Valley for the first time and can’t handle it,” Tim Toula once told me from a belay ledge on Royal Flush (5.8+) in Colorado. Tim’s been putting up routes (including Royal Flush) all over the mountain West for more than 35 years. “But the North Carolina guys, they do just fine.”
The hunched domes rising above the forest in the western part of the state are bigger and blanker than they look. And the most colossal of these sleeping giants? She started as a secret. At over 1,100 feet tall, Laurel Knob, about 50 miles southwest of Asheville, is the tallest monolith east of the Mississippi and according to commentary on Mountain Project's North Carolina Area Page, the ultimate example of the state's climbing. Thin, balancey lines, up to ten pitches in length, tiptoe up blank silver granite. Others follow water grooves deep enough to take gear with rims sculpted enough to pinch. It’s one of a kind.
“Laurel Knob is the best rock in N.C., period.”
“The highest friction rock I've ever slabbed my way up."
"Only the seriously adventurous need apply.”
Surprisingly enough, the first guys to run their hands over Laurel’s streaked face weren’t climbers; they were cavers like Bill Cuttington and Charlie Gibbs (of Gibbs ascender fame), more interested in descending than ascending. The mountain was reserved for rappel practice from 1971 to 1973. Until local hardman Peter Young got ahold of it.
“He was the hero of the whole thing,” said Mike Fischesser, who himself is behind more than a dozen Laurel’s first ascents. Fischesser’s book on the area’s history, dubbed Forbidden Fruit (Table Rock Printers) after one of the area’s first routes, will hit shelves this fall. Young was the first to recognize the climbing potential in Laurel Knob after spotting the cliffs from the road and poring over old maps to find a way in. He led the charge up the first routes – helping establish Fathom (5.10a) and Seconds (5.8+) in 1973.
Young and his partner Jim Marshall were protecting their routes with carriage bolts and bailing wire. None of the lines were exactly heavily trafficked, so the idea was just to hammer in whatever you could get and leave it to the next guy to worry about. To test their hardware, they bolted a boulder in the Whiteside parking lot and tried to pull it out of the rock with a VW van, Fischesser said. It held. And so they went.
At first, the Jennings Family, the folks who owned Lonesome Valley, the long scoop in the land at the base of Laurel Knob, allowed climbers on their land. The arrangement didn’t last long, though. When a dirtbag started homesteading at the base of the cliff, the sheriff came to chase him off, running the squatter out and over a wooden bridge. The climber took a tumble, breaking his leg, and before he was off crutches, he was suing the Jennings Family for having mortal risks on their property. Mr. Jennings felt he had no choice but to close the cliffs.
For the next 30 years, climbers kept Laurel to themselves. Topos were coveted and treated as classified. First ascensionists crawled to the base through secret passageways in the rhododendron, loaded down with 60 pounds of hiking and climbing gear. They made the trip under full moon only, said Fischesser; headlamps would give them away.
“Half the battle was your route. The other half not getting caught.”
“Half the battle was your route, the other half not getting caught,” writes Access Fund Regional Director Zachary Lesch-Huie in Fischesser’s upcoming book.
You can’t see the rock from the trail. Instead, you switchback slowly into Lonesome Valley, until you turn right at the feet of the beast, and the whole thing stares at you, enormous in the moonlight, giving off a dull sheen like an armored plate. It took years to put up routes that way. Sometimes, climbers would take off a Friday afternoon and hike two hours down to the base only to find the whole granite flank running with water from a thunderstorm the week before.
If the weather was good, folks would sneak in and set up camp for a long weekend, running up friction slab and scooped out grooves. As the years went on and routes went up, vacation homes sprouted in the valley. One by one, parcels of land were purchased and declared off-limits. The top of the cliff was already privately held and closed to climbers. Access to the base was withering like a late season bloom.
In 2005, John Myers, a former board member for the Access Fund, caught wind that the cliff — and the strip of land leading to the base — was going up for sale. He and Sean Cobourn, the Carolina Climber’s Coalition president at the time, scheduled a meeting with the owners of the rock face, who agreed to sell. The price tag: a quarter of a million dollars — the moon for a group with just $1,000 in the bank.
They did everything they could think of to raise money. They sold bumper stickers and T-shirts, set up tables at local comps, and wrote to every climber they knew.
“We didn’t hold a bake sale,” current CCC President Brian Payst jokes, “But we thought about it,” he said. Donations began coming in from North Carolinians on every continent, even Antarctica—Laurel Knob’s runouts and adventurous ascents bonded that community tightly. However, by the time the deadline to sign the paperwork arrived, they were still a monumental $200,000 short.
More letters, more emails. Somehow, climbers kept appearing to support the cause, this time in the style of loans to the CCC. With a month-long extension from Laurel’s owners, they scraped together enough to pay, and the cliff — and more debt than the CCC had ever seen — was theirs. The party would have to wait; they had loans to pay.
Cobourn reached out to John Juraschek at the Access Fund, and together they sought out companies to help pay the debts. Big companies. He went to the Outdoor Retailer trade show, the biggest outdoor industry convention there is, to plead the case with old friends and suck up to new ones. REI jumped on board. So did a number of other brands: The North Face, Scarpa, Trango, Misty Mountain.
Scraping nickels out of couch cushions and bigger grants out of those brand-new corporate friendships, the CCC made enough. In 2008, they paid off the last of the loans and celebrated with a kegger at Camp Merrie-Woode, right around the corner from Lonesome Valley.
Typical of this part of North Carolina, it rained. And as Sean Cobourn, Brian Payst, Mike Fischesser and the rest celebrated the rock that was now theirs, now North Carolina’s, forever, the water grooves of Laurel knob gushed, carving deeper the features that give it character, tracing the wrinkles in the brow of the ancient stone that they had fought so hard to save.
Today Laurel Knob remains preserved as the CCC intended: a stronghold of traditional North Carolina climbing, solitude, and heady runouts. It also remains the CCC’s biggest purchase in terms of both acreage and price. Brady Robinson, the Executive Director of the Access Fund (and, incidentally, the pilot who once flew Sean Cobourn and John Juraschek over Laurel Knob to get a better look at the rock they were trying to buy) said the Access Fund’s own programs for acquiring land might not exist if not for the Laurel Knob purchase.
“By sheer force of optimism and will, those guys made it happen.”
“By sheer force of optimism and will, those guys made it happen,” Robinson said. “It really inspired the Access Fund board to take a hard look at how we were supporting local organizations with land acquisition, and that was the start of our land acquisition campaign.” The Access Fund has since supported 22 different land acquisitions.
As for the CCC, having custody over a cliff consolidated and strengthened what was once a loose association of climbers. In the eight years since they signed the deed, the CCC has gone on to buy two other areas and open access to three others with leases and partnerships.
“All of that is built on the shift that took place when we purchased and paid for Laurel,” said Payst.
For more on the fight for Laurel Knob and the history of NC climbing, check out Mike Fischesser’s book Forbidden Fruit: The History and Exploration of Laurel Knob, The Tallest Rock Face in Eastern North America, Available through Black Dome Mountain Sports in Asheville, North Carolina. All profits go to the Access Fund and Carolina Climber’s Coalition.