Mark Synnott loves discovering a remote, unclimbed wall. He loves discovering a little-known culture even better.
Synnott is an elite climber sponsored by The North Face who has made a name climbing big walls — vertical cliffs rising 3,000, 4,000 5,000 feet. He broke into the climbing scene big time in 1996 with a 39-day assault on the 4,700-foot north face of Polar Sun Spire, a rock tower thrusting out of a frozen fjord in Canada’s Baffin Island, and he’s been at it since, climbing everywhere from Patagonia, Nepal and Cameroon to Chad, Oman and the Karakoram of Pakistan, bagging some of the biggest walls and toughest routes on Earth.
He’ll talk about those conquests when he appears at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh on Nov. 12 as part of The North Face Never Stop Exploring Speaker Series. But he’ll also talk about another passion: exploring the people and cultures he discovers along the way. Those discoveries were once a sidelight to his climbs but are emerging as his focus.
“They say that there are no more places to be discovered,” says Synnott, who lives with his wife and three kids in New Hampshire. “Well, I’m looking for places that haven’t been explored very much, the places that were briefly touched by earlier explorers, then pretty much forgotten.”
The curious case of the Kumzaris
Take the case of the Kumzaris in the Musandam Peninsula of Oman. One day several years back Synnott was going through his ritual for finding a new destination, which starts with “spinning a globe.” He stops at a place that looks interesting, then starts investigating, via the internet, books, magazines. In this case, he was thumbing through a back copy of the American Alpine Journal, the official record of mountain exploration worldwide, of which Synnott has a complete set dating back to the early 1900s. He was checking on something else when a “cryptic item” about the Musandam Peninsula caught his eye. He got on Google Maps and drilled in on the satellite view.
Whoa! Look at those 3,000-foot cliffs plunging straight into the sea.
Climbing remains the driving force behind his travels — “It kinda has to be,” he says, alluding to his primary sponsors National Geographic and The North Face (especially the latter). In this case, as stoked as he was by those 3,000-foot cliffs, he was equally intrigued by what he was able to gather about the locals who live on the craggy isthmus jutting into the Straight of Hormuz, which measures nine miles in length and narrows to 200 yards in width at one point.
“Their land is only accessible by boat, the people live in little villages, they’re fishermen, [using a type of boat found nowhere else in the region], and they have their own language spoken only by 5,000 people in the world,” says Synnott. “The language borrows elements from various other languages. It’s based on Persian and Hindi, but has traces of Spanish, French and other languages.
“What’s even more bizarre is that no one, not even the Kumzaris, know their history or how they got there,” Synnott adds. “One theory is that they were driven from the mainland by attackers. But I tend to think they’re descendants of shipwrecked sailors, which would explain the language.
“All of the places we go we find people, maybe not at the base of the mountain, but on the way in,” says Synnott. “In a lot of these places the people are friendly. In others, they don’t want to have anything to do with you.”
Growing up in New Hampshire Synnott was like a lot of kids growing up in the 1970s and early ‘80s. “We did have electronics and stuff, we had TV. But video games were just coming out and computers were barely around. It was always more fun just to go outside and play.”
His dad turned him on to climbing as a teen, and, thanks in part to the abundance of opportunities in his native New Hampshire, Synnott was hooked. He started reading books and magazines about climbing, which was how he discovered there was a big, wild world out there to explore. After graduating from Middlebury College in Vermont in 1993, he set off to explore that world, embarking on multiple two-month expeditions per year, working as a carpenter in between.
Then came the one and perhaps only thing that could cause Synnott to throttle back: kids. He and his wife started having children (their three kids are now 14, 11 and 8 ) and being away for months at time wasn’t as much fun. Today he limits himself to one big expedition a year, and tries to keep it to a month or less.
But he hasn’t let that quash his lust for discovering new places.
Big adventure in your own backyard
“Just last month I found this cliff not far from here,” says Synnott, whose base camp is in Jackson, N.H., home to his Synnott Mountain Guides guiding service. “It was way back in the woods. Other people had been there, but not too many, and I hadn’t. It was cool.”
He adds, “There are always great places to explore. You can find some right out your own back door.”
In addition to his guiding service and sponsorships, Synnott helps produce films on his adventures and writes about them as well. His work has appeared in, Outside, Climbing, Skiing, Men’s Journal and New York Magazine. In January, the climber who seems just as happy playing anthropologist, will add another feather to his non-athletic cap: his first article, on the Musandam Peninsula, will appear in National Geographic.
Says Synnott, “It’s always been a dream to get an article in the the yellow magazine.”
What: Mark Synnott: Off the Map, part of The North Face Never Stop Exploring Speaker Series
When: Tuesday, Nov. 12, 6:30 p.m.
Where: N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences Auditorium, 111 W. Jones St., Raleigh
Tickets: General admission is free, $10 for reserved seats. All seats must be reserved online, by going here.
While most adventure filmmakers go for the viewer’s adrenal jugular, Skip Armstrong goes the extra yard. He likes to tell a good story as well.
Not to say he shies away from the jaw-dropping moments that distinguish the world of extreme sports videos. His films, which he’s been making for 20 of his 35 years, have their share of big drops and gnarly whitewater action. But when he turns his camera on a subject, he’s looking for more than just visual thrills.
Indeed, in six minutes or so Armstrong manages to plumb the depths of his subjects, be it a 67-year-old matriarch examining life — and death — paddling the peaceful waters of a Utah canyon, or a restless paddler reliant on turbulent water to help chart his life’s course.
Or, in the case of The Shapeshifter, the last installment of his five-part Of Souls + Water series, an examination, with the help of noted freestyle whitewater kayaker Ben Marr, of the supernatural. Armstrong’s The Shapeshifter is one of 11 films in the 2013 Radical Reels Tour, a collection of the top adrenal-action sports films appearing at the annual Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival. Radical Reels plays at The Varsity Theater in Chapel Hill, NC on Thursday, September 5, as well as Hanesbrands Theatre in Winston-Salem, NC on Friday, September 6.
This year’s Radical Reels entries range from three-minutes of “Rollerman” Jean-Yves Blondeau zipping down windy mountain roads in Europe wearing a plastic suit covered in rollerblade wheels, to 13 minutes of mountain bikers searching for the best off-trail riding in the world, to a 28-minute mini-documentary on the friendly competition between veteran rock climber Chris Sharma and upstart Adam Ondra as they vie be the first to concur the Spain’s La Dura Dura, one of the hardest climbs in the world. Extreme skiing and snowboarding, longboarding (the skateboard variety), parasailing and flying a la Rocket J. Squirrel (wingsuiting) are also represented.
For Armstrong, there’s so much more to adrenaline sports than adrenaline.
“I’m passionate about people and the experience,” says Armstrong. “I truly believe you could make a film about anyone and it would be wonderful. Everyone has a story to tell.”
Armstrong began by telling those stories en masse. After graduating with a degree in economics from Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., in 2007 he bought into a whitewater rafting business in Costa Rica and took on the role of guy-with-camera-who-sits-on-rock-shooting-pictures-of-happy-paddlers. He took that skill on the road — to Mexico and Canada, among other places — then started shooting more involved projects for non-profits with a conservation bent.
Shooting in remote locales typically requires time spent behind the wheel driving subjects to shoots, time ideal for getting to know one another. “I’d be in the car with them so long and I’d really get to know these people. I wanted to translate that into something I could share on the screen with the audience.”
It was on such a ride with Anson Fogel, founder of Forge Motion Pictures and the producer of the Armstrong’s work, that the idea for Of Souls + Water was born.
“Anson and I spent five weeks driving around shooting another project. We were both interested in doing a series, an original idea. We had done ‘Seasons’ “ — short films on winter, spring, summer and fall — “the year before. We wanted to so something like that, but more character driven.”
Thus was born the idea of Of Souls + Water using five archetypes to tell the stories of paddling personalities. Those archetypes: The Mother, The Elder, The Warrior, The Nomad, the Shapeshifter.
Next came the challenge of finding the appropriate subjects for each installment. Erik Boomer, a restless friend, was perfect for answer-seeking Nomad. Armstrong wanted to include sea kayaking but worried it wasn’t provocative enough in and of itself. Perhaps using the activity as a metaphor for the last chapter of life? After putting out calls to paddling friends he hooked up with Melody Shapiro, a 67-year-old retired psychologist with two kids and five grandkids who was happy to share her thoughts and “hang out in the desert for five weeks with three stinking guys.” Surfer Chris Peterson, The Warrior, Armstrong had met a year earlier. Over time, Peterson shared a story of personal tragedy salved only by water.
Ben Marr’s reputation as a stellar freestyle kayaker — and game for anything; he once paddled Quebec’s roily Ottawa River in a tandem kayak with his 83-year-old grandmother — preceded him. Armstrong hooked up with Marr the new-fashioned way: he friended him on Facebook.
“We wanted to peak energetically,” Marr says of this, the last Of Souls + Water installment. “The Shapeshifter was intended to be less story driven and more action oriented.” Still, they wanted to stick with the series’ theme. “I Googled archetypes and came up with The Magician.”
The Magician: Goal, to make dreams come true. To develop a vision by living it. Making things happen. The shaman, the visionary, the healer — sounded like a good way to finish the package. And Marr, with his freewheeling, anything goes style, was the paddler for the job.
The first part of the film is magical enough, with Marr doing flips, twists and other airborne moves on the big waves of the Ottawa River. The magic becomes dreamlike when Armstrong straps a flair to the stern of Marr’s playboat and sends him out in the dark. The result: a Class V interpretation of Dante’s Inferno in which Marr, backlit by the flaming flare, appears to be surfing a lava flow.
“Ben went out and surfed this giant wave in the dark 12 times,” says Armstrong. “It was the ultimate test of all of his years of experience. He had to rely totally on his instincts.
“He was very happy,” adds Armstrong. “He had a huge smile the entire time.”
———- Joe Miller is a North Carolina-based outdoor adventure writer. Read more at GetGoingNC.com
For the past three weeks, we’ve been extolling the virtues of hiking in North Carolina. We’ve talked about all the great trails, from the coastal Neusiok Trail penetrating the swamp forest of the Croatan National Forest, to the 5.5-mile Black Mountain Trail, which ends 6,684 feet above sea level, the highest any trail can go along the East Coast. And we’ve talked about the great trails practically out your back door, regardless of where you live. North Carolina’s trails are diverse, they’re accessible, and they’re some of the best in the nation.
So why aren’t you hiking? Or hiking more?
We have some theories.
You aren’t sure where to go. Maybe you’ve heard of Umstead, or Eno River or another great state park nearby, and maybe you’ve even looked them up on the web. There’s a road map that takes you do the trailhead and even a map of the trails — but who can tell from an online map what the trails are like? Does it have lots of hills? Do you have to cross water? Is it nice and smooth or are there rocks and tree roots to navigate? What if I can’t deal it?
You’re intimidated by the wild. The thought if escaping your well-manicured existence is appealing but just how wild is it out there? Ticks bearing Lyme disease, rabid raccoons, venomous snakes — and every few years a bear wanders through the Triangle! How much risk can one person handle?
You’d hike with a group but what if they’re faster and you get dropped and you suddenly find yourself alone, in the woods, not sure where you are and not sure where to go? Being chosen last, being left behind (inadvertently or intentionally), having others hide from you, experiences that all leave a deep and sometimes indelible scar. Can I trust someone I’ve just met to take me into the forest and lead me back out?
Answers: You can. A lot more than you think. And, yes, because you’ll be with us. We answer your concerns with confidence because we’re going to go out into the woods with you — and not leave you high, dry and fretting.
Welcome to the first season of GetHiking! with Great Outdoor Provision Co. GetHiking! is a free program of weekly hikes and monthly seminars targeted to both beginners and to hikers who get out occasionally but would love to step up their game. Starting on Saturday, Sept. 14, local outdoor adventure writer and hiking coach Joe Miller will lead a weekly hike on a different trail in the Triangle. The hikes will be short (2-3 miles) and mellow at first, and grow in distance and difficulty as we progress into the fall.
Here’s what you can expect from our hikes:
• Custom maps. The week before each hike we’ll make available a custom map for the route we’ll take. The map will include at least two hike options: one for beginners, one for more experienced hikers. We’ll also include an interactive Google map to make it easy to get to the trailhead.
• No-drop hiking. Joe leads hikes from the rear, meaning he’ll almost always be with the slowest hikers in the pack. On occasion, he’ll advance to the front to make sure those folks are where they should be, but in general, he’s in the rear. This means you’ll have time to inquire about some of those fears, such as ticks (do a thorough tick check after every hike regardless of the time of year; remove them quickly and you won’t have a problem), rabid raccoons (extremely rare), venomous snakes (copperheads are the only ones in the Triangle; you leave them alone, they leave you alone) and bears (they do occasionally wander through the Triangle, but oddly they avoid the places where we hike).
• Mid-week and weekend hiking. Roughly half of our hikes will be on Saturday, the rest will be mid-week, after work. “But won’t it be dark after work before long?” you ask. Yes, which brings us to another cool feature of our program … .
• Night hiking. If you’re leery of hiking in broad daylight you’re probably thinking the notion of hiking at night is daft. In fact, being in the woods after sunset is a unique outdoors experience, and hiking under a headlamp is a good skill to have going into winter when daylight becomes scarce.
• Discover local trails. Hikers with some experience will benefit from learning of new places to hike. Our fall schedule (see below) includes 12 hikes on 12 different trails. We’ll hike at three state parks (Eno River, Umstead and Hanging Rock), a state recreation area (Falls Lake), a county park (Harris Lake), a nature preserve (Johnston Mill), a national forest (Uwharrie) and on a trail that runs the width of the state (Mountains-to-Sea Trail). We’ll hike on the weekends, we’ll hike after work, and we’ll share the thrill of hiking at night (under a headlamp). Further, we’ll expose you to 25 trails and trail networks in the Triangle alone.
• Monthly seminars. As you grow comfortable on the trail, you’ll want to know more about hiking. On the second Thursday of every month — in September, October and November — we’ll hold seminars at our stores in Raleigh and Chapel Hill. We’ll talk some about gear, we’ll talk some about trails to explore.
• Earn gear. Here’s something you won’t find in other hiking groups: the chance to earn gear. Each GetHiking! participant gets a punch card: attend three events (hikes or seminars) and get a GOPC Water Bottle, six events enters you in a drawing for a pair of Oboz Footwear, nine hikes earns a shot at a pair of Salewa footwear, 12 events gets you a 30 percent discount on Black Diamond trekking poles, and attend all 15 events and you could win a free Osprey hydration pack!
• Meet other hikers. Eventually, you’ll want to be out on the trail more than once a week. When that happens you’ll have a new collection of friends to hike with.
We’ll keep in close contact with you in three ways:
• GetHiking! with Great Outdoor Provision Meetup. All of our hikes will be announced on our Meetup site well in advance (go there now and you’ll see all hikes scheduled for September). Join the Meetup (there’s no charge), find out the hike details, then sign up.
• Facebook. We’ll communicate with you on the Great Outdoor Provision Co. Facebook page with photos on the past week’s hike and details on the hike ahead.
• E-newsletter. We’ll send a quick e-newsletter each week with information and a map of the next hike.
To register for our GetHiking! program, you can either join our GetHiking! with Great Outdoor Provision Co. Meetup group or stop by either our Raleigh store in Cameron Village or our Chapel Hill Store in the Eastgate Shopping Center and register.
You can also sign up at our GetHiking! kickoff Thursday, Sept. 12, at our Cameron Village store. We’ll go from 6:30 to 7:30, and everyone who attends gets a free pair of SmartWool hiking socks!
We’re excited about spending time with you on the trail this fall and exposing you to the wonderful world of North Carolina hiking!
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Here’s a rundown of hikes for fall of 2013. Detailed maps of the route, with information on getting to the trailhead, will be available online a week before the hike.
September 12 (Thursday) — Kickoff at Great Outdoor Provision Co. in Cameron Village
September 14 (Saturday) — Umstead State Park, Raleigh: Company Mill Trail. 8 a.m. Hikes of 2, 4.5 and 6 miles.
September 18 (Wednesday) — Johnston Mill Nature Preserve, Chapel Hill. 6 p.m. 3 miles
September 25 (Wednesday) — Umstead State Park, Raleigh: Sal’s Branch Trail. 6 p.m. 3 miles
September 28 (Saturday) — Harris Lake County Park, New Hill: Peninsula Trail, 8 a.m. 6 miles
October 2 (Wednesday) — Eno River State Park, Durham: Laurel Branch Trail, 7 p.m. (n) 5 miles
October 10 (Thursday) — Seminar in Chapel Hill, 7 p.m.
October 12 (Saturday) — Mountains-to-Sea Trail, Falls Lake: Rollingview to Little Lick Creek, 8 a.m. 8 miles
October 16 (Wednesday) — Mountains-to-Sea Trail, Falls Lake: Barton Creek Boat Ramp (n), 7 p.m. 5 miles
October 26 (Saturday) — Umstead State Park, Raleigh: Company Mill/Sycamore Loop option, 8 a.m. 6, 9 miles.
November 6 (Wednesday) — Eno River State Park, Durham: Pump Station Access, 6 p.m. 3 miles.
November 14 (Thursday) — Seminar in Raleigh, 7 p.m.
November 16 (Saturday) — Uwharrie Mountains, west of Asheboro: Birkhead Wilderness, 7.4 miles
November 20 (Wednesday) — Umstead State Park, Raleigh: Bike & Bridle Trail, 7 p.m. 4 miles.
November 23 (Saturday) — Hanging Rock State Park, Danbury: approximately 10 miles. 8 a.m. (carpool from the Triangle)
Join us September 5 in Chapel Hill and September 6 in Winston-Salem as Great Outdoor Provision Co. hosts the 2013 Radical Reels Film Tour! There are 11 films in the 2013 Radical Reels Tour, covering freeskiing, paraskiing, snowboarding, whitewater kayaking, sea kayaking, skateboarding, mountain biking, flying in a wingsuit and rock climbing.
In 2002, Filip Christensen, a young teen at the time, got some ski buddies together to film a movie. His camera has been rolling ever since. In this, his 8th movie under the Field Productions label, the 25-year-old and his buds — now including some of the world’s top free-skiers — do big jumps, scream down steeps, ski a lift cable (it’s only a poma lift, but still), and do things with skis that Rossignol never intended.
Here’s something you don’t see much of in these films: females. Fifteen days, 7 girls, 21 longboards (of the skateboard variety) and a classic VW microbus results in the chick flick version of the more common buddy radical reel, only with more eating, sightseeing and application of makeup. Longboarding footage is a mix of open road downhill and urban exploring. Shot in Spain.
Further (special edit)
Directors/producers: Jeremy Jones and Jon Klaczkiewicz
Jeremy Jones loves to snowboard. He also loves getting deep into the backcountry, especially in wilderness areas, where he can ride clean lines down near-vertical slopes in some of the world’s wildest terrain. How wild? At one point he’s on belay with his board on his back. At another, he has to tunnel through a cornice of snow to reach the line. (“Cornice” is one of those terms you typically hear in tandem with “avalanche.”) And you know how it’s often hard to get a feel for steepness in a movie? Not the case when Jones points his camera down the aforementioned tunnel, then drops in. Shot in the Japanese Alps, Atomfjella Mountains of Norway, Austria’s Karwendel Range, Wrangell Mountains of Alaska and California’s Sierra Mountains.
“When Andreu Lacondeguy purchased a new bike-training compound outside the city of Barcelona, little did he know that so much big air was possible on such a small piece of land!” That’s the word from the trailer, a promotion device usually tinged with a bit of hyperbole. Then again, how often do you need to bring in a helicopter to adequately capture bike jumps? Big air, indeed.
The last installment of Skip Armstrong’s five-part Of Souls + Water series, The Shapeshifter taps the big water of Quebec’s Ottawa River to probe the supernatural. Things get truly otherworldly when whitewater kayaker Ben Marr straps a flare to the back of his boat and paddles the big waves at night. Great footage, but Armstrong goes a step further in his work by weaving in a story.
This segment of the Reel Rock 7 climbing film features veteran Chris Sharma vs. wunderkind Adam Ondra “in a gentlemen’s battle for the first ascent of Catalunya’s La Dura Dura, which was to be the world’s first 5.15c.” It’s competitive, sure, but the two climbers display a mutual support for one another that perhaps only other climbers can appreciate. Also recommending the film are the climbers contrasting styles: the laid-back vet vs. the wiry, vocal (in a grunting Venus Williams kind of way) newcomer. Winner of the Radical Reels Night People’s Choice Award.
Descending mountain roads in a suit of rollerblade wheels
When we saw German Danny Strasser in last year’s Radical Reels tour, he was skateboarding down the bobsled tracks of Europe. This time around, he’s with Jean-Yves Blondeau, the Rollerman. Rollerman dons a protective suit covered with rollerblade wheels (including on his back) and takes on the steepest mountain roads of Europe. Three minutes worth (and probably not much more) of fun.
So what if you ski off a 150-foot cliff or suddenly come up on a rock garden with no way around. No problem, provided you’re skiing with a parasail strapped to your back. Speed-riders Maxence Cavalade and François Bon perform an aerial duet in the French Alps as they mix skiing and flying at will. It’s a graceful, if baffling, art form made even more so when they ski/fly through trees and do flips.
Ever been on a mountain bike trail and thought, “Whoa! This is sketchy?” Well, take away the trail and you have “Where the Trail Ends,” a true exercise in dicey riding. Jeremy Grant takes his camera and riders to the Gobi Desert in China, Fraser River in Canada, Nepal and Argentina and catches the action — riding down rock spines, dropping into washouts, visiting Third World ERs — where the trail ceases to exist.
Some of the world’s best whitewater kayakers race down spectacular whitewater in Chile. What’s fun about the Grand Prix is you have dozens of top paddlers going after the same lines at the same time. And you thought NASCAR gets crazy.
Wingsuit Downhill Target Punch
Directors/producers: Alexander Polli and Alexander Weibel
Of all the nuttiness displayed on the Radical Reels Tour, “Target Punch” takes the Rad Reel d’Or. No matter how many You Tube videos you see of Alexander Polli zipping about in his wingsuit, it doesn’t get old. Perhaps that’s because he’s FLYING! And not slowly circling like those buzzards on your double century training ride. He’s cooking, flying up to 155 miles per hour with the objective, this time, to clip the top off a slalom gate (which, spoiler alert, he does).
As part of our GetHiking! program, which we introduced last week and will launch Sept. 12, we’re spending August extolling the virtues of hiking in North Carolina. Today, a look at some of the most notable trails in the state.
There’s a moment in Jay Leutze’s “Stand Up That Mountain,” his first-hand account of the battle to save a mountain from strip mining in western North Carolina, where the clued-in reader knows that if Leutze can make one thing happen, the mountain will be saved. Leutze is trying to get a group of key decision makers to hike a stretch of the Appalachian Trail from which they’ll be able to appreciate the potential scenic (and thus, legal) damage the mine will cause. The hike is to Hump Mountain.
Hump Mountain sits on the AT, on the North Carolina/Tennessee line between Carver’s Gap and U.S. 19E. It’s a 13.7-mile stretch that begins, from Carver’s Gap, with three open balds (Round, Jane and Grassy Ridge), tucks into a tight grove of alder, passes through three gaps and climbs 5,459-foot Little Hump Mountain before cresting 5,587-foot Hump Mountain. One late summer afternoon in 2009 I climbed the exposed Hump Mountain, took in the 360-degree view and decided to stay a while. Sitting on my pack facing southwest into Tennessee, I started counting the ridgelines that disappeared into the horizon: Big Ridge, Hampton Creek Ridge, Heaton Creek Ridge, Heaton Ridge … I got up to seven ridges, squinted, and made out one more. There was the lightest of Southern Appalachian hazes, a gentle breeze helping visibility. For much of that 360 degrees, including in the direction of “Stand Up’s” nemesis Putnam Mine, the only sign of man visible was the trail I’d hiked in on. I declared it the most visually stunning spot in the state. And I knew that if Leutze could pull his hike together, the Putnam Mine would be doomed.
Such a declaration of scenic superiority did not come lightly. Hump Mountain and the 13.7-mile stretch of the AT it resides on have plenty of competition in North Carolina.
Prior to Hump Mountain, Shining Rock got my vote for best scenery. The wilderness and adjoining national forest certainly gets it for most diverse scenery. There’s the eerie passage through Graveyard Fields and the lasting impact of two devastating forest fires from a century ago. The run of waterfalls along Yellowstone Prong from Graveyard Fields and on down the East Fork of the Pigeon River. The rugged climbs up the east flank of the Balsam Mountains and the narrow ridgeline passage along the Shining Rock Ledge. There’s the scrambling atop the white quartz of Shining Rock, the passage through stands of black balsam, the three peaks above 6,000 feet. Most notable are the miles of open passage accessed by the Ivestor Gap and Art Loeb trails. Proximity to the Blue Ridge Parkway gives easy access to the southern edge of Shining Rock, miles of trail, unmarked in the wilderness itself, assure the likelihood of solitary travels.
Says Backpacker.com: “Dense rhododendrons, unmarked trails, and a knee-pounding 2,000-foot descent to its namesake river are par for the course in Linville Gorge. The reward? The wildest beauty in the Southeast.” Enter from the southeast edge of the 13-mile gorge and after a short but stout climb up Shortoff Mountain the trail eases as it follows the eastern rim north past The Chimneys, a popular rock climbing area, and Table Rock Mountain’s great views. Less than a mile beyond, Spence Ridge Trail offers the most civil access into the gorge and the lone footbridge across the Linville River. The trails here are neither marked nor maintained (officially, at least). Again, as Backpacker.com says, some of the wildest beauty in the Southeast.
Like the Appalachian Trail, like Shining Rock and like the Linville Gorge, the Black Mountain Crest Trail offers intensely challenging hiking and scenic reward. But it also offers novices a chance to sample the experience. The Black Mountain Crest Trail’s southern trailhead is in Mount Mitchell State Park. The park may be home to the highest peak east of South Dakota’s Black Hills (6,684-foot Mount Mitchell), but it’s also home to a restaurant, gift shop and a paved road that goes to within a couple hundred feet of the summit. From the parking lot, the novice can challenge himself or herself to hike the one mile north to Mount Craig, a fellow member of the 6,000-foot club. The more experienced hiker can continue another 12 miles on the Crest Trail to Bowlen’s Creek on a path that sometimes requires the use of anchored climbing rope to negotiate. In summer, a machete isn’t a bad idea, either.
If you’ve been to Grandfather Mountain but have never been past the swinging bridge, then you haven’t been to Grandfather Mountain. Forget the visitor center and gift shop: trails, both around three miles in length, lead to the crest from both the mountain’s east flank (Daniel Boone Scout Trail) and west (Profile Trail). Both tap into the 2.4-mile Grandfather Trail, which follows the spine of Grandfather Mountain, where the harshest weather in North Carolina has been recorded — including a 200-mile wind gust in 2006. You can spend a full day hiking this 2.4-mile stretch, climbing ladders, scooting across rock slabs with the aid of cables, climbing a chimney littered with car-size boulders. Wild, wild stuff.
What’s remarkable about Umstead? It’s a 5,700-acre forest located in the heart of the nation’s 49th largest metro area. Hikers, bikers and runners start arriving at Umstead around 5:30 every morning (the park officially opens at 8 a.m.) and some don’t leave until well after the park rangers have switched off the “Welcome” sign for the evening. Umstead gets 1.2 million visitors a year, many of whom are drawn to the park’s 20 miles of hiking trail. Take a short hike on the Sal’s Branch, Pott’s Branch or Oak Rock trails (all under three miles), or explore the interior of the park on the Company Mill (5.8 miles) or Sycamore trails (7.2 miles) trails. The Piedmont hardwood forest at Umstead has been recovering from agricultural use since the 1930s and has matured quite nicely.
Croatan National Forest. A 20-mile hike through a coastal forest may not be something you care to do in July — unless you’re good at outrunning various forms of flying and slithering varmints — but it is a true treat in winter. Especially intriguing is the northernmost 6.7 miles, from NC 306 to the northern trailhead in the Pine Cliff Recreation Area. This stretch of trail takes in a beach along the Neuse River (2.5 miles wide at this point), a typical coastal pine savannah and a not-so-typical encounter with galax and holly, flora more commonly associated with the Southern Appalachians. You’ll also pass some great local history: long-abandoned stills are visible every so often.
In the Triangle you don’t need to look far. Here’s a rundown of 25 trails and trail networks in the region totaling 275 miles. All are natural surface trails (with the exception of part of the American Tobacco Trail); they range in length from less than a mile to 60 miles.
1. Jordan Lake State Recreation Area I 20 miles
Mostly short trails in and around beaches and camping areas (some of the latter are restricted to registered campers); New Hope area has loops of 5.5 and 2.7 miles.
Little Creek loop offers green hiking year-round, Raven Rock loop takes in the 150-foot bluff overlooking the Cape Fear River, and the 5-mile Campbell Creek loop offers a nice escape from park’s more visited trails.
19. Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve, Cary | 3 miles
Best-tended trail in the Triangle, the three loops comprising the trail network are mulch-covered and hiker friendly — though you will find a stout climb or two. Hike in the mountains through the park’s anomalous hemlock stand, hike (on boardwalk) through a coastal swamp.
23. Umstead State Park, Raleigh | 20 miles of hiking trail, 13 miles of bike & bridle trail
Popular 5,700-acre state park in the heart of the Triangle. Don’t let the crowded parking lots cow you; get much more than a mile from the trailheads of 5.8-mile Company Mill Trail and 7.2-mile Sycamore Trail and the crowds diminish significantly.
24. American Tobacco Trail, Wake, Chatham, Durham counties | 22 miles
In fact, only the southernmost 6 miles of the ATT, in Wake County, are natural surface. The 4.5 miles through Chatham County is a mix of natural surface and pavement, while most of the Durham County stretch is paved. The spine of the Triangle’s trail system.
Sometime in the next week or two, it will happen. Maybe you’ll be walking to your car one morning and a gentle breeze will send an unexpected chill up your arm. Perhaps you’ll be leaving work and notice the light has changed, that the shadows extend farther than they did the day before. Or one afternoon you’ll notice that the sky seems especially crisp, the air noticeably drier.
You’ll experience one of these things and experience something else.
After a long summer of 90/90s — 90 degree temperatures and 90 percent humidity — you’ll get your first sign that fall and its enticing weather are on the way. A sign that soon it will be safe to leave your climate-controlled world and return to a land where gentle breezes and crisp light and dry air have a way of rejuvenating the soul like processed air just can’t.
There’s no better way to experience this rejuvenation of fall than on a hiking trail. And there are few places better to enjoy a day on the trail than in North Carolina. Allow us a moment to make our case.
Living in the population center of the state, in the arc running through the rolling Piedmont from Charlotte northeast to the Triad and across to the Triangle then down to Fayetteville, you have access to some of the best urban hiking around. In the Triangle, you might be content with Umstead State Park, a 5,700-acre preserve smack in the center of it all that last year gave escape to nearly 1.2 million visitors. With 21 miles of hiking trail and another 13 miles of multiuse trail, Umstead offers quick, easy escape. Likewise Eno River State Park in and around Durham. That park’s 28 miles of trail takes hikers on a variety of escapes, some of which make you feel you’ve been transported to the mountains.
And there’s more. The Mountains-to-Sea Trail passes through the northern Triangle, spending 60 miles along the southern banks of Falls Lake, making it one of the longest urban hiking trails in the country. The MST will soon extend an additional 14 miles to the west and another 32 miles east (the latter on paved greenway). Soon, you’ll be able to walk from Clayton in Johnston County west to near Hillsborough in Orange County.
In the Triad, you have Hanging Rock and Pilot Mountain state parks. Still in the Piedmont, both parks offer a taste of the mountains, with elevations exceeding 2,500 feet. To the south, a national forest, the Uwharrie, offers another taste of alpine hiking.
Charlotte has Crowders Mountain State Park and quick access to our second argument for why North Carolina is a hiking heaven: the Southern Appalachians. The stellar hiking of our high country greets you at the Blue Ridge Escarpment, an impressive rise that should feel like a foreboding rampart but instead offers a welcoming and memorable introduction thanks to Stone Mountain State Park, Doughton Park, Wilson Creek, Linville Gorge and Graybeard Mountain, among other venues. Just beyond, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail rims 300 miles of the escarpment. Beyond that you’ll find the hiking responsible for North Carolina’s reputation.
Between them, the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests cover more than a billion acres of western North Carolina. The Shining Rock Wilderness, much of it between 5,000 and 6,000 feet in elevation, is one of the few exposed areas of the mountains and thus offers some of North Carolina’s best views. In the Black Mountains, you’re on top of the East Coast, with elevations approaching 6,700 feet, the highest east of South Dakota’s Black Hills and with terrain more appropriate for a northern boreal forest than one in the Southern Appalachians. In the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest you’ll be hiking in one of the best stands of virgin forest in the East, on the 100-mile Bartram Trail you’ll be walking in the footsteps of botanist William Bartram, one of the first and most comprehensive chroniclers of the southeast in the late 1700s, and in the Great Smoky Mountains you’ll walk through some of the best forest in the country, period.
So many great opportunities. Which makes living in North Carolina and not being a hiker akin to being a fish but not knowing how to swim.
We’d like to change that.
We’d like to take you non-hikers and occasional hikers, throw you into the pool and make bonafide hikers out of you.
Introducing GetHiking! Starting in early September — once those arm-cooling breezes and crisp, clear skies become more commonplace — we’re going to conduct weekly guided hikes. The hikes will be lead by Joe Miller, through our ongoing partnership with his adventure living blog, GetGoingNC.com Joe is no stranger to hiking, having written “100 Classic Hikes in North Carolina” and “Backpacking North Carolina.” He’s also familiar with coaching hiking, as the lead coach for the Ultimate Hike’s Triangle chapter.
We’ll provide more details on the GetHiking! program over the next couple of weeks. The only thing you’ll need to bring to the program is a good pair of hiking shoes or boots and a sprit of adventure. We’ll provide the guidance, direction and more.
In the meantime, check out the accompanying slide show of some of our favorite places to hike in North Carolina. To whet your appetite further, here’s a list of venues mentioned in today’s post with a quick description and a link for more information.
We’ll be back next week with more details.
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Listed in order of appearance in today’s post:
Umstead State Park, Raleigh. 5,700-acre forest in the heart of the Triangle, with 21 miles of dedicated hiking trail and another 13 miles of multiuse trail.
Eno River State Park, Orange and Durham counties. 28 miles of trail in this linear park, which runs from Guess Road in Durham west to just east of Hillsborough.
Mountains-to-Sea Trail, statewide, passing through the Triangle along the Eno River, Falls Lake and the Neuse River. More than 100 miles of this trail is finished through the Triangle, including 60 miles of intimate, natural surface trail along Falls Lake.
Hanging Rock State Park, north of Greensboro. More than 18 miles of trail, nestled in the Piedmont but with the waterfalls, rock outcrops, cliffs and elevation you’d associate with the mountains.
Pilot Mountain State Park, northwest of Winston-Salem. Like Hanging Rock, part of the ancient Sauratown Mountains. About 25 miles of trail, some open to horses, with lots of great views.
Uwharrie National Forest, southwest of Asheboro. Often pitched as North Carolina’s Central Park, the Uwharries feature the 20-mile Uwharrie National Recreation Trail and the 7.2-mile Birkhead Mountain Wilderness Loop.
Crowders Mountain State Park, west of Charlotte. Numerous hiking trails centered around two ridges. One trail links the park with parks in South Carolina.
Doughton Park, Blue Ridge Parkway. Perhaps the best hiking along the Blue Ridge escarpment, with hiking through open meadows up top, hiking through wild forest on down the mountain.
Wilson Creek, Morganton. Nearly 50,000 acres of mostly rock and water, well accessed by trail.
Linville Gorge Wilderness, / Linville. Described by some as the wildest spot in the East, this 2,000-foot-deep gorge is accessed by several steep trails and the 13-mile Linville Gorge Trail, which follows, or tries to, the Linville River.
Graybeard Mountain, Montreat. A surprisingly challenging 7-plus mile loop trail through a surprisingly verdant forest.
It is the epitome of competition, yet it eschews the very notion.
Thursday night, the Ramblin’ Rose triathlon series held an informational meeting, sponsored by PrAna, at the Great Outdoor Provision Co. store in Cameron Village in advance of its two local triathlons, the Raleigh Triathlon May 20 and the Chapel Hill Tri Oct. 7. The hugely popular races sponsored by Endurance Magazine are women-only and geared toward beginners. They play down the competitive aspect of a tri, play up the comradery and supportiveness of the event. If you’ve participated in one of the races or just watched one, you know this isn’t mere marketing mumbo-jumbo. Ditto the Ramblin’ Rose’s motto: “Celebrating the empowerment of women.”
Over 60 Women gather to learn more about the sport of Triathlon
Empowerment: that’s where the competitiveness comes in.
During a presentation by athlete trainer Sage Rountree (who’s credentials are too numerous to list, so we’ll send you here http://sagerountree.com/ for an introduction), the 70 or so women who crammed into the store (between boats and women’s apparel) were focused. Rountree’s mission was to demystify the race by discussing training, equipment, transitions.
“Do you need a $4,000 carbon fiber bike?” she asked rhetorically. “Not yet,” she answered after a beat.
Sage Rountree shares triathlon tips & inspiration
And none of the women present likely went out and bought one afterward. A fancy bike might give you an edge over others, but for this group, the only competition they were concerned with was with themselves.
Karen Friedlander of Cary came with her friend, Patty Harrison. Both had heard about the Ramblin’ Rose from a friend. Friedlander, who is 54, said she was looking for a challenge, to get herself back in shape after putting her needs aside for 20 years of work and kid-raising. She was looking for a better use of her time.
“I’m tired of the sedentary lifestyle,” she said.
Friedlander cited the Ramblin’ Rose’s reputation for being a supportive, non-competitive event. Then she exposed her internally competitive self.
“We joined a group called Tri It For Life, which helps train women for their first triathlon,” says Friedlander. The group originated in Charlotte; this spring’s session is their first in the Triangle. (Read more about Tri It For Life here.) http://getgoingnc.com/2012/06/tri-it-you-may-like-it/
Like Ramblin’ Rose, Tri It For Life encourages — and challenges. Friedlander says they do four organized workouts a week: a bike ride one day, a run the next, a swim and then a combination of two disciplines.
“It’s hard,” she says of her first three weeks of training. “It’s also enlightening. It’s done a lot to build my confidence. Even at my age, I’ve discovered I can do anything I want my body to do.”
Jackie & Susan are excited about the Raleigh Ramblin' Rose event
Jackie Sinicrope of Cary is not a beginner: she’s got four races under her running shoes (five if you include last fall’s Chapel Hill Ramblin’ Rose that was called because of an electrical storm as she stood in line at the start). In a sense, she takes the events seriously by going into them prepared. She runs (she’s entered to do next weekend’s Quintiles Half-Marathon in Wrightsville Beach), she bikes regularly and she swims. Her tris to date have been the short-distance events, but she’s signed up for the longer international distance White Lake Triathlon http://www.whitelakeholidayresort.com/triathletes.html on May 4. “I like the motivation it gives me,” says Sinicrope, who is 42. “I like the routine and having a program, of knowing, ‘Hey, I’ve got a race coming up.’”
“I loved it,” says Brown, 45. “I loved how supportive it was. There was a great feeling of comradery. Everyone was cheering for one another — the spectators, the people running the race, the runners.”
When the opportunity to do a similar race, the Ramblin’ Rose, came up, she jumped. She said she might even train for this one.
Brown sees an extra mission — two, actually — in the Ramblin’ Rose. “I have rheumatoid arthritis,” says Brown. “While I’m on meds and feel no pain, it’s important for me to stay active.”
It’s also important to be a good role model. Brown’s and Sinicrope’s 12-year-old daughters will be joining them in October’s Chapel Hill Ramblin’ Rose.
“It’s important to set a good example for our children, to show our kids a different, healthier way,” says Brown, a Montessori school teacher. “It’s part of my role as a parent.”
Brown, Sinicrope and Friedlander all appreciate that some potential female triathletes may be reluctant, because of weight, because of age, or for whatever reason. “You don’t feel like you stand out,” says Brown. “Everyone is in the same boat, it’s a supportive environment.” “In another setting,” adds Friedlander, “if you’re overweight, you might not want to be in a bathing suit.”
For a moment, Sinicrope exhibits a hint of outward competitiveness, joking it’s always nice to pass women half her age. Then she puts her thought in a Ramblin’ Rose perspective: “I like the challenge of getting older and getting better.”
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For more about the Ramblin Rose race series, which includes triathlons and races this year un Chapel Hill (Oct. 7), Charlotte (Sept. 23 & 29), Durham (Oct. 21), Raleigh (May 20), Rock Hill, S.C. (July 15) and Winston-Salem (Aug. 19) visit their website here. http://www.endurancemag.com/index.php/ramblinrose
After Diane Van Deren finished her record-breaking run across North Carolina on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail last June 1, she did something she’d never done as a professional athlete.
She took a break.
Not because of her severely blistered feet, which were nearly devoid of skin, or because of the flexor tendon in her left foot, which “nearly wore through.” Not because her calorie-starved body had dug into its reserves and was consuming muscle, or because she averaged about three hours sleep a night during her three-week MST Endurance Run. And not because her entire 52-year-old body was simply worn out from more than three weeks covering nearly 1,000 miles of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, from 6,643-foot Clingman’s Dome on the Tennessee border to Jockey’s Ridge on the Outer Banks.
“With every event I’d ever done, as soon as I finished it was like, ‘OK, what’s next? What’s next on the schedule?” Van Deren said from her home outside Denver as she prepared to return to North Carolina in early February. The MST was something altogether different.
“With this,” she said, “I just wanted to take time to appreciate what I’d been through.”
During her 22 days, 5 hours and 3 minutes on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, Van Deren had been through a lot. The cold and wet of the Southern Appalachians, the heat and humidity of the Piedmont, and the violent weather of the coast (on her 20th day she had to outrun a tropical storm and a tornado), The North Face-sponsored elite athlete faced about every physical and mental challenge imaginable. But those challenges are a dime a dozen in Van Deren’s world, a world that includes everything from multiple finishes in the Hard Rock 100, arguably the toughest 100-mile ultra run in the country, to the 430-mile Yukon Arctic Ultra, a race in which Van Deren and her 50-pound sled broke through thin ice on a lake a day from the finish.
“It was just life-changing,” Van Deren said of her MST Endurance Run. “The people I met on this race, we developed a real trust in sharing stuff. We were very vulnerable with each other. I’ve never had an experience like this and I don’t know that I ever will.”
Van Deren returns to North Carolina the first week of February for a series of statewide appearances, starting with her Feb. 2 address to the annual meeting of the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, the non-profit spearheading completion of the trail. At present, just over half of the estimated 1,000-mile trail is complete, much of that in the mountains and Piedmont. The rest follows temporary routes, mostly along country roads. Van Deren’s run, sponsored by Great Outdoor Provision Co., was intended to accelerate the trail’s completion by raising awareness — and money.
According to Kate Dixon, executive director the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, Van Deren was successful on both counts.
“I think there were two big things to come from the run,” said Dixon. “We got a lot of new members, people in the state who were not aware of the trail, and we got a lot of national recognition.” National Geographic, for instance, included the MST in its Ultimate Adventure Bucket List for 2013.
“As an internationally competitive athlete, Diane elevated the MST to its rightful place among the world’s best trails,” said Chuck Millsaps, Minister of Culture with Great Outdoor Provision Co. and the expedition’s leader. “Diane’s expedition revealed this grand traverse as a transforming trek through our state’s rich beauty, history and culture welcoming others to come and discover.”
The run also exceeded its fundraising goal of $40,000.
While Van Deren did bow out of the Hard Rock 100, which took place a month and a half after she completed the MST Endurance Run, she didn’t sit around reflecting for long. In September, she competed in a 50-mile endurance run in Chile and in December logged one of her best 50-mile times ever, completing the San Francisco edition of the 50-mile North Face Endurance Challenge in 9 hours, 25 minutes, 1 second, a pace of 11 minutes 18 seconds per mile. She’s currently planning her race schedule for 2013. (One thing she says she won’t be doing again is another 1,000-mile run.)
An elite athlete learns from experience and uses that experience to battle through perceived obstacles. Van Deren’s experience on the MST helped her blow off what many of her San Francisco competitors found to be intimidating conditions.
“There was horrific rainfall, a downpour, there were flash-flood warnings, and they had to alter the course,” Van Deren recalled with a laugh. “I was the only runner going, ‘Huh. No problem.’ My attitude was, ‘Hey, I ran through a hurricane, this is nothing.’”
While there were other lessons from the MST run that will benefit Van Deren in future events, it’s the magic of a team effort that continues to leave the biggest impression. A competitor in one of sport’s loneliest endeavors, ultra distance running, Van Deren found herself handing over her fate to her GOPC team, from support crew chief Joel Fleming, who woke her in the morning and tucked her in at night, to logistics guru Amy Hamm, whose duties included tracking down baked salmon dinners in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere, to her team of daily trail guides, to expedition leader Millsaps.
At times that support came in the form of helping Van Deren get her shoes off and her feet patched. At times it involved telling stories, cracking jokes and otherwise helping her pass the long hours on the trail. And at times it simply came to recognizing when Van Deren was in the zone and needed to be left alone.
“I just had to keep moving forward,” Van Deren says of the run. “To have someone who could look me in the eye and say, ‘Here’s the game plan,’ was huge.”
Said Millsaps, “Diane reminded us that it is not about being super human as much as it is about becoming a human being. As a team we discovered how adversity reveals the best gifts: endurance, creativity and gratitude.”
And, Van Deren is quick to add, unity. Though it’s just her name in the record book, she says the entry should read like the credits to a Hollywood blockbuster.
“I still feel it’s a ‘we’ thing, not a ‘me’ thing.”
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Where to catch Diane
Diane Van Deren returns to North Carolina, the site of her record-breaking Mountains-to-Sea Trail Endurance Run, the first week of February. There are several opportunities to see her and hear her talk about the run, what she’s been up to since, and what’s in store for 2013.
You wanted to take a whitewater kayaking course last year — but didn’t. You swore you’d finally spend that week on the AT you’ve been promising yourself since college — but didn’t. You also didn’t train for an ultramarathon, take a weekend canoe camping trip or climb Looking Glass Rock.
2012 — where did you go?
Disappointed with last year’s adventure resume? Don’t let 2013 be a repeat of 2012. Vow to make this your Year of Adventure. And start now by making a plan.
Now, a true year of adventure consists of numerous small adventures and maybe one or two big ones. (It is called a Year of Adventure, after all, not a Long Weekend of Adventure.) Say your goal is that epic backpack trip, a week — at least — on the Appalachian Trail. You just don’t go out and hike 15 miles a day, seven days in a row, with 35 pounds on your back. You lead up to it, with a series of smaller adventures in the form of training hikes.
But all the good places to hike are in the mountains, you grump.
You start exploring our recommended trails and begin to feel good about your hiking. Time to add camping to the mix. Before committing to a backpack trip you’ll want to field test your equipment, not to mention your camping skills, in a more controlled setting. Check out our Camping page and you’ll find find five places to car camp near where you live.
Next step: a short backpack trip. Come by the shop to explore our map section and scout potential trips, or meander over to books and pick up a copy of “Backpacking North Carolina,” where you’ll find good warm-up trips of two, three and four days. Finally, you’re ready for your epic on the AT. Start planning with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s maps and guidebooks, which cover everything you need to know — from shelter and campsite locations to water sources — to plan and execute a trip capping your 2013 Year of Adventure.
Maybe you’re flummoxed by all the options in the adventure world and aren’t sure where to start? A good source of inspiration is your local Great Outdoor Provision Co. shop. Spend half an hour wandering the aisles and chances are you will find motivation in the most curious of places. Pick up some maps at random; A region you thought you were familiar with may reveal a valley or ridgeline you don’t know at all. Maybe you pick up a copy of the “Shining Rock/Middle Prong Wilderness Map”; you’re as comfortable at Shining Rock as you are in a 0-degree down bag on a January night. But Middle Prong? What’s over there? Or perhaps the quirky “The Linville Gorge Hiker’s Guide,” a grassroots effort with homemade maps, mimeograph (Google it, kids) quality and grainy pictures catches your eye. Start thumbing through and you quickly discover a ton of insidery information about one of the wildest places on the East Coast. Intrigued? You bet.
Motivation can come in unlikely places. A trip to the camping department reveals a titanium spork that suddenly makes you want to spend the evening huddled in the dark and cold over a can of beans. In boats you realize it’s been way too long since you’ve had yours out on a winter paddle, while a trip through outerwear makes you realize it’s rarely too cold in North Carolina to get out and explore. Maybe you discover something entirely new, maybe something you’ve thought about, but never pursued until you pick up a flier for a day-long fly fishing class on a nearby lake. A one day lesson, a handful of day trips to local hotspots and who knows, you could be fly fishing for cutthroat trout in the Rockies come July. Does a river run through you? You won’t know until you put a fly rod in your hand.
We’ve got the resources to help make sure 2013 doesn’t disappoint. Let’s get started on your Year of Adventure!
In 2010, Cory Richards put his name in the American alpine record books by becoming the first American climber to summit and 8,000-meter peak in winter. His climbing party’s summit celebration atop 8035-meter Gasherbrum II in Pakistan was subdued and short-lived, based on a healthy respect for the mountain and the season, and the fact that the summit is only the mid-point in a successful climb. Richards and climbing partners Simone Moro and Dennis Urubko saved the real celebration for after they miraculously survived an avalanche on the descent. This past May, the 30-year-old Boulder, Colo.-based climber and photographer had another scare when, as part of a National Geographic/North Face team attempting to summit Mount Everest via the West Shoulder, he began experiencing chest pain and shortness of breath and had to be helicoptered off the mountain at 23,000 feet.
Richards will be in Raleigh Oct. 10 speaking on “Both Sides of the Lens” at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. He’ll talk about his life as a climber and as an award-winning photographer as part of the North Face Never Stop Exploring Speaker Series. We caught up with Richards on assignment in the Crimea — “shooting and climbing a North Face expedition … . Big limestone walls above the Black Sea…amazing” — where he discussed growing up, dropping out of high school and the ironic situation that caused his evacuation from Mount Everest.
- – - – - Great Outdoor Provision Co: You credit your parents with instilling an appreciation of the outdoors in you and your brother. Could you talk a little about your upbringing, about climbing with your dad, about where you grew up? Cory Richards: We actually “grew up” in Salt Lake City. My brother and I were tremendously lucky to have parents that made us fit into their lifestyle vs. adjusting it to fit our needs. If they wanted to go backpacking, then we were expected to be a part of that…it was a theme that started before we could think and just carried on through. Dave [my brother] and I didn’t know any other way. In the summer, it was going climbing/backpacking in the WInd Rivers of Wyoming or the Unitas in Utah, in the winters it was school and skiing on the weekends. We didn’t really have a choice — and I am thankful for that. I started climbing when I was 5. We have some amazing family photos of me tied up in a makeshift swami-belt about as tall as my dad’s thigh. Those experiences slowly led to others. Some of them saw us benighted under boulders because my brother and I were too slow to get up and off a climb in a day, which of course would send my mom into random fits of panic when her three boys didn’t make it back to camp at night. It was those experiences, however, the standouts and the stories, that ended up taking root in me and steering me towards the path I’m on now. My parents believed that the best education could be found under and on top of rocks, in skinned knees, and cold fingers …and I’m very thankful for that.
- – - – - GOPC: There’s a current reexamination of the importance of higher education in this country; the Thiel Fellowships, for instance, are targeted to kids who don’t pursue higher ed but go directly into working on their passion. You dropped out of high school: Could you talk a little about that, about what was going on with you at the time and how that decision has helped shape you as a climber, a photographer and a person? CR: I ended up in a high school setting two years early, meaning I was 12 going to school with 18 year olds. I think my personality naturally gravitated towards the social aspects vs. continuing to focus on the classroom. Over the following two years, I attended three different high schools and finally dropped out altogether at 14. Four years of mostly bad choices followed until my uncle finally persuaded me to try to go back to school. My SAT scores were pretty bad as I had spent the better part of my teenage years partying and making a mess of myself.
Thankfully, I can write reasonably well, and I used that skill set to put together an essay for a small school in Montana. For whatever reason, they took a chance. Bottom line, I have made a tremendous amount of poor choices in my life, some very hurtful to family, friends and acquaintances — and I am very lucky that anyone in my family still talks to me and I am thankful for every friend I have. Oddly enough, I think it was largely those poor choices that led me to the career I have now.
The combination of climbing and skiing as a child that eventually brought me back to the outdoors, and photography was a creative outlet for telling that story, the story of struggle both internal and external, which I need. There is some darkness in me that art helps channel. Adventure photography is just a way to go beat myself up while telling the story visually. I love mountains — they put you in your place.
But truthfully, I am more lucky than talented. Professionally, if I surround myself with talented capable people and make myself the weakest link, I know exactly how strong the chain is. It’s a way of gauging exactly how far I can push myself as both an athlete and photographer in the mountains. I rely heavily on the people I work with to bring out the best in me. Conversely, I am an open book and source for them: it’s a give and take. While the decision to drop out was made in foggy haste, and the darkness that followed was nothing if not a struggle, I wouldn’t change a single thing.
Those years taught me to endure and to thrive when things are, well, hard. That has carried over into my athleticism as well as my art. I could never tell a student what they should do. But what I can say is that the idea that you can do anything IS true. That said, if you choose the road less traveled, you’ll have to work harder than anyone else around you.
- – - – - GOPC: You’ve been climbing since you were a kid; when and how did you get into photography? Are you entirely self-trained? CR: After going to school in Montana for a year and a half, I moved to Salzburg, Austria, through the study abroad program. It was there, at Salzburg College, that I met and began studying under Andrew Phelps. Andrew was the one who ultimately pushed me in the direction of photography. It was interesting, though, the last thing he said to me after a year of studying with him was, “Remember that photography is only what you do, not who you are.” I’ve tried to carry that into all things that I do, including climbing. I’m not self trained, but my formal schooling was limited.
After Salzburg, I moved to Seattle where I went to school for another year until one of my instructors actually urged me to drop out and just start working as an assistant. I did, and subsequently spent seven years assisting fashion, saving the money I earned to go on climbing trips and other random adventures. I worked for a guy named Bill Cannon for most of that time. He was very hard on me, but he gave me a work ethic and he eventually ended up as groomsman in my wedding — my 65-year-old groomsman.
- – - – - GOPC: Whenever we see a close-up photo of a climber glued to sketchy wall, our first thought is, “There’s another guy there doing essentially the same thing — with a camera.” How does that work, and what are the biggest challenges you face climbing and shooting? CR: The greatest challenge is not the athletic part…it’s the balance of knowing when to be an athlete and when to be a photographer. And furthermore, when to be a child, brother, friend, and husband. Sure it’s hard to get in position at times, and it’s hard to anticipate and be ahead of the game as it unfolds. But honestly, it’s the life balance that is hardest. That is what the Speaker Series presentation is all about…being on both sides of the lens. On the one hand, knowing both sides allows you to understand them more intimately, but on the other, it demands a constant immersion. Finding the balance is the key. It’s a vital part of the journey and the balance is constantly redefining itself.
- – - – - GOPC: Have you figured out what happened to you on Everest in April? How long did it take you to recover? Was that the worst physical problem you’ve had in the mountains? CR: Everest was a massive ego check, and one that I needed. Oddly enough, I over-heated. I had a heat stroke on the highest mountain in the world — isn’t that the best cosmic joke of them all? But more importantly, that heat stroke triggered something more acute. Basically, I had taken on too much, said yes to too many people, and was trying to climb the hardest route of my life, and the bottom just fell out. I couldn’t sustain the pace or the pressure and the heat-stroke triggered a full-on release of that stress. There seems to be an expectation — a myth — that alpine climbers are impervious to fear and stress. It’s just not true. Everyone experiences both of those things on a somewhat constant basis while in the mountains, and for me, they boiled over. But I don’t want to give away too much. Otherwise, the event won’t be as fun!
- – - – - GOPC: In 2011 you became the first American to summit an 8,000 meter peak in winter, which resulted in your documentary, “Cold.” Grayson Schaffer’s piece in Outside did a great job of depicting your harrowing descent from the summit and the sense of foreboding that tempered your celebration at the top. I think most people, especially non-climbers, think you pop open champaign at the summit, party for a few minutes, then open a backdoor and are magically back at base camp. Can you explain what a summit is really like, how you really feel and what’s going through your mind at the time? CR: Most of the time, when you are that extended, your mind is fairly vacuous. Alpine climbing is hard work. Alpine climbing at 8,000 meters is really hard work. Your actions are a reduction of necessity and she you get to the top, you may cry a bit, you may collapse and lay still for a moment, but in general, you are numb. The summit is a halfway point and not a place for celebration — after all, it doesn’t matter if you make it to the top if you don’t make it down. There is an awesome quote from Alex Lowe, the father of The North Face team, that says “Going up is optional, but coming down is mandatory.” There is a muted sense of joy that exists but can only be experienced to it’s fullest when we are down safely. Often times, getting down is the hardest part.
- – - – - GOPC: What’s your next big expedition? CR: Antarctica. It’ll be my seventh continent, and I’m very very excited.
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“Both Sides of the Lens,” Never Stop Exploring Speaker Series
Who: Cory Richards, climber and photographer
When: Oct. 10, 7 p.m.
Where: Main Auditorium, N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, 11 W. Jones Street, Raleigh
Cost: $20, including exclusive VIP reception at 6 p.m., $8 for reserved seat, free for general attendance (based on availability). Proceeds benefit the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.
For tickets, go here