News trickled through base camp like the slow moving waters of Roses Creek at the edge of the property. Work was drying up. Summer seemed destined to be canceled. Fall was an unknown. Beyond that? No one knew. And just like that, Danielle Johnson, a climbing instructor with Outward Bound in North Carolina (NCOBS) was out of a job.
Unemployment numbers are at historically depressed levels not seen since the benchmark for economic slowdowns, The Great Depression. In hard numbers, over 20 million jobs were lost between February and June. In Buncombe County, part of the Asheville, North Carolina metro area where NCOBS is based, there’s a record-high 17.5% unemployment, according to a Citizen Times article.
Danielle Johnson grew up in Asheville, moved back for the Outward Bound job, and now was out of one. Across the country, climbing professionals of all stripes—from guides to gym employees to resolers—have been furloughed, fired, and left with diminished work.
In North Carolina, while the crags were closing left and right, an idea to use climbing as a way to provide employment was hatched.
Tom Caldwell and Mike Reardon labored along the Pumpkintown Trail in South Carolina clearing downed trees. It was late March and the President and Executive Director, respectively, of the Carolina Climbers Coalition (CCC) were volunteering on the work-in-progress two-mile path that leads to a new 300-foot wall in Table Rock State Park. Once the trail is complete, the crag will formally open.
As they strained beneath the crisp spring air, Caldwell announced in a flurry: “What if we form a conservation corps to build the rest, one that’s focused on community members that have lost their jobs to COVID?”
To date, trails that the CCC oversees have been maintained by volunteers, supplemented by occasional member work days. As the sport has grown, so have the demands for repairs, from degrading locust-log steps to erosion control. At 1,500 feet in elevation and two miles long, the Pumpkintown Trail is the biggest project the local climbing organization has taken on so far. Much of the construction requires advanced skills and time that volunteers simply don’t have.
“It’s now the norm—if we want to open a new climbing area—for it to take a couple of years,” says Reardon. The Pumpkintown project has been in the works for over a year and a half, and the last step is to manufacture the footpath.
So the CCC, which has been at the heart of the climbing community across the Carolinas for 25 years, decided to hire out-of-work climbers—like Danielle Johnson—to help improve access to the crags they care about.
Johnson awoke early to make the drive down. It was another cool morning, mid-May, sunny but not hot. She pulled into the little parking lot at Big Rock in South Carolina and saw her peers standing in a circle, each masked and spaced six feet apart. Caldwell and Reardon welcomed the inaugural crew of the Carolina Climbers Conservation Corp (C4) to their first day on the job.
Some folks had plenty of trail experience, others had a little through volunteer efforts. All were passionate climbers. And all were white.
“I noticed I was the only female and the only Person of Color,” says Johnson. “I was both really excited and apprehensive about how it would go, what sort of culture would develop within the crew. It started on a really enthusiastic note.”
Johnson talks with a measured cadence that’s thoughtful and just this side of upbeat. She has dark hair and eyes that crinkle at the corners when she smiles. Her initial reaction was one she often feels in the climbing community: The perception of being an outsider. Johnson is multiracial, Filipina-American, and says that culture and identity have been a big question mark in her life, especially when it comes to the outdoors.
So far, Johnson has been pleasantly surprised by the crew. As they’ve settled into a routine of swinging The Beast, a sort of two handed axe-hoe, building bench cuts, and fixing drainage, the group has found space to discuss current events and learn from each other.
Historically, the Carolina climbing community has been overwhelmingly white, which is represented in the makeup of the crew. While the C4 team develops physical access to the crags, Johnson saw an opportunity to use her personal experience and guide training to provide access of a different kind: She’s working with the CCC and as an admin with the Western Carolina Climbing Association (WCCA), the largest Facebook group for climbers in the area, to figure out how to better welcome Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) and LGBTQIA+ into the outdoors.
“One of the biggest points that I would make to anyone in our region who is a climber, as well as nationally, is that climbing as a whole is not inclusive,” says Johnson. She urges those she interacts with to consider: “What is our culture saying about who gets to climb? And, who climbing is ‘not’ for?”
If the CCC and WCCA can change the definition of access in the Carolinas, they may help set a precedent for other local climbing orgs across the country. Like they are doing with the C4 program.
The C4 initiative began employing eight crew members, at $25 an hour, on May 14 to help with trail maintenance and stewardship efforts. Within a month they’d raised over $25,000 to fund projects through the end of July.
“We could keep people working for a whole year [with all the projects we have],” says Reardon on whether they’ll continue the effort. They are hoping to fundraise $40,000 to keep the C4 team employed into the fall.
To date, the team has built locust-log and stone steps for deteriorating trails at Rocky Fork State Park in Tennessee, performed in partnership with the Access Fund’s Jeep Conservation Team; continues to establish the first base trail at Pumpkintown; and are in negotiations to work on a project at the Hickory Nut Gorge in Chimney Rock, NC.
“When I heard of C4, I was really intrigued by the idea. When I looked it up, got a better understanding of it, I was immediately drawn in and applied. It feels like the best possible alternative circumstance I could be in,” says Johnson.
Aaron Gerry is a freelance writer who spent the last year traveling and climbing (mostly in Eastern Europe). He’s keen on getting into long, multi-pitch alpine climbs. Want to partner up? You can follow his travels at aarongerry.com.