GRAYSON COUNTY, Va. — Despite scattered rainstorms, local climbers gathered at Grayson Highlands State Park this weekend to improve trails, prevent erosion and generally take care of an area they enjoy.
Aaron Parliar, who co-owns a bouldering gym in Boone, North Carolina, and wrote a bouldering guidebook for Grayson Highlands, has organized the stewardship weekend for six years. He didn’t want to write a guidebook for the area without making sure more visitors wouldn’t disrupt the natural environment.
About 20 people partook in the stewardship weekend, participant Jesse Cheers said. More likely would have joined if not for inclement weather; the most popular weekend had around 40 participants, Parliar said.
Still, this year was special. Parliar is also vice president of the Central Appalachia Climbers Coalition, a local nonprofit. CACC recently purchased land housing some of the most popular boulders in Grayson Highlands — the AVP Boulders, which were shut off to the public for about a year.
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The trail to the re-opened boulders was improved this weekend while participants in the stewardship weekend added signage to the popular bouldering attraction.
For almost a decade, no one was really sure if the AVP Boulders were actually on state park property. In 2016, climbers learned the hard way that they weren’t.
That year, owners of the land adjacent to Grayson Highlands wanted to sell their property, so they had it surveyed, Parliar said. Upon learning that the AVP Boulders were actually on private land, they closed them to climbers.
CACC crowdfunded over $14,000 and purchased the boulders and their roadside access point from the landowner. The acquisition was announced in December. Next year, they’ll be giving that land to the park, according to treasurer Kyle King.
The AVP Boulders have about 50 climbing routes — or “problems,” as rock climbers call them — and are popular for their great height and location, according to Parliar. Getting to the boulders isn’t too far of a hike, which is good for climbers carrying equipment, but the distance is far enough for climbers to feel like they’re in a remote area.
The elevation also gives the climb some grandeur, Parliar added, but the boulders aren’t high enough to be especially dangerous. The terrain is also steep and challenging.
Cheers, who said he climbs at Grayson Highlands about once a week in the summer, added that the higher elevation leads to cooler temperatures and better friction, which is good for climbing. The spot is also good for beginners because crash pads are available to rent at the park, he added.
The AVP acquisition is just the tip of the iceberg for CACC. While Southwest Virginia is already a popular climbing area, according to King, it also has a large amount of rock not yet developed.
“Ironically, Asheville has a huge climbing population, but there’s not necessarily as much climbing there. I have a ton of friends that live in Asheville that come to my house every weekend to climb. So they’re coming from what people would assume is a really outdoorsy area to be, but they’re driving to Southwest Virginia, to this region. People don’t really think about that,” King said.
And yet the region has remained largely untapped for bouldering. King described it as a hidden gem. CACC covers an expanse from eastern Kentucky to Blacksburg and from Grayson Highlands to north of Kingsport. According to King, it will be one of the largest climbing coalitions in the country when all the rock in the area is developed.
While CACC raised the money to buy the AVP Boulders, having to wrangle the funds to actually purchase land is not ideal, King said. Usually, the goal is to get a memorandum of understanding with the landowners.
“That’s the best way because it’s free,” he explained. “[We say]: ‘Hey, we’re going to climb here. This is how we’re going to do it. We’re going to manage the area. And we’re going to be the responsible group as a coalition.’ We have a mother nonprofit, the Access Fund. We normally bring them in and say, ‘We have this huge group also backing us, so we have resources, insurance, all kinds of stuff.’”
In 2016, CACC also opened Breaks Interstate Park, located near the border of Southwest Virginia and Southeast Kentucky, to climbing. According to a news release, “the area has a history of climbing going back at least three decades, however climbing has never been officially allowed or sanctioned by a park management plan.”
Having a management plan is much in the same vein as this weekend’s stewardship gathering in Grayson Highlands. The goal is to improve climbing access — but not at the expense of surrounding land.
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