Hidden in the Rhodos
Climbers from all over the country are in Boone right now. They arrived in October before the Hound Ears bouldering competition. Once the weather gets too cold, most will leave.
"Climbers follow the cool weather," Joey Henson, a local boulderer, said. "They will stay here until the weather breaks like a surfer follows the endless summer."
Although, Boone is among the best places to climb year round, fall is the best season to climb because the dry, crisp air makes for exceptional friction between the hands of a climber and the textured rock.
The High Country bouldering scene is globally known within the climbing culture, yet it has a mystic underground history.
Most of the boulderfields are hidden in the forest behind thickets of rhododendron. There are no published guidebooks to the boulders, and it is through word of mouth that you find them.
Mike Grimm, co-owner of Misty Mountain Threadworks, a climbing gear company in Banner Elk, has been climbing in Boone longer than most. He offered his perspective on the hush-hush nature of Boone bouldering:
"A lot of it is because of access," Grimm said. "We had the rug jerked out from under us with Howard's Knob. I don't think it's a selfish thing like, 'I don't want you to climb here,' and they want to keep climbing there. They just don't want anything to happen to the boulders."
Henson, who was among Boone's first generation of climbers to take bouldering seriously, acknowledged access and parking as main, prevalent concerns and suggested another reason for being low key.
"It's just like fishing," he said with a smile. "You don't want everybody to know about your great fishing holes. They will come and catch all the fish."
Access issues dominate much of Boone's bouldering history.
The High Country's first bouldering spots - Hound Ears, Mildred Boulders on Grandfather Mountain and Howard's Knob - are all closed to climbing, although Hound Ears is open one day a year for the first leg of the Triple Crown Bouldering series.
These losses have been a bummer for the climbing community, but it caused exploration and development of other areas.
Climbers have extensively developed boulder fields at Blowing Rock, Grandmother Mountain and Lost Cove. There is even a lifetime of bouldering along the riverbed at the bottom of the Linville Gorge.
In the '70s, local climbing legends Doug Reed and the late Ralph Fickle viewed bouldering as a means to an end. They were practicing for roped climbs.
"They were [messing] around. It was something they did if they didn't have much time," said Dean Melton, a Boone boulderer since the late '80s. "Linville Gorge, Grandfather Mountain was open. There was so much route potential. Generally, that was what people were climbing."
Boone experienced its first bouldering boom in the late '80s and early '90s. In the beginning, Henson said, "We were looked down upon, laughed at, scoffed at for just bouldering and not getting on the big roped routes."
Bouldering is different from route climbing because there are no ropes - only chalk, shoes and a crash pad. A boulder problem may only be 10 feet tall, while other high-off-the-deck problems, often called highballs, merge closer into the realm of soloing.
For a boulder problem to be sought after and considered classic, such as the "Roof of Death" at Blowing Rock or "Mighty Mouse" at Grandmother Mountain, many things must align.
"It takes a perfect setup of environment, rock grain and texture, the set up of handholds and footholds, the height, what type of landing," Henson said. "It takes so much to have the perfect boulder problem or classic line."
These classic or splitter lines involve a series of stand alone holds, often highlighted and "brought to life," as Melton said, by chalk from the climbers' hands.
More than just upper body strength is required for these problems. Graceful and dynamic movement, delicate footwork and poise, both mental and physical, are all prerequisites for adept bouldering.
Bouldering is hard, and as the sport evolves, the difficulty increases and boulder problems are slapped with numbers and ratings. But, it is not the point to Melton.
"We like to search for difficult things for the physical challenge, and the mental problem solving, but the easy ones are good, too," he said. "It's all rock climbing. I respect people who rock climb for what it is. It's something fun to do in the woods."