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The cool weather is finally starting to show its face around here. Just last week during my stay in Canaan Valley, I couldn’t go a day without talking to one of the locals about their summer temps (or lack thereof). In fact, their summer has been so unusually chill that they’ve already experienced their first frost.

While I’m excited about the coming of snow (and working on not being such a ski newb), I’m a little apprehensive about how the Go will hold up in a winter that, according to a number of farmer’s almanac-type sites, will experience below average temperatures and above average snowfall (at least on the East).

For me, that means two things – 1) Soak up the warm weather while it lasts and 2) Start planning.

Since I’m more apt to procrastinate the planning process, I decided to check off #1 beginning of this week up at Grayson Highlands State Park in southwestern Virginia. To me, this place feels like home. The mountains here are my old stomping grounds. Five years ago when I first started school at Emory & Henry College, my first foray into the backcountry was here to pick wild blueberries on the Rhododendron Trail.

Breathtaking views, diverse forest vegetation, wild miniature ponies, blueberries galore, and access to Virginia’s highest point – Mt. Rogers. There’s good reason I was sold on Grayson Highlands the moment I stepped from parking lot to trail all of those years ago.


But now, there’s something else that makes this place even more special – bouldering. Just last year, local climber and GHSP AmeriCorps volunteer Aaron Parlier published the first guidebook to bouldering in the GHSP. Thus far, the book has created a wave of interest in southern Appalachia’s bouldering potential, and Parlier continues to update the Grayson Highlands Bouldering blog with POWs (problems of the week) and updates to access trails and new problems.

I’ve only been bouldering up in the park a couple of times and usually it’s been during the tail end of fall when it’s really just too cold to climb at that elevation (for me and my sissy circulation at least). Since I was in the area this week, though, I figured I’d give it another go and hopefully get a bit of climbing in before the rock season hits full force next month.

After much persuasion, and the promise of some delicious beer from Devils Backbone Brewing Company, I finally convinced my friend and fellow photographer/videographer/all-around-outdoorsman Tommy Penick to join me in the highlands for a little camping/bouldering excursion. Tommy’s more into the rope thing, but I assured him that he would be able to pet a wild miniature pony here, whereas he might get lucky and have an encounter with a copperhead in the Linville Gorge (his backyard crag).

I’m not really much of a climber. I like to climb, but it’s such a muscle-specific sport that if I don’t get on rock often, I very quickly lose any progress and strength I’ve gained. I like climbing for the problem-solving aspect, and bouldering (the ‘routes’ which are appropriately referred to as ‘problems’) always seemed to me like the perfect embodiment of that.

Until Grayson Highlands

Tommy Penick Photo.
Tommy Penick Photo.

Tommy Penick Photo.
Tommy Penick Photo.

Tommy Penick Photo.
Tommy Penick Photo.



“I don’t like bouldering because it’s right in your face,” Tommy said as we stared back from the guidebook to the (supposedly) straightforward V1 problem back to the guidebook again.

We had been trying to work this slightly overhanging boulder for what seemed like forever with little to no success. The most irritating part? The hold we can’t get to is just above eye-level. I’ve heard Tommy say this before when it comes to climbing, but I’ve never actually agreed with him until now. With the exception of sketchy highballs, boulders around here are normally no bigger than 15-20ft. I could bypass this whole problem, make Tommy give me a leg up, and be happily sitting at the top-out in a matter of seconds.

But that takes the whole fun out of climbing the thing. Instead, we both sat on my crash pad staring up at the problem trying, falling, flailing, and ultimately failing to make much of any progress.

“Let’s go to another boulder,” I finally suggested, reluctantly accepting the fact that maybe V0s were more my level.

We walked down the trail to the Picnic Block, a smaller boulder which nearly touches its neighbor the Picnic Boulder. It was all overhanging, but the problem was short and seemed to have solid holds. I went first and, surprise surprise, could barely get off the ground. Tommy followed my struggle fest by sending the problem with ease and I stared on in furious frustration at the solid-hold-that-was-there-but-which-I-was-too-weak-to-hold-onto.

It’s not like we had been bouldering hard for days on end and I was all pumped out, bloodied, and rightfully sore. In total I had successfully topped out on four or five problems at the most and struggled in vain on many more.

Tommy tried to cheer me on with various words of encouragement. “Come on, Jess, you got it.” “Quit being a baby and get up that thing.” “What is this sit-on-your-ass-time or bouldering? Let’s go!”

No level of tactful pushing could get me up that 10-foot arête and I was finally forced to walk away from it and hit the road for an afternoon meeting, feeling defeated, deflated, and shut down.

Why did we go up there at all? I chastised myself on the drive down the mountain. Why did I waste an entire evening and morning getting shut down on some boulders instead of going for a trail run or a bike ride or a paddle (though the rivers here are pretty much rock gardens).

I’d lost a chunk of my finger, ripped a hole in my Eddie Bauer pants, and all but abandoned any remaining bit of confidence in my climbing abilities to that last problem, and for what?

I had only to browse through the photos Tommy and I shot up in the Highlands to have my answer.

Tommy Penick photo.
Tommy Penick photo.

Tommy Penick Photo.
Tommy Penick Photo.

Sometimes I get caught up in the “end goal.” You know what I mean. You get your eyes on the prize and before you know it, you’ve lost sight of the process, of what it’s going to take to get there, the blood-sweat-and-tears of it all. We live in an era of instant gratification, and I feel that sometimes, that sense of immediacy breeds impatience in us all. I am certainly guilty of this, particularly when it comes to climbing or mountain biking or trying anything new for that matter.

Really, I should have tapped into that person I was five years ago when I was simply in awe at the beauty that is the Grayson Highlands, when I was willing, eager, hungry to try anything no matter how bad I sucked.

Getting shut down isn’t the end of the road. It isn’t a total failure and it isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s a challenge unmet, and that problem will be waiting for me the next time I find myself up in the highlands with warm, dry weather on my side and an itch for bouldering.

Until then, I must say that the company, beer, sunset, and mystery-cheesy-pasta dish were enough to call that a successful outing. Thanks for the rad shots Tommy (and sorry we didn’t get you some pony-love…next time).

Tommy Penick Photo.
Tommy Penick Photo.


Tommy Penick Photo.
Tommy Penick Photo.

Tommy doin' his thang.
Tommy doin’ his thang.

Shut down or not, nothing makes you feel more on top of the world than a room-temp Devils Backbone brew.
Shut down or not, nothing makes you feel more on top of the world than a Devils Backbone brew.

It's just a flesh wound!
It’s just a flesh wound!


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