Get a Grip

Patrick Wilder scales Smith Mountain. Photo courtesy of Kenneth Boone.

You can’t beat the scenery, said Auburn rock climber Jarred Stacey. Apparently, life is at its best when you can hang off the side of a rock face named Terminator with the Lake Martin sunset for a backdrop and good friends spotting your climb.

Stacey, a salesman at Russell Marine’s River North Marina, and climbing partner Nick Metzger, a senior at Auburn University, found the Smith Mountain routes about a year ago when they were looking for a place to climb after work with a few friends from the university’s climbing gym. They heard about Smith Mountain from a friend and turned to a website at to check out the specs on the routes.

“There are not many options within an hour’s drive,” Stacey said. “This is a good place to warm up for the season, a good place to bring beginners. The maximum height here is about 20 feet of wall that is about 35 or 40 feet off the ground.”

Though most of Alabama’s climbing areas are accessible year-round, September is thought of as the start of the season, he said, because that’s when temperatures begin to fall.

“Cooler weather is better for climbing, because the shoes stick to the rock better, and your hands don’t sweat so much,” said Stacey, who met climbing buddies Patrick Wilder and Nick Metzger through the Auburn Outdoors program.

The three met for a late afternoon climbing session in the middle of September and said they try to get out to Smith Mountain several times between September and April. That means loading up the car with crash pads, ropes, shoes, trad racks, helmets, carabineers, chalk bags and harnesses. Fortunately, that sounds like heavier baggage than it actually is.

Climbing equipment is designed for the trail, so everything these climbers needed could be strapped to their backs for the trek up Smith Mountain to the walls situated on the trail below the fire tower.

A climber who prefers “bouldering” – negotiating shorter, more dynamic routes without a harness or rope – can get by with less equipment, said Stacey, who prefers the basic crash pad, chalk bag and shoes.

“You have to have the shoes,” explained Wilder. “They have soles made of a special rubber that sticks to the rocks better. You need those.”

A pair of good quality leather climbing shoes can be found for about $50, he said. They fit like a ballerina’s slippers, so snugly that you might say they’re one size too small.

Before beginning the climb, Stacey strapped a chalk bag behind his back and dropped a crash pad under the overhang he planned to traverse.

“All of the equipment really is about prevention, keeping the climber safe,” Stacey said.

Prior to the upside down crawl he made across the ceiling of a small cave named “Toe Jam,” he dipped his hands in the chalk bag, thoroughly coating them in the powdery dust that would help to keep his hands dry and less likely to let his grip slip.

Another safety essential, said Metzger who filled the role for Stacey’s bouldering, is a friend to act as spotter.

“Two is the minimum number of people you need for a safe climb,” Metzger said.

A bouldering climber can probably get outfitted for about $150, Metzger estimated, but the investment for a ropes climber can be upwards of $400. A well-equipped trad rack alone can cost that much.

The trad rack, climbing lingo for “traditional rack,” holds a climber’s cams, which are rated for weight load and the size of the openings in which they can be used. When compressed, a cam fits relatively easily into a rock fissure. Once placed, it expands and locks against the sides of the crack.

“Once it’s placed properly, it’s not going to move,” he said.

A climber can pull up using a cam strap and clip a rope through the carabineer as a precaution in case of a fall.

The rope he uses also is specially designed for climbing, Wilder explained. Ropes are rated by thickness and length, rendering them appropriate for climbs of particular heights by climbers of varying size. They also include a bungee component, so they put a measure of bounce into a climber’s fall instead of snapping him to an abrupt and painful stop.

Wilder fitted himself in a harness and demonstrated how ropes and cams are used on a climb dubbed “Crack to Crack,” a sheet of Southern limestone crossed with deep cracks.

Now 20 years old and a junior at Auburn University where he studies natural resource management, Wilder started climbing in middle school. He works out at the Auburn University climbing wall and does pull-ups and strength training to build the stamina required for the sport.

“There is not a nationally recognized course to become an instructor that everyone can take. Public gyms and government-run facilities, like Auburn University’s recreation and wellness center, have different guidelines and ways of doing things,” Stacey explained. “I was exposed to climbing through the Auburn Outdoors program. I gained the skills and techniques to safely lead fellow students outside. The main goal was to teach them how to respect the outdoors, climbing and themselves.

“It’s dangerous. There is always a risk of injury or worse. If you want to learn how to rock climb, be sure that you are learning from someone that, though not necessarily ‘certified, is qualified. The easiest way to learn is by taking a course at your local gym or recreational facility.

“The important thing is to be safe and to take care of the place where you are climbing. It’s beautiful up here, and it’s great that we can climb here. We don’t want to do anything that would ruin that opportunity. I’ve come up here and seen where people have made fires or left their beer cans around, and that’s just wrong. We need to clean up the area and not leave anything here that doesn’t belong.

“Climbing is a sport you can do your whole life, but we need to take care of this place if we want to be climbing here in 30 years,” he said. “Do it right. Be safe, pick up after yourself and have fun.”