Blake Madden photo
Going to extremes
Ken Pitts has climbed all over the Southern mountains, with first ascents at Looking Glass Rock, Rumbling Bald, Linville Gorge and Hawksbill in North Carolina and Chandler Mountain in Steele, Ala., among many others in that state. Another favorite is Red Rock Canyon in Nevada, featuring 2,000-foot-tall sandstone faces, the type of rock Ken learned to climb in Alabama. “It’s pretty rare for sandstone to be that tall,” he noted.
The mountains are a proving ground where outdoor enthusiasts come to test their mettle against one another and against themselves. There is no shortage of daredevils here—kayakers who ride headlong over waterfalls, mountain bikers who blaze down rocky grades, survivalists who venture into the woods with nothing more than what they can carry, runners who set records up mountain peaks, the list goes on. Smoky Mountain Living sought out some of the area’s extreme enthusiasts and found those who fly, those who climb, and those who walk. These are some of their stories.
A Hard Day’s Hike
By Mary Silver
Hard hikes tend to be the memorable ones. Mention Mt. LeConte to anyone in my family, and they’ll tell you about the time on Trillium Gap Trail when a tropical storm somewhere on the coast threw us a downpour so torrential we thought we’d be washed off the mountain. My younger sisters, aged 8, each got a grocery bag from lunch as a makeshift poncho, but didn’t stay any drier than the rest of us in our T-shirts and cutoffs. The trail became a stream, which soon flowed at a sufficient depth for sticks to float by like tiny whitewater canoes; to our parents’ credit, we kept climbing. Why turn around when we were already soaked? I don’t remember much about the time we spent on top of the mountain that day, but I do recall being very proud to have gotten there. As we hiked down that afternoon, aiming our sore feet into soft mud, the sun came back out and we cheered.
Those who like nothing better than to tackle the hardest hikes are out there right now ankle-deep in mud, ducking under low-hanging rhododendrons, hauling backpacks up and down slopes thousands of feet high, swigging water flavored with iodine or energy drink mix or both. They’re out there discovering the leaks in their raincoats, counting seconds after lightning, blistering their heels, napping on the backbone of the world, comparing the furthest blue mountains with their aching muscles’ memories. They’re always out there, or some representatives of them are, hiking while sun glares off the ice-encrusted snow around them, hiking through humid summer nights alive with katydid rhythms.
Long-distance hiker and filmmaker Kevin Gallagher is one of them. Growing up in the Shenandoah Valley, Gallagher spent plenty of time in the mountains and was drawn to the Appalachian Trail. “I was enchanted with the idea that there was this route right in my own backyard that I could follow all the way down to Georgia or all the way up to Maine,” he says. “It wasn’t until college that I was able to commit to the idea and make it happen.” As part of the journey, Gallagher stopped once every day on the trail to load a roll of film into his camera. He took one photograph after every 24 steps, winding up with more than 4,000 images in slide form. “Managing the thousands of slides at the end was a bit of a chore,” Gallagher said. “Using film made the creative process move along slowly just like the hike, so it was complementary in some ways even though the final product is so rapid.”
Gallagher used his slides to make a stop-action movie. “Green Tunnel” is a five-minute journey along the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail. Recognized at events like the Southern Appalachian Film Festival and the Yosemite Film Festival and winner of an Award of Merit in the Accolade Film Competition, the film condenses six months of effort into a single plunge—mountains, bridges, boulders, sunny skies and gray, tree after tree after tree flash by in progression from Georgia to Maine. “Outside of the more iconic places,” explains Gallagher, “I tried to find spots that were quintessential to that stretch of trail.”
Of course, there’s one section that is both iconic in its own right and quintessential to the AT, and that’s the 70 or so miles that run the crest of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In the Smokies, thru-hikers encounter Clingmans Dome, the highest peak of the entire trail, as well as miles of high-elevation spruce-fir forest and open balds. “My big memory from the Smokies is getting hit with a huge late spring storm that April,” Gallager said. “We plowed through knee high snow drifts at 5,000-plus feet and through the clearing clouds could see spring time in the valley below. I hadn’t spent much time in the Smokies, but because of the AT I’ll never forget them. I was fortunate enough to hike the length of the Pacific Crest Trail a few years after the AT, and that snow in the Smokies was great training for the High Sierra.”
The Smoky Mountains are home to several sweat-inducing, back-breaking, chest-heaving hikes—a guide to which can be found in the paperback Hiking Trails of the Smokies, published by the Great Smoky Mountains Association. Long trails and steep slopes are sure indicators of the hardest of the hard. Yet, a hike can be hard on so many more levels beyond simply climbing mountains. Spend miles stepping over loose or slippery rocks, around thick, wet mud, or through minefields of horse manure. In late summer and early fall, yellow jackets can come boiling up out of the ground with little warning, and in winter a hike begun in dry woods at low elevation can lead to a treacherous, ice-coated land of drifted snow.
Every hiker has his or her own response as to why he or she continues to clamber one foot in front of the other—it’s the feeling of accomplishment, the chance to form connections with truly beautiful places and build relationships with hiking companions, the quiet time to think, the growth that comes from meeting challenges. “Even when the trail is bad, it’s good,” Gallagher says. “Hard days are just when I don’t have my head on straight. It isn’t so different from regular life in that respect. If you let the little things like rain and bugs get to you it builds up. On the trail it is easier to let the little things go since every day feels so rich and full.”
Soaring to Great New Heights
By DeeAnna Haney
At Lookout Mountain Flight Park in Rising Fawn, Ga., there are a number of people who experience what could be referred to as Peter Pan syndrome. It’s the infatuation and sometimes spiritual fulfillment of flight that attracts hundreds of people here each year. And just like in the classic Disney film, all it takes is a wonderful thought, and maybe a running start, to soar into the sky.
Matt Taber picked up hang gliding the way one might decide to play tennis or learn to crochet. In 1977, he was co-owner of a dive shop and a scuba diving instructor near Jockey’s Ridge on the coast of North Carolina. While driving to work each day, he would look over and see hang gliders launching off the dunes. He watched them so intently on some days he admits he almost crashed his car on a few occasions. Growing up, Taber’s father was in the United States Air Force and the family had lived on several bases to which Taber attributes his fascination with flight and becoming a self-proclaimed “aviation nut.”
When the opportunity arose to sell his portion of the dive shop, Taber found himself with some extra time on his hands. One day he saw an ad in the newspaper that read “hang gliding instructor wanted: will train if qualified.” Taber was hired the first day he walked into Kitty Hawk Kites and was sent on his first flight lesson on the dunes.
“The girl in front of me broke her arm and then it was my turn,” he said with a laugh. “But it worked out better for me.”
Taber’s sense of adventure and love of flight led him to travel the world as a competition pilot. During his early years of hang gliding, he won numerous competitions including the Kitty Hawk Kites Gliding Spectacular in 1979 and the Great Race several times. During his competition era, he also owned and managed a water sports store at the coast. By day his focus was on the shop, and in the afternoons he sailed the coastal winds with fellow hang gliders.
The original owner of Georgia’s Lookout Mountain Flight Park approached Taber for help coming up with a new business plan for the attraction. One thing led to another, and in 1980 Taber found himself the sole owner of the flight park, situated about 120 miles northwest of Atlanta and just northeast of Chattanooga.
It’s easy to see how Lookout Mountain gained its namesake. The winding road toward the mountaintop gives way to unparalleled panoramic views so distant that it is difficult to distinguish where the tips of the blue mountains end and the sky begins. It’s a natural instinct to look over the edge and wonder what it would be like to leap into the sky and never touch the ground—and hang gliders do just that. With a running start, they head toward the edge and let the air lift their makeshift wings.
The 44-acre flight park has undergone huge transformations since its origin in the 1970s. Back then, there wasn’t much more than a rudimentary concrete launching ramp. Now, Lookout Mountain Flight Park is a hang gliding resort with an unmatched reputation as second to none in the U.S. for turning out the most and best-qualified hang glider pilots. Taber has developed an instruction formula complete with aero tow and one-on-one instruction combined with tandem flights.
Two years ago, Dan Zink found himself with an itching need to experience hang gliding. He had already tried his hand at bungee jumping and sky diving, but found himself less than satisfied. After learning about Lookout Mountain, he traveled from Indiana for a tandem flight. The minute he landed he headed straight to the office to purchase a training package. It took him a year to return, but once he finished his training, he knew there was nothing else he would rather do than hang glide full-time. He eventually moved near the flight park to be an instructor. His passion for hang gliding is infectious for students, whose nerves are soothed by his reassurance that the experience will be amazing.
“Watching people get their first flight is really rewarding,” Zink said. “Most people don’t learn something new that’s that big and epic in their life but a couple of times. You learn to ride a bike, drive a car, but how many things do you really learn that’s that exciting?”
Hang gliding is considered an extreme sport for its potential for allowing the inhuman experience of flight, which is outside of the typical realm of sport activity, and also for its potential for danger.
“It is an extreme sport, there’s no doubt about it. But it’s not as dangerous as most extreme sports,” Zink said. “With hang gliding, you can make it dangerous or you can make it very safe.”
Training students often ask Zink if he has ever hit a tree. His answer is always an adamant “no.” He compares hang gliding to driving a car: when you are driving, you don’t head for the trees, you stay on the road. If you stay conservative and do what you are supposed to, hang gliding should be as safe, if not safer, than driving a vehicle. With this mind set, he has never even broken a fingernail while hang gliding.
Likewise, with more than 2,000 documented hours of flight time, Taber says he has barely suffered a scratch from the sport. For many first-timers, the most difficult part is overcoming the mental challenge of literally jogging off the edge of a mountain. This is where one distinct personality trait comes in, says Zink, and that is the person who is a “doer.”
“We’ve got short, tall, thin, fat, computer guys, construction guys, people afraid of heights, women in their 60’s and 70’s,” Zink said. “We’ve got everyone you could think of flying, but they all have that one trait. They’re all doers.”
At the flight park, instructors have done tandem flights with children as young as 4 years old to adults 80 years old. But since hang gliding does have a danger factor, it is a sport that cannot be gone into lightly or just on a whim. It takes careful training to achieve that first flight.
Even for the most experienced fliers, such as Taber and Zink, each flight is unique and exciting. For beginners, perfect flying condition is calm air. But professionals seek more challenging circumstances. Zink prefers to fly in radiating sunshine, which heats the ground and creates a rising column of air. This air, called thermals, allows the hang glider to fly in circles and be lifted further up without effort, like birds fly.
“It’s a free elevator ride up in the sky,” Zink said
Thermals have allowed Zink and Taber to fly wing tip-to-wing tip with golden eagles and buzzards and make hang gliding the purest form of flight, the pilots say. Unlike flying an airplane, which is mechanical, and sky-diving, which sends you plummeting toward the ground, hang gliding is soothing, quiet and is often very spiritual. The best way to describe the feeling of hang gliding, says Zink, is to remember what it was like as a child running as fast as you could and wishing you would never come back down. With hang gliding, you can stay in the air for up to five or six hours at a time.
“There are people out there that do think it’s an extreme sport, but I think most everybody could do it if they wanted to do it,” Taber said. “You don’t have to be an athlete really to be a hang glider, you just have to have a good head on your shoulders and know what’s going on.”
Mind Over Matter
By Anna Oakes
Kayaking. Rock climbing. Motorcycle Racing. Ice Climbing. Mountain Biking.
All are different sports, over different terrain, requiring different gear and summoning different skill sets. But they all have one thing in common—they require your full attention, a laser-sharp sense of focus, completely freeing your mind of all other thoughts, as much—if not more—mental as they are physical. And that is why, while many may consider these sports to be “extreme,” Asheville-area outdoor enthusiasts Ken Pitts and Ed Maggart find them, well, “relaxing.”
Rock Climber. Motorcycle Racer. Mountain Biker.
Nope, no siree—not every mother and father would trust their son on a dirt bike. But Ken Pitts’ folks did, with a little bit of coaxing.
“My brother broke the ice with my parents,” Ken said. “He talked them into letting him buy a motorcycle.”
Big bro was 15 years old when he started riding dirt bikes, and, not to be left out, 10-year-old Ken got one, too—a mini-bike. Then Dad got in on the action, and the trio took to the rugged old logging roads around Hueytown, revving engines and catching air along the southern tailbone of the Appalachians in northern Alabama. So began a lifelong thirst for adrenaline and appetite for outdoor adventure.
At 15, Ken was introduced, by his cousin, to spelunking—exploring wild cave systems, of which there are thousands scattered across the limestone underworlds of northern Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia. Caving requires some climbing, and occasionally the cousins escaped the slicks and shadows for some of the above-ground variety.
“I started going caving with him, and he introduced me to rock climbing. To him it was purely practice for going spelunking,” said Ken. “Something about the sport attracted me. It takes obviously a physical skill to climb, but it’s also very mental in that you have to be confident in your abilities. Anybody can walk a balance beam when it’s a couple of feet off the ground, but if you were to put it 50 feet off the ground, it’s technically no more harder to balance, but rock climbing has that mental aspect. I found it challenging.” Ken lost his personal caving guide when his cousin moved to Texas, but by then he’d decided he liked rock climbing better anyway. There was a good site for bouldering (short climbs without a rope) only minutes away from his home in Alabama. “When I discovered rock climbing, I started riding less and less,” he said.
It was rock climbing, in fact, that ultimately brought Ken to North Carolina. “Rock climbing in Western North Carolina is world class,” he emphasized. “There are as good of rock climbing opportunities here as anywhere in the world.” After spending a lot of time on WNC rock, Ken decided to make the area his permanent home, moving to Asheville in 1991. His favorite climbing destination in WNC is the Linville Gorge. “The remoteness to it, the beauty of the area, the quality of the rock—it’s an amazing place,” he explained.
Ken has climbed all over the Southern mountains, with first ascents at Looking Glass Rock, Rumbling Bald, Linville Gorge and Hawksbill in North Carolina and Chandler Mountain in Steele, Ala., among many others in that state. Another favorite is Red Rock Canyon in Nevada, featuring 2,000-foot-tall sandstone faces, the type of rock Ken learned to climb in Alabama. “It’s pretty rare for sandstone to be that tall,” he noted.
He and his buddies generally prefer lead climbing, in which a lead climber attaches to the rope at the bottom of a climb and ascends the route, along the way placing protection—anchors to prevent long falls—into the rock. The leader’s partner belays the rope—paying out or taking up rope as the climber moves and holding the rope in the event of a fall.
After more than a decade of rock climbing, though, Ken began to seek out new recreational hobbies, including mountain biking. “I had been rock climbing almost exclusively for 10 or 12 years and decided it was time to diversify a little bit,” he said. Nagging knee issues have kept Ken from mountain biking much in the last couple of years, however. Moving to Asheville also inspired a return to his first love—motorcycles.
“Motorcycles went by the wayside until I moved to Asheville,” said Ken. “I realized what a wonderful place this would be to ride.” He bought a street bike and knew friends who raced motorcycles. “I thought, ‘Gosh, I could do that,’” he recalled. That was in 1999. Two years later, he was the American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association Historic Production Heavyweight national champion.
“It looked like too much fun,” Ken said. “It’s a legal way to go out there and as safely as it can be done go as fast as you’re able to go.” Without the hazards of gravel, road kill and larger vehicles, “it’s much safer than riding a motorcycle on the street,” he added. “It gave me a way to sort of get that need for speed out of my system in a controlled environment.”
Ken competes in vintage motorcycle leagues on asphalt, closed-loop road courses with right and left turns and hills. His race bike is a 1969 Moto Guzzi Loop-Frame, an Italian motorcycle. “It’s a fairly unusual bike to race,” he noted. “They handle well, and they’re extremely reliable. Americans think you have to have a certain number of horsepower or whatever; [they’re] not looked at as fast motorcycles, but really they are.”
Ken had four first-place finishes in 2002 and was referred to as “Mr. Curve” by a fellow Guzzi racer in a newsletter of the Moto Guzzi National Owners Club. Unfortunately, the Guzzi is parked for now. “I haven’t quit because I chose to,” said Ken. “In this economy, it’s an expensive hobby.”
Ken, 49, is a commercial photographer by trade and spends much of his free time outdoors, sometimes leaving for a climb early in the morning and not returning until dark. His wife shares his competitive nature, as she’s an avid race walker. Ken’s recreational hobbies are physically demanding, he said, but because they clear your mind, “the end result is a relaxing activity.”
“Motorcycle racing is the same as the rock climbing in this aspect: when you are doing it you get into this zone. It’s 100 percent focus; you’re not worried about work or any other stress in life. You’re totally focused on what’s in front of you.”
Of course, there’s always the potential for danger, but no more so than your morning commute, said Ken, noting he’s never suffered any injuries beyond scrapes and bruises.
“You can’t do these things without a certain amount of risk, but it’s a calculated risk,” he said. “I think driving to the cliff is more dangerous than the rock climbing itself.”
Rock Climber. Ice Climber. Kayaker.
Like Ken, Ed Maggart’s climbing career started in a cave.
“I started doing caving in high school with a Boy Scout troop,” said Ed, who grew up in Nashville, Tenn., where his grandparents had a big farm. He was always hiking or fishing. “I’ve enjoyed the outdoors my whole life for sure.” Ed moved to climbing indoors as a teenager, and then went to college at Sewanee, near Chattanooga, where he found an active climbing community. During college and soon after, he further developed skills learned in small rock climbs of 200 to 300 feet by enrolling in courses on ice climbing and alpine climbing in Washington and Wyoming and began climbing mountains around the world.
“I was learning how to apply those skills to larger mountains, learning how to climb larger rock mounts,” Ed said. “When you’re going to be out for a really long day or overnight, there’s more technical skills that you need to know to climb safely and efficiently.” Ed scaled 12,000-foot rock faces in Grand Teton and glaciers in Washington, learning about transitions between rock and snow and ice, avalanche safety and how to get someone out after a fall.
In South America, Ed has climbed Alpamayo in Peru and made first ascents in Bolivia, which he described as pretty unexplored in terms of climbing. He’s also climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and mountains in New Zealand, the U.S. and western Canada. Recently, Ed climbed Ama Dablam, located in the Himalayas of eastern Nepal near Everest.
The biggest difference between rock climbing and ice climbing, Ed explained, is that in ice climbing, the conditions are constantly changing and the climber is totally dependent on the tools—ice axes, large screws placed into the ice for protection, and crampons (metal spikes strapped onto boots). “You can make a hand hold or a foot hold anywhere you want to,” he said. “What’s most challenging is judging the conditions. If the ice is really soft but thick, the tools go in easily, and it’s safe. If it’s really cold and hard, it’s brittle…[and] more difficult.
“I do think ice climbing tends to probably be a little more filled with hazards just because conditions can change so quickly. They can both be done safely if you have experience and use some good judgment,” he added.
In 1981, Ed moved to North Carolina after taking a job teaching science and working for the mountaineering program at Asheville School, becoming the program’s director a few years later.
Though it lacks the alpine climbs of taller mountain ranges, Western North Carolina holds its own in the climbing arena, Ed said, noting that Laurel Knob, near Cashiers, is the tallest continuous rock face in the eastern United States. “I think people that are climbers that don’t live here are surprised to find that we do have 1,000-foot-long cliffs here and ice climbs that are 600 or 800 feet long. For the terrain that we have, it’s really good.”
The recent cold, snowy winters turned the area into a sudden Mecca for ice climbing, which, in the South especially, depends very much on the season.
“The last couple of years have been awesome,” said Ed. “There were ice climbs that people hadn’t been able to do for 20 years. It was a free-for-all—it was pretty exciting. There were things that people had never seen before.
“Some years it’s not that much; some years it’s just incredible,” he added. “When it’s not cold for very long, you have to go up high to find the ice. It’s hard to plan ahead. When the ice forms, you’ve got to just go.” Good ice can be found by locating waterfalls on a map, talking to other climbers or simply scanning the winter landscape. “Everybody that ice climbs around here has their secret places that they know about,” he said.
Ed took up kayaking after moving to WNC through his work with Asheville School’s mountaineering program. “In the eastern U.S., this is the place to be for kayaking,” he said emphatically. Ed most often paddles on the Pigeon, Chattooga, Green and French Broad rivers, and plenty of good creek runs can be had all across WNC after a heavy rainfall. In a kayak, the paddler has much greater control than in other small water vessels.
“Kayaks are smaller and they’re more maneuverable. You can paddle on more challenging water and do things with them that you can’t do with a larger open canoe,” Ed explained.
As director of the mountaineering program, Ed, 53, is lucky to have a job doing the outdoor recreation activities he loves. “It’s what I do when I work, and when I have free time, it’s what I do,” he pointed out. “Part of it is just enjoying being outdoors. I enjoy just a day hike as much as climbing. I’m really at home in the natural world, and I just love it.” Ed’s wife and daughter enjoy the outdoors as well—his daughter also kayaks and climbs.
With both climbing and kayaking, Ed relishes “the challenge that it presents and the feeling of being a little unsure that you can do it, being a little afraid, and working through that. The focus that it brings…you don’t have time to think about what you should be doing at work the next day.
“As a guy who’s traveled all over the world for adventure sports, I just always want to come back here,” Ed concluded. “I just love it in Western North Carolina. It’s a great place to be if you like being outdoors.”