Raising the Barr

Local “peak bagger” climbs 790 Eastern mountains

Peter Barr on top of Sassafras Mountain in Nantahala National Forest.

Peter Barr was standing on Beech Mountain when he saw a man with an axe. The would-be assailant just towered there, thick mist rolling around his shoulders, weapon raised. Barr wanted to run screaming. He couldn’t, though — he had a project to finish. 

Barr’s intention — summiting all 790 ranked peaks of the Appalachian Mountains above 4,000 feet — was unheard of. (His quest started with 6,643’ Clingmans Dome in the Smokies.)

But earlier this year, he reached his goal. Doing so required bear crawling through laurel hells, bushwhacking (or what Barr calls “masochistic off-trail hiking”), and, of course, facing an axe-wielding monster. 

“It was the most startling experience of the project,” Barr says of his Beech Mountain ascent. “In dense fog, I came upon a literal yellow brick road that led me to the silhouette of a human figure holding an axe in the air.”

The threatening man turned out to be the Tin Man — that Tin Man — a lonely, enraged relic of the long-defunct Land of Oz theme park, now a cult-favorite attraction that opens for an annual fall festival.

Barr, a trails specialist with the Hendersonville-based land trust Conserving Carolina, sat down with Bold Life to discuss the high life.

Why do it?

Peak bagging is a very Sisyphean pursuit. Once you finish one accomplishment, it’s natural to want to start all over again, progressively widening parameters like elevation threshold or geographic region. I said that I would stop climbing peaks after finishing each of the 6,000-, 5,000-, and 4,000-footer lists, but I didn’t. Instead, I’m hooked for life. 

Obviously, summiting 790 peaks is no easy feat. Besides confronting the Tin Man, have there been any other snafus?
My best friend and hiking buddy, Rick Shortt, and I climbed to the top of a peak in remote Virginia and were astonished to find that the summit was a 60-foot freestanding block of rock. We had to retreat and come back a year later with rock-climbing gear and the help of an experienced climber friend to safely reach the top. … Many other peaks seemed like the most impenetrable places on earth — tightly woven rhododendron thickets and mazes of briers.

What powers you through those tough moments?

My buddy and I have a few sayings when we are struggling up peaks: “Remember, you wanted this,” and “I’m looking forward to looking back on this.” 

Surely snacks help, too. What’s your go-to trail food?

I cook spicy chicken Ramen noodles and add crunchy peanut butter, a meal I ate for lunch and dinner — and even occasionally breakfast — nearly every day of my 2010 Appalachian Trail thru-hike and never tired of.

What’s next?

The next logical threshold is the highest 1,000 peaks in the eastern United States. That adds a lot more peaks in New England, New York, and West Virginia, as well as plenty more in the Southeast. I’m well into this project already, with only about 80 to go. I hope to finish them in the next two years. 

Peter Barr and his wife, Allison, live full-time with their cat, Oscar, in a 2010 Fleetwood Jamboree Sport. To follow their travels, visit adventuresahead.net. Also see conservingcarolina.org. 

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