Unlearning the Ropes

Boulderer Dawson Jacobs, 16, of Pisgah Forest, has already competed twice at the national level. Photo by Tim Robison

Boulderer Dawson Jacobs, 16, of Pisgah Forest, has already competed twice at the national level. Photo by Tim Robison

Bouldering is a climbing sport without the hassle of ropes, harnesses, and long ascents. But its burst of difficult moves is vicious on the fingers and tendons: competitors tend to peak early in age, while their bodies are still made of steel.

Dawson Jacobs, 16, is a prime local example. He refers to himself as a rock-gym rat, his mom Donya says she’s never been able to keep his feet on the ground, and his coach at Brevard Rock Gym say he has evolved into a climbing anomaly — dubbed “The Renaissance Man” because he can do a little bit of everything.

Jacobs recently returned from the Bouldering Youth National Championships in Salt Lake City for the second year. He trains every day: running, calisthenics, climbing — workouts so grueling he sometimes throws up. It’s not for the faint of heart, according to Rock Gym head coach Joby Santoro, who says of Jacobs: “He’s a mentor, he’s a climber, and he’s a friend to 90 percent of the people who come through that door.”

Local climber Matt Gentling has been scrambling rock, and cell towers, since the ’80s. Coming from an era of bouldering pioneers, he’s watched the sport progress. “It’s gotten so extreme now,” he remarks. “I don’t see how a human could stick to it, let alone master it. I’ve seen a big boulder with a flat ceiling and guys hooking it with their feet, and it’s like velcro. It’s so intensive.”

Jacobs says he will probably get more into ropes and trekking later — maybe after the inevitable extreme-bouldering injuries have left scarring, weakness, and less flexibility. “The strength-to-weight ratio is really good when you’re young,” says Gentling, who’s 47. His own version of the sport has altered somewhat with age: “Bouldering these days is getting up out of bed.”

Despite its dangers and difficulties, it’s a highly social endeavor. At Rumbling Bald Mountain at Lake Lure, Looking Glass Rock in Transylvania County, and Linville Gorge near Boone, boulderers have established routes on giant outcroppings. They’ve wiped enormous rocks clean of moss, sticks, and all the crumbly bits, replacing these natural markings with chalk dabs and circling the boulders with crash pads. Climbers are constantly falling in the hopes of “sending” or “topping out” the challenge — that is, making it to the top of the boulder.

Climbing a virgin rock is an even tougher problem, and it plays out first in the mind: it’s harder to see the route when it’s covered with sand, bird droppings, or bees’ nests. “You’re easier to be disinclined,” explains Gentling. However, if one can distinguish the bouldering pattern in its natural state, before the rock has been cleared — that, he says, “is a special skill.”

In fact, that’s Jacobs’ favorite part of the game. “It’s a lot in your head,” confirms the homeschooled teen, whose family runs the Pines Country Inn in Brevard. “It’s 33% mental, 33% physical, and 33% technical.” He finds special joy in discovering an untouched boulder in the Pisgah National Forest adjacent to his backyard, and in being the first to navigate the challenge. As with meditation, it takes focus. He says he lies in bed at night dreaming up routes.

Bouldering’s extreme reputation is relatively new. “Now guys are pushing it on difficulty, rather than commitment,” says Gentling, though he also offers scenarios from the sport’s pioneer phase: “We used to climb on a blind curve of a road, ten feet up,” he says. “You’d hear a bunch of cars coming, you’d hold on and wait, then you’d try your moves — and when you fell, you landed and rolled across the road. You had to know how to pick your landing and roll it out.”

Jacobs definitely has more guidance — but that means more responsibility. Rock Gym owners Cameron and Rachael Austin had him set the climbing routes for a recent collegiate competition. The young climber says he enjoyed analyzing it that way, and couldn’t wait to watch the climbers navigate his work.

“He’s got a quickness that endears you to him,” says coach Santora. “I’m a dad, but I [also] feel like a dad to this team of climbers I have. I have watched them through their awkward teens and have the pleasure of ushering them into adulthood through healthy living.”

Gym owner Rachael Austin agrees. “There are no words to describe the happiness and camaraderie with these kids. Eighteen teenagers … it’s all heart.”

The Brevard Rock Gym is located at 240 South Broad St. For more information, see 828-884-7625 or check out brevardrockgym.com.

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