A Conversation with Carolina’s Climbing 'Crag Mama'

Erica Lineberry's new book is on the four most challenging climbs in North Carolina's piedmont.
Erica Lineberry's new book is on the four most challenging climbs in North Carolina's piedmont. Erica Lineberry
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Zoe Lineberry is a reckless climber. On this warm afternoon, typical of May in the Carolinas, Lineberry gives little thought to the route she’ll choose—typically an important consideration as some exposed surfaces heat up quickly.

Lineberry attacks her line with near reckless energy. Just a few feet into her climb, Zoe’s quick and uncoordinated movements result in a falter. For the first of a dozen times over the next hour, Zoe’s ever-watchful mom swoops in and sets her on the right path. Without pause, she’s back to scrambling up the bright green, slanted plastic climbing surface. Within the hour she’ll surmount every slide, ladder, and bridge the Charlotte neighborhood park has to offer.

Zoe’s lack of respect for proper climbing technique is excusable—she’s only 14 months old. Her desire to climb every obstacle in front of her is understandable—her mom is Erica Lineberry.

Canaan Lineberry following in mom's footholds.
Canaan Lineberry following in mom's footholds. Erica Lineberry

Erica, AKA Crag Mama, has become a fixture in the Carolina climbing community. She’s an athlete for companies like Trango and through her blog she has tackled and chronicled nearly every route in the area. Her new book, Carolina Rocks (Earthbound Sports, Inc.), details the four most popular and challenging climbing areas in the North Carolina piedmont.

We caught up Erica, along with Zoe and older brother, Canaan, to talk about her book, how to schedule training into a busy life, and the duality of helping climbers find new routes while protecting coveted areas from overuse.

How did you get started in climbing?

We (Erica and husband Steve) started out on a whim. We used to be skiers and snowboarders. In 2007 we went to Whistler, B.C., on a ski trip. We’d been climbing in the gym for about six months. We decided to go climbing on one of our rest days. We didn’t know it was a world-class climbing destination. So we climbed out there, got hooked. When we came back we hit the climbing gym and found a mentor.

What advice would you give to someone who wanted to start climbing?

The best place to start is the climbing gym. Inner Peaks is a good gym here (in Charlotte). And they’re building a new location in Southend, probably late summer or early fall. They have great beginners programs and organized outdoor days. The most organic way to do it is go to the gym and make friends. Eventually you’ll get an invite if you’re a reasonably cool person. That’s how you have to do it. You have to get in and know somebody.

There’s some climbing meetup groups and a women’s night at the gym. They just recently started an adult climbing league. There are also Facebook groups. There’s a Crowders Mountain climbing group. That’s a great place to post and say, “Hey, I’m new to the area and looking to get outside. Is anyone getting out this weekend.”

Lineberry testing routes for her book - Carolina Rocks
Lineberry testing routes for her book - Carolina Rocks Erica Lineberry

How did the idea of a new climbing guide for the North Carolina piedmont come about?

I have a blog. That was the majority of my writing. That and some freelance writing here and there. A guy I knew has a publishing company, Earthbound Sports, which prints local guidebooks and what not. He emailed me one day and said, “Hey, I have this idea for a book. Would you be willing to write it?” That was summer of 2011.

What was missing in the world of climbing guidebooks for this area?

There were two main guidebooks that people used for these areas before. The older one was very comprehensive. Pretty much listed every route that had been put up at that time. The problem is, the most recent publication of it was 1995. The stuff it had was very good, but there’s been a lot of new development since then. Then there was the select guide. It had very detailed route descriptions, but only for what the author thought were classic routes. It was not comprehensive. For example, Pilot Mountain was not included at all.

What was the most surprising aspect of this project?

How controversial this book got to be. A lot of people have very strong opinions about what areas should be covered in a guidebook and how specific the information should be. There’s a concern with the crowds. A guidebook is going to bring a lot more people. The access can be sensitive. One person can mess things up. The more people there are the more likely that is to happen. The more environmental impact there is. And some people want to preserve that sense of adventure, find things on your own. Those are very real concerns. But with the guidebook, there might be more people, but they’re going to be more informed people. They won’t be wandering around the woods.

What’s your favorite part of the book?

There’s a lot of history. Probably my favorite part, as a writer, is it’s filled with little anecdotes. Scattered throughout the book, there’s an inset probably on every page or so. Just little snippets like quotes from first (ascenders) or why this route was named that? Just little tidbits of information I gleaned from interviewing these (climbers). They’re giving me info, telling tall tales. That’s my favorite part. It was the most fun part to write.

What was the most difficult part of writing the book?

It was really scary. You get attached to what you write. You feel like this is a part of yourself on these pages for the world to see and critique. It’s hard. But the fun part about it is that a lot of it was written so long ago (Carolina Rocks was four years in the making) that I’ll go back and read it and I almost don’t remember writing it.

The littlest Lineberry's are exposed to the outdoors early and often
The littlest Lineberry's are exposed to the outdoors early and often Erica Lineberry

Speaking of fear, how does fear factor into your climbing?

Oh, it’s definitely important. Anyone that tells you it’s not is probably lying. That’s ego talking right there. The main thing is to justify what is a justified fear, like a safety issue. And what is irrational fear. It’s the assessment—“I’m scared right now. Is it just because I’m up high? Or is there something wrong with my equipment.” Is it a legitimate fear or something in my head.

It’s more about the mental than the physical. You have to deal with that fear in a healthy way. So, for example, if all the fall zones appear to be safe, you can go ahead and write that fear out of your head. Then, when you get half way up and you start to get emotional, you get a little scared, you and say, “Self, we already talked about this. All the fall zones are safe, it’s OK to fall here.” You can’t ignore it or pretend it doesn’t exist. You have to learn how to deal with it in a healthy way.

How did that fear change for you when you became a parent?

I get that question a lot. We’ve always been conservative climbers. There’s some rock around here that’s not super tall that some climbers won’t wear helmets when they climb it. Steve and I have always worn helmets. So when we had kids there was nothing different about the way we did things. But my attitude was a lot different. And that’s where risk assessment comes in. Maybe there’s a fall zone that’s more dangerous but I know the next section of climbing is easy. That might be OK. We’re very calculating in the risks we take. And that’s also where a good guide comes in.

Zoe and Canaan seem to be comfortable climbing all over the park. Do you think they’ll be climbers?

Canaan (now five) has been in a harness since before he was two. And we’d swing him. It was sometime around three when he went to the climbing gym. The gym is a great place to play. There’s all kinds of padded places to climb. Now I take the kids and I won’t climb. I’ll just belay him.

How do you make time for yourself to climb?

We train twice a week in the middle of the week. Usually one of us goes after my husband gets off work from like 4:30 to 6. We do dinner together, as a family, and do kids bed time together. Then the other person goes to the gym. On the weekends, we’re usually climbing outside at least one day. We have a pretty tight ship.

What are some of your favorite climbs in the area?

For trad climbing, the best place around here is Moore’s Wall. That is like world-class climbing…it’s super-duper good. You should definitely hit the circus wall. It has everything from 5.8 to 5.10. Super-classic routes. You can hit all of them in a day.

The best sport climbing around here is the amphitheater of Pilot Mountain. There’s a lot of good climbing. Routes from 5.10 to 5.12.

Further out, the New River Gorge is like our home away from home. We’re up there almost every weekend. We camp often, both of the kids really like to camp.

Erica Lineberry

Did you come up with any surprise routes during your research?

The north face of Stone. It was developed around the same time (as the south face). There’s been very little documented about the north face. It was in that old guide from 1995, but really just a list of route names and a faraway picture that had some vague lines. My husband and I spent several days repelling in, counting the bolts, getting the lay of the land out there. It’s a whole other world. You could spend a whole season there. It had been years since people frequented that area.

What’s your favorite before and after spot to pre and re-fuel?

There is a really good coffee shop in Shelby called Hanna’s. It’s owned, well, by a woman named Hanna who is a climber. And on the way to Stone Mountain, it’s technically not in the park but it’s on the road going into the park, there’s a little general store there and they have super good ice cream.

What do you want people to know about climbing in the piedmont?

People will come to visit and say, “Yeah, I knew there was climbing. I didn’t know it was good climbing.” Moore’s (wall) has the best quality rock. If you look at the parking lot, any given Saturday, you’ll see the most out-of-state tags at Moores. People will come from up north, plan trips, to climb Moores.

And it’s a year round thing here. That’s what’s great about the Piedmont. Crowders, Pilot, and Stone flourishes in the winter. It’s actually so easy to climb all year round here that some people don’t take a break and that can lead to overuse injuries—especially the older you get.

To get the latest on climbing in Carolina get the book, read her blog, or look for Erica on the wall. But watch out for Zoe, her technique can get a bit erratic just before nap time.

Originally written for OrthoCarolina.

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