Blazing a Trail to Employment: Carolina Climbers Coalition Corps

By Emma Castleberry

The nonprofit Carolina Climbers Coalition (CCC) has launched a new program called Carolina Climbers Coalition Corps, or C4. Tom Caldwell and Mike Reardon, president and executive director of the CCC respectively, were working on a new trail in Table Rock State Park in March of 2020, just before the pandemic hit. “It was the week where we saw our first signs of unemployment,” says Reardon. “We were discussing how the Civilian Conservation Corp had kick-started the economy and built outdoor recreation infrastructure during the Great Depression era. Tom mentioned starting our own Conservation Corp, inspired by the original CCC, in response to COVID-19 unemployment. It then dawned on us that Pumpkintown Trail was the perfect opportunity to hire people in our community who have lost their jobs and put them to work on the trail.”

C4 team member Danielle Johnson. Photo courtesy of CCC.

The two-mile Pumpkintown Trail leads to new climbing access within Table Rock State Park. CCC broke ground on this trail in February of 2020. When the C4 team began trailwork in May, the eight people newly employed by the program were unable to work on the Pumpkintown Trail due to social distancing restrictions. Instead, the team conducted erosion mitigation and sustainable trail building techniques at Big Rock, SC, and at Rocky Fork State Park in Tennessee. The team also spent about two weeks building the base trail to open climbing access at Whitehouse Cliffs, a quartzite cliff in Rocky Fork State Park. Finally, the team was finally able to begin work on the Pumpkintown Trail. “The work is difficult, remote, hot and dirty, but very rewarding,” says Reardon.

Before the pandemic, Danielle Johnson was an instructor at Outward Bound’s Everglades Basecamp in Florida. When Johnson learned the school might be closing indefinitely, she rushed up to Outward Bound’s Table Rock Basecamp near Morganton, where she learned that all spring courses were cancelled.

While quarantining at the basecamp with other Outward Bound staff, Johnson learned about the C4 program. She was drawn to apply because she had previously partnered with the CCC while instructing an Outward Bound course. “Mike Reardon came out to guide us for a day of trail improvement on the Looking Glass Nose trail,” she remembers. “As our work ended, he brought us to the base of the crag, talked about stewardship in this region and further fueled the stoke for our upcoming climbing block the next day.” Johnson was moved by her students’ reactions, with one of them saying it was the best day of the course thus far.

On a typical day, Johnson and up to four other crew members will come together, collect the necessary tools, hike the existing approach trail and then separate to work on different projects or segments of the trail. While the work day is generally 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., the team has somewhat flexible hours to accommodate for commutes, thunderstorms and heat. Johnson calls the labor “intensive and focused,” but not without camaraderie. “In developing this initiative in the midst of a pandemic—with many folks out of work and businesses closing—the CCC has helped to address these struggles in a multifaceted way,” she says. “It is a creative solution to continuing their organizational mission of access to climbing in the Carolinas, but it has also supported those of us employed on the crew.”

The program is grassroots and funded by donations specifically earmarked for the C4 program. “If you donate to C4, 100 percent of the money will go to the C4 team, which will help build needed climbing and hiking infrastructure throughout the Carolinas,” says Reardon. At press time, the program had raised around $27,000 and needs at least $40,000 to keep the existing C4 team employed through the fall. If donations increase, it is possible that CCC will hire more employees for the program. “We would love to have a sustainable business partner help us maintain funding for this program,” says Reardon. “The economy and living health of our region relies heavily on our outdoor infrastructure. We need people on the ground and organizations working daily to maintain the outdoor spaces we know and love. The stewardship and conservation corp movement is in its infancy still, but we are honored to kick it up a small notch with C4.”

For more information, visit CarolinaClimbers.org/C4.

This article appeared in the August 2020 issue of The Laurel of Asheville.

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