Columbia is fortunate to have several rivers – the Saluda, the Congaree, the Broad – in the midst of our city with plenty of outdoor activities surrounding them, including canoeing, kayaking and riverside trails. But nature enthusiasts interested in taking their outdoor recreation to new heights need look no further than an unexpected sport that has already made its mark with many Columbians – rock climbing.
Marvin Dawson (bottom) belays Stephen Scoff (top) as they ascend the very steep north side of Looking Glass in North Carolina.
(Below) Stephen Scoff cleans the gear from a route on the north side of Looking Glass in North Carolina
“Living in Columbia is great because it offers close proximity to the coast and the mountains,” says Matt Riley, rock climbing enthusiast, owner of Andrews Auto Service and USC climbing instructor. Matt had an interest in hiking and camping since childhood, but he says his passion for rock climbing developed after he took a community climbing course at USC during college.
Matt was fortunate to have a friend accompany him on his early climbing trips, and since then he’s met a network of Columbia-area residents who also have an interest in climbing. One of them is Jan Strifling, a Columbia lawyer and USC alum, who has taught rock climbing at USC with Matt for more than 15 years. Jan is often reminded that he is about 20 years older than Matt, but he feels that just proves the sport is one for all ages.
“I think we learn a lot from each other because of our age difference,” Jan says. “But at the same time, it often feels like there’s not an age difference at all.”
Jan dove into the sport after one of his sons took a guided climbing trip to North Carolina.
“Naturally, because my son really enjoyed it, I thought I should check it out too,” he says. “I took a guided trip of my own and met several people who showed me techniques and safety. I caught the bug and began climbing with them on a regular basis.” Jan has since been on climbing trips to places like the French Alps.
(Top) Jan Strifling on the summit of Sam’s Knob in Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina. (Bottom)Spencer Smoak climbs Looking Glass in North Carolina.
Stephen Scoff, Matt’s friend and fellow climber, is the South Carolina representative for the Carolina Climbers Coalition, a network of everyday climbers that preserves certain climbing areas in the Carolinas and promotes safe climbing practices. While most of these areas are located in North Carolina – South Carolina has limited accessible rock suitable for climbing – they are usually fewer than three hours away.
Stephen frequents Pisgah National Forest for camping and climbing. “There are many places at Pisgah, which is just outside of Brevard, that are great,” he says. “By far the best climbing within three hours of Columbia is in Cashiers, N.C. Cashiers Valley is known as the ‘Yosemite of the East’ and has the largest cliffs found on this side of the Mississippi.”
Stephen, who works at the Children’s Law Center at USC’s School of Law, has a passion for climbing that has taken him on excursions to the Peruvian Andes and Yosemite’s Half Dome. He says one of his most memorable climbing experiences happened on his ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite. “We reached the bivouac ledge around midnight, and we tuned into some Japanese Kabuki music on our little radio as we ate dinner and settled in for the night,” he says.
But climbing isn’t always so peaceful. Matt and Stephen once had an unexpected adventure at Cullasaja Gorge in North Carolina.
“The only way to access the cliff we wanted to climb was to forge a river,” Matt says, “which can be problematic at high water levels. We were able to cross it while being very cautious, and we proceeded to climb most of the day until eventually the light started to fade.” In their quest to find a stopping point, Stephen fell a ways down the cliff until he was eventually stopped by his own gear and was able to remain in a safe, upright position. Soon, though, it got dark and sleet began to fall. The route was positioned off of a two-lane road and passersby saw the climbers’ headlights and offered assistance, but Matt and Stephen decided to forge back across the river in the dark of night, completing their route with only a few tumbles and missteps.
Spencer Smoak, a long-time friend of Matt’s and distribution manager at Ellett Brothers, was 20 years old when he started climbing, and his first climb was with a friend on the 25-foot wall of the Lake Murray dam. He has since developed a love for the sport and has pursued climbing as far west as the Needles of California and as far north as upstate New York, but not without running into a few of nature’s friends along the way.
“A friend and I were camping after a climb in North Carolina, and at the top of the cliff was a cave,” he says. “We looked inside it to find that someone had scratched ‘rats’ into the side of the cave multiple times. We had talked to someone who said rats weren’t a big problem there, so we ignored them and set up camp and ate dinner.”
Spencer and his friend were at ease as night fell – no rodents had been sighted, which was a good sign – but as they began to set up their sleeping bags, a large rat emerged from behind a rock.
“It was huge,” Spencer says. “We shined our flashlight on him, but he wasn’t scared in the slightest. He kept approaching me, grabbed my hat and scurried back to his rock.”
After prying the hat away from the rat, the two thought their problems were over. Quite the contrary. The rat continued to attempt to steal various heavy camping items and even played with Spencer’s hair in his sleep. “That was the last straw,” he says. “I eventually moved and settled in at another site.”
Still, Spencer says nothing beats a weekend of climbing and camping, and he enjoys the view he gets after completing an ascent. “I love being outside,“ he says. “It’s really nice to be in the mountains where you have a vantage point of scenery you wouldn’t normally have.”
(Top) A rack of gear used in climbing. (Bottom) Matt Riley climbs one of the crux pitches on the Evolution Traverse in California’s Sierra Nevadas. Photo by Jason McKinley.
Outdoor rock climbing offers a winning combination of adrenaline-powered physical activity and sweeping views of gorgeous landscapes you won’t find elsewhere. Matt, Jan, Spencer and Stephen have busy schedules that may not always allow free time to climb, but they each say they try to make a weekend trip at least once a month.
Stephen says he has found the perfect blend of his interests in climbing. “Climbing combines my loves of travel, nature and self-exploration,” he says. “And I enjoy being around sharp and detail-oriented people who are excited to pull off some really incredible things.”
Matt agrees. “It’s so much more than getting to the top,” he says. “It’s about being in situations with friends that are rewarding, seeing views of areas that you would never be able to see otherwise and keeping in good shape.”