Todd McCormick has climbed more mountains than anyone I know. As a traveller, rock climber, and outdoorsman extraordinaire, he has roots in Central PA that have taken him throughout Appalachia to find the best climbing spots. From trail running to microbreweries, he’s enchanted with all the rugged glory Appalachia has to offer. Here, he discusses the changes that have occurred within his own communities and how he hopes to continue to discover and explore the (B)East Coast. There’s also an audio version of this story, so if you prefer that, scroll on down to the bottom and listen! Todd also created a Google Map with his top twelve places to climb in Appalachia. You can find it by clicking below.
Todd: Even though I grew up in central Pennsylvania, which you know, arguably is still Appalachian country, I grew up hearing it pronounced “Appel-lay-sha”. And the Appel-lay-shan mountains.
F: So when did you adopt the change?
Todd: When I lived in Kentucky. I met a professor, I think a geology professor, and he pronounced it Apple-atcha and I actually asked him about it, and he seemed pretty convincing in his reasoning. What I grew up hearing was incorrect.
F: I grew up in Northeastern Pennsylvania, and I had a really similar experience. I kinda had it wrong the whole time.
T: Yeah, and now actually when I think about it, it’s hard to go back to saying it the other way. Now it just rolls off my tongue.
F: Where in Pennsylvania did you grow up?
Todd: I grew up in a small town called Danville. And being that you are a fellow 570 area code person, you might actually know where that is. A lot of people that I mention Danville to, they say “nope, never heard of it!” or they know Geisinger. They’re like med students and they’re here for med school and they looked at doing an internship there.
F: I grew up in Hawley, near Lake Wallenpaupack. I think I ran cross country at Danville.
Todd: Exactly, that’s the same for me and Lake Wallenpauck?
F: Nice! So what brought you to Kentucky from Danville?
T: Um. I’ll answer your question in a sort of circuitous manner so I can explain the details. I got into climbing, well, I should back a little bit further. I was a boy scout when I was a kid, and so was my brother. I only have one sibling, my brother. And we were both pretty involved with the boy scouts and that was truly the one big thing that we had in common Aside from that, he was a little more, he like to be indoors, playing games. I was way more the kid who wanted to ride my bike down a nearby hill or go sledding down that hill or what have you. Boy scouts were the thing we had in common, and the boy scouts were my introduction to climbing, but I didn’t really rock climb until...um, my freshman year at Pitt, which is where I did my undergrad. I got extremely involved with the Outdoors Club, and that was the main activity I did during my undergrad at Pitt. And it was through my freshman year at the Pitt Outdoors Club that I really got my introduction to climbing and I learned how to climb. So, climbing sort of took a pretty major role in my life, and when I graduated from Pitt, I wanted to live somewhere closer to good climbing. I had spent some time living in Boulder Colorado, I lived there for a summer before I graduated. While I was out there, I took the time to travel a lot- Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah, specifically Salt Lake City. And the west is fantastic, and I love it. However there was something that kept drawing me back to East Coast. The Red River Gorge in Kentucky and the New River Gorge in West Virginia are two of the places where I sort of learned how to rock climb. Every place I climbed out west, i ended up comparing to those two places. I prefer to sport climb, and we can talk about the difference between bouldering, trad climbing, and sport climbing, and what have you, but these are particularly good places for sport climbing. When I was in Boulder, I would go to places like Boulder Canyon and Clear Creek Climbing, and they’re both really great places for sport climbing, but I kept comparing it to those two places. I would say things like “Yeah, that crag was great, but it really reminded me of Endless Wall in the New River Gorge, and I can’t wait until I’m back in Pittsburgh and I can go to the New River Gorge.
F: What about those spots kept drawing you back?
T:: I think I liked being in the woods! And a lot of the climbing out west is very different in that you’re not in the woods so much, you’re in a canyon, and like, the two areas that I mentioned, Boulder Canyon and Clear Creek Canyon, they both have a road running through them. Which is nice, because on one hand, you park your car and hike five minutes and you’re climbing. But then on the other hand, you’re climbing, and you turn around, and yeah, the scenery is beautiful, but there’s also a road behind you. And there’s something I really enjoy abdou climbing in KY and WV and one of the things I really love about climbing in Appalachia in the larger scope is that when you turn around, there are no roads, it’s just trees and mountains and hills and maybe like a river and a lake and maybe a set of train tracks, and really you don’t see roads, because you’re in the middle of the woods!
F: Did you have a similar experience in the places you would ride your bike down or sled down in Danville?
T: Most definitely. And my dad is a big hunter and fisherman. While I didn’t take to those activities specifically, what I learned from my father and turned it into my own was his love for the outdoors. I was familiar with it. My brother too, it’s like, when you’re in the woods and hiking in the woods, the place where we would hike or walk to was maybe thirty minutes into the woods, and we got there on a dirt road, and there's maybe only a dozen cars that ever drive on that road in a day. And so, certainly, you could draw the parallel to my childhood to what I now love when I go climbing. You tend to park on a dirt road, you hike into the woods. I love how secluded you are. That feeling...especially living in PIttsburgh, the feeling of really being in the middle of nowhere with some beautiful scenery that you can’t see from that passenger’s seat of a vehicle
F: I think there’s a freedom in really feeling like you can be a part of what’s around you without being fearful of it- or maybe with a healthy dose of fear, right, because you’re climbing in the woods, so you need to be aware, but I just think there’s a freedom in the ability to be surrounded by nature. That freedom is similar to what a lot of folks that I’ve spoken to in Appalachia are looking for, that freedom to be surrounded. Whether it be by people or stories, that want for immersion in likeness to the nature that they know. Does that resonate at all with you?
T: Definitely. And to that point, that’s something you can achieve out in Colorado, but when you achieve that in Colorado, you’re in a more alpine environment. Typically that means, you needs to take a weekend, so you’d spend a day hiking, a day climbing, a day hiking, in order to reach that Alpine environment. So that’s something nice about the New River Gorge, it can just be for an afternoon, you don’t need to take a whole weekend to hike out. You can sort of get that feeling and experience in a day! And so, in a sense you’re in the middle of the woods, but you’re also not that far from civilization the way you are in Colorado.
F: One thing I did notice about Ascend in terms of what your climbing gym actually does, and I think this is amazing, you can spend an afternoon there. In that sense, do you find it can be more accessible to working people and people who might not have the time or energy to an entire weekend? Why did you decide to help this climbing gym happen? What does that mean to the rest of your practice?
T: So, the pros and cons of living in Pittsburgh...and this is part of the reason I had spent six years living in Lexington, Kentucky. Living there, I was an hour away from Red River Gorge, which has world-renowned climbing, some of the best sport climbing in the world. And there are definitely days that I miss that, and I was still in Appalachia. For certain reasons, I was drawn back to Pittsburgh. The people here are great, and the outdoors scene is great. Unfortunately, the closest world class climbing is probably the New River Gorge, which is a three and half hour drive to get there. It’s a little further than what I was used to in Lexington. There are places like Lexington, and like Boulder that have that world class climbing very close, sometimes literally in their backyard, and they have climbing gyms very similar to ours. But here it’s a little different. You can get to Coopers Rock outside Morgantown in an hour and half from where I live in Squirrel Hill. I can ride my bike and get to Ascend in fifteen minutes. It’s not outdoor climbing, but one of the challenges of living out here is the weather. In the summer it’s very humid, which is not great for climbing. We have rainy weather in the spring, and sometimes in the fall as well, as we just saw. So the perfect climbing days outside can be few and far between. Ascend really offers that escape, in my mind, to still experience climbing, but you can do it whenever you want! As long as we’re open. But you can come rain or shine-on the weekends, too. Lately the sun has been setting earlier, but you can come to Ascend at 7 o’clock when it’s totally dark outside and have a good experience. We try very hard to offer a space for the community to grow. We also have a yoga studio, a kitchenette. In the kitchenette, we have tables and chairs and couches, and we want that space to be warm and welcoming and very inviting. Whether you’re a student trying to fit in a climb between studying, or you work a 9-5 job and you just want to get a session in after work while you let traffic die down, we really try to be community-focused. We try to create a space where people can feel comfortable, whether they’re climbing or doing yoga, or just spectating or wanting to be around like minded people to chill out and do homework with climbing walls in the background.
F: I’m sorry to say I’ve never been there, but it sounds like there’s a community aspect organized around an activity. Like, we come together to climb, but also to be around other people who climb and who want to be here with us.
T: Yeah definitely. Certainly our focus is climbing, we are a climbing gym, but our tagline is Ascend Pittsburgh: Climbing, Fitness, Yoga. And the fitness and yoga are important to us. But the like mindedness of the people in the space is hopefully not so narrow minded as to only include climbing, who for those like to live an active lifestyle. And so to that community aspect, we don’t do it through the winter, but when the weather is nicer, we have a cycling club that meets once a month to ride around the whole city. We also have a running club that meets year round, once a week. We go for runs around the Southside and Station Square area. But it’s kind of nice to be around people who like to climb once a month or five days a week, just people who are committed to living an active lifestyle and commit to that active lifestyle in other ways, like yoga and cycling, or just fitness in general.
F: Do you think this model would work in other places in Appalachia? Or does it need to be tied to a city?
T:Um...I mean in all honesty it does. We have a fairly large gym. I think size is important. I don’t know if you put a climbing gym this size in Danville, that it would be successful. You’d need to scale it down, or maybe be a little smarter about the location and go to Bloomsburg, there’s a college nearby. You know, a little bit bigger of a town than Danville is. I definitely think this kind of model would work anywhere. Especially anywhere that there’s a community of outdoor-minded and people who like to live an active lifestyle.
F: Have you been back to Danville at all since living in Colorado and Kentucky and Pittsburgh?
T: Yes, it’s definitely easier than when I was in Kentucky. I would try to go and visit once a year but now that I’m back in Pittsburgh it’s a little easier. My family still lives in danville, so I was there over the Thanksgiving holiday and I got to visit with my family then. I didn’t do any climbing when I was there, even though there is a small gym in Milton. I think it’s just the Milton Rock Gym. That gym is just climbing only, it’ doesn’t have the other fitness and yoga aspects that we do here. I’ll occasionally hang out there when I visit my family. I did spend some time outdoors, I did go for some nice runs. I grew up running. I was on the XC team in high school. I would usually run this popular race on Thanksgiving, called the Run for Diamonds. When I was home for Thanksgiving, just a few months ago, I was able to participate in the Run for the Diamonds. I’ll be heading home again this week to visit my family for the Christmas holiday. I do get to visit around three times a year, in contrast to the once a year when I was in Kentucky.
F: When you grew up, did you expect to leave?
F: That’s definitely what I was taught, that you had to go elsewhere to achieve an adult life that incorporates your own interests.
T: Yeah. I think that my parents would love it if I were closer to Danville. My dad grew up in Danville, and my mom grew up in Berwick, so both of my parents are sort of from that area, but I was taught a love for travel from my parents. I knew when I was in high school that I wanted to go to college somewhere with a city. I knew I had grown up in a sheltered town and I wanted to experience a more diverse culture. Pittsburgh was kind of an obvious choice. I had visited New York City and Philadelphia and Pittsburgh amongst many other cities, but those are the closest to Danville. Pittsburgh seemed the friendliest, and most livable. Ever since I was in High school, i was like “I’m out of here as soon as I can, I’m never going to come back!” And I guess I still feel that way, but I do see a growing outdoor scene there. There’s trails behind Geissinger, single track mountain bike trails, and a lot of people trail run on them. And I knew about them in high school, but I never saw them. But now when I go home, I try to run on those trails as much as I can. I see a lot of activity on them, and I think it’s growing. There’s also an area for trails, I think it’s called Hopewell or something like that. There was a Dairy Freeze on Route 11, and all I knew in that area when I was growing up was the Dairy Freeze. When I was in high school, across the street from the Dairy Freeze, they built a Sheetz next to it. But now behind the Dairy Freeze, in the woods, I thought it was all just cornfields- but now there’s a whole network of single track mountain bike trails. Similarly, I try to run on those when I’m home, and I’ve just been meeting more and more people who end up in Danville for whatever reason. I know a guy whose wife teaches at Bloomsburg University, or I know people there because of Geissinger, and they’re all raving about the outdoor scene and how much it’s growing so much, especially the mountain bike scene. That kinda blows my me away, because when I was growing up, I always thought I had to get out of Danville.
F: So there are people who are coming back to live there for what it is- do you think they’re working for the same industries and generations before them or do you think they’re creating new industries? How much has changed?
T: That’s a good question. I think that...I think that for the most part, the majority of the people who are moving to Danville and sustaining the same sort of industries that existed there when I was a child. However, I believe that things are changing a little bit. Like, a few years ago a microbrewery opening in the town. And --hold on. It’s noisy here, I’m going to move to the laundry room. I’m out in the climbing area, and it’s very lively in here! There’s music going and all kinds of people around, even though it’s just two o’clock on a Tuesday.
F: That’s great!
T: Anyway, I’m going to duck away to the laundry room. So yeah, I think unfortunately, a lot of people are moving to Danville are doing so to be a part of the old industries, primarily like Geissinger, and there’s some universities there, like Bloomsburg and Bucknell. And my dad worked for Merck, the big pharmaceutical plant actually in Riverside, which is where I grew up, across the Susquehanna River from Danville. But yeah, there’s a microbrewery now in downtown Danville It’s definitely nice to see. It draws a different crowd that you would normally see in downtown Danville. It draws a younger crowd, maybe I’ll even go out on a limb and say it draws the millenials! I think there’s a lot going on in Danville that shows that it’s changing, but I think it’s still largely in a transitional period. I don’t think there’s a lot of new industries. So, through the conversation you’ve probably also picked up that I’m big into running. And when I grew up, the only race that i knew of, the only popular race, other than...a fire company throwing a fundraiser 5K, the only race I knew of was Run for the Diamonds. But because of the outdoor scene I was talking about, there’s now all these trails and races. One of those is called the Montour 24, which is a 24 hour race where you do this loop on a trail. I think the loop is more than a mile, but less than two miles. The Montour 24 is a race to see how many times you can do this loop in a 24 hour period.
F: Holy cow!
T: Yeah! I think there’s also a twelve-hour option.
F: For beginners?
T:Yeah! But running for twelve hours is still a pretty serious endeavor, but that’s something that didn’t exist when I was a kid, but now I want to go back to Danville to do. So there are now things like that, that are drawing me back to Danville, not necessarily to live there, but to recreate there. And I see that as a really positive thing. THere’s another big one, a pretty big trail race that I think happens in March. And I’ve done that race three of four times, but now that running is another one of my passions along with climbing, I want to go back. And it’s weird to me to have running friends ask me if I’ve heard of a race in my own hometown! I have three or four friends who have gone to Danville to run this race, and that kinda blows me away. Being the guy that’s from Danville, ten or fifteen years ago, I would have said that I’m not coming back, there’s nothing here for me. But now there’s things bringing me back!
F: That’s awesome!
T: I know, it’s super cool!
F: One thing I think about a lot in the history of Appalachia is how people used to have communities based on industry, like we all work for the coal mine, so we all socialize in the same hours or in the same place, and so we have a community because we all have an allegiance or an alliance to the same place. And as we’re seeing a more diversified range of employment, I think it’s harder and harder to see where your community is. And a trend I’ve seen, especially in Appalachia, and I’m not exactly sure why this is, is people finding a specific interest, like climbing, or running, or like pepperoni rolls, that they come together around. They really will hold events and find opportunities to come together as a community. I’m just noticing this happening more and more.
T: Yeah! It’s certainly happening in the running world. And I don’t mean to keep directing the conversation back to me all the time-
F: It’s your interview, dude!
T: Well, I know, but also I’m trying to represent Ascend in a good light. That is definitely happening with running. Another race that I haven’t mentioned is an ultramarathon that happens in World’s End State Park, in Williamsport. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, but it’s a beautiful park, and I grew up going there. It’s in Sullivan County, and my parents actually own a cabin in Sullivan County. And again, here’s another area, where usually when you mention Sullivan county, most people shrug their shoulders and say “huh?” But then when you ask certain circles of people, “Have you heard of the World’s End Ultramarathon?” They can be like “Oh yeah, I know that race, I know what that is!” Out in Sullivan County! That race is a 100K, but you can also do a 50K. I’ve done the 100K the past two summers.
T: Again, it’s sort of a surreal feeling to a place that I would identify as home to do an activity that other people are also coming there for. It feels weird. I have friends from Pittsburgh, and both of the times I’ve run this race, I’ve told my friends “hey, you’re welcome to crash at my parent’s cabin, it’s a fifteen minute drive from the starting line of this race” and last year I had four or five friends take me up on the offer, from Pittsburgh. The year before I had probably seven or eight friends take me up on that offer. It’s nuts that it’s something that happening and taking me back to home.
F: That is pretty amazing. That there are things drawing you there that are centered around the thing you love to do and the things you grew up loving to do.
F: I want to ask a difficult and simple question, and you can take it as you like. It’s the question we’ve been running with since we started this project, trying to get to the bottom of it. What is Appalachia?
T: That’s a fantastic question. Um. I think Appalachia is a rugged, more so than people realize...okay, I think I can answer this question by going back to the time I spent living in Colorado. I think out there, there’s sort of this “West is best” vibe and yeah, it’s really nice, and there’s pretty mountains, and the weather is nice, and it’s not humid, but there’s something sort of rugged and tough about Appalachia that I like. And it’s still beautiful! And it’s still wilderness. And I don’t know, I kinda like the fact that maybe not perfect. It is wet, it is humid, it is rocky. But that’s cool. I like that. Maybe it’s because it’s what I grew up with, but I don’t know. I’m into it.
F: Yeah. It’s strange. Just because the holidays are coming up- every Christmas I go for a walk in the forest area behind my parent’s house and it’s all wetlands, and it’s swampy and kind of gross. And it’s icy and snowy, but I love it. It feels like home to me.
T: I sort of feel that a little bit in Pittsburgh too. THe roads are not the best, sometimes there’s potholes that you could stand in up to your waist, and the cobblestone streets suck to drive on, but I love it! And when people come here and complain about it, I sort of get this grin on my face, and I’m like yeah- welcome to Pittsburgh!
F: THat’s beautiful!
T: And, I’ll encourage you to check out this youtube channel, I think it’s called...you might have to do a little searching, I think it’s just called beast coast, but it’s about trail running in Appalachia, and I think they call it Beast Coast because....sort of going back to that “West is Best” mentality, it’s sort of a glimpse into what it’s like to trail run on the East coast. And it’s not like our mountains are smaller, so the trail running must be easier. The mountains are smaller here, but they’re rugged as hell. And the conditions can sometimes be really hard, and it’s the Beast Coast! It’s not small wimpy mountains! Appalachia is not a lesser mountainous region. THere are huge mountains in the west, and those are beautiful, but there’s something beautiful here as well.f They’re also difficult ina different way than the big mountains out west. So...check it out!
F: Is there anything more you’d like to say before we start to wrap things out?
T: We could talk a little more about climbing in Appalachia! I know we’ve started to talk about running, because Danville came up, and there’s, to be honest, not much climbing there. There is amazing climbing in Appalachia, it’s just not in Danville.
F: Okay, tell me more!
T: Okay, going back to your question, what is Appalachia, another thing that’s sort of amazing to me about Appalachia is if you think about the AT, it spans pretty much the entire east coast. And if you follow it, there’s climbing, really good climbing the whole way. THe tail end is Northern Alabama, Georgia, near Chattanooga, Tennessee. That’s a hub for amazing climbing. There’s three very well known bouldering destinations in the southeast area. One is Northern Georgia, called Rock Town. One is in Northeastern Alabama, called Horse Head. The other one is near Chattanooga, Tennessee, and it’s called Stone Fort, also referred to ask Little Rock City or LRC for short. But the climbing there is fantastic, and then as you go a little bit north from there, you get places like the Red River Gorge in Kentucky. You get places like Rumbling Bald and Looking Glass in North Carolina, you get places like the New RIver Gorge in West Virginia, and Cooper’s Rock outside Morgantown. As you go further north, you get places like the Gunks, outside New York City. It’s in New York, but the southeastern part of upstate New York. As you continue further north, there is amazing climbing, a good stop in New Hampshire called Rumney, and the White Mountains up in the Northeast, so it kind of blows me away that the area you consider Appalachia, some people might think of it as maybe only the region of the Smoky Mountains and the area around Looking Glass in North Carolina. Whereas that might be the geographical center, it actually spans far down in the south east to far up in the north east. And there’s no lack of good climbing that follows the AT from the southernmost point to the northernmost point, and that’s something that I think is pretty cool about Appalachia itself.
F: You seem to know so much about the AT- have you hiked it?
T: No, but I try to use climbing as a means for travel. Like, a few springs ago, I took a trip to Asheville North Carolina. Yeah I wanted to visit Asheville, but really close to Asheville there’s amazing climbing. The spot that I mentioned before, Rumbling Bald. I got to see Asheville, which is pretty famous for its breweries, which I got to enjoy. But I also got to do this awesome climbing in an area called RUmbling Bald.
F: It seems like as long as you continue to seek out climbing experiences, you will continue to be drawn to Appalachia.
T: Definitely. I mean, these climbing experiences draw me to places all around the world, but the places that I call home, and the crags I consider my home crags, or at the very least the places where I learned how to rock climb, are quintessential Appalachian climbing areas. And I haven’t been to them all. There are many that I still would like to visit. I’ve never been to Looking Glass in North Carolina, I’ve never been to Rumney up in New Hampshire, and there are several other climbing areas all along the Appalachian region that I would still love to go visit. Like I said before, one of the things I got from my parents is a love for travel, and I hope there’s going to be no lack of traveling in my future. And that certainly includes these Appalachian destinations, for hiking, trail running, climbing in places I’ve never been to. I love exploration, so I need to go discover Looking Glass for myself, and I need to go discover Rumney for myself and have those experiences.