By: Felicia Cooper
Todd McCormick has climbed more mountains than anyone I know. As a traveller, rock climber, and outdoorsman extraordinaire, he has roots in Central Pennsylvania that have taken him throughout Appalachia. From trail running to microbreweries, he’s enchanted with all the rugged glory Appalachia has to offer. With Rolling Pepperoni, 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.
Todd created an interactive Google Map with his top twelve places to climb in Appalachia. You can find it by clicking the button “Todd’s Top Twelve”.
An audio version of the entire interview with Todd is available if you’d prefer to listen along!
How do you pronounce Appalachia?
I grew up hearing it pronounced “Appel-lay-sha.” And the Appel-lay-shan mountains. 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.
Where in Pennsylvania did you grow up?
I grew up in a small town called Danville. A lot of people that I mention Danville to, say “Nope, never heard of it!”
What brought you to Kentucky from Danville?
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. That was truly the one big thing that we had in common, and the boy scouts were my introduction to climbing, but I didn’t really rock climb until my freshman year at Pitt, which is where I did my undergrad. It was through my freshman year at the Pitt Outdoors Club that I really learned to climb, and it took a pretty major role in my life. 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. The west is fantastic, and I love it. However, there was something that kept drawing me back to the 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. When I was in Boulder, I would go to Boulder Canyon and Clear Creek Climbing, and they’re both really great places for sport climbing, but I kept comparing them 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.”
What about those spots kept drawing you back?
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. The two areas that I mentioned, Boulder Canyon and Clear Creek Canyon, both have a road running through them, which is nice, because on one hand, you park your car and hike five minutes. But then on the other hand, you’re climbing, and you turn around, and the scenery is beautiful, but there’s also a road behind you. There’s something I really enjoy about climbing in KY and WV, and one of the things I really love about climbing in Appalachia is that when you turn around, there are no roads, it’s just trees, mountains, hills, and maybe a river and a lake, and maybe a set of train tracks. You really don’t see roads because you’re in the middle of the woods!
Did you have a similar experience in the places you would ride your bike down or sled down in Danville?
Most definitely. My dad is a big hunter and fisherman. While I didn’t take to those activities specifically, what I learned from my father was his love for the outdoors. 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. 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.
One thing I did notice about Ascend is that you can spend an afternoon there doing yoga or at an event or hanging out at your cafe. 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 leave for a weekend?
Certainly Ascend’s focus is climbing. We are a climbing gym, but our tagline is Ascend Pittsburgh: Climbing, Fitness, Yoga. The fitness and yoga are important to us, so the like-mindedness of the people in the space is hopefully not so narrow as to only include climbing. 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 South Side and Station Square area. It’s nice to be around people who like to climb once a month or five days a week, but also just people who are committed to living an active lifestyle, whether it’s through yoga, cycling, or just fitness in general.
So, the pros and cons of living in Pittsburgh... Unfortunately, the closest world class climbing is probably the New River Gorge, which is a three and half hour drive away. Another one of the challenges of living 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, 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. You can come to Ascend at 7pm 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 and a kitchenette. In the kitchenette, we have tables and chairs and couches, and we want that space to be warm and welcoming. 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 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.
Do you think this model would work in other places in Appalachia? Or does it need to be tied to a city?
I definitely think this kind of model would work anywhere, especially anywhere that there’s a community of outdoor-minded people who like to live an active lifestyle.
When you grew up, did you expect to leave Danville?
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. 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. 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. I’ve been meeting more and more people who end up in Danville for whatever reason, and they’re all raving about the outdoor scene and how it’s growing so much, especially the mountain bike scene. There’s now all these trails and races. One of those is called the Montour 24, which is a 24 hour race where you see how many times you can do this loop in a 24 hour period. I think the loop is more than a mile, but less than two miles. 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.
What is Appalachia? It’s the question we’ve been running with since we started this project. We’re trying to get to the bottom of it.
Appalachia is rugged and tough, and it’s still beautiful! And it’s still wilderness. I kind of like the fact that maybe it’s 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. 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! 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!”
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, GA, near Chattanooga, TN. 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, TN, and it’s called Stone Fort, also referred to as 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 to places like the Red River Gorge in Kentucky, Rumbling Bald and Looking Glass in North Carolina, or New RIver Gorge in West Virginia, and Cooper’s Rock outside Morgantown. As you go further north, you get to places like the Gunks, outside NYC. 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. While that might be the geographical center, it actually spans far down in the southeast to far up in the northeast. 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.
You seem to know so much about the AT. Have you hiked it?
No, but I try to use climbing as a means for travel. A few springs ago, I took a trip to Asheville, NC. Yeah, I wanted to visit Asheville, but also really close to Asheville there’s amazing climbing at the spot I mentioned before, Rumbling Bald.
It seems like as long as you continue to seek out climbing experiences, you will continue to be drawn to Appalachia.
Definitely, 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 or Rumney, and there are several other climbing areas all along the Appalachian region that I would still love to 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, and climbing.